Few issues trouble historians of all stripes more than the disconnect between “popular” and “academic” history. Somewhere in the mists of the recent past the Age of Hofstadter gave way to, at best, the Age of McCulloch and, at worst, the Age of Barton. The waning influence of professional historians in the public sphere particularly troubles the historical blogosphere. The popular-academic history disconnect is something addressed a lot here at The Junto, including with a podcast.
I am, as I said on the JuntoCast episode, particular dour about the possibility of bridging this gap. Academic historians, public historians, and interested members of the public more often than not talk past each other. How each group defines “good” or “useful” history is often so at cross-purposes that it sounds like one side is speaking English, another French, and another Dothraki. My attention was recently drawn to a series of posts by Peter Feinman at New York History, which deeply entrenched my Eeyore-like-sullenness when it comes to these questions.The core of Feinman’s posts is useful and perceptive recap of the recent McNeil Center “The American Revolution Reborn” conference—a gathering which was covered by the Junto, at length. Feinman provides great summaries and analyses of the panels he attended, a very useful resource for anyone interested in the conference. Troubles arise, however, when he begins to lay out his problems with the conference. To Feinman there were two big issues with “The American Revolution Reborn”: a lack of coverage of military history and, more importantly, a failure of its participants to show proper respect for the impact and importance of the American Revolution.
To Feinman—as a public historian and New Yorker—the absence of military history marginalizes New York (as a historical subject) and misses one of the core realities of the Revolution. More discussion was needed, he argues, of the Battles of Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga, the experience of American POWs, military and political leadership, and other related topics and themes. By ignoring military history the conference and its academic participants marginalized public historians, such those who manage the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail. What discussion of military history there was at “The American Revolution Reborn,” argues Feinman, were microhistories and “at no point did these military-related microhistories coalesce into any sort of grand narrative on the military history which led to America winning the war.”
The problem with Feinman’s assessment of the place of military history at “The American Revolution Reborn” is that no conference, no matter how well organized or open-minded, can hope to cover every possible event or theme under its purview. Well-worn topics like famous battles or the decision making apparatus in the Continental Army are very unlikely to be addressed at an academic conference. Such conferences are fundamentally about presenting cutting edge research, not a comprehensive narrative of events, and “The American Revolution Reborn” conference, while open to the public, was fundamentally an academic conference. The fresher the research presented by a historian, the less likely its arguments and evidence will be easily synthesized into a comprehensive narrative of the broader sweep of events. Good synthesis takes time.
Military history was present at the conference, as Feinman acknowledges, but it wasn’t to his taste. As was noted in the JuntoCast one of the big themes of “The American Revolution Reborn” was role neutrals played in the Revolutionary War. There was a panel on the Revolution as a civil war. The historical memory of the violence of the Revolution was covered as well. None of these topics directly address the great battles of the Revolutionary War or the heroic leadership of Washington but they are military history none the less. It is a well-worn canard that military history is largely ignored by contemporary academic historians. This is only true if we think of such histories in the narrowest sense – of battles, logistics, and leadership. If we broaden the definition of military history to include studies analyizing the political, economic, social, and cultural impact of warfare than military history is well-addressed by academic historians.
Feinman’s concerns about the unrepresented nature of military history at “The American Revolution Reborn” are related to his larger concern that “the conference failed to express pride in the American Revolution.” The participating historians failed to stress the exceptionalism of the American Revolution and the nation born out of it. Such as perspective goes against the very purpose of American history, as Feinman sees it. In a good history of the American Revolution “[w]e should celebrate the martyred who sacrificed themselves for the good of the nation and create a national origin myth based on these ideas.”
The following anecdote of the conference gets to the core Feinman’s understanding of the purpose of the past, and thus deserves quoting at length:
“Non-academic J.F. Gearhart asked one group of commentators if they thought the American Revolution was a good thing. Is the world a better place because the American Revolution occurred? The pained look on their silent faces spoke volumes. The anguished mental gymnastics of the three visibly uncomfortable academics was reminiscent of an American President coming up with “What is ‘is.’” Finally Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University, managed to say (and I am paraphrasing), “There were some good things which came out of the American Revolution and some bad things.” Gearhart pressed her to provide a “net-net” rendering on the Revolution. She declined to do so and laughingly noted that her students want her to do the same. Her answer called to mind the motto from the 1980s: “some people are communist, some people are capitalist” meaning so why can’t we all live together. “Because it is a god-damned Evil Empire” replied the simple-minded American-exceptionalist president Ronald Reagan. Everyone knew that the Soviet Union would be around forever…which turned out to be about five years in real time. The post 9/11 actions of simple-minded American-exceptionalist president George Bush reinforced the negative attitudes towards traditional interpretations of the American Revolution by the Vietnam era and post-Vietnam generation scholars.”
