It is not often that historiographical essays have a hero. But, in Al Young’s essay, “American Historians Confront ‘The Transforming Hand of Revolution’,” it’s hard not to see J. Franklin Jameson that way. Jameson was a New Englander by birth and character who helped found the American Historical Association in 1884. Never a prolific historian (or teacher, for that matter), Jameson’s greatest impact—beyond the important structural role he played in the emergence of History as a modern academic and professional discipline in the United States—came in the form of a small collection of four lectures originally written in 1895 but published largely in the form they were given at Princeton 30 years later. That small book, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement, is not just the starting point for Young’s assessment of the historiography of the American Revolution in the twentieth century, it is quite literally its genesis.
Those who know me know that I am the absolute worst kind of history nerd, i.e., a historiography geek. I spent years reading the kinds of books that used to be assigned in comps exams back in the 1950s and 1960s off dusty 973 shelves in the Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries years before becoming an undergrad. But, somehow, it wasn’t until I was a freshman scouring the library shelves at the Borough of Manhattan Community College that I came across that slim Jameson volume. It was strangely intriguing before I had even taken it off the shelf; after all, it had this grand, broad title (this day to which I remain attracted) and, yet, I could see that it would easily fit in my jacket pocket. By the time I’d taken a short subway ride, followed by the Staten Island Ferry, and another bus, I’d finished it. It was one of the most exhilarating historical works I’d read up until that point, in part because I had read so much of what had come before it. So Young’s perspective of Jameson as the genesis of the modern (read: post-Bancroft/Fiske) historiography of the Revolution makes especially good sense to me.
But it’s not just about “good sense.” After all, Jameson is not a direct ancestor of all twentieth-century historians of the Revolution. He is, however, the forefather of a distinctly social perspective of the Revolution with a lineage that would come to include Progressives like Charles Beard and Carl Becker, second-generation Progressives like Merrill Jensen, New Left historians like Staughton Lynd and Jesse Lemisch, and New Social Historians like Gary Nash. With subheadings like “Counter-Progressives, Part 1” and “Counter-Progressives, Part 2,” it becomes clear that this essay is not primarily concerned with delineating the development of various “schools” over time (though it does do that). Instead, Young is tracing the way a perspective (or way of looking at the Revolution) developed over time, both through those who adopted it (i.e., the essay’s protagonists, named above) and those who opposed it (i.e., its antagonists).
By starting with such a seminal figure in the development of the profession as Jameson, Young is implying that the profession itself was borne from a progressive bent, wholly disassociated from the patrician, leisure historians of the nineteenth century like Bancroft. Interestingly, the change that Jameson initiated is one which the field has just undergone again in the last twenty years, i.e., a switch of focus from the origins to the results of the Revolution (31). Jameson’s lectures provocatively suggested potential avenues for historians of the Revolution, including its impact on the “status of persons,” the reorganization of “the land,” the liberation of “industry and commerce,” and, perhaps most importantly and inscrutably, “the imponderable effects” on “thought and feeling.” Coming to terms with all four of them would take a long time, and is still an ongoing process.
For Young, the early Progressive historians shook up the establishment in a way Jameson, a largely non-practicing historian, could not have done. But, in the end, their economic materialism was too easily caricatured as determinism because it effectively had no intrinsic need for either the social or political spheres. They did, however, inspire the story’s first antagonists, the consensus historians. Young considers Edmund Morgan a part of the consensus school and delivers a devastating critique of him by pointing out that Morgan’s view of the Revolution remained consistent over a period of forty years (which, of course, included the field’s two most explosive decades in terms of the sheer volume of new work). Young then returns to the protagonist thread, focusing heavily on Merrill Jensen. But, despite telling a more grounded political story about the impact of the Revolution, Jensen failed in Young’s eyes by being utterly incapable of accepting let alone incorporating a social perspective.
The second antagonistic wave arrives in the form of Bernard Bailyn and early Gordon Wood. Young damns Bailyn’s conservative and anti-presentist turn in the late 1960s and early 1970s by simply holding a mirror up to him. The narrative portion of the essay effectively culminates in the rise of the New Left—particularly William Appleman Williams, Staughton Lynd, and Jesse Lemisch—and the New Social History, especially James Henretta and Gary Nash. Lemisch and Lynd were able to use the social perspective to dig deep into mechanics and seamen and to find them in political contexts, in part by replacing economic materialism with a more subtle and complex class-based analysis. While the urban history of Gary Nash used class-based analysis to do the opposite, i.e., finding the social contexts in pre-revolutionary urban politics. For Young, the social perspective and the political realities and transformations of the Revolution were finally beginning to come together. But this, of course, wasn’t the end of the story so much as another beginning.
