Following on from yesterday’s review of The American Revolution Reborn, The Junto was fortunate enough to get to ask a few questions of the volume’s editors. Both Patrick Spero, Librarian of the American Philosophical Society, and Michael Zuckerman, Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, were instrumental in organizing the highly successful conference that led to the volume. In the Q&A below, the organizers/editors reflect back on both the conference and the volume, their effect on their own views of the Revolution, and their hopes for the legacy of both the conference and the volume. The Q&A is published here in its entirety.
JUNTO: Can you say something about the impetus behind the volume and the conference that gave rise to it?
SPERO: There were a lot of factors that led Mike and I to organize the conference. Mike and I have a close friend, Frank Fox, who had been talking about the need to bring together scholars to talk about the Revolution. He had been a business executive who, in retirement, became a historian focusing on Pennsylvania during the Revolution. He attended all the academic conferences and seminars that we attended, and he was surprised that the Revolution wasn’t a topic of much discussion.
At the same time, there seemed to be a bunch of institutions trying to generate this conversation—the David Library of the American Revolution, the Museum of the American Revolution, and the McNeil Center, to name a few.
Finally, we started to hear that scholars were noticing the same thing Frank had and there seemed to be a growing number of projects in the works that reexamined the Revolution.
The conference wanted to pull together all of these various parts in order to generate new energy in the field. We hope the volume will distill this moment in the historiography and share the work discussed in Philadelphia in 2013 with a wider world as a way to generate further discussion and research.
ZUCKERMAN: Sure. But of course there’s a simple story and a more complicated one. The simple story is that a dear friend of ours, Frank Fox, asked us to do it and put up a very handsome sum of money to get us started. The more complicated one is that, once we began, we couldn’t do as Frank wanted us to do. Frank was struck, in his own researches, by the ways in which digital access to old political and military records offered opportunities to return to old-fashioned history of the Revolution in tantalizingly new-fangled ways. He hoped that a conference might put those possibilities before young scholars. We convened an advisory panel to help us scheme such a conference and very quickly realized that we couldn’t do it Frank’s way.
Before we got down to details, we talked among ourselves about the state of Revolution history more largely. And all eight of us agreed that it was mysteriously moribund. One telltale among many was that our graduate students rarely read much on the subject for their orals and that we rarely asked them much about the subject in the exams themselves. So we concluded that, rather than try to energize any particular history of the Revolution, we would go for the whole enchilada. In sublime arrogance, we thought we could – and in humility we thought we should – try to awaken a new excitement about the nation’s beginning. We wanted to refresh a tired conversation and return the Revolution to its place at the symbolic heart of American history.
Everything we did followed from that determination to stir excitement about the Revolution. In our impetuous enthusiasm, we envisioned our conference as a turning point for the profession. Hubristic as we knew such an ambition to be, we nonetheless felt ourselves bound by an almost-sacred obligation to do our damnedest not to conceive or create a conventional conference.
We began where we could begin, with the participants. We would NOT round up the usual suspects. No opening or closing plenaries with the great names. Definitely no deliberate revisiting of the tired old controversies. We would put out a call for papers that invited work with unfamiliar emphases like violence and civil war and that made plain our eagerness to have younger people present. (In the end, half the presenters we chose were graduate students or untenured faculty.) And we would invite superstars to comment on these presentations, but not the standard superstars. We were looking for new perspectives. We were fantasizing the emergence of a new paradigm. We wanted superstars we hadn’t heard from before, who perhaps hadn’t thought much about the American Revolution and might think about it afresh. We invited senior scholars of the American Revolution from other places (China, Australia, England) and other fields (art history, literature, law, material culture, religion, environmental studies). We invited luminaries who studied revolutions in other countries and luminaries who studied early America but had not written about the American Revolution. We wanted fresh voices, even fresh thinking, and to our delight virtually everyone we invited agreed to join our endeavor.
With our presenters and commentators in hand, we turned to questions of format. The one thing on which we all agreed was that, if we wanted the conference to be remarkable, it could not be like other conferences. We would have to invent a new mode of meeting. And as our thinking evolved, each innovation led to the next. If there was to be excitement, there could not be extended reading of papers and there had to be extended audience participation. At first we thought of distributing the papers before the conference, but we’d all been at such affairs and we all knew that they didn’t work. We were planning on four sessions with paper presentations, four papers to a session. Sixteen papers. Multiplied by, say, 30 pages to a paper, that was five hundred pages of reading for attendees to plow through. Experience said that most of them wouldn’t do it and that the paper presenters would then end up, when they came to the podium, repeating material that the more conscientious had already read. The reading assignment had to be reduced to something feasible. But how to do that without sacrificing the advancement of an argument and the texture of the evidence that supported it? We decided that ten pages would suffice, and we asked all our presenters to condense their papers to ten pages, max, for distribution to conference participants. Ten pages times sixteen papers would be just 160 pages of reading. People might actually come to sessions prepared.
