It’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.