In the first episode of HBO’s John Adams miniseries there’s a memorable scene (NB: it includes nudity) in which Adams is present at the tarring and feathering of a customs officer at Boston harbour. The purpose of the scene was to frame Adams as an outsider whose firm principles prevent him from ever being an organic leader of the American people—a theme that runs throughout the series. But it also does something else, which is to acknowledge early on that the American Revolution was an affair of violence. In a particularly poignant moment of the scene (2.02-2.07 in the clip), the director even chose to portray slaves in chains, looking on silently at the anger of the American mob. That is, he chose to remind us that violence in colonial and revolutionary America wasn’t just momentary and spectacular, but also pervasive and structural. Continue reading
“Every great revolution is a civil war,” as David Armitage has recently remarked. That insight could change the way we think about the American Revolution. Contemporaries understood it that way—or at least, they did at first. David Ramsay, the first patriot historian of the war, held that the Revolution was “originally a civil war in the estimation of both parties.” Mercy Otis Warren wrote that the fires of civil war were kindled as early as the Boston massacre. But in the narratives of these historians, the moment the United States declared independence was the moment the conflict stopped being a civil war. It was no longer being fought within a single imperial polity. Now it was a war between two nations. Continue reading
Many months ago, I posted the first of what I hoped to be a quarterly series highlighting recent articles I enjoyed, and inviting readers to do the same. Sadly, life got in the way, and so I have a bit to make up. As a recap for this roundup’s purpose: there are so many journals publishing quality articles in the field of early American history that it is difficult, if not impossible, to keep up. So this list serves as a reminder that you need to catch up on new issues, a identify articles I found especially important, as well as a chance to highlight the work of young scholars and friends. Just because an article doesn’t make the list doesn’t mean I didn’t like it—in fact, I am way behind on my own reading—but it is an invitation to list your own favorite recent articles in the comments below.
The following articles were published between March and September, and obviously reflect my own interests and background. Also, remember the fantastic articles in the special WMQ issue on families and the Atlantic world that I highlighted a few months ago. Continue reading
The final episode of The Abolitionists aired this week on PBS. The entire three-hour documentary is now available online here (Part 3 begins at the 1:40 mark). A full transcript is also available. Kenneth Owen and Jonathan Wilson previously discussed the first two episodes for The Junto. Today, we discuss the final hour.
We’ve been fairly hard on The Abolitionists thus far, so I’m happy to say I thought the final chapter of the film is the strongest, both historiographically and dramatically. This episode reflects recent scholarship on slave rebellions, and on John Brown in particular, by meditating in a fairly sophisticated way on the uses and languages of violence.