The final section of Young’s essay is entitled “Synthesis.” In it, he talks about the scholarship done in the last decade and a half before he was writing the essay in the mid 1990s. The most striking feature of this section is that there, of course, is (or was) no synthesis. Instead, he identified three promising traits of the recent historiography: increased volume and diversity, transformation as a central concern, and attention paid to groups of people previously left out. He draws out frameworks for synthesis—like negotiation, conflict, coalition, accommodation, etc…—that force one to consider whether “synthesis” is even possible without “consensus” in a field as atomized as early American history. But Young—ever the historiographic optimist—did not despair of the potential for synthesis. In the end, he believes that the two historians who had come closest were Gary Nash and Gordon Wood. His treatment of Wood is quite complex and surprisingly sympathetic. He details Wood’s attempts to distance himself from Bailyn in the post-Pocock/republican synthesis period of the late 1970s. And his treatment of The Radicalism of the American Revolution grasps the necessary fact that the book must be read in light of Wood’s 1966 article, “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” in which he argued that not only was there room for both the intellectual and social perspective but that a synthesis of the two was necessary and should be the goal of historians of the Revolution. Indeed, Young recognizes that “the spirit of J. Franklin Jameson hovers over the book” (127).
So what does this historiographical essay tell us about Al Young? A lot, I think. Anyone who reads anything he has written knows that he is desperate to recover the social experiences of common people in uncommon political situations. This essay pulls back the curtain on the huge stage on which Young was working. We see that this is not just something Young saw as defining his own work but the entire historiography of the Revolution. Along the way, we are treated to an engaging historiographical narrative with glimpses of his own personal journey on that stage, from his advisor at Columbia hawking him on the street hoping to catch him engaging in un-American activities to preparing his comps notebook at Northwestern in 1949 to him putting together his second edited volume (49-50, 101-2, 96). We even get historiographical humor, such as when he referred to Robert E. Brown as Beard’s “chief prosecuting attorney” (50). But mostly what we get is a sense of how deeply rooted the need to understand the relationship between the social and political experiences of the Revolution is both in the historiography of the Revolution and, especially, the work of Al Young.
 The kind of insufferable historiography geek who would notice that in the recent edition of the essay in Whose American Revolution Was It?, a footnote citing a 1973 Jack P. Greene article mistakenly attributed it to the William and Mary Quarterly instead of the Political Science Quarterly. And the kind of insufferable historiography geek, who would actually correct it in pen in my own copy.
Historiographic geeks unite!
Well done, Michael.
Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
The Junto has another article (this time by Michael Hattem) on the contributions of Alfred E. Young to the history of Colonial America and the Early Republic. Hattem discusses Young’s article on historian J. Franklin Jameson (a founder of the AHA) from Whose American Revolution Was It?: Historians Interpret the Founding. Jameson started a process that helped reframe how historians understood the Early Republic.
I, too, am a historiography geek, and when I encountered Young’s essay in my PhD work, it was like I’d found the holy grail. I bought my own copy of the _Transforming Hand_ volume just to have it at my fingertips– and did so on a PhD student budget, which tells you just how highly I thought of the work. I’m so glad to see it take center stage in such a good piece here. Thanks!
From one historiography geek to another: Although I adore Al Young’s essay, I think his treatment of Ed Morgan as an unmitigated “consensus” historian is slightly unfair. (Full disclosure: I am a Morgan student). It is certainly true that Morgan’s view of the American Revolution remained fairly consistently focused on political and intellectual issues throughout his career. Morgan also tended to overlook or downplay conflict and division among white people. Nonetheless, the historian who wrote AMERICAN SLAVERY, AMERICAN FREEDOM was onto something that most consensus historians could never abide: a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the American experiment.
I agree completely, Rosemarie. In fact, that is a point I’ve argued about in the comments of at least one of my numerous posts on Ed Morgan. The fact that *Birth of the Republic* was recently reissued in a fourth edition would seem to suggest that Morgan’s perspective remains relevant. Young’s critique that Morgan didn’t change his mind despite the explosion of scholarship of the 1970s-1990s is more rhetorically devastating than anything since Morgan didn’t write a book dedicated specifically to the Revolution later in his career and, as you say, *American Slavery, American Freedom* problematized the “American experience” itself, thereby forcing one to reconsider the relationship between Ed Morgan and the Revolution.