You Say You Want a Revolution

home_revolutionAt the risk of overkill, I have thoughts about the “So Sudden an Alteration” conference hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society, which I attended along with a number of my Junto colleagues. I’d like to pick up on the themes of the conference to discuss an underlying tension in the conversation that never quite reached the surface in explict terms.

I noted on Twitter after the second keynote by Brendan McConville what I think was the key issue:

Each of the keynote speakers—Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina and Brendan McConville of Boston University—in his own way decried a dearth of scholarship on the American Revolution. Holton, who offered a self-described “jeremiad,” argued that there is an “originality crisis” in American Revolution scholarship, suggesting that little new has been said over the past twenty or twenty-five years. McConville picked up on the same theme, claimed that the history profession—much to its detriment—had abandoned the Revolution as a historical project in place of studies of the Atlantic world, race, class, and gender, and other themes that sometimes touch on the Revolution, but only insofar as scholars seek to contextualize the Revolution’s importance. In the process, he argues, scholars have whittled away the Revolution to just another historical event. The whole thing had the feeling of watching the end of the musical 1776!, when John Adams, unable to sleep, stands in a darkened Pennsylvania State House and sings, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?”

The two keynotes stood in marked contrast to the rest of the program (and I’d note as he did that McConville was a member of the program committee), in which the Revolution was front and center in myriad ways. Holton’s comment in particular seemed to prompt every session commenter thereafter to note that the papers in each panel did not reflect any sort of “originality crisis.” So what gives? Why the disconnect, even at a conference in which those who are bothered the state of the field could shape the program?

I think the answer is that there’s an old fundamental question at stake: What was the Revolution? For those senior scholars such as Holton, 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 up to the conference), the Revolution was a political event that took place roughly between 1763 and 1789, effected in large measure by a War for Independence from 1775-1783. There were origins in political culture before 1763, and there were reverberations or aftershocks after 1789, but those do not form the core of the story. That story, they argue, was fundamentally political in nature and if it involved social or cultural aspects, they were by definition derivative of politics.

By contrast, a large number of historians have recently argued that the Revolution was not settled in 1789 even on a political basis, and furthermore had manifestations and consequences that echoed far beyond the structure of the new American federal and state governments for decades after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. In addition, scholars from a wide variety of perspectives have indeed sought to contextualize the Revolution in a broader context as one of a series of Revolutions in the last quarter of the eighteenth century (an argument pioneered by R.R. Palmer, whom few would describe as a radical revisionist).

The problem at “So Sudden an Alteration” was the neither Holton nor McConville were willing to say explicitly that they wanted such a narrow definition of the Revolution, even if their comments strongly inferred it. When pushed during the Q&A, for example, McConville hedged on how he would describe the precise dates of the Revolution.

As you might imagine, I side with the latter school. Given work done over the past twenty-five years, it’s simply not possible to consider the Revolution outside the context of the Atlantic world. As we learned this weekend, the Revolution had an impact on th lives of men, women, and children of numerous racial and ethnic groups, and prompted social, political, and cultural turmoil for decades after the end of the military conflict that settled the political question of American independence.

Even on its own terms, in fact, the argument put forward by Holton and McConville fails because the political actors on which they want us to focus our attention in fact saw themselves in an Atlantic world of commerce, politics, and ideas, in which they understood (or sometimes didn’t in ways interesting to the historian) the racial, class, and gendered status that allowed them to contemplate Revolution. To show how recent work has played out on the question of politics, I’ll offer just two examples of why the argument for a more limited understanding of politics fails.

First, in his fantastic study of the Continental Congress, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty, Benjamin Irvin uses newer modes of analysis of gender, print culture, and other areas to understand the work of the Congress as necessarily contingent, anxious about issues of masculinity, and otherwise in a major battle to create national cohesion where none had previously existed (because there was no need).[1] Second, Joanne Freeman recently argued that we should view the Sedition Act of 1798 not as a move to muffle political opponents but as an attempt to shore up the legitimacy of government in a political environment where it was not yet settled whether criticism of the government delegitimized it.[2]

In writing about the Continental Congress and the Sedition Act, the authors are without question arguing on the traditional ground of political history.[3] Yet in each case the “Holton-McConville School” would suggest that these may not be part of the Revolutionary story, that instead they are about something else because of the use of gender and print culture analysis, or the fact that the story took place eleven years after the Constitutional Convention.

