July 29, 2004


How the History of the American Revolution Has Changed (PAULINE MAIER, History News Network)

In the past few decades, historical research has shifted by and large from political to social and then cultural history. Some of the most dramatic additions to historical knowledge have come in the history of slavery, including the slave trade, in African American history; in women's history; and in the study of Native Americans. [...]

When I began teaching in the late 1960s, my course on colonial America--really British colonial America--focused in good part on the 'new social history,' particularly the demographic studies of communities first in New England, then the Chesapeake. In 1972, Alfred Crosby's Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 appeared, awakening widespread consciousness of the demographic catastrophe among Native Americans that followed their first encounters with Europeans, and of the possible connections between New World foods and population growth in other parts of the world. Already some fine studies were available on the origins of American slavery; others studied that institution from a cross-cultural perspective. To be sure, I discussed other topics such as religion and the structure of politics and political institutions in British North America.

Even so, when I later taught the American Revolution, the traditional successor course to Colonial America, the difference was like night and day. The old Progressive interpretation of the Revolution, which stressed social conflict and elite manipulation of the masses, lay in tatters. Scholars were taking the ideas of the Revolution seriously, tracing their origins and revealing their impact on the evolution of political institutions. To be sure, any course on the Revolution has to include a discussion of pre-revolutionary American society and of the Revolution's social impact. I cannot, for example, imagine teaching the Revolution without citing Jack Greene's Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture, and particularly his emphasis on the 'extraordinarily large number of families of independent middling status' in the British North American colonies. They were, he wrote, 'proportionately substantially more numerous than in any other contemporary Western society.'

Still, by and large the study of colonial America was social; of the Revolution, political and ideological.

Three-plus decades later, colonial American history remains strikingly different from the study of the American Revolution, but for different reasons. Historians of early America are now more than ever anxious to avoid earlier emphases on the British settlers of North America, the teleology implicit in studying only those colonies that would later become the United States, and what Harvard's Joyce Chaplin referred to in the March 2003 Journal of American History as 'that persistent myth, American exceptionalism.' The most prominent participants in the American Revolution were white men of European descent who founded the American Republic believing that accomplishment marked a break from the patterns of European history and so was by nature exceptionalist. It is no surprise then that, as Chaplin notes, many particularly noteworthy examples of recent post-colonial scholarship focus on the 'early national' rather than the revolutionary period. David Waldstreicher's study of public celebrations, Joanne Freeman's book on honor in the politics of the 1790s, and Jill Lepore's A Is for American are examples.

What is colonial history today? There is no one answer. Alan Taylor's American Colonies suggests one conception of the field. The book discusses the Spanish, French, Dutch, and Swedish North American colonies, along with those of Britain and the Russian colonization of Alaska. Taylor also devotes considerable space to Native American societies that do not qualify as colonies, but were deeply affected by the arrival of Europeans and--for the Plains Indians in particular--the Spanish 'repatriation' of the horse to its North American homeland. Taylor's book does not end, like traditional colonial history, in 1763 or 1776, but extends into the nineteenth century, when an 'imperial' United States took over the Hispanic West. Clearly the book does not avoid the sin of teleology: the only reason to study Alaska is that it would eventually become part of the United States. But then the book was written as part of the Penguin History of the United States.

The American Revolution does not have a prominent place in Taylor's book. Consider the opening sentences of its final paragraph:

. . . the dominant colonial power on the Pacific rim became the United States, the hypercommercial nation founded by the Americans who won their independence from the British by revolution and war in the years 1775-83. Far from ending with the American Revolution, colonialism persisted in North America, but from a new base on the Atlantic seaboard.

I spend half a term on events to which he gives half a sentence. To be fair, earlier in the book he devotes another page and a quarter to the Revolution, a fraction of what he devotes to the Plains Indians. There he notes that the Americans' 'empire of liberty' was for whites only and demanded the 'systematic dispossession of native peoples and, until the Civil War . . . the perpetuation of black slavery. . . .' The 'new American empire' also 'provided military assistance to subdue Indians and Hispanics across the continent to the Pacific.' In short, here the Revolution marks only a moment in which a onetime colony became a colonizer. That has little to do with the Revolution as the founding. It is simply a different story, one with little relevance for the one I teach, which focuses on the revolutionary origins of American government.

If historians wrote about sports, a book about last year's Major League Baseball season would spend two hundred pages on the Tigers and mention the Marlins only in passing--the Yankees and Red Sox not all.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 29, 2004 7:59 AM

And then there's Howard Zinn.

Posted by: Genecis at July 29, 2004 10:21 AM

How is an academic to receive value from his tenure privilege, unless he pursues his personal interests and neglects others' interests? If you write about things other people want to read about, of what value has tenure been to you? You could have had your job anyway.

Posted by: pj at July 29, 2004 10:39 AM

Kill them all, let God sort it out.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 29, 2004 12:06 PM

A highly selective reading list.

There are some excellent histories that avoid exceptionalist teleology and are not focused on either white European exiles or merely trashing them.

I think of, for example, Walter McDougall's "Let the Sea Make a Noise... : A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur."

Hardly obscure. McDougall is a Pulitzer winner, though not for this book.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 29, 2004 2:43 PM

Really? Because both Promised Land, Crusader State and his new one are exceptionalist.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2004 2:51 PM

Really. He thinks the Russkis could have held onto Alaska if they'd first taken the Amur Valley from the Chinese.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 29, 2004 9:46 PM

briefly, maybe

Posted by: oj at July 30, 2004 12:44 AM

If Howard Zinn covered sports, he would write about the poor working conditions of the beer vendors and the opression that keeps working class fans out of the sky-boxes.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 30, 2004 4:16 AM

I have no opinion about that, and have not read McDougall's other books. But in that one, he takes an extreme (too extreme for my taste) environmental determinist position.

An excellent book, nevertheless, and I brought it up mostly to rebut the idea that nobody is writing American history from other perspectives.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 30, 2004 3:35 PM


He's a popular historian, not a historian. You can't sell the drivel the academics believe in to the American public.

Posted by: oj at July 30, 2004 3:41 PM

Working from the belly of the beast, then. Isn't he on the Princeton faculty?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 31, 2004 3:06 PM