It is interesting that Feinman evokes the vintage Cold Warrior language of early-1980s Ronald Reagan; for it was during the Cold War that “exceptionalist” discourse fully infected Americans’ understanding of this past. The need to draw sharp contrasts between the United States and the Soviet Union morphed Americans understanding their “differences” from other nations into an understanding of America as “exceptional” – above and beyond all else. History and historians, academic and other wise, played a key role in defining and defending this exceptionalist faith.
American historians, since at least the early 1990s, have been moving away from “exceptionalism” as the defining framework of American history – with early Americanists at the forefront of this shift. Contemporary historians understand that British North America and the United States are “different” but certainly not “unique.” America is, rather, bound up in a variety of international processes and transformations. Sometimes the United States is at the periphery of these developments and other times at the center. We’ve gained much from this shift to a more internationalist perspective of American history. Historians have developed a better understanding of America’s role in the international slave trade; the ways in which ideas of “liberty” and “equality” moved back and forth between North American, Europe, the Caribbean, and South America; the dislocations of early capitalism; the transformative power of evangelical conversion; along with many more vital historical questions. Abandoning an “exceptionalist” narrative has broadened, not confined, our understanding of American history.
The question Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was asked in Feinman’s anecdote is a trap. The answer Gearhart, the questioner, and, Feinman wanted from Ulrich is an obvious “Yes, of course!” Such a reply, however, gets us nowhere. Ulrich was correct. The American Revolution had some good consequences and some bad consequences; it was good for some folks and bad for others. Why should historians, academic or otherwise, mask the complex legacy of an event as important as the American Revolution? What do people interested in history, not to mention the American public more broadly, gain from such a foreshortened and simplistic narrative? Gearhart pushing Ulrich for a “‘net-net’ rending on the Revolution” is even worse, for it reduces history to a two-column table.
I would argue that the best history, be it for academics or the public, requires complexity. To highlight this let us return to the Age of Hofstadter. The classic The American Political Tradition hits most of the notes that Feinman demands of good history—ideology and leadership are front and center. On the other hand, as Eric Foner notes, Hofstadter “never devolved into the uncritical celebration of the American experience.” His account of the Founding goes as far as to ending on a very melancholy note: “Modern humanist thinkers who seek for a means by which society may transcend eternal conflict and rigid adherence to property rights as its integrating principles can expect no answer in the philosophy of balanced government as it was set down by the Constitution-makers of 1787.” Not exactly a paean to the greatest of the ideas of the American Revolution, yet the book continues to sell decades after its publication and Hofstadter remains influential among both historians and the historically minded public.
If the disconnect between public and academic history is to ever be repaired it will be by opening up the dialogue between both sides and our expanding analytic options. Requiring that historians pass some sort of pro-America litmus test achieves exactly the opposite. The reason these posts by Peter Feinman bring out my Eeyore-like-sullenness is that Feinman is clearly a passionate, smart, and committed public historian. Feinman, by taking concrete steps to improve the access of teachers and the general public to New York’s historic sites, is clearly doing good work. His argument that historians must conform to his reading of America’s exceptionalist past, however, casts into sharp relief the gap that exists between the sort of historical vision embraced by some public historians and embraced by some academics. That is enough to really bother this fledging academic historian.
 The debate over who is to blame for this shift is largely useless and boils down to one side saying “F— you” with their opponents replying with a resounding “No, f— you!”
 I will leave it up to the reader to parse out which language represents each side of this debate.
 The closest academic historians came, suggests Feinman, was a nod to the French contribution.
 It is, of course, not just public historians who like to complain that their favorite topic or theme was left out of a conference/book/made-for-TV-movie. Such complaints are the steady diet of graduate students and other academics. My personal hobbyhorse is the underrepresentation of the Revolutionary South.
 I have combined two paragraphs here.
 My understanding of the development of “exceptionalism” in American historical writing is drawn from following essay: Daniel T. Rodgers, “Exceptionalism,” in Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past, ed. Gordon Wood and Anthony Molho (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 21–40. As Rodgers argues “[t]he term ‘exceptionalism’ was a latecomer to American historical and political analysis, a Stalinist coinage of the 1920s which unexpectedly found its way after the Second World War into the core vocabulary of American historical writing.” (23)
 In the context of the history of early America (through to, roughly, the early nineteenth century) this interpretation is called “Atlantic history” and stresses the movement of people, goods, and ideas back and forth across that ocean. The development of this interpretative school see: Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 4-56.
 I say this as someone whose dissertation project will suggest the key importance of local factors in the development of religious practice.
 What would such a table look like? Perhaps a bit like this:
|The American Revolution was good for…||The American Revolution was bad for…|
 Eric Foner, “The Education of Richard Hofstadter,” in Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York,: Hill and Wang, 2002), 41.
 Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition & the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage, 1973), 21.
 A completely unscientific way to show that The American Political Tradition continues to sell is its rankings on Amazon. The current Vintage edition is #6,734 in “Books” and #40 in “History & Theory.” Pretty damn good for a book that is 65 years old.