When I ask “what was the Revolution?” for myself, I can’t simply say that it was a political and military event from 1763-1789.[4] Nor can I agree that anything outside of that time period should simply be labeled “Revolutionary America” instead. But I do think we’ll advance the debate more purposefully if we ask that question explicitly and openly in conversations.


[1] Benjamin H. Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] Joanne B. Freeman, “Explaining the Unexplainable: The Cultural Context of the Sedition Act,” in The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History, ed. Meg Jacobs, William J. Novak, and Julian E. Zelizer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 20–49.

[3] Both Irvin and Freeman were present, but neither (that I can recall) explicitly addressed these questions during the plenary sessions, and I did not have an opportunity to talk with them about it in these terms.

[4] As a side note, any students reading this who have enrolled in my fall course on the American Revolution are forewarned to think about this question.

27 comments on “You Say You Want a Revolution

  1. Thanks for this really engaging post, Joe. In conjunction with Michael Hattem’s recap yesterday, I would say that if the MHS conference this past weekend (which I watched from afar on Twitter) intended to reignite debate over the American Revolution, it has certainly achieved that, or at the very least made it that much more apparent to us where the battle lines in such a debate lie.

    I am, like you, partial to the contextual rather than exceptional perspective on the American Revolution, and believe in fact that we can *only* understand the Revolution if we consider it within the Atlantic World at large (and indeed, maybe even the broader imperial/global world, given the critical role played by the East India Company). I think this has the inevitable consequence, as it sounds like McConville acknowledged, of downplaying the Revolution’s particularity, and perhaps in the process making it less likely that such scholarship will find a reading audience beyond the academy. Yet I also think this is the more faithful interpretation, since as you so correctly note, the Atlantic World was the context within which Washington, Adams, Jefferson et al understood their actions to be taking place.

    Of course, I’m not a scholar of the Revolution itself, only a teacher of it, but I nevertheless agree with your argument that the field is buzzing with new interpretations and approaches to 1776 and all that, and I think this especially apparent from my late seventeenth century vantage point. It can only help take the debate forward that more folk are now aware of the great work being done.

  2. Rosemarie Zagarri says:

    Thanks for this post.I found it odd and intellectually indefensible that the plenary speakers at the MHS conference were not willing to be explicit about their definitions and defend them. You do the job here in fine fashion..I think tthe field is big enough that we should have multiple frameworks for understanding “the American Revolution.” But defining the terms should be the beginning of the conversation, not the unspoken assumption.

    • I agree completely, Rosemarie. I tweeted about this during the conference but the argument and disconnect seemed to be driven by the fact that everyone in the room had something different in mind when they said “the American Revolution,” which made the debate a bit circular as people talked past each other. It’d be ridiculous to think we could arrive at some consensus about what the Revolution was, but defining terms should absolutely be the starting point for further discussion.

      • Michael and Rosemarie, thanks to both of you. Michael, that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make in the post, that we need to figure out what the term means, because of precisely what you describe. Push comes to shove, I argue for a more expansive view, but I want to have everyone’s definition on the table.

  3. Monique Manna says:

    ‘When I ask “what was the Revolution?” for myself, I can’t simply say that it was a political and military event from 1763-1789.’ Very well said, Joseph Adelman.

  4. Woody Holton says:

    Hi, Joe,
    When it comes to the era of the American Revolution, my friend Brendan McConville and I only agree about one thing: there is no “Holton-McConville School” (as you put it). In my talk at the “So Sudden” conference, I absolutely did not call for as (as you put it) “a more limited understanding of politics.” Among the scholarly projects I advocated were comparative studies of founding-era poetry and of women’s status in New England and Nova Scotia in the half century after 1776. I implored scholars to study the China trade from the Chinese perspective and to use the Revolutionary War pension applications for social history (as Ben Irvin, whom you mention, did in an excellent paper at the conference).
    Rather than calling for a return to politics, I implored scholars to add value—to say things that have never been said before. What I deplored was that so many scholars think they have made a contribution when they use theory to obfuscate some obvious point or waste their time, and their readers’ time, in pointless, boring debates about such topics as whether the American Revolution ended in 1789 or 1800 or 1814 (though I did not use this particular example in my talk).


    • Woody, thanks for taking the time to respond (and for the shout-out to the Junto during your talk). Even without other scholarly conversations taking place online in recent days, I wouldn’t want to mischaracterize someone’s argument, so I appreciate your contribution here. I certainly agree that there’s much potential in examining the areas you describe. I know both Dane Morrison, who presented, and Dael Norwood, who was not at the conference, are both at work on the China trade and could speak more authoritatively than me in terms of how to approach that issue. And whatever we call it, I think there has been a return of sorts to social history facilitated by the digitization of records, and Ben’s paper was a fine example of that.