But even ten pages times four papers—the substance of each session—would be eighty minutes, which is to say, virtually the entirety of each hour-and-a-half session. All listening and no participating makes Jack a dull boy. So we pushed one step further. We asked our presenters to presume that the audience had indeed read their ten-page distillations and to use their time in the session to arabesque around their papers rather than try to rehearse them. We gave them eight minutes, max, to do that. And in the event they did it, cleverly, wittily, engagingly. Pat Spero had a cowbell to clang them off at eight minutes, and he never had to use it. With moderators forbidden to do flowery introductions, the paper presentations were done in half an hour. An hour then remained for audience questions and quarrels, and it was rarely enough for an audience that was unfailingly energized rather than dulled to somnolence. And we subjected our illustrious commentators to the same time constraints that we imposed on our generally much more junior presenters. The commentary sessions were separate from the paper sessions, so the audience could engage the papers without “expert” mediation and so the commentators could then go off on whatever speculative tangents the papers suggested to them. But the commentators, no matter what their distinction, had the same eight minutes, max, and the same spectre of Pat’s cowbell that the presenters did. That left as much time for audience response as for the initial commentaries in those hour-long sessions.
JUNTO: The American Revolution Reborn conference ended up drawing a far larger audience than anticipated and it proved to be one of the most thoroughly covered conferences on early American history in terms of social media and the blogosphere. Why do you think that was the case and how do you think that coverage contributed to or reflected the goals of the conference?
SPERO: Several things seemed to collide at once. First, there was all this latent energy in the field ready to have a conversation about the Revolution. Second, the conference was way back in 2013, and scholars were embracing Twitter and other social media sites as platforms to engage with audiences beyond the physical space of a conference, so we benefitted from that growth.
A third factor was that we really pitched the conference as a fresh examination of the Revolution, rather than a myopically focused conference for specialists, and tried to design the program in a way that encouraged lively debate. We also invited a wide range of scholars to participate—from some of the most distinguished in the field to recent ABDs. I think the combination of these factors helped draw a wide array of people to the conference and get people engaged online.
ZUCKERMAN: You’re right. The audience was far larger than we anticipated. We changed venues for a couple of events to accommodate the advance registration, and even after we did we had to close advance registration a week before the conference because the crowds would have been overflowing into the street even in the new places if we’d allowed registration to continue. And the play that the conference got on social media had our social media mavens orgasmic. Andrew Schocket tallied seven hundred-some tweets from fifty-nine contributors on The Revolution Reborn. By contrast, he found just a handful of postings drawn from a desultory chat among four participants on the Omohundro Institute conference a month later.
We had, of course, always wanted a crowd. And we had always wanted and pushed a presence in social media; that was part of our determination to make it new. But the electrifying exchanges in the blogosphere testified to something more than our numbers and our self-conscious cultivation of the (not-so-)new media. They reflected, I think, the excitement of the conference itself, which actually exceeded the hype we shamelessly promoted.
We had registrants from more than sixty colleges and universities, from all across the country and all across a gamut from community colleges to elite research institutions. We had secondary school teachers and independent scholars. We had representatives of museums, historic houses, gardens, and state and local historical societies, from the Mount Vernon Ladies Association to the American Helicopter Museum. We had lawyers, retirees, tour guides, an architect, a cartographer, and an investment manager. We had staffers and top-tier leaders from the National Park Service, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the NAACP. In short, we brought together as we’d fantasized bringing together scholars and citizens who shared a hunger to explore and reconnect to the country’s Revolutionary heritage.
Despite all that, our audience was not nearly as large as we’d once hoped or as it needed to be. In our first, finest fantasies, Pat and I and our advisory committee devoted our most imaginative and ardent efforts to schemes for bringing schoolteachers in on the conference. We took as given that, even if the conference did miraculously give birth to a new understanding of the Revolution, that understanding would touch the larger culture only as triflingly as the republican and neo-progressive understandings had if it did not make its way out of the academy and into the schools. We considered putting teachers on every panel, on a par with the scholars and the stars. We batted a dozen bright ideas around. But in the end we failed to come up with anything that didn’t seem condescending and ineffectual. It was our singular, and saddest, failure of imagination.
