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.