      That said, I’d like to gently nudge back on two points.

      First, I agree with you that scholarship that relies on theory in lieu of an empirically researched argument does not offer much. But I don’t know that I want to toss out theory completely because it can, when applied properly, facilitate questions and methods of inquiry that might not suggest themselves simply from the primary source evidence. That is, I agree that simply pasting Foucault into one’s introduction is not substitute for a rigorous argument, but there’s no reason we should discard him or other theorists when they can help us ask questions. I’m not sure if this is exactly what Peter Messer meant to say in the session where he raised this point, but I think it’s roughly analogous. [Full disclosure: my completed dissertation/incomplete book manuscript on the printing trade and politics in the Revolution includes citations to Habermas, but on the other hand I’ve been told my more theory-friendly scholars that my work is under-theorized, for whatever that’s worth.]

      Second, I concur that a basic argument about chronology would be boring, but I do think that a description of what the Revolution actually entailed requires thinking about dates and chronology, even in cases where a scholar is doing a broadly cultural history. That’s even more true for us as teachers. As I note in the original post, I’m teaching an upper-level course on the Revolution, and at some point over the summer will make a final decision in my syllabus on when to stop the chronology. By cutting off at 1787, or 1789, or 1800, or 1815 (or some other date), I’m making a qualitative judgment about how my students should view the scope of the Revolution. And if we’re going to have a clearer discussion about what we’re adding to the conversation about the Revolution, we need to be able to talk from a common understanding (or an agree-to-disagree understanding) of what’s included or not.

      • Woody Holton says:

        Joe, thanks for your note. It looks like we agree about 99%. I apologize for being a cranky old man about the periodization debate. If you and your friends find that stimulating, by all means, have it on my lawn.

        And of course I’m not against theory when it actually adds value. But sometimes I think it subtracts, and to my mind, the Quartering Act essay at the “So Sudden” conference was a classic example. The author, John G. McCurdy of Eastern Michigan University, made the great point that the Quartering Act actually ENDED quartering as we currently conceive it (in homes). In this context, the “theory of space” stuff merely diverted us from John’s great point. Peter Messer misunderstood me when he said I wanted John’s paper to be about taxation without representation; I agree that nothing could be duller. I wanted taxation without representation to be what it already was in the paper: a STARTING POINT. But from there John ought, in my opinion, to have focused on his own interesting discoveries (for example, his finding that many people who ought to have known better claimed the Quartering Act placed troops in private homes) rather than the diversion into “theory of space,” which seemed to me an example of what I’m going to start calling “fauxriginality.”

    • On a lighter note, I’m disappointed to learn that I didn’t just coin a term for a new school of thought about the Revolution.

  5. Ken Owen says:

    Joe, as you can imagine, I’v been thinking a lot about this question of periodization in the last couple of weeks. The reason I took a much stricter definition in my post is that I think it is important to emphasize the revolutionary nature of the revolution, and stretching the period too far runs the risk of masking that change.

    At times, I suspect ‘revolutionary settlement’ is a contradiction in terms. I’m not convinced that sorting out the functioning of government in the 1790s and 1800s really counts as ‘revolution’ – by that point the broad structures of politics are set. Yes, the questions raised certainly owe much to the Revolution, and it could be considered part of a ‘revolutionary era’, but I guess I just don’t think that choosing to overthrow a system of royal government is quite the same as deciding the details of a financial system.

    I say this, of course, as someone who is enthralled by studying those latter questions. So I’m definitely not trying to decry work that has been done in the last 30 years. I just think that it’s raising a different question to that of the study of the Revolution itself.

    What I have been mulling over, though, is the notion that there are two revolutions – one directly over British rule in 1776, and a later revolution about the meaning of popular sovereignty. I think the latter might be taking the notion of revolution too far, but the benefit of the formulation is that it recognizes the high stakes, real and perceived, of politics in the early republic era.

    • Ken Owen says:

      It’s also worth noting here, Joe, that Irvin’s book – which is fantastic – covers a short time span. There’s been a lot of innovation in a variety of areas loosely connected to the Revolutionary era in the last few years – my hope is that those influences will be used to concentrate efforts on explaining events in decades that just haven’t received as much attention lately.

