Recap: “So Sudden an Alteration” Conference (9-11 April 2015)

Two weeks ago, 175 historians descended upon the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) in Boston for a three-day conference that considered the political, social, economic, and global parameters of the American Revolution. The conference consisted of eight panels (with pre-circulated papers), two keynotes, and some special presentations on digital projects. The conference proceedings were live-tweeted under #RevReborn2, and fellow Juntoist Joseph Adelman provided some live 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 #RevReborn2” by Michael Hattem.

Day 1: Thursday, 9 April (Storify)

After welcoming comments by Conrad Wright, MHS’s Director of Research, the conference commenced with a panel exploring the Stamp Act. Presenters included Craig Bruce Smith (Brandeis University), and Nancy Siegel (Towson University), with comment by Richard Brown (University of Connecticut).[1] Siegel, an art historian, used visual culture to explore the personification of British-American relations in female form; Great Britain was the mother, and the colonists as the rebellious daughter. Specifically, she explored the use of a stereotypical bare-breasted female Native American by British print makers as a satirical representation of the American cause, implying savagery and promiscuity on the part of the colonists. Craig Smith’s paper explored the role of taxation in colonial ethical identity. Money, he argued, became a matter of honor, as the Stamp Act, and subsequent taxation was co-opted into the larger discussions of colonial honor, virtue, “right conduct,” and morality.

The afternoon concluded with a keynote by Woody Holton (University of South Carolina), who probably needs no introduction to scholars of American Revolutionary History.[2] Holton, whose keynote was taped and can be viewed on MHS’s YouTube Channel, humorously, and dramatically pronounced a Jeremiad. As a field, he announced, American Revolution faced an originality crisis. Scholarship has grown stale. Holton’s keynote threw down a challenge for historians of the field, leading the commentators of every subsequent panel to assure participants of the originality of the papers they were about to discuss. He also mentioned the need for more narrative histories, specifically mentioning the Junto as a potential venue for exploring the role of narrative techniques in History. (And yes, we have something in the works, with details TBA.)

Day 2: Friday, 10 April (Storify)

Day two began with a panel on the Boston Massacre. The panelists were Eric Hinderaker (University of Utah), Peter Messer (Mississippi State University), and Serena Zabin (Carleton College). Cornelia Dayton (University of Connecticut) provided comment. Hinderaker’s paper explored the quartering of British troops, with a specific aim of exploring what it meant to have a standing army during peacetime. Proximity between soldiers and civilians was a particular flash point. Messer’s paper explored the Customs Conspiracy and the Boston Massacre and the role events played in discussions concerning power and conflict and shaped the way the colonists responded to deteriorating social conditions in Boston. Zabin rounded out the panel with her exploration of relationships between soldiers and citizens, friends, neighbors, families, and intimates. One of the things explorations of the Boston Massacre lacked, she argued, was a sustained analysis of the people as they lived these events.

The second half of the morning continued with a further exploration of the social and political conditions leading up to the Revolution. The presenters included Christopher Magra (University of Tennessee), John McCurdy (Eastern Michigan University), and David Preston (The Citadel), with comment by Bob Gross (University of Connecticut). Magra’s paper explored the affect of British press gangs on Atlantic commerce as part of the economic origins of the American Revolution. McCurdy’s paper examined the ways in which debates surrounding the Quartering Act helped to shape concepts of “American” space. Preston looked at the military origins of the American Revolution, with a focus on the relationships between George Washington, Horatio Gates, and Charles Lee, and what those (often contentious) relationships meant for military power at the start of the Revolution.

Following a lunch, which included a field trip the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (Boston Public Library) for those who registered early (which alas, did not include yours truly) to see their new Map Portal, the Massachusetts Historical Society presented one of its new digitization projects: the Annotated Newspaper Collection of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. The presentation showed how the newspapers were carefully cleaned, digitized, and indexed, with careful attention to preserving Dorr’s notes in the marginalia. (Although Bernard Bailyn lamented that you can’t really preserve the experience of working with the originals.)

