Have Cultural Historians Lost the American Revolution?

In just over a week from now, the Massachusetts Historical Society is hosting, “‘So Sudden an Alteration’: The Causes, Course, and Consequences of the American Revolution,” an important conference on the American Revolution in recognition of the the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act. This is the second of three conferences dedicated to rediscovering or re-energizing study of the American Revolution, the first of which, “The American Revolution Reborn,” was hosted by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies in the spring of 2013. And so with the conference fast approaching, I want to use this piece to think about the specific moment and circumstances in which American Revolution studies currently finds itself, which has been the catalyst for this series of conferences, and suggest possibilities going forward. The primary circumstance of that moment, with which many seem to agree, is that the study of the Revolution is in a rut, plodding along in the same “well-worn grooves of historical inquiry” for the “past fifty years,” according to the conference’s call for papers.

The Revolution experienced a boom in scholarly attention and production in the 1960s and 1970s, much of which was focused on understanding the ideologies that helped make the Revolution possible and subsequently shaped its outcomes. At the same time, another significant strand of scholarly attention was focused on developing a better understanding of the social dynamics of the origins and consequences of the Revolution, especially as it pertained to understudied, marginalized groups. Both of these approaches contributed to a sea change in the way historians have come to view the Revolution. But in the end, the ideology debate died a slow, painful, and overdue death by the early to mid-1980s and the production of social history began to slow. Since that time, generally speaking, the field of early American history has undergone a dramatic shift in focus from social and intellectual studies of the Revolution itself, especially its origins and causes, to cultural studies of the early republic and its consequences. Yet, with the “cultural turn” (or socio-cultural turn) in early American studies beginning in the 1980s and still going strong, the American Revolution took increasingly less prominence in the field until we arrive at 2013 when it is felt that a series of multiple, national conferences over three years are needed to “rebirth” interest in and the study of the Revolution.

During this time, cultural historians have done amazing work (especially in the areas of race and gender) on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Our understanding of those periods has been broadened immensely, to the benefit of all historians of early America, regardless of their own specific topics of inquiry. But along the way the Revolution itself has, to some degree, been lost. So when I ask if cultural historians have “lost the American Revolution,” I don’t mean “lost” as in being defeated in some kind of metaphorical academic battle. Rather, I mean “lost” in the way you lose something like your car keys because you didn’t need to drive for a few days. It’s not quite the same as being “misplaced,” it’s just something that you didn’t need (or want) to think about for a good while and so it went out from even the back of your mind. As I said above, it is not that cultural historians have ignored the period of the Revolution, but often the Revolution has served as a benign context or backdrop. The last 30 years has seen an enormous boom in our understanding of “revolutionary America,” but not so much of the American Revolution itself.

In  addition to methodological trends, I believe recent transnational frameworks, like Atlantic and global history, have also had a diminishing effect on the scholarship of the Revolution. That, of course, is not to say that there has not been (and continues to be) interesting work done on the Revolution in its broader Atlantic and global contexts. Indeed, there has, but it has been a small part of those approaches and has yet to really spark a broader reconsideration of the Revolution within the field generally. It is partly for that reason, I suspect, that even though it was over twenty years ago when the OAH called for the “internationalization” of American history, “global history” continues to be thought of as a “new direction,” despite the amount of scholarship that justified the recent series of essays in The American Historian. Similarly, Atlantic history has technically been around for half a century, much longer than the global approach, even in the former’s most current iteration. Yet it too has not yet set off a significant, broad reconsideration of the American Revolution. In fact, I think one could say that recent Atlantic studies having to do with the American Revolution have taught us more about the origins and impact of the Revolution in Britain than in America. Hence, displacing the nation-state from the narrative (or analysis) of the Revolution is not a “new direction.” It is what has been going for decades now.

I would argue that the last thirty years (and the explicit raison d’être of the conferences, i.e., the stagnation of Revolution studies) show the unlikelihood of “new directions” organically emerging from working within these paradigms. That is not the fault of the paradigms or the historians working within them since it was not something they appear to have intended to achieve. But I also do not think those paradigms lend themselves to producing the kind of consensus required to actually forge new directions in a field that has been so mired in such a deep rut for so long a period of time. To break out of this rut––to reconstruct the Revolution, as it were––will require more than that. It will require historians who care about the American Revolution as its own topic to confront our historiographical predicament head-on.[1]

The pretense behind the purpose for the MHS and the MCEAS conferences is to establish “new directions” in the study of the American Revolution, i.e., to break out of those “well-worn grooves of historical inquiry that have defined the study of the Revolution for the past fifty years.” In the last fifty years, we have had a lot of political history about the origins of the Revolution and a lot of cultural history about the consequences of the Revolution. Perhaps one way to potentially develop new directions would be to reverse that trend, i.e., new cultural studies of the political origins of the Revolution (which, at its most fundamental, is a political event). Another potential direction, which is beginning to bear fruit, is a new political history on the course and consequences of the Revolution that focuses on the individual’s relation to the state through politics via communities and institutions. Considering the scholarly hegemony of the approaches mentioned above in the field for the last thirty years, the most radical approach to the Revolution in the current moment would actually be to foreground politics and the nation-state, i.e., for early American political historians to “find” the Revolution.