      • And I have noted Irvin’s book (and Joanne’s, for that matter) in multiple blog posts as an excellent example of how we can use cultural history approaches to get at political questions about the Revolution. So the existence of Irvin and Freeman’s books hardly negates my argument; indeed, they support it.

      • Part of the reason I wanted to use Irvin as an example is that his short time frame is specifically during the war years (and that his topic is ultimately political). It was a hopefully clever move to try to argue from the other side’s position of strength. But is there something about its short time frame per se that led you to bring that up?

        And I do agree that there are decades that need a lot more coverage, and if I recall from other conversations with you, the 1780s are pretty high on the list, if not #1.

        • In terms of periodization, there was an interesting conversation in the second Saturday morning session of the conference, in which Brendan McConville cogently asked not when the Revolution ended, but what criteria we would use to judge when the American Revolution ended. That’s an important question, I think, because it gets at issues of the Revolution’s meaning, and what we can attribute to the Revolution vs. what was already occurring due to longer trends, among other things. My off-the-cuff answer is similar to Ken’s position concerning the 1790s and 1800s, because I would tie the end of the Revolution to the re-establishment of some semblance of civic order, thereby indicating that people were getting on to the more routine business of getting on with their lives under the assumption that further changes would be gradual rather than sudden. And, further, that while we do have to pick ending dates, as Joe pointed out, for the purpose of syllabi, etc, that the Revolution ended at different times for different places. But to cast the Revolution into the 19th century seems to me to vitiate the meaning of revolution — why not consider it through 1865, or 1940? — and reduces our ability to think about the American Revolution as a finite historical process.

          • Thanks for bringing up that question from McConville, because I’ve been thinking about it as well, and thought it was a great way to frame the issue. As I hinted in that session, I think that the battle to define the Revolution began in 1783 (if not sooner) and continues to this day (and allow me to plug a certain recently published book on the topic). So at some point I think Alfred Young kicks in and we’re not talking about the Revolution but about the memory of the Revolution. That allows us to talk about the Revolution in the context of 1865, or 1940, or 1965, or 2010, but I agree that those dates are not the Revolution itself.

            • Ken Owen says:

              I agree that the framing is a useful one, and we might consider the same framing when thinking of origins as well – at what point is enough changing/is enough change on the table for the Revolution to have begun?

              I like Andy’s suggestion of the formation of civic order; my initial reaction was along similar lines – something like ‘the point at which major structural change in the form of government was no longer likely’. Andy’s answer has the benefit of being easier to define without reference to hindsight.

        • Ken Owen says:

          Yesm 1780s are very high up there indeed. Which is an opportune moment to give a shout-out to Tom Cutterham for that very reason!

          I sense from your reply there’s a lot of common ground – I was mentioning Irvin as a means of showing how histories focused on short timespans can give important and innovative views of the Revolution – which stands in contrast to a lot of the things I saw from the MHS conference pointing towards longer durees.

  6. I think we’re in a bit of danger here of caricaturing each others’ positions. Let me clarify my own for the record.

    Joe wrote: “What was the Revolution? For those senior scholars such as Holton, 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 up to the conference), the Revolution was a political event that took place roughly between 1763 and 1789, effected in large measure by a War for Independence from 1775-1783. There were origins in political culture before 1763, and there were reverberations or aftershocks after 1789, but those do not form the core of the story. That story, they argue, was fundamentally political in nature and if it involved social or cultural aspects, they were by definition derivative of politics.”

    In terms of my own writings here, this is not accurate (though I certainly don’t mind being grouped in with Woody Holton, Brendan McConville, Gordon Wood, and, even Ken Owen to some extent). Indeed, I have called for a reconsideration of the questions of the origins and causes of the Revolution and my own work traces those back to the decades before 1763. Secondly, I specifically offered one approach which was to examine the cultural origins of the American Revolution with the intent of answering political questions. In my post I said that the Revolution was “primarily a political event,” if only because it involved one polity revolting against a government for the opportunity to govern themselves. What could be more political? Many social, political, cultural, economic, and intellectual factors contributed to the causes and consequences of that essentially political revolt, and each are necessary for a full understanding of both.

    I am primarily interested in re-engaging the questions of origins and causes through a more contemporary political culture approach than the one employed by Bailyn, Wood, and others in the 1960s. But as I said, that is not the only possible approach, and perhaps not necessarily the most potentially fruitful. And, in the process, I did not discount the importance of the questions of course or consequences, be them political, social, cultural, economic, or intellectual, or the work done on them. In fact, I praised that work and its value to the field in general. I merely stated a fact that I think we would all agree on: the vast majority of work done on the Revolution in the last three decades has focused on consequences. And I would like to see that balance out by more historians recommitting themselves to the questions of origins and consequences with the benefit (not shared by Bailyn or Wood) of being able to draw on the past three decades of cultural history.

