Two weeks ago, anticipating the McNeil Center’s “The American Revolution Reborn” conference, I wrote a post about my own thoughts on the place (and future) of the American Revolution in the historiography of early America. In that piece, I pointed out that issues relating to causality had gone largely unexplored for a few decades now as attention in the field shifted to the early republic. Both during and after the conference, there has been a substantial amount of internet chatter, from live-tweeting the conference to storifying those tweets to in-depth, panel-by-panel blog recaps. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another theme-specific historical conference that has gotten this level of internet coverage, though I’m sure some have done. But almost all of the coverage has been about recounting the ideas and themes that came out of the conference, with not much attention given to commenting on them. In this piece, I’d like to comment on one of the most fundamental themes that hung in the air over the entire conference: periodization.
A little more than halfway through the conference—which included two roundtables, eight panels, fourteen papers, and three receptions—I was suddenly struck by the fact that no one had yet felt the need to define “the American Revolution” and that there was no explicit consensus among either the presenters or the audience as to what we mean by the term. With an overwhelming majority of the papers concerned with the period after 1776 and panels focusing on neutrality and violence, two trends emerged in terms of periodization.
First, especially during the panels on neutrality and violence, there seemed to be an implicit conflation of the Revolution and the War for Independence. The second and seemingly much more dominant trend, especially when one includes the audience comments as well, was for expanding the Revolution both temporally and spatially. Indeed, the conference’s first panel proper was devoted to global perspectives on the American Revolution (a panel theme which took the place of the originally planned panel on religion, which, according to the organizers, failed to materialize enough submissions).
But the inclination toward expanding the Revolution into the nineteenth century seems to me to be nothing radically new (or at least nothing requiring the historiographical equivalent of being “born again”) and one could argue, in some measure, contributed to the sense of a need for a conference like this in the first place (as well as the indeterminacy regarding definition mentioned above). For many of those sympathetic to expansionism, the Revolution is viewed as a long-term process. But, while one would be hard-pressed to deny this aspect of it, I believe we also have to distinguish clearly between the Revolution itself and the results of the Revolution. For example, I would argue that when Caitlin Fitz, in one of the highlights of the conference, talked about Americans’ egalitarian reactions to Latin American revolutions in the 1820s, she was talking about an effect of the Revolution, not the Revolution itself. My concern is that by expanding the Revolution forward chronologically in this way, we lose an understanding of (or the opportunity to approach) the Revolution as an event. That is, if the Revolution is everything, it is also nothing.
One could likely counter by pointing out that in my post two weeks ago, I called for expanding the chronology backward. Does that not hold the same dangers? I would respond by saying that I was not arguing that the American Revolution started in the 1740s or 1750s, simply that a foundation was laid in those years, a situation created in which the Revolution could become a possibility, which is also how we should think of things that occurred afterward.
In the opening session, Jane Kamensky tried to explain the lack of interest in the Revolution as a product of “ideological fatigue.” That is to say, the generation of historians who came up in the eighties and nineties were turned off by the circular and, at times, vehement argument over the causes and nature of the Revolution—i.e., the republicanism/liberalism debate—and, therefore, they largely ignored those topics. One could see the long-term result of this as there were a number of leading early American historians on the various commentary panels who noted during their talks that they had never worked on the Revolution, including Jane Kamensky (at least until editing the recent Oxford Handbook), Claudio Saunt, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
At the close of the conference, Brendan McConville wondered if in decentering the political, whether we are still actually talking about the Revolution. This is my concern as well, though I do not think that politics is the only glue capable of conceptually holding the Revolution together. As I stated in my previous post, I think historians of the late colonial period and the American Revolution should take their cues from recent work on early republic political culture in trying to not just incorporate race, class, and gender into a political narrative but to attempt to amalgamate them all into a synthesis aimed at either specific questions (such as the “coming of the Revolution”) or the period as a whole.
Kamensky also mentioned the difficulty for cultural historians in dealing with events. Indeed, some cultural historians have written about the eighteenth century with little concern for its most central event. For myself, I consider the next great challenge for historians of the American Revolution to be the development of a new understanding of the American Revolution as both a political and cultural event—in which the political and the cultural were interrelated and intertwined—both in its causes and its effects.
Just a few questions off the top of my head, for example: can we understand the broader political experience of the coming of the Revolution without turning colonists into proto-1820s democrats? Can we understand the political aspects of the coming of the Revolution and its immediate effects in terms other than Geertzian ideology (without wholly dismissing ideology as an analytical category)? Can we understand the cultural upheaval caused by the imperial crisis and the war both on micro and macro levels? What were the effects of revolutionary violence (or widespread neutrality) on American culture (i.e., along the lines of the recent work by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg)? Can we adopt or develop new methodologies or modes of inquiry to dig deeper into popular perceptions at this time than has yet been done?
Finally, and particularly on the lack of interest in the “coming of the American Revolution,” I would hope that were a few historians to take fresh and innovative approaches to the question, it could potentially have a rippling effect by showing others that not only is the question important but that it is ripe for creative historical thinking.