Readers of early American history blogs will undoubtedly have come across the recent kerfuffle regarding the divide between academic and public historians of the American Revolution, which stemmed from a series of posts by Peter Feinman assessing the conference. Much of the debate has centered around this post, in which Feinman chided academic historians for their failure to answer the question: “Was the American Revolution a good thing?” Roy Rogers posted an excellent response to this here last week; J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 had other reflections on Monday (and is continuing to address the topic in other posts).
I hope I don’t seem like I’m flogging a dead horse in addressing the topic myself. After all, as Bell pointed out, the question itself is a terrible one—something akin to a cross between 1066 and All That and a “Daily Show” parody of “Crossfire”:
But as Alexandra M. noted in the comments to Roy’s post,
“I think we should have a stronger answer for the question of “was the revolution good or bad”—and questions like it that ask for value judgments and assume certain things about the politics of academics—than “some of both,” one that brings out the excitement of ambiguity that Jonathan Wilson mentioned in his comment and the importance of complexity mentioned in the article.”
I agree. The question of the Revolution being good or bad may not be an especially interesting question. But it’s a question that is far from unfamiliar to those working in the field. Worse still, refusing to engage the question leaves many to think that the answer must be that “academics think the Revolution was a bad thing,” and use silence or failure to engage as a means of delegitimizing academic study of the Revolution. That paves the way for the David Bartons, Glenn Becks, and Michael Moores of the world to hijack history for their own political agendas, rather than using careful engagement with the past to inform society more productively.
To kick things off, here’s my answer to the question: Yes. I do think the Revolution was a good thing. It was the result of a remarkable effort to co-ordinate and mobilize ordinary citizens across a wide area. It developed a system of governmental and quasi-governmental systems that allowed ordinary citizens to gain much greater control of the political process than existed before the Revolution. Those were definitely positive outcomes.
But the American Revolution was a messy, violent and complicated event. It was not a “good thing” because America possessed visionary leadership and noble ideals unparalleled in human history. It was a good thing in spite of the fact that there were violent disagreements; in spite of the fact that many arguments were resolved through force and not through reason. It succeeded because there was a shared commitment to working things out in some way; and it worked because ordinary citizens were able to use the control of the political structures in a way that gave them at least some perceived control over the outcomes that affected their lives.
That is, no doubt, a contentious answer. There would be important caveats—there were people who lost out, and badly, as a result of the Revolution. And the benefits that came to America were paid for with great upheaval, turmoil, and loss, even for those who might be considered beneficiaries in the long term. But I want to leave that answer aside for the moment, because I see it as a starting point for a broader discussion about how we consider history.
I might well follow up the answer I outlined above by saying there are many historians working on the same period who would disagree with me, and who have well-constructed, heavily-sourced arguments to back their side of the story up. And one of the reasons for the continued vitality of scholarship in the American Revolution is that I don’t think there is a scholarly consensus that the Revolution was a good or a bad thing.
This is wonderful for our field. It means that there is a real tension at the heart of academic debates. Contrast that with other fields where a belief in the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ nature of the events under examination is prevalent, if unspoken. Just as the Revolution became so politically productive because of the intensity of the conflict, so historians should embrace conflict over this question as a means of exploring what is most important in assessing the foundation of the American state. History is most useful when there’s a sense that there’s something at stake.
That is at least something implied by the “good or bad” question, no matter how imperfectly framed it may be. It implies that history matters, that our understanding of the past shapes the possibilities of the present and can inform the development of the future. We should therefore see it as a gateway question—a question that, if engaged properly, can guide us to much better questions about the revolution.
Simply defining the terms “good” and “bad” with greater clarity would be a start. But there are all sorts of other implied questions, too, which would encourage a much more complicated narrative. What are the aims and goals of the Revolution? Who would benefit from those goals? Who would not? How are those goals to be achieved? How successfully were those goals achieved? Why were they—or why weren’t they?
As historians, we should be prepared to put our cards on the table openly as to why we’re writing on our specific topics. Historians have fought battles over the meaning of the Revolution ever since the last battle ended, and the politicization shows no signs of abating any time soon. That sense of tension, of conflict, is what gives the field its vibrancy. And so we should embrace people questioning why we’ve devoted our lives to studying the revolution—and then turn the tables back on the questioners, asking them why they are prepared to settle for normative labels rather than fuller consideration of America’s Revolutionary settlement. We need to take the heat of the “good or bad” question, and turn it into a light that shines on the entire Revolutionary era. Both its most gleaming and darkest corners.