    Joe wrote: “it’s simply not possible to consider the Revolution outside the context of the Atlantic world.”

    I think this is the kind of comment I mean when I say “caricature.” I don’t think anyone has suggested that the Atlantic context is immaterial to the Revolution. Atlantic history is five decades old and imperial historians like Charles Andrew recognized this 100 years ago. I think If most of us heard a historian actually utter that sentiment, we would probably laugh out loud. It seems to me that the reaction against contemporary historians who argue for the importance of politics is a bit out of time. They are often caricatured, portrayed as, or implicitly reacted to as if they are old-school political historians from the 1950s, the kind who dismissed social and cultural history as inferior forms of history in their importance related to high, elite politics. I think it does a disservice to the conversation. Saying political questions matter is NOT the same as saying all other questions or topics don’t. It may have been that way 50+ years ago, but it hasn’t for a very long time and is certainly not the case today with the vast majority of junior historians interested in political questions.

  7. J. Kent McGaughy says:

    I don’t think there will ever be an answer to the question “what is/was the American Revolution,” therefore there will never be an answer to when it began or when it ended. A big part of the problem regarding the debate over the American Revolution is our use of the phrase “American Revolution.” It can mean something completely different to each and every one of us and each interpretation can be equally valid as long as it has a solid factual foundation. I personally spend a lot of time looking at political and economic trends and developments from roughly 1750 to 1800 in my research and writing. I’m not seeking to explain the “coming of the American Revolution” because I’m not sure what that means. I am seeking to explain why some Americans supported the decision to declare independence while others did not. The decision to declare independence was a political decision motivated by economic interests just as the decision to oppose declaring independence was a polticial decision motivated by economic interests. Consequently, I focus on the economic interests and trace the impact these had on the political postions taken by those in the Contintental Congress who made the decision to declare independence. This is what I focus on in my research and writing. When I teach my course on Revolutionary America, at one point in the course I’ll have a series of lectures on “the Decision to Declare Independence,” focuses exclusively on the politics of the period. At another point I’ll have another series of lectures on “Racism and Slavery in Revolutionary America” because it is equally important for students to thoroughly learn about the poltics of the time as it is for them to learn about the effects racism and slavery had on American culture and politics at this time. That’s the basic difference between what my research and writing about the decision to declare independence and what I do while teaching on Revolutionary America. I’d like to discuss Brenden McConville’s comments too, but time for office hours and they’re starting to line up–you’d think a major research paper or something was due next week!!

  8. I think I made roughly this same point in a previous juntoblog piece on the subject, but I’m wondering if wouldn’t be helpful to think of there being *two* Revolutions in America in the late 18th century.

    The first Revolution was the change in attitudes from independence within the British Empire, to independence from the British Empire. This culminated in the Declaration of Independence. The American War of Independence was thus fought to secure this first revolution. (As a side note I’d argue that the key years for this first Revolution were 1770 to 1775.)

    The second Revolution was a move towards a more centralized form of government. This revolution took much longer, and can be said to center around the Constitution and the ratification process, and maybe even to extend into the first decades of the 19th century.

    Events like Shays Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion are difficult to categorize as part of the first American Revolution (though I would love to see a work that compares and contrasts these with the protests pre-Revolutionary War), but would fit easier into this second American Revolution.


    • J. L. Bell says:

      John J., is your second Revolution (toward a centralized government) actually a Thermidor counterrevolution?

      • I can see that argument. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it seems to fit. It seems to me that the impulses in the early 1770s which led to the war were being changed and transformed (and even quashed) by the time of the Constitutional Convention.

        Possibly even before that point if we factor in the Shays & Whiskey Rebellions. So yeah, I can easily see it as a narrative of Revolution in the early to mid 1770s, and then a counter-revolution post-war with the defining moment being the Constitution.

  9. A. Hoy Mades says:

    Not sure who else of the student body reads the blog, but rest assured we’ll start arguing in August if they do.

  10. […] coverage on the blog. The Junto has also had some post-conference commentaries, including “You Say You Want a Revolution” by Joseph Adelman and “The Suddenness of the Alteration: Some Afterthoughts on […]


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