If “The American Revolution Reborn” conference proved anything, it’s that the Revolution is in no danger of getting old. So much is still left to be told. Topics that few Revolutionary narratives have fully considered—ambivalence, religious dissent, hindsight connections to Scotland’s union with England in 1707, and future links to the Latin Americas—beg for further research. And those are only the issues that were discussed on the first day.
In the morning session, the Revolution went global. Historians have long talked about the Revolution’s global reach, from its shaping of the French Revolution, say, or even through today (think Arab Spring). But the global perspectives discussed in the first session did not leave you believing all the Revolution’s consequences were so inspiring.
Ned Landsman didn’t look forward to what the Revolution unleashed, but instead what helped unleashed it. Nearly seven decades before, England’s 1707 union with Scotland turned Britain into a new kind of empire, one where political authority was distended across multiple sites. In theory, Landsman argued, British American colonials could have asked for a similar solution during the imperial crisis: greater autonomy in exchange for continued recognition of British rule. But they didn’t; why not? Landsman argues the Scottish union effectively settled questions of authority in the British empire—it ultimately rested in Parliament—thus giving British leaders little to offer the American colonists. They already cashed in their chips. So when the colonists asked for the logical next concession—representation in that newly sanctified parliament—it was simply too radical; too soon. The American Revolution was the result.
The colonial religious scholar Jon Butler memorably called the Revolution a “profoundly secular event.” Kate Engel agreed, but in her paper, she said we shouldn’t give up on searching for religion’s place in the Revolution. To bring it in, we must look to the effects the Revolution had on religion, not its religious causes. She highlighted how the Revolution exposed the paper-thin bonds between the transatlantic Anglican community. During the Revolution, British Anglicans readily supported their mother country, alienating their religious brethren in America. The result—a profoundly isolated, and now independent American religious community—would now be able to formulate an autochthonous faith. Engel thus points the way to the nineteenth century’s Second Great Awakening, a phenomenon, we can now see, with clear roots in the Revolution.
Slavery’s relationship to the Revolution has been discussed for at least a half-century. But Aaron Fogleman is not pleased with the general consensus we have—that the Revolution secured the institution. On the contrary, he argues that the Revolution in fact challenged slavery as never before. But make no mistake, Fogleman is not wearing rose-tinged glasses: massive white immigration after the Revolution squashed the demand African slave labor, much less so than idealist appeals based on freedom and equality for all. In the eighteenth century, Africans comprised the largest immigrant group, making up to 90 percent of new arrivals. But by the 1830s, white, free labor had become the dominant immigrant class in almost the same proportion: 80 percent. Of course, the end of the African slave trade was in many ways responsible a problem one hopes Fogleman will address more fully in his future research. But he seems onto something important when he suggests that the easy influx of free, cheap, white labor put immense pressure on the institution of slavery.
Slavery matters for Caitlin Fitz, too. She rounded out the morning’s global perspective panel, attracting reams of attention. Historians tend to end the Revolutionary period with the Constitution and the start of the French Revolution. From there on, the story becomes one of conservative backlash, as once radical Americans tried to staunch the Revolution from reaching its radical implications. But that view virtually ignores the Latin American independence movements, which carried the torch of the Revolution well into the 1820s. Americans—and most provocatively, Southern, slave-holding Americans—championed the Latin American revolutions, Fitz shows. The remarkable fact is that Southerners even embraced the emancipation projects that went hand-in-hand with these independence movements—but why?
Fitz argues that the Latin American revolutions were far enough away, abstract enough, that their racial egalitarianism posed no real threat to slaveholding Americans. In addition, Latin American revolutionaries emancipated their slaves the “right” way: gradually, and led by whites. Their abolition proved a welcomed antithesis to the slave-led Haitian Revolution. If we take Fitz’s periodization as useful—I think it most definitely is—then the Revolution ends not in 1790, but 1830. That’s when Southerners finally began to distance themselves from the Latin American Revolutions as Northern abolitionists increasingly attacked the slave system. Southerners began to craft a new narrative of the American Revolution, one that portrayed slavery as a “position good,” and not the “necessary evil” it had been seen for almost fifty years beforehand. The Revolution was no longer universal, but now unique, something only Americans could truly lay claim to.
If the first half of the day looked outward, the second looked inward. The theme of the afternoon’s panel was the Revolution as a “civil war.” And indeed, the papers shared an uncanny amount of overlap, suggesting that their findings have broad empirical backing. Almost all of them focused on the many colonists—perhaps the majority—who were neither ideologically committed patriots nor dyed-in-the-wool loyalists. The were simply neutral, merely wishing “to be left alone,” as Aaron Sullivan put it. Yet the focus on neutrals, people who were at the time called “disaffected,” should not suggest that the war was one simply between two minority groups. Almost everyone in North America was forced to choose sides. If future scholars are to focus on this fact, it promises to unsettle our still current obsession with the ideological impact of the Revolution. This was no a noble war of ideas, but merely a war to stay alive.
Travis Glasson and Kimberly Nash made this point through micro-histories. Glasson recovered the story of Richard Prescott, the British general who was repeatedly captured by Rhode Island patriots. Prescott was not unknown, but a man local patriots knew well; his story shows just how easily neighbors could be turned into enemies. In the story of the Shoemaker family—all loyalists—Nash painted a slightly more consoling picture. The Shoemakers were forced to flee during the Revolution, yet once the dust settled, colonists welcomed them back, even if they remained British subjects. The larger significance of their story, Nash argues, is that American citizenship—American identity—was not forged through bonds of affection but moments of exclusion. But defining the Shoemakers and people like them as non-Americans, colonists began to articulate who they themselves really were.
Zooming out, Michael McDonnell and Aaron Sullivan moved toward a richer, more human—and more relevant—depiction of the war. By focusing on neutrals generally, both scholars recovered the under-explored aspect of coercion and violence that forced colonists to become patriots. McDonnell highlighted the vivid reality of war-time politics: the confiscation of property for men who did not serve in the patriots’ militias; the forced taking of loyalty oaths; the requirements to spy on one’s neighbor. This was not a battle for hearts-and-minds so much as bodies and blood. Hardcore patriots needed as many supporters as they could find to defeat the British and sustain the appearance of widespread support throughout the colonies, and indeed the world. Neutrals, therefore, were not simply ignored but viewed as a threat as dangerous as the loyalists themselves. Sullivan extrapolated from this reality—patriots by force, not conviction—a subtler, darker understanding of the origins of American democracy. A government premised on the idea consent of the people was not forged through ideological battles. It was forged through physical violence, where the alternate to consent was ostracism, or worse.
In this new, deeply troubling American Revolution, Patrick Henry’s famous cry never sounded so foreboding: “Give me liberty, or give me death.”