No Politics, No Revolution

If there is a current orthodoxy among historians of the American Revolution, it is that the study of the Revolution has lost its focus. In their introduction to the Common-Place edition recapping the McNeil Center’s “The American Revolution Reborn” conference, Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman wrote of “a field that had grown stale” and that was “losing its verve, and worse, its center.” The call for papers for the forthcoming Massachusetts Historical Society conference effectively described the field as being stuck in a historiographical rut. There is a reason that study of the Revolution has lost its center. It has failed to concentrate its focus on politics.

The American Revolution derives its historical importance from one main truth: it created the nation-state of the United States of America. Not only did it establish a new way of devising and framing power, the American Revolution created a form of government that has proven remarkably—even historically—resilient. It is the creation of government that prevents the American Revolution from being just another episode in human history. Thus a history that does not adequately explain politics does not adequately explain the American Revolution.

As it currently stands, there is a lot of confusion even in defining what constitutes “the American Revolution.” It has become commonplace to speak of “many American revolutions,” removing a sense of coherence from the events that led to Independence and the Constitution. Alternatively, historians talk of “Revolutionary America,” and not “the American Revolution,” a linguistic shift that guards against lazy exceptionalist narratives, but at the cost of blurring the focus on what makes the period historically interesting.

This is not to say there has been no attention paid to the politics of the Revolution. The work of Woody Holton, Terry Bouton and Michael McDonnell has shed light on the role class played during the Revolution. David Waldstreicher’s recent essays on Revolution historiography have called attention to both neo-imperial and economic approaches. Patrick Griffin and Eliga Gould have written histories situating the revolution within the Atlantic World. And if we shift our historiographical eye from the Revolution to the Early Republic, we would see a plethora of political histories, stretching from the works of the New New Political History of the late 1990s through to more recent works that it helped inspire.

Yet even these works have a tendency to study the politics of exclusion, rather than the foundational politics of  the new nation-state. (At the very least, as I have argued before, there is a disconnect between popular politics and formal channels of government that is inherent in many of these works). These political histories, and the social and cultural histories that have informed their approaches, have done admirable work in highlighting the ways in which different groups experienced the revolution. Indeed, any new synthesis of the revolution will need to account for the social and cultural history of the preceding decades. But these histories have had a tendency to atomize the revolution. They have focused as narrowly on localities and specific groups as earlier histories focused on elites. And in any case, as was pointed out to me recently, it is impossible to exclude from a void. Too much of a focus on the politics of exclusion actually serves to strengthen the position of the republican narratives developed in the 1960s; it merely emphasizes their lack of inclusivity, rather than reshaping the way we understand the Revolution as a whole.

There are three particular challenges I see in reinvigorating the study of the American Revolution. The first is periodization. Revolutionary historians have broadened the focus of the field too far. The second is to rethink the causes of the Revolution. We now know much more about the consequences of the Revolution than we did two or three decades ago; it is time to make sure that what we know about post-revolutionary America accurately correlates to the revolutionary experience. And the final challenge is to establish a functioning understanding of political history that explores the dialectic between popular political activity and the formal activities of government.

One reason that study of the American Revolution has lost its center is that historians who consider themselves revolutionary historians have increasingly stretched their fields of study outside of the Revolution, both geographically and chronologically. The question of periodization is particularly acute. Take, for example, the recent Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution, in which contributors were free to define the Revolutionary period how they saw fit. That left the Handbook stretching from the 1750s through to the 1830s. For all the vigor and new directions suggested by the Handbook, a revolution that stretches across several generations is scarcely a revolution at all. Unless the field coalesces around a sharper definition of what constitutes the Revolution, the study of the period will remain distended.

That periodization needs to focus more tightly around older definitions of “the American Revolution.” Broad periodization has contributed directly to the de-centering of politics. A timeline from the Treaty of Paris to the Constitution has its limitations, but it provides a sharp enough focus to place the origins of the nation-state at the very center of the study. This, in turn, invites a much closer consideration of the political mechanisms that led to Independence and the creation of new forms of government, and thus will breathe new life into the origins, causes, and processes of the Revolution.

(This will also help address a further problem of current periodization of the Revolution, the fact that histories rooted in the eighteenth century end in 1776, and histories focusing on the early republic begin in 1776. That’s a critical disjuncture in many works dealing with some aspect of the Revolution, and the field would do well to bring these literatures into greater conversation with each other).

For in focusing on the period post-1790, and focusing so heavily on the politics of exclusion, it has become very easy for historians to judge the revolutionary generation for failing to live up to the egalitarian promise and some of the more radical rhetoric of 1776. Yet “revolutionary history” has been extended to include the period of consolidation that follows all revolutions. It would serve the field well to shift some of its focus back in time to reconsider the origins and the coming of the Revolution. After all, if we’re so certain the revolution failed to live up to its promise, don’t we need to consider the possibility we might have misunderstood the expectations of the revolutionary generation in the first place?