As a topic of inquiry, the coming of the Revolution has been the most ignored aspect of the Revolution in the work that has been done in the last few decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, it dominated the scholarly debate about the Revolution and that work was largely intellectual in its focus. Indeed, the most recent major work to address the coming of the Revolution, Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution, uses very much the same methodology as the work done 50 years ago. I think that because our understanding of the coming of the Revolution continues to rely heavily on work that is three-to-five decades old (something that is quite rare in the historiography of other aspects of the period), it can be hard to imagine what a picture of the coming of the Revolution that does not rely primarily on intellectual history might look like. In some sense, that is a significant contributing factor to the current predicament. The American Revolution was primarily a political event brought about by conflict and consensus between groups, communities, and societies that resulted in the creation of new civil and public institutions. It is for those reasons that the origins, causes, and coming of the Revolution are ripe for fresh historical inquiry by political historians whose perspective has the unique benefit of being informed by all the work done by cultural historians in the last thirty years.

What would a cultural study of the political origins of the American Revolution look like? [NB: For a more detailed reply to this question, see comments below]. My own work on “history culture” focuses on one aspect of the breakdown of colonists’ cultural ties to Britain in the decades prior to independence. Tim Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution showed the breakdown in the 1760s of colonial cultural affinity with Britain in a commercial context, while still foregrounding the broader political contexts. Woody Holton’s work has suggested ways in which we might think of the culture of the Chesapeake as contributing to the coming of the Revolution. And, of course, the work of Jack Greene sought to assess cultural distinctions during the late colonial period that came to drive political conflict and change. So there is an undercurrent of work from the previous decades which could help inform a new understanding of the politics of the coming of the Revolution. And I hope that the anniversary of the Stamp Act will serve as a catalyst for us to begin seriously thinking again about the coming of the Revolution, with the few panels on the 1760s at the MHS conference as well as the talks to be given by Woody Holton and Brendan McConville helping serve as a springboard.


[1] For some of the more prominent recent writings on Revolution historiography, see David Waldstreicher, “The Revolutions of Revolution Historiography: Cold War Contradance, Neo-Imperial Waltz, or Jazz Standard?” Reviews in American History 42, no. 1 (2014): 23–35; Andrew M. Schocket, “The American Revolution: New Directions for a New Century,” Reviews in American History 38, no. 3 (2010): 576–86; Pauline Maier, “Disjunctions in Early American History,” Historically Speaking 6, no. 4 (2005): 19–22; Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher, “Free Trade, Sovereignty, and Slavery: Toward an Economic Interpretation of American Independence,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 68, no. 4 (2011): 597–630; Brendan McConville, “Early America in a New Century: Decline, Disorder, and the State of Early American History,” Journal of the Historical Society 5, no. 4 (2005): 461–82.

35 responses

  1. “”I would argue that the last thirty years (and the explicit raison d’être of the conferences, i.e., the stagnation of Revolution studies) show us unlikelihood of “new directions” organically emerging from working within these paradigms.” Right on.

    This is a terrific review of the issue, although I don’t know that cultural studies of the origins and political histories of its effects will really create the renaissance in Rev. studies you yearn for! Holton, Breen, and more recently Ben Irvin have been working on this for 20 years already, no?

    • Thank you for reading and, especially, for taking the time to respond both here and on your blog. Holton and Breen definitely have touched on this approach, which I mention at the end of the piece. Ben Irvin’s book is less about the origins than the course of the Revolution, but just as important. There is also recent work by Michal Jan Rozbicki and a decent amount of work of which I am aware that has not yet made it into journal articles or monographs.

      That said, the direction I offered is admittedly just one potential direction and any renaissance would certainly have to consist of multiple new directions. My hope, however, is that those new directions end up offering a new political interpretation of the coming of the Revolution that can tell the story of the origins of the Revolution in a broader and yet equally coherent manner as the standard “constitutional-crisis-spurred-on-by-elite-ideas” explanation that has dominated the narrative for fifty years.

  2. “The last 30 years has seen an enormous boom in our understanding of “revolutionary America,” but not so much of the American Revolution itself.”

    This is a fascinating argument, Michael, but I have a definitional issue that I think you’re obscuring in your post. To put it simply and bluntly: what do you mean by “the American Revolution itself” as compared/opposed to “Revolutionary America?”