And that failure brought home to us another. If we had somehow managed to incorporate a couple hundred schoolteachers in the conference, we would only have exposed more vividly the unresolved contradiction at the core of our endeavor. Wonderful as it was to have the vibrant meeting of scholars and citizens that we had, exhilarating as it was to experience the abrasions and discover common ground, and much as we’d dreamed of exactly such collisions and conversations, the conference that we created defeated our other dream of somehow coming out of it with a new paradigm. THAT would have required a more intimate, less democratic gathering than the often boisterous and rollicking gang that made The American Revolution Reborn such a joy.
JUNTO: How has organizing the conference and editing the volume changed how you think about the Revolution?
SPERO: Seeing the proposals come in and reading the volume have helped me better understand the state of the field and some underlying trends. For instance, a lot of the papers focused on the divisions within American society during the war and explored the ways in which the Revolution played out in the fields, homes, and streets of Revolutionary America, rather than in the halls of power. The war years, if not the war itself, were of particular interest to historians submitting proposals.
There were, however, two themes that were absent from the conference that I had expected to see. First, our original CFP emphasized religion as a topic of interest to the organizers, yet we received so few applications that we had to drop it as a panel. The second topic that also seemed absent was the “origins of the American Revolution” question that looms so large in the historiography. In our planning meetings, the committee had hoped that the CFP and panels might spark a new origins debate, but no one at the conference bit. While the absence of both of these topics hasn’t made me think differently about the Revolution per se, I have wondered what their absence might say about the historiography both past and present.
ZUCKERMAN: Where to start? Maybe with the oft-quoted claim of John Adams that the Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people. The most striking consensus to emerge from the conference suggests that Adams’ claim rested on a memory that had slipped some by 1818. During the war itself, most Americans neither supported nor opposed the rebel cause. A strong majority were uncommitted, disaffected, indifferent, or otherwise concerned primarily to stay out of harm’s way or to fight other fights. A lot less than the third who are often invoked in the lazy division of patriots, loyalists, and neutrals into equal thirds actually supported the struggle for independence. The implications of these findings are unsettling. In their light, the Revolution looks less like a popular uprising than a coup d’etat. The always-mystifying questions of how a band of ragtag rebels dared challenge the mightiest martial power on the planet and how they succeeded in doing so loom even more mystifyingly in the light of such modest popular support. And the role of coercion and violence in the maintenance of the war effort seem more than ever in need of serious examination.
In the light of my heightened bafflement, I find myself thinking—to my considerable chagrin—that leadership mattered. Adams, consumed by jealousy and gnawingly agitated by the knowledge that he would never be appreciated as he thought he ought to be, raged that the history of the Revolution would be “one continued lie from one end to the other.” The people would attribute it all to Washington and Franklin. The more I mull on it all, the more I think the people may have been—and may still be—right. No one else could have kept the army together. No one else could have seduced the French support that was indispensable to keeping the army in the field.
But more than anything else, the conference set me to thinking about the place of the Revolution in popular consciousness. Challenging as it is to try to rethink the Revolution in the cool serenity of the archives, our classrooms, and our conferences, it seems to me far more challenging to figure out how to spread whatever thoughts we come up with beyond our ivory towers. For half a century, our discussions have scarcely touched the worlds beyond our ivied halls. Our American Revolution is not the American Revolution of the schools, the politicians, or the mass media. And if somehow the conference and the special issue of Common-place and the book that came out of the conference manage to move our conversation within the academy, we will still be talking, I fear, to ourselves. We are dealing with the foundation myth of our culture, and even in a culture that cares little for history the origin story that we tell ourselves matters. If we are to matter, we’ve got to bridge the chasm between scholars and citizens, which is to say, we’ve got to dirty ourselves in the politics of history.
JUNTO: The subtitle of the volume’s conclusion (written by Zuckerman) is “Coming to Terms with Coming of Age.” Can you explain what you mean by that and how it relates to the Revolution.
ZUCKERMAN: We called the conference “The American Revolution Reborn” because we wanted to signal our hopes of begetting a quickened conversation on the struggles of 1776. And we kept that title for the book because it had become in some sense our signature. But in the conclusion I wanted to challenge the image of rebirth because it seemed to me both false to the accomplishment of our contributors and a subterranean source of modern American dysfunction and discontent.