The afternoon continued with a panel on slavery and the Revolution. Panelists included Paul Polgar (Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture), John Ruddiman (Wake Forest University), and Gloria McCahon Whiting (Harvard University), with comment by Alan Taylor (University of Virginia) and his Jeffersonometer. Polar began with an exploration of what he called an alternative vision of revolution: one that was focused harnessing the rhetoric of the American Revolution by Anthony Benezet and others, to “covert” others to the antislavery cause. Ruddiman’s paper (presented in absentia) used wartime writings to evaluate Continental soldiers’s attitudes towards slavery, particularly unpacking regional differences among the soldiers. Whiting’s paper evaluated not only the means by which slavery was eradicated in Revolutionary-era Massachusetts, but how the focus on the law concerning slavery results in misleading interpretations of what actually happened to slaves.

Day 2 wrapped up with a “state of the field” commentary by the fast-talking Brendan McConville (Boston University), who lamented the field’s turn away from political considerations of the American Revolution. His comments, which rankled a portion of the audience, led Rosemarie Zagarri (George Mason University) to press him to clarify “whose Revolution” it was.

Day 3: Saturday, 11 April (Storify)

The morning of the third and final day of the Conference was divided into two panels. One session focused on “Conducting the Revolution.” Panelists included Amy Noel Ellison (Boston University), Herbert Johnson (University of South Carolina), and Barry Levy (University of Massachusetts), with comment by Edward Countryman (Southern Methodist University). Ellison’s paper discussed the disastrous 1775 invasion of Canada as a turning point that made independence inevitable. Johnson’s paper, which he presented in absentia (via Countryman) made use of both military and constitutional history to explore how self-governance unfolded during the Early Republic. Levy’s paper focused on histories of violence, Massachusetts military culture, and morale in the creation of the Continental Army.

The second session of the morning, on “Implementing the Federal Government,” included presentations by the Junto’s own Michael Blaakman (Yale University), Benjamin Irvin (University of Arizona), and Gautham Rao (American University), with comment by Rosemarie Zagarri. Blaakman sought to understand why, during the last two decades of the eighteenth century, Americans became obsessed with land speculation. Irvin looked at the experience of disabled veterans during and after the Revolution: to wit, who received pensions, and why? And last but not least, Rao’s paper explored the relationship between the American Revolution and federal government. Specifically, Rao analyzed custom houses, his work (along with that of his fellow panelists) suggesting new ways of doing institutional history.

The second half of the morning brought another set of split panels. Panel A on “War and Displacement” featured papers by Donald Johnson (Northwestern University), Trent Cole Jones (The Johns Hopkins University), and Christopher Sparshott (Northwestern University-Qatar), with comment by Fred Anderson (University of Colorado). Johnson focused on the personal experiences of people who lived in cities, as they weathered starvation, disease, and other maladies of war. Jones explored the politics of retaliation. Sparshott unpacked the human experience of refugees in New York City’s wartime camps. Panel B on “Revolutionary Settlements” featured papers by Juntoist Tom Cutterham (Oxford University), Brett Palfreyman (Museum of the City of New York), and Andrew Schocket (Bowling Green University), with comment by Joanne Freeman (Yale University). Collectively, this panel explored different facets of revolutionary elites. Cutterham’s paper discussed the internal politics of the Society of the Cincinnati. Palfreyman explored the evolution of the status of non-jurors in Pennsylvania. Schocket’s paper described the creation of public offices in the 1780s and 1790s, as a restoration of public order.

The final session of day three unpacked a globalized American Revolution. Panelists were Michael Rainbow Hale (Goucher College), Dane Morrison (Salem State University), and Kariann Yokota (University of Colorado-Denver), with comment by Eliga Gould (University of New Hampshire). Hale compared the French and American Revolution, arguing that the French Revolution had more bearing on the American Revolution than has typically been allocated by scholars. Morrison’s paper explored the role the China played as Americans sought to define their national identity. Yokota’s paper evaluated post-Revolutionary politics and economics in the Transpacific.

The conference concluded with a roundtable featuring Gordon Wood (Brown University), Stephen Marini (Wellesley), Fredrika Teute (Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture), Daniel Richter (University of Pennsylvania), and Patrick Spero (Williams College).


[1] Molly Fitzgerald Perry (College of William & Mary) was originally scheduled to present, but was unable to attend.

[2] As an aside, anyone who missed Holton’s debate with Gordon Wood about the U.S. Constitution at the University of South Carolina’s History Center can view it here.

One response

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Link Roundup #93: The Short and Sweet Edition - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: