The American Revolution: People and Power

huntington-gateIt’s increasingly clear that, while the era of grand syntheses may be over, there will be no shortage of provocative new work on the American Revolution. Last week the Huntington Library hosted the third major conference on the revolution in as many years, following those organised by the McNeil Centre in 2013 and the Massachusetts Historical Society back in April. The American Revolution: People and Power may have been smaller than its two predecessors, but what it lacked in scale it made up for in intellectual focus and cohesion. In this post, rather than giving a straightforward recap, I’ll report what I took away as the headlines.

1) There is ground to be made by historians looking at the revolution in terms of process, not principle. What people experienced, and what they did, is as important as what they thought. This relates to an issue of chronology—after generations of focus on causes and consequences, the revolution now appears to be a bit like a sandwich: the middle is the most interesting part. Even those talks, like Douglas Bradburn’s, that gave a longue durée perspective, did so in order to expose how revolution actually worked.

2) Committees are exciting! If there was one single subject that controlled the agenda at the Huntington, it was the revolutionary committees that—it was argued—performed much of the work of revolution on the ground. Two talks, those of Tim Breen and Bruce Mann, focused on New York’s Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies (which respected journal Variety has called “the 18th century proto-CIA”), while committees of safety featured heavily in Brendan McConville’s talk and even popped up in my own.

3) Beyond violence, there was terror. Several speakers gestured to the emotional impact of war and revolution, including Colin Calloway in his harrowing account of Indian experience, Patrick Griffin in his assessment of revolutionary violence and its limits, and me in my discussion of the post-war discourse of social anarchy. Violence and civil war were themes aired at the Philadelphia conference two years ago, but they pervaded the debate this time around. Most powerful, to my mind, was McConville’s argument that the revolution saw not one, but two Terrors, enacted by committees at the beginning and end of the war. As he pointed out, the process of demobilization was far bloodier and more difficult than historians have hitherto made clear.

Of course, those are just three headlines, and they don’t capture the whole conference. Speaking of the Terror, I should mention that both Colin Jones and Rosemarie Zagarri brought the American Revolution into conversation with the French in innovative ways—Zagarri finding revolutionary causes for fertility transitions in both countries, and Jones examining the French Revolution’s historic sway over the word ‘revolution’ itself. Catherine Brekus and Mark Noll both addressed the relationship between religion and concepts of liberty, while Cornelia Dayton unearthed political crime (and a mysterious document!) in Connecticut.

Those seeking a more comprehensive account of the conference should check out Craig Gallagher’s tweets, conveniently storified by the man himself. I won’t presume to try to sum the whole thing up in a sentence, and others may have come away with headlines different from mine, but for myself, let’s just say I’m confident the revolution will continue its cycle of rebirth for a while yet.

6 comments on “The American Revolution: People and Power

  1. It was good to see you there Tom! Your talk was excellent. You introduced a really interesting wrinkle to all the discussion about popular violence, that of a class struggle that pervaded attempts to restore order and establish a workable way forward in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution.

    I agree with your synopsis here, as well. I would add only that I thought it striking that this conference, though smaller and (arguably) less heralded than the McNeil/MHS conferences (perhaps due to the shallower pool of #twitterstorians in attendence) seemed to be deliberate in its attempts to offer a way forward. Where it felt at times like #RevReborn & #RevReborn2 were overwhelmingly concerned with the question of whether scholars were doing original work on the Revolution, while simultaneoulsy proposing many multifaceted (and pretty original) ways to shake the field out of that crisis of confidence, this conference had a pretty clear manifesto about where the field should go. From the outset, Tim Breen was stressing the need for comparative contexts, for attention to the lived experience of the Revolution (especially its violent nature), and that historians should be looking to explain not why the Revolution happened in the first place, but why it wasn’t a colossal failure!

    We can quibble about whether or not their proposals are worthwhile (although I think the efflorescent scholarship on display at the Huntington argued that point convincingly) but I think it was noteworthy that very little time spent on historiographic concerns, and more on the actual history of the Revolution, made for a very different conference from its illustrious predecessors.

  2. Rosemarie Zagarri says:

    Thanks for the excellent summary/analysis, Tom. Having participated in all three conferences, I have to say that I found the Huntington conference to be the most substantive.In my experience, fields flourish when scholars disagree–in a civil and productive fashion–about important issues. There was a lot to chew on from the Huntington.

  3. Dan says:

    I wasn’t able to make the conference, but followed all the tweets, so thanks for those. These are really interesting topics, but I think one thing we need to think about is how we define some of the terms we’re talking about.

    For example, as we debate whether the American Revolution was a civil war, what do we consider to be a civil war? Political scientists who specialize in civil wars even use different definitions depending on their focus. Are we using the most broad definition, that it’s two actors within a single polity fighting against one another? Some political scientists use that definition (see Stathis Kalyvas in The Logic of Violence in Civil War), but like Kalyvas, they use this broad definition b/c they’re trying to understand a phenomenon that occurs within conflicts (violence) rather than trying to wrestle with what a civil war is in the first place. For his purposes, the broad definition makes sense. I would argue in most situations, however, using the technical, broad definition of a civil war is, analytically, not very useful. What are we trying to say by noting the American Revolution was a civil war? Unless we’re using the term merely for observational purposes, what’s the “so what?” Where does that take us?

