Review: The American Revolution Reborn

The American Revolution Reborn, ed. Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

15598Between May 30 and June 1, 2013, hundreds of historians, teachers, and students came together in Philadelphia to discuss twenty-first-century perspectives on the American Revolution at a landmark conference, “The American Revolution Reborn.” That conference, which received and receives regular shout-outs here at The Junto, forms the basis for The American Revolution Reborn, an edited collection of essays designed to “upset the patterns of history inquiry that have defined scholarship for the past generation” (3). Much like The Oxford Handbook on the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), The American Revolution Reborn seeks to regenerate interest in the Revolution with “new perspectives” that, the editors and contributors hope, “will produce new interpretations of the past that move our understanding forward in new directions” (5).

Edited by Patrick Spero (Librarian of the American Philosophical Society) and Michael W. Zuckerman (Professor of History Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania), The American Revolution Reborn contains fifteen lively essays from emerging and well-established scholars, including The Junto’s own Mark Boonshoft. As with the 2013 conference, the book is split up into four parts—“Civil Wars: Challenging the Patriotic Narrative”; “Wider Horizons: Decentering the Nationalistic Narrative”; “New Directions”; and “Legacies: The Afterlife of the American Revolution”—and it is bookended with Spero’s Introduction, “Origins,” and Zuckerman’s Conclusion, “Beyond the Rebirth of the Revolution: Coming to Terms with Coming of Age.” All of the essays in this volume are useful, with each relying on new or underused sources or offering a new perspective on the Revolution. The American Revolution Reborn will indeed set the tone for emerging scholarship over the next few years, perhaps longer, and although it’s sometimes dense, the essays are engaging and well worth the time and effort it takes to read.

Part I contains essays by Michael McDonnell (University of Sydney, Australia), Travis Glasson (Temple University), Aaron Sullivan (Ph.D., Temple University), Kimberly Nath (University of Delaware), and Denver Brunsman (George Washington University). It is an excellent deconstruction of traditional narratives of the allegiance during the Revolution. In particular, McDonnell’s “War Stories: Remembering and Forgetting the American Revolution” eloquently analyzes personal accounts of the war, divorcing us from the “[c]lear lines drawn between the patriots and the monarchical forces of the British and their loyalist minions” (9). With his account of John Greenwood’s memoir, we see an American Revolution filled with doubt and personal sacrifice: Greenwood, for instance, fought against the British but turned toward a career in piracy, ending the Revolution “by plundering a ship that flew the flag of his country’s Spanish ally” (p. 16). As McDonnell notes, Greenwood was “at best a ‘patriot’ for a year or two” (16).

The dynamic nature of allegiance during the Revolution is equally apparent in other essays in Part I: Travis Glasson’s “The Intimacies of Occupation: Loyalties, Compromise, and Betrayal in Revolutionary-Era Newport” offers an exciting account of people were “pulled in multiple directions as the war affected their own families, households, and communities” (31). Glasson also makes excellent use of materials in the Rhode Island Historical Society, itself an underused institution. Of particular note to loyalist scholars could be the Historical Society’s “List of Tories, &c. in Newpt.,” housed in the Rhode Island General Assembly Papers, Revolutionary War, “Suspected Persons, 1775–1783, p. 24. Aaron Sullivan’s “Uncommon Cause” and Kimberly Nath’s “Loyalism, Citizenship, American Identity” are also strong contributions to the volume, with each furthering our understanding of how the Revolution affected people’s behavior and choices.

Part II, “Wider Horizons: Decentering the Nationalistic Narrative,” with essays by Ned C. Landsman (Stony Brook University), Katherine Engel (Southern Methodist University), Bryan Rosenblithe (Columbia University), and Mark Boonshoft (New York Public Library), offers a fascinating insight into aspects of the Revolution that aren’t always front and center. In particular, as a Scotsman, I found Ned Landsman’s comparisons of the Union of the Crowns (1707) and the American Revolution in “British Union and the American Revolution” a fascinating read. Kate Engel’s essay on the bishop controversy and the essay on the Great Awakening by The Junto’s Mark Boonshoft also offer important contributions to sometimes underexplored topics. Rosenblithe’s essay, meanwhile, forays in Britain’s eighteenth-century African empire, connecting it to its colonial American possessions with great effect.

