The “Suddenness” of the “Alteration”: Some Afterthoughts on #RevReborn2

As most, if not all, of our readers are aware, this past weekend was the “So Sudden an Alteration” conference hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act.[1] It was the second of three conferences dedicated to rebirthing Revolution studies, hence, the hashtag #RevReborn2. (NB: You can find the immense backchannel coverage of the conference Storified here: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3. You can also find Joseph Adelman’s interactive TAGSExplorer that chronicled the Twitter coverage). This post is not intended to be a standard Junto-type conference recap. Instead, I just want to offer some afterthoughts on the conference, specifically in light of the piece I wrote before the conference, entitled “Have Cultural Historians Lost the Revolution?” as well as numerous other pieces I have written about the historiography of the Revolution and the state of Revolution studies for the blog, particularly before the first #RevReborn conference back in 2013.

To begin with the positive, there were a number of papers split among different panels that all had a common approach, one for which I have been calling for the last few years, namely for a renewed focus on institutional history. In a comment on my post from last week, I suggested that rather than continuing to think in terms of the inherently antagonistic bottom-up/top-down class binary, we should instead focus on the interrelationships and exchanges between groups themselves and with institutions. And, indeed, many papers did that and did it creatively and inventively, including Serena Zabin‘s fascinating exploration of the relationship between citizens of Boston and the British Army, The Junto‘s own Michael Blaakman‘s explication of the interrelationships between land speculators and the individual states, Ben Irvin’s uncovering of disabled war veterans petitioning for pensions, Gautham Rao‘s excellent rendering of the relationship between merchants and the Customs House, Christopher Magra‘s look at impressed subjects and the Royal Navy, Juntoist Tom Cutterham‘s look at elites and the Society of the Cincinnati, and, finally, Andrew Schocket‘s attempt to make an argument about the relationship between officeholding, “civic opportunity,” and the “end” of the Revolutionary moment. Taken together, along with the work of a number of scholars who did not present at the conference, they appear to herald a new kind of institutional (and political) history, one that is based not on antagonistic class dichotomies but on the rendering of complex and subtle interrelationships that reveal both conflict and consensus as well as consensus within conflict and vice versa.

That said, for a conference commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act and one which was subtitled, “The Causes, Course, and Consequences of the American Revolution,” it was rather disheartening to see that (by my count) only three papers (those by Christopher Magra, David Preston, and Craig Bruce Smith) even had the pretense of specifically dealing with the questions of “origins” or “causes” of the Revolution. My piece last week pointed out that the origins and causes of the Revolution remain the two least studied parts of the Revolution in the last thirty years. There has, in that time, been an enormous amount of work on the “consequences” of the Revolution, but the questions of origins or causes (or, from here on out, the “coming” of the Revolution) have largely been avoided. When Woody Holton put up a Powerpoint slide of the infamous quote by Jack Rakove––i.e., that “the major causal problems of explaining why the Revolution occurred” had been “largely solved” in the “1960s and 1970s”––everyone laughed.[2] Yet, once you get beyond the laughable pomposity of the statement, you realize that, for all intents and purposes, we act as if what Rakove had said was true. Our understanding of the coming of the Revolution remains largely rooted in the constitutional and ideological clashes first explicated over five decades ago.

In my piece last week, I suggested one potential direction for reinvigorating inquiry into the origins and causes of the Revolution was to begin thinking beyond constitutionalism and ideology by re-examining colonial political culture in the imperial crisis and the decades immediately before independence. That is, I suggested that cultural developments in this period might provide answers to the political questions of origins and causes. After all, the main question that any historian concerned with the coming of the Revolution must answer is: How did we get from 1763 to 1776 in only 13 years? That is to say, how did we get from the relationship between the colonies and Britain at the close of the Seven Years’ War to independence in less than a decade-and-a-half? Or, to put it the context of the conference, how do we explain the “suddenness” of the “alteration?” This is the question the most prominent works in the historiography of the coming of the Revolution sought to answer, from Becker to Miller, from Rossitter to Jensen, from Morgan to Bailyn, from Maier to Countryman, et al.[3]

I would suggest that the “cultural origins of the American Revolution” remain largely unexplored and that, if we would only allow ourselves to break free from the Anglicization thesis, we might find that cultural breaks (or divergences) with the mother country (i.e., political, religious, social, and intellectual) in the decades immediately preceding independence contributed to making the seemingly lightning-fast political break with Britain possible. My own research attempts to do this by exploring the process by which colonists began abandoning the historical memories of the British past that had been the foundation of their imperial identity and began crafting new “American” historical memories of their own colonial past to justify their resistance to Britain and, eventually, independence. That is just one potential brick in the wall of the story, and I certainly do not think that this type of approach is the only (or, for that matter, best) one for developing new understandings of the coming of the Revolution. It will take multiple approaches and methodologies to create those new understandings. But I would like to see historians of the Revolution make a conscious and collective commitment to the question of the coming of the Revolution, and to thinking more broadly about these larger questions about the Revolution, in general.

_________________________

[1] I think a moment should be taken here to congratulate and thank the Massachusetts Historical Society and the other institutional sponsors for putting on such an excellent conference. The schedule went smoothly, the papers were interesting and worthwhile, and the audience helped create a much-needed dialogue and fruitful conversations within and between the panels.

[2] Jack Rakove, “An Agenda for Early American History,” in Recent Themes in Early American History, ed. Donald A. Yerxa (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 38, 39.

[3] The next episode of The JuntoCast will be devoted to a conversation about the coming of the Revolution.

4 comments on “The “Suddenness” of the “Alteration”: Some Afterthoughts on #RevReborn2

  1. […] 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 up to the […]

  2. […] commentaries, including “You Say You Want a Revolution” by Joseph Adelman and “The Suddenness of the Alteration: Some Afterthoughts on #RevReborn2” by Michael […]

  3. […] remain the two least studied parts of the Revolution in the last thirty years.” So we suggested in these pages back in spring. Was that assessment correct? Where have historians got to in […]

  4. […] regarding study of the Revolution’s “origins and causes.” And, in “The ‘Suddenness’ of the ‘Alteration’: Some Afterthoughts on #RevReborn2,” I noted the disappointing lack of papers directly engaging the questions of origins and […]

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