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  4. “…it can be hard to imagine what a picture of the coming of the Revolution that does not rely primarily on intellectual history might look like.”

    This is precisely what I tried to do in my dissertation on the Stamp Act: https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/20491

    The diss foregrounds violent action and week-to-week newspaper rhetoric rather than pamphleteers’ constitutional niceties. The result was, I think, a different (and much darker) narrative that emphasizes how much the concept of slavery drove resistance to the Stamp Act.

  5. “I think that because our understanding of the coming of the Revolution continues to rely heavily on work that is three-to-five decades old (something that is quite rare in the historiography of other aspects of the period)….”

    Michael Hattem’s comment quoted above strikes at the heart of the problem. We seem trapped by an old narrative that continues to emphasize events like the Stamp Act ane Boston Massacre as central to the story of American independence. The first step toward a new narrative is to completely disregard much of the old narrative and start from scratch.

    • I don’t think the essential chronological structure of the narrative needs to be discarded. Looking at the sources, it’s hard to deny an impact by those events. I think what we need is a new framework for the structure that will, as I said in a comment above, allow for a new political interpretation that can tell the story of the origins of the Revolution in a broader and yet equally coherent manner as the standard “constitutional-crisis-spurred-on-by-elite-ideas” explanation that has dominated the narrative for fifty years, i.e., one which acknowledges the intersections between culture and politics during the imperial crisis (and in the prior decade or two, for that matter).

      • If by “essential chronological structure” you the standard presentation focusing on the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Townshend Duties, Boston Massacre, Tea Act, Boston Tea Party = American independence, perhaps it doesn’t need to entirely discarded, but it needs to be seriously revisited.

        • Right. I’d agreed with that. I think those events could stand to be looked at again from new perspectives, both individually and relationally, but it has to be done with an eye to the broader political questions.

  6. I’ll take the risk of over-simplifying and misunderstanding Michael’s call for action.
    In plain language, it seems like we’re accepting a “need” for a “new political interpretation” because there hasn’t been one for several decades. I’m more comfortable understanding that new interpretations bloom over time. Let’s stay on the lookout.

  7. The field of Revolutionary era literature needs to be purged of a common habit: author’s sprinkling their unsubstantiated opinions into their texts. Even the best known historians toss around words like venal, corrupt, blundering, stubborn, evil, and so on, to describe the George III, his officers, and his government. The trend has been going on since Page Smith and continues today, with authors who write as if they were, or want to be, on the “winning side.”

  8. Do you see legal history as playing a role in writing, as you put it, “new cultural studies of the political origins of the Revolution”? I am just beginning a new book on the uses of English legal and protest traditions in the 1760s and have been researching both in North Carolina’s Regulator Rebellion. What I’ve found most interesting is that both sides, the Regulators and Governor Tryon and the colonial assembly/militia, seem to have been tapping into the same rhetoric to justify their particular courses of action, which may, in time, also provide a way of examining why some colonists rebelled during the Revolution itself and others became Loyalists.

    • Abby, that is a fantastic question. As I mentioned in a comment above, mine was just one suggestion for a new direction in approaching the origins and coming of the Revolution. To genuinely revitalize study in the coming of the Revolution and develop new interpretations that better explain the political origins and causes of the Revolution would require more than just one approach. Certainly a new look at legal history and/or culture in the 1750s and 1760s could prove fruitful in suggesting new ways to think about those questions. And I would definitely be interested in hearing more about the kind of rhetoric you describe (as my own work on the 1760s and 1770s focuses in part on the use of history and historical references, especially to 17th-century Britain, in resistance rhetoric).

      • Michael, as I said this is a new book for me, though it’s been evolving at the back of my head for the last decade. I spent most of February and March in the NC state archives in Raleigh and am now just starting to process all my notes and I would be happy to discuss my research on the Regulator rebellion, and also would like to hear more about your research on resistance rhetoric. Will you be attending the MHS conference next week?

        • Unfortunately (and to my great regret), I won’t be in Boston next week. Largely because I have to go to St. Louis for the OAH the following week. It’s a shame they scheduled this the week before the OAH Annual Meeting. If you’ll be at the OAH, let me know, otherwise I’m happy to correspond via email. Enjoy the conference!

  9. Thanks for this thoughtful analysis. I am delighted to see renewed scholarly interest, especially among younger historians, in the American Revolution. I will be very curious to see what emerges.

    However, I think the methodological insights of the past few decades have made it more difficult than ever to write about “the American Revolution.” Why? Because now we must acknowledge that there was not just one revolution, but many. We have to think about the “bottom-up,” not just the “top-down.” We must consider not just those who were included but those who were excluded, especially women, slaves, and native Americans. We must understand that the American Revolution was in many ways not unique or exceptional, but displayed many of the characteristics of a colonial rebellion and had global dimensions. And to the larger point about cultural history: whereas most intellectual historians are comfortable with ascribing causality and explaining change over time, many cultural historians are more interested in “thick description” or the explication of meaning.