Part III, “New Directions,” contains essays by Zara Anishanslin (University of Delaware), David Hsiung (Juniata College), and Matthew Spooner (visiting scholar at Harvard University and postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institute). Anishanslin’s essay connects destruction and violence in New York with “an alleged piece of tortured human skin,” which, in turn, partly contributed to the creation of “a national mythology” (190). With her frequent use of material culture, Anishanslin’s essay stands out in The American Revolution as a model for how undergraduate and graduate students might consider incorporating “things” into their work. Also, Hsiung’s essay on the environmental history of the American Revolution is particularly interesting and noteworthy, covering an almost always overlooked, even forgotten component of the Revolution. As he notes, “Environmental history provides new perspectives on historical problems by opening our eyes to how people at critical moments interacted with and understood the nonhuman parts of the environment” (227). Spooner’s essay is also important as he shows how hundreds used “the rapid transfer of slaves, land, and prestige” (247) to establish themselves and “partially displace an older elite ruined by confiscation, death, and debt” (247).

Part IV contains essays by Aaron Spencer Fogleman (Northern Illinois University); Edward G. Gray (Florida State University); and David S. Shields (University of South Carolina). Each essay in this section is written by a well-established scholar. Aaron Spencer Fogelman’s essay shows how “a transformation from unfree to free transatlantic migrations took place throughout the world” (260), with changes taking place in the United States first. There were, Spooner notes, “Big changes in Atlantic migration patterns” (268). Ed Gray’s essay adds significance to and an important contextualization of the Mason-Dixon Line, almost always associated with the American Civil War, and David Shields’ essay reflects on power and a “reborn American revolution” (294), most importantly, “its role in making the issues of violence, slavery, and the rhetoric of liberty” (294).

The expansion of the American Revolution into the nineteenth century at the McNeil Center conference was an aspect Michael D. Hattem reflected on in 2013. What he wrote then is relevant here: “By expanding the Revolution forward chronologically in this way, we lose an understanding of (or the opportunity to approach) the Revolution as an event. That is, if the Revolution is everything, it is also nothing.” This is an important feature of The American Revolution Reborn that scholars must contend.

Unfortunately, however, there are a few issues with The American Revolution Reborn. Although it’s perhaps due to the #RevReborn conference being held in Philadelphia, this volume has a strong focus on Pennsylvania and urban centers, especially Philadelphia. The stories of rural colonists are left largely unexplored. So, too, are the stories of those in the Caribbean and Europe. As Steve Pincus has noted here at The Junto, early American historians should commit time and effort traveling to archives across those areas in order to fully understand what was happening in eighteenth-century America. Also, there are errors with production work: the volume’s endnotes contain multiple errors, often with short titles; the use of the words “loyalist” and “Tory” was not standardized between essays; and the index is short, rendering it less useful to the reader than it could have been. It’s also worth noting that a vast majority of the contributors to this volume are men.

In sum, though, The American Revolution Reborn accomplishes one of its major tasks: to offer new perspectives on the American Revolution. Whether it will stimulate further research on the period is yet to be seen, but for graduate students and early career scholars, this volume will be a strong starting point. Indeed, it is the most important collection of essays on the Revolution to appear since the 1970s. Collectively, they challenge long-held assumptions about the American Revolution, offering new, refreshing perspectives that will, I sincerely hope, pull early American historians back to the colonial and revolutionary eras. It’s up to scholars, young and old, to take inspiration from this volume to continue challenging long-held views and perspectives, with refreshing language and style, to start a new dialogue about the history of early America. And with The American Revolution Reborn as a model, it looks as if the American Revolution will be reborn, truly.

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