Looking forward to attending one of the largest conferences on the American Revolution in a generation this week in Philadelphia, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the title of the conference—”The American Revolution Reborn“—and its historiographical purchase.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the American Revolution, particularly debates over its causes and its nature, was central to the field of early American history. It was effectively displaced by the stratification of social history and the increasing specialization of the profession. For the last two decades, the majority of the field’s attention, particularly that of historians of political culture, has focused on the early republic. Indeed, as an historian of the late colonial and early revolutionary period (1750s-1770s), I often feel as though I am on the fringes of the field, after all there is no Society for Historians of Colonial America or Journal of the American Revolution (though there is the new, European-based Journal of Early American History and the always excellent Early American Studies). While the rise of the period can be attributed in part to professional organizing that began at the tail end of the 1970s , i.e., the establishment of SHEAR in 1977 and the Journal of the Early Republic in 1981, as late as 1988, Gordon Wood was still driven to describe the early republic as “the most neglected if not the most despised period in American history.”
However, the twin paradigms of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” and Jürgen Habermas’s “public sphere” provided inspiration and direction for historians of the early republic seeking to understand the emergence and early development of both popular politics and American national identity. Even more importantly, they also provided a framework within which histories of politics, culture, race, class, and gender could be integrated under the rubric of political culture. When I think back on many of the best books I’ve read in the last decade on race, class, and gender in the early republic, many attempted to understand their relationship to politics and their role in the broader political culture of the period. I suspect that a few decades on, the lasting legacy of the last generation of historians of the political culture of the early republic will be having achieved this analytical (and micro-narrative) synthesis.
I mention all this because it is exactly what has not happened in the historiography of the Revolution over that same period of time. That is not to say that nothing like this has happened for the colonial and revolutionary periods, but certainly not on the scale and with the inclusiveness of the early republic. However, it seems this is beginning to change. There have been significant and exciting developments in synthesizing imperial studies and Native American histories, even to the point of incorporating the Ohio Valley into the Atlantic world. Imperial studies are also helping early American historians to conceptually situate the Revolution in a global, rather than simply Atlantic, context.
However, in spreading out the Revolution, we seem to have thinned out the center. That is, we appear to have avoided re-engaging with the coming of the Revolution in the colonies. A decade ago, Jack Rakove wrote that “the major causal problems of explaining why the Revolution occurred” had been “largely solved” in the “1960s and 1970s.” That is a hefty historiographical assertion. Rakove is certainly right when he says that his generation’s interpretation of the political and cultural causes of the Revolution “has survived intact and largely unchallenged for a quarter century now.” In fact, Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution was originally published as an introduction to his edited collection of revolutionary pamphlets forty-eight years ago. That generation’s largely intellectual account of a constitutional crisis remains the basis (though no longer the totality) of how we understand the political coming of the Revolution and, especially, how it is taught to undergraduates.
Please take the following thoughts for what they are, i.e., a speculative blog post hoping to foster discussion. I would argue that this interpretation has contributed to producing a sort-of consensus model for the way we think about the Revolution. It also appears to have had a reciprocal relationship with our understanding of political culture in the colonial period. For example, Brendan McConville, in The King’s Three Faces, describes a colonial political culture marked by a consensus concerning monarchical sentiment among colonists of the late colonial period. Murrin’s “Anglicization” thesis and Greene’s Pursuits of Happiness—as large-scale interpretations of colonial culture—are also based on consensus. Even our imperial understanding is based on a consensus model in which it seems that everything was going along swimmingly until the early 1760s. This is not to say that these interpretations are inaccurate. However, thinking in these consensus terms appears to have had a stultifying effect on the historiography and, more importantly, minimizes and blinds us to the conflict that riddled the late colonial period.
I would suggest that one possible way out of this historiographical malaise is to re-examine and re-think the internal political and cultural conflicts of the late colonial period. Recent religious studies of the colonial and revolutionary period have focused on the emergence of toleration—itself another form of consensus—but the first half of the eighteenth century was marked by religious conflicts large and small in all regions. I would argue that beneath the veneer of religious conflict also lie significant political, intellectual, and, especially, cultural conflicts that were central to defining the political and cultural space within which resistance could occur and the ways in which the coming of the Revolution would play out.
What I am suggesting is that the late-colonial period is not as devoid of significant conflict as the historiography suggests and that understanding that conflict (particularly cultural conflict) should be central (indeed, necessary) to any new understanding of the coming of the Revolution. I still tend to agree with John Adams that the real Revolution was what happened during the imperial crisis. What happened after that, including the war, was the result of that Revolution. And I still don’t think we have a genuinely satisfying understanding of how within the span of a decade, colonists went from proud Britons to participants in a war for independence. That transition, for me, is the Revolution. If we can agree that the Revolution could not have occurred in the 1740s or 1750s, then it is not necessarily teleological to suggest that we need to understand how the previous two decades contributed to the creation of a landscape in which that transition was possible.
My own work focuses on how colonists’ historical memory of seventeenth-century British history shaped late colonial political culture—particularly how it was employed and contested by different groups in these internal conflicts—as well as the rhetoric of resistance during the imperial crisis. My hope is that by recovering this one aspect of cultural/political conflict in the late colonial period, it may help hint toward an understanding of the coming of the Revolution grounded in the particulars of late colonial political culture and the conflicts to which it gave rise. All of this is to say that I don’t believe the coming of the Revolution is “solved.” More than sufficient time has gone by so that we are now well-situated and well-poised, in part with the successful examples of the early republic historiography, to begin looking at the Revolution anew.
Finally, the Revolution has become central to the current political moment in which we find ourselves, giving it an immediacy beyond academia. Within the last year alone, a number of “popular” histories devoted to the coming of the Revolution have appeared by Richard Beeman, Joseph Ellis, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, John Ferling, and Nathaniel Philbrick. There is even a miniseries on the Sons of Liberty in the works. Whether there is a causal relationship or not, there is a correlation between our political moment and a popular return to the Revolution. In terms of academia, there was “The Chicago Conference on the American Revolution” in 2011, “The American War: Britain’s American Revolution” conference at the Huntington in September 2012, and the publication of The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution in December of 2012. This week, the McNeil Center’s “The American Revolution Reborn” seeks to continue the momentum.
 Gordon S. Wood, “The Significance of the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 8, no. 1 (1988): 1.
 Jack Rakove, “An Agenda for Early American History,” in Recent Themes in Early American History, ed. Donald A. Yerxa (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 38, 39.
 Recent works, including Benjamin H. Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) and Michal Jan Rozbicki, Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011) point the way toward developing an understanding of the Revolution as a cultural event.
 Michael A. McDonnell, “The Struggle Within: Colonial Politics on the Eve of Independence,” in The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution, ed. Jane Kamensky and Edward Gray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 103-120. McDonnell engages in an exercise in tearing down consensus by exploring the conflict within the patriot movement itself in the few years just before independence.