The motif of a new beginning reflects the American hankering for youth and innocence that feeds our sense of exceptionalism and makes us to this day a hope and a menace to the world. We fancy ourselves unburdened by the complications and corruptions of maturity. We resist growing up. And that resistance plagues us as much as it propels us.
The essays of Revolution Reborn refuse such willful simplicity. They disdain to strike a heroic stance. They spurn the nation-building project that has shaped the historiography. They are dubious that destiny has darlings and that the fate of humankind depends or ever depended on any chosen people. They are more skeptical and disenchanted than celebratory, more loyal to the earth than to any particular parcel of it. They have no trouble with the notion of a nation not yet born on the fourth of July.
Their America is a lot like our America, a land of uncertain allegiance, unsettled identity, and deep, sometimes bitter division. These resemblances give me hope that wider audiences might find these essays resonant, for all that they abandon the quest for inspiration that might move the young.
It was a great story while it lasted: a plucky people rising against odds, an outmanned citizenry setting itself righteously against the mightiest military power on the planet and prevailing. Its informing impulses to equality and audacity and justice were the stars under which the American nation took shape, and its democratic ideals beckoned us to bend toward the better angels of our nature. But that was then and this is now. Since the end of World War II, if not before, the shoes have been on the other feet. The United States is the mightiest martial power on the planet. American military expenditures dwarf those of any other nation. The grievances that the Declaration enunciated in 1776 – an overbearing executive, a swollen peacetime army, and the rest – are the determinants of the American empire and economy. We have become the ancien regime, the fiercest counterrevolutionary force in the world, the nation that other nations regard as, by far, the greatest threat to peace in our time.
Dimly, darkly, uneasily, we sense the dissipation of our Revolutionary—and revolutionary—dream. We recognize that we are no longer what we once were. We do not enlist in our country’s service as the embattled farmers of Lexington and Concord did; in the twenty-first century, less than one percent of Americans serve in the armed forces. We do not welcome the homeless and the tempest-tossed through our golden door; we refuse refugees and deport undocumented immigrants by the millions. Most Americans want no part of revolution and would be embarrassed by the Spirit of ’76 if they knew anything about it. We tell the pollsters, in survey after survey ever since Ronald Reagan took office, that we think the country is on the wrong track. We no longer believe that the future will be better than the past or that our children will be better off than we are.
And yet we continue to fancy ourselves better than others, an exceptional people, an exemplary nation. The disparity between our ideals and our experience widens, and we know it. We rank near the bottom on almost every international ranking of quality of life and subjective sense of happiness. We profess to honor our Revolutionary heritage, and we lash out at all that we are in the name of making America great again. We have become a truly savage nation.
The transformative, even transgressive time of the American Revolution is over. We would lose little of consequence for the felicity of mankind if we ceased to prattle about soaring ideals that we dishonor daily by our actions. We might gain something of real moment if we settled for decency and a degree of caring for our fellows that peoples all over the planet have preserved while we have lost our way.
The new history that is emerging in the essays in Revolution Reborn represents a recognition that we are like others in a world of others. It may even afford an opening toward the evolution of a new myth, not of being born again but of growing up and rejoining the human race. In a global world, we could do worse.
JUNTO: The final section of the volume is devoted to the “legacy” or “afterlife” of the Revolution. As organizers and editors, what do you hope will be the legacy or afterlife of both the conference and the volume?
SPERO: We hope that it might be looked back upon as a conversation starter and we think this might be happening even now. The MHS hosted a conference on the theme in 2015, and the JER and WMQ are co-publishing a special issue on the Revolution as well. It’s great to see all the projects that are in the works and the new ones coming out regularly. I don’t think the Revolution Reborn conference sparked all that, but I think it may have caught a wave of growing scholarly interest in the American Revolution and the volume will be looked upon that way in the historiography.
ZUCKERMAN: I THINK the legacy or afterlife will be very modest. The volume will sell as unimpressively as most collections and be reviewed as erratically. In that regard, I have no words sufficient to thank you at the Junto for the attention you’re giving the volume.
I HOPE that its legacy or afterlife will be something more. At very least, I hope the volume will launch a small squadron of young scholars whose subsequent books will make their way and have their impact. And at very least, I hope that the hundreds who attended the conference will remember it as the best damn scholarly conference they were ever a part of. Beyond those hopes, I cherish a couple of others. I’d love to see the format we evolved for this conference become a standard format for scholarly conferences. It would spare countless thousands countless hours of needless boredom and make our meetings as exciting, even as electric, as they ought to be. And I’d love to see the effort we made to engage the public in our thinking become common and even normal. It would be good for all of us.