    I think the challenge is this: Can we now write about the origins of the American Revolution and say something new without either 1) minimizing the complexity of the Revolution; or 2) lapsing into old methodologies? :

    • (My apologies in advance for the post-like length of this comment.)

      Rosemarie, thanks for taking the time to comment. As I wrote in the piece, I agree with the notion that the dominant methodologies of the past thirty years have made it more difficult to write about the Revolution. Also, I am certainly not arguing for any kind of exceptionalist interpretation and I agree that the global context is important to understanding the Revolution on its broadest scale.

      I also agree that any new interpretations must be inclusive and draw on the important work done over the last three or four decades. But I’m not so sure how helpful the “top-down/bottom-up” dichotomy is in going forward. I think that kind of bracketing has had a similar effect on our ability to think about the Revolution as increasingly narrow specialization has had on the profession itself in that same time. That is to say, it has helped create an enormous (and enormously valuable) body of work but has made it increasingly difficult to think about questions that lie on a broader scale (i.e., origins and causes) in a way that hasn’t happened to questions of “consequences” because they can be satisfying dealt with in a more atomistic and focused manner.

      In terms of the politics of the coming of the Revolution, I think I am less interested in seeing more “bottom-up” studies than to see studies about the political interrelationship between elites and non-elites and how the actions of each affected the other and combined to produce the multi-faceted resistance to British imperial reform. And to take that further, I’d like to see more work on the role of the interrelationships between groups not necessarily defined by class during the imperial crisis (e.g., John Fea is currently working on a book about Presbyterians in the Middle Colonies and the Revolution). It is those kinds of interactions that I think especially interests me in terms of the political origins of the Revolution, and I think would allow us to continue to talk about internal conflict as well as consensus (so as not to “minimiz[e] the complexity of the Revolution”) in a way that is not limited by the currently dominant methodologies.

      I also believe that thinking in terms of the cultural origins of the Revolution, whether it be the break with British history culture in the 1760s and 1770s (on which I am working) or the break with British material culture through the boycotts, can (and should) be done in such a way that foregrounds those interrelationships. I would also like to see more work that focuses on the creation and legitimation of new political institutions brought about by the Revolution (a la Ben Irvin’s excellent book), because those institutions provided spaces (both physical, cultural, and intellectual) in which different groups or communities . I also think there is still a place for ideas, just not for their own sake. I’m interested in ideas that went beyond individual pamphlets or whatnot to have a broader cultural impact (a la Michal Jan Rozbicki’s book on liberty).

      I believe the Revolution (i.e., the break with Britain) had both cultural origins and political causes. That is to say, I am increasingly less than convinced that a narrative of Anglicization (cultural, political, or institutional) in the decades prior to independence provides a sufficient context for understanding that break. I think the primary question surrounding “the coming of the Revolution” (which I use as a shorthand for both “origins” and “causes”) is to explain how independence happened so quickly. My own (admittedly partial) take on it (which informs my current work and which I hope to address more directly in my next project) is that the cultural breaks or divergences with Britain in the two decades or so prior to the Revolution are what allowed the political break to happen so quickly (relatively speaking, of course). But there are a number of methodologies (both old and new) that could speak to that question in new ways, including (but not limited to) global or transnational history and intellectual history.

      To be clear, I am not calling for a single approach to the coming of the Revolution, but I would like to see a concerted effort (among historians specializing in a number of methodologies) to address specific, broad questions about the origins and causes of the Revolution.

      • Michael, I wasn’t criticizing; I was simply suggesting that it’s a much more daunting task to write about the Revolution today than it was fifty years ago. I think the relative lack of attention to the American Revolution (per se) in recent decades is regrettable and robs early Americanists of the chance to speak to larger audiences. And I do think the question about the relative “quickness” in the shift in attitudes and break with England definitely needs further explanation. I am eager to see your work.

        • Oh no, I realize that, Rosemarie. And I agree with everything you said (in both comments). I guess I ended up using your comment as a jumping off point to say some of the things I didn’t have the space for in the original post.

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  12. If you would, please type in “founders and china” in any main searching engine and you will create yourself an opportunity to enjoy reading on how the founders made great efforts to borrow from Chinese culture in their efforts to build a new nation in North America.

    • Dave, I am very much aware of the work being done on relations between the early United States and the Far East. In fact, one of the former postdocs at my institution, Dael Norwood, worked on that topic specifically. I’m not sure how that factors into the question of the origins or causes of the Revolution, though.

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