At 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:
There’s been an odd disconnect @ #RevReborn2 between the papers with new Am Rev scholarship and keynotes decrying lack of new scholarship.
— Joseph M. Adelman (@jmadelman) April 11, 2015
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). 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.
In writing about the Continental Congress and the Sedition Act, the authors are without question arguing on the traditional ground of political history. 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. 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.
 Benjamin H. Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
 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.
 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.
 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.