Which, ultimately, is why we need to return to the centrality of politics. If we only consider the Revolution as epiphenomenal to larger struggles of class, or race, or gender, or religion, then we do a disservice to those who prosecuted the revolution. We make them little more than tools of broader historical structures. In the light of recent social and cultural histories, we need to turn our attention back to the political aims of those who participated in the revolution and focus carefully on what they hoped to achieve.

At root, Americans who engaged in the Revolution were engaging in a discourse concerning government—about how power should be distributed, and staking a claim to exercise that power themselves. For political action to be considered legitimate, it had to be carried out with some claim to popular authority. That raises a number of important political questions that remain underexplored. How did Americans participate in their revolution? What structures did they choose, and why? Which proved durable and effective? Why did those structures change?

All those questions ultimately demand a close consideration of how Americans understood popular sovereignty, and how they grappled with taking those vague notions and transforming them into a workable reality. Without linking that story back to formal channels of government, without establishing the proper dialectic between the people and their government, any history of the Revolution is going to remain stuck in its rut.

23 comments on “No Politics, No Revolution

  1. gauthamrao says:

    Ken-
    I am with you on much of the great analysis here. But regarding this… “Too much of a focus on the politics of exclusion actually serves to strengthen the position of the republican narratives developed in the 1960s; it merely emphasizes their lack of inclusivity, rather than reshaping the way we understand the Revolution as a whole.”

    For me a part of the ‘politics of exclusion’ is that is the flip side of the “political mechanisms” that you believe needs greater study. Perhaps too much emphasis has gone to this but I do not think so. It is just as important to understand the coercive exclusionist politics as it is to understand the creation and functioning of those political mechanisms. For ultimately that exclusionary politics goes a great deal in deciding who has access to political mechanisms and process.

    Loved the post though.
    -gautham

    • Ken Owen says:

      Gautham, thanks for the praise and the constructive criticism. I don’t deny that the exclusionary practices of many of the political mechanisms I want to see studied in more depth are important. But I think that focusing too much on them makes it easy to condemn those mechanisms, especially when viewed from a contemporary standpoint.

      I’m hesitant to state that quite as baldly as I have done, because that in itself runs the risk of going back to the ;lazy exceptionalism’ I also decry. But I think if we want to understand the Revolution more clearly, we need to look at the causes and processes in greater detail, and that requires that we look at the foundations of that power (which, as you know, I’m not at all sure we properly understand). If we’re just looking at exclusions, or looking too much at exclusions, then we’re going to miss some of the subtleties of the power structures that were created.

  2. bencarp says:

    I agreed with a lot of this analysis, so bravo, but I have to ask: wasn’t there also some sort of war?

  3. Ken,

    What, pray tell, *is* the periodization of the American Revolution?

    • Ken Owen says:

      I tentatively offered the normal timeline from 1763 to 1789/90 as the timeline. I certainly don’t think the ‘American Revolution’ began before the Treaty of Paris; I don’t think it continues much beyond the consolidation point of ratifying the Constitution. ‘Revolutionary America’ is a different proposition – for politics and society were shaped by reference to the Revolution for decades afterwards.

      • andrewfagal says:

        I always thought the 12th Amendment had something to do with it.

      • I think that sounds about right to me. I think Adams was right that the Revolution was occurring in the 1760s. I usually tend to think that the Revolution is over with the Constitution but in my more generous moments I can be persuaded that you could legitimately argue for 1800. Beyond 1800 (and to a large extent, 1787), you are talking about the effects (or “consequences” of the Revolution). The periodization debate needs to happen but I think it brings to light the fact that you can’t possibly begin to periodize the Revolution until you can define the Revolution. Some definitions might not allow for us to talk of a “revolution” before 1774-76, while others might allow us to talk about it through 1812. But it was that lack of definition, and, hence, periodization, that marred the MCEAS American Revolution Reborn conference for me.

        • Michael and Ken, I’m sympathetic to what you’re saying, that past a certain point we’re talking about consequences. But when the Revolution ends depends on where you’re looking. It’s more complicated further west than in the original 13 states. I think it’s beyond dispute that the Revolution happened in the Ohio Valley, but you can make a case the revolution didn’t end there, and American home rule wasn’t firmly established there, until perhaps even 1815.

          • That is an excellent point, Mark. And I realize the following will be a highly contentious suggestion, but if we’re talking in terms of a nation-state, I’m not sure it’s wholly justified to tailor periodization of the Revolution as a whole to the status within a western territory. That is not to minimize the experience of the settlers living in the Ohio Valley prior to statehood and I’m certainly not suggesting it should be written out of the story, just that it shouldn’t be given greater weight for the specific reason that it falls outside the scope of the original 13 states (which I am not saying you are doing but I would argue some do). All broad questions like that of periodization will have outliers. Your comment points out the inherent complexities in any serious debate about periodization and these are issues that should be directly confronted.

  4. I think one reason (maybe the main reason) that historians of the Revolution have lost focus on the Revolution, isn’t because they’re not talking about politics–after all a true revolution involves more than just the politics of the thing. I’d argue that the reason for the loss of focus is because of the difficulties in establishing just what constitutes the American Revolution, and when that Revolution took place.