    Other political scientists, like James Fearon, define civil war so that it means something, and so that we can do something with it. He argues a civil war is “a violent conflict within a country fought by organized groups that aim to take power at the center or in a region, or to change government policies.” In other words, the two sides fighting each other are fighting for the right to rule either in a part or a whole of the country. Using this definition, it’s less clear that the American Revolution was a civil war. The Whigs were certainly fighting to seize and keep political control, but Loyalists for the most part were not. They were fighting so that someone else, a third party could continue its rule.

    The reason this matters is because if we’re working under the assumption that the Revolution was a civil war, it leads to conclusions about the use of violence in the war that I believe are mistaken. In the southern colonies, (which I know more about than the North), the Whigs knew the British needed Loyalists both early in the war to hold onto power and during the southern strategy to take back control of those provinces. The violence used by the Whigs against the Loyalists by and large had a very strategic purpose – to control the Loyalist population and prevent the British from leveraging their support. They did not fight Loyalists because they were irreconcilable or because of some concept of impurities in the body politic, or any of the usual reasons you see in revolutions. Yes, there were exceptions, as there are in any war. But the Whigs in the South mostly followed through with a very deliberate strategy, and the rebel leadership – made up mostly of the societal elite – worked hard to maintain centralized control of that strategy.

    Someone during a Q&A session noted the sheer amount of resources it would take the Whigs to imprison all Loyalists or carry out mass executions. This would not have been very smart strategically, and so since their objective was merely to prevent the Loyalists from providing services to the British, they found it much more economical to be lenient with the Loyalists. This generally included release and a very strict parole regiment, with limitations on where they could travel and a requirement to check in with a specific town committee member on a daily or weekly basis. This is what I think is missing from the talk about violence in the Revolution – the logic of the violence, the purpose – and there was one in the South at least! T.H. Breen I think obliquely conceded this point, when he said that Whigs were constantly preparing for a Loyalist threat, but that the Loyalists never posed a military or political threat to the Whigs. The first clause in that sentence goes a long way towards explaining the second clause!

    This is why comparisons of the American and French Revolutions, at least as far as violence is concerned, are, in my opinion, way off base. The observation that both were violent does not then mean that the manifestation of that violence shared any similarities. This is why, as I said, the study of violence in the war has to take into consideration how and why that violence was applied. I think Bruce Mann came closest to the truth when he noted the violence was not indiscriminate nor was it intended to annihilate or destroy the Loyalists. It was intended to control, not destroy, and the more Loyalists they could get to join them (by forcing the Association on them, by convincing them the British intended to incite slave rebellions and Indian attacks, by simply preventing them from assembling or communicating with the British) the happier the Whigs were, because again the British were the ultimate threat, not the Loyalists. That was very different from the French Revolution (and even more so than the 20th century revolutions) where allegiances were often determined by who you were, where there was little you could do to change your fortunes, and where those on the other side were irreconcilable threats to your very existence and had to be destroyed.

    So I think we need to consider how we define the words we’re using – civil war, violence, Terror (big-T if we’re using it to make comparisons to the French Revolution), etc. I think we also need to be careful about using a comparative framework on these topics, unless we’re very explicit and very detailed about the differences and the importance of those differences, in addition to noting the similarities. Just as I think we might want to look to political scientists (particularly those who do nothing but study civil war), we might also want to dive into military history, to better understand the relationship between violence and strategy in war. Because the Whigs were worried about Loyalists, they were worried about their slaves, and they were worried about the Indians. Most of all, however, they were worried about those groups because of how they might benefit the British, because the biggest threat and the ultimate focus of Whig attention was the British. Using terms loosely or at an observational level can obscure that point and lead to incorrect conclusions.

    • Dan says:

      One other point I might add is that a common question emanating from these RevReborn conferences is how on earth the Whigs managed to succeed. This is a logical question if the picture you’re painting is one of a society that is much more anarchic than previously imagined, where the different sides are targeting one another in an indiscriminate, paroxysm of violence carried out my anonymous mobs of people and where each side sees the other as an impurity or a mistake that somehow needs to be destroyed.

      If, however, you see the violence as strategic, intended to control Loyalists to prevent them from aiding the British strategy, and directed by an elite leadership that uses crowds as cover to legitimize their actions, it’s not too difficult to see how they managed to come out successful at the end. It’s even less difficult when you consider that the British did not understand this strategy, did not understand why the Loyalists did not flock on their own from hundreds of miles around to the British camp, exposed all the while, why the Loyalists were not immediately an effective fighting force like the British expected them to be, and why the Loyalists responded poorly when the British withdrew their regular forces from the front lines where they had been co-located with militia, and then left Georgia, SC, and NC in turmoil in order to be able to continue fighting offensively.

      This is not to say that the outcome was foreordained or inevitable, but it does suggest the importance of understanding your enemy’s strategy in war. The Whigs understood the British strategy and acted to counter it. The British did not understand that strategy the Whigs used.

    • Tom Cutterham says:

      Interesting points, thanks Dan!

  4. […] origins to what happened once the Revolution began. In our current historiographical moment, “Committees are exciting,” as Tom Cutterham put it in his report on the third recent high-profile conference on the […]

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