    You say that ” . . .a revolution that stretches across several generations is scarcely a revolution at all”, speaking in reference to the idea of an American Revolution that spans 50 years. Yet how does defining the Revolution as being from 1763 to 1789 work any better to solve that problem? That’s an entire generation, and a large portion of those who fought and died in the Revolutionary War would have been small children during the period of the Stamp Act Crisis (which is often regarded as the start of the Revolutionary period).

    I’d argue that there are two separate discussions to be had here and that the two discussions get conflated together as part of the same Revolution.

    One aspect of the Revolution is the change in society over all. The post-war society was different than the pre-war society, and it wasn’t just the change in government. That post-war change was ongoing for many years after the Revolution, which is why so many people look at the Revolution as ongoing until the early 19th century.

    The second aspect is the change in attitudes from mere resistance to British policy to the desire to “declare independency”. I’d argue that this aspect is the true American Revolution. I’d also argue that this part of the process can be narrowed down to the time period from 1770-1775. There’s probably also an argument to be made that the time period could be shortened even more, from the passage of the Coercive Acts in 1773 to 1775.

    John Adams argued that the Revolution had taken place in the hearts and minds of the people long before any shots were fired. I think the Coercive Acts were the driving cause of this Revolution in the hearts and minds of the people. After all, John Adams was also writing in 1773 that he felt it would take another generation or more before America was independent–yet within two years there was a complete political revolution in Massachusetts (as well as many other colonies).

    • John, in a post I wrote previously I argued the same thing, i.e., I tend to agree with Adams that the real Revolution occurred in the decade prior to independence. In that sense, you could argue that everything following independence is a result of the Revolution, including securing independence. After all, even if the Americans had lost the war, imperial identity had already suffered irreparable damage. That said, it is hard not to think of the process of state constitution-making as part of the Revolution, especially for those of us still inclined to think of the Constitutional Convention as something resembling a Thermidorian moment.

      • “That said, it is hard not to think of the process of state constitution-making as part of the Revolution, especially for those of us still inclined to think of the Constitutional Convention as something resembling a Thermidorian moment.”

        Isn’t the Constitutional Convention/ratification essentially a *second* Revolution? Some people look at the Convention as the natural end result of the Revolution, but then that ends up with the Revolution being pushed back into the 1790s and early 1800s with the consolidation of federal power and the advent of national politics.

        Maybe we should start looking at it from the perspective of the first American Revolution, which would cover say 1770 to the end of the war and the establishment of the Articles of Confederation. Then the second American Revolution which transforms the politics of the country with the central event being the Constitutional Convention.

        Events such as Shays Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion might more properly fit into this second revolution, even though some aspects of the rebellions matched actions taken during (and before) the first Revolution.

  5. Will Monk says:

    Historians are in a rut because they rely on each other far too much – which is ironic, because the internet allows us to find original manuscripts much easier than at any other time. Take a slow read of footnotes and count the number of times a historian will cite their favorite historians, who are often colleagues. Anderson cites Gipson, Maier cites Wood, Wood cites Bailyn, over and over, and each one cites themselves. John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle cited his own work 55 separate times. Hard to say something fresh when you are reading whatever the guy at the next booth at a conference wrote five years ago.

  6. […] the lead early on and retained it throughout the course of voting. Perhaps, as Ken Owen suggested yesterday, political history really is due for a […]

  7. Could you describe what you mean by the “political mechanisms” of the Revolution? Are you referring to the dissemination of radical thought through new channels of communication, the development and role of the committees of correspondence / safety / inspection, and the creation of new institutions of local government?

  8. J. Kent McGaughy says:

    I agree with the basic point that if you’re focusing on the American Revolution/War for Independence politics must be a priority. However, the economic issues at stake must also be understood–“follow the money.” When it comes to the other types history (i. e. social, cultural, etc.) in relation to the Revolutionary era, I find the biographical approach to be an effective way to incorporate them all into a single study. In my work on R. H. Lee of Virginia in addition to examining his political career I wanted to focus on his role as a husband and father, his role as a planter and slave owner, as well as the material culture of the world in which he lived. All of those elements are important for a complete biography.

  9. […] you know from last week’s posts by Michael and Ken, this weekend is the second major conference in two years on the American Revolution, So Sudden an […]

  10. […] McConville, and Gordon Wood, as well as a number of junior scholars (I would propose that our own Ken Owen and Michael Hattem are in this school too, at least roughly speaking, based on their posts leading […]

  11. Rosemarie Zagarri says:

    This is an excellent discussion. I didn’t read it until after the MHS conference, but I wish more of this sort of thing had happened there.
    I do disagree about the effect of emphasizing the “politics of exclusion,” however. I think it is essential that any new reading of the American Revolution constantly ask: Who is included, who is excluded and what are the consequences, both immediately and in the long-term? If historians of “the American Revolution” ignore these questions, they run the risk of simply replicating the assumptions and biases of the older scholarship.

  12. […] and social. And up to a point, such an approach is definitely right. As I argued back in April, any new synthesis of the American Revolution will require consideration of decades of social and cultural history. But there is also a need to put a sharp point on a study […]

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