Editor’s note: This is the third post on the American Revolution Reborn Conference. You can read the complete series here.
The conference also was important for the themes it didn’t include as was brought out in some of the questions and comments.
An area of significant omission was one with particular significance for New York State: military history. One attendee from Boston sitting in the front row just in front of me privately expressed his keen disappointment at its absence from conference.
For a New Yorker, the absence of military history from the master narrative of the American Revolution undermined the place of the state in the story. One would never know from this conference that the Hudson River was an object of great importance in the American Revolution.
One would never know from this conference that the environment/ecology/ topography courtesy of the Ice Age in this specific political context made control of the Hudson River and its port city of New York a centerpiece of the military strategies on both interrelated sides. Stories that were based in New York were overlooked in the Philadelphia conference and received short thrift just as they had in the histories written by the New England/Harvard scholars of the 19th century.
* The story of Saratoga in the boonies becoming one of the largest settlements in America if only for a battle wasn’t told or even mentioned
* The story of a fort being built at the west point into the Hudson River by the dangerous S curve which Benedict Arnold later sought to surrender to the British and which immigrant Thomas Cole made his first painting wasn’t told or even mentioned … except indirectly by a consultant to historic sites sitting in the audience who described how moved she had been reading Washington’s letters of how deeply affected he had been by Arnold’s defection
* The story of Washington’s continued presence in the Hudson Valley region after Yorktown because he feared the British in New York might try again wasn’t told or even mentioned
* The story of the American prisoners of war held on ships in New York and the non-battlefield fatalities wasn’t told or even mentioned (I did mention this to Ted Burrows when I saw him a week later in Cooperstown for the NYSHA conference. Since his reply was in private, I won’t include it here).
Besides an image of patriots overthrowing the statue of King George III in New York City shown by commentator Margaretta Lovell, University of California, Berkeley, and the experience of one man in the Mohawk Valley in the paper by Zara Anishanslin (see below), New York did not figure prominently in the conference proceedings.
Ironically, some nearly concurrent events in New York highlight the disconnect between military history and New York and the American Revolution Reborn conference in Philadelphia. From north to south these events are:
* Fort Ticonderoga announced it was hosting its Tenth Annual Seminar on the American Revolution, September 20-22, 2013, colloquially known as the War College. The weekend seminar focuses on the military, political, and social history of the American War for Independence. The new dimension for the upcoming conference is a tour of the Saratoga battlefield.
* Saratoga National Historical Park announced it was assuming control of the historic hill where Burgoyne surrendered his sword located along Route 4, one mile south of Schuylerville where the Victory Monument missing Arnold is located.
* Clermont State Historic Site in Columbia County posted a blog by historian Geoff Benton on the efforts of Robert Livingston to build two gunpowder mills in Dutchess County due to the salt peter crisis at the beginning of the war, a topic that was addressed at the conference.
* Lance Ashworth, West Point graduate and president of the Fishkill Supply Depot in Dutchess County near Mount Gulian and across the river from Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, spoke about his organizations ongoing efforts in Congress to protect the site including the burials of the soldiers from commercial development.
Turning slightly away from New York, Ashworth spoke to the New Jersey American Revolution Roundtable, an active group which meets in Morristown at another Washington’s Headquarters. The programs from the previous month included a bus tour of the New York City battlefront led by Barnet Schecter, author of a book on the subject, and a talk by Robert Selig on “The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route.” The fall season will begin with Jim Nelson, author of George Washington’s Secret Navy: How the American Revolution Went to Sea.
One wonders how the audience of these talks, tours, and events would respond to American Revolution Reborn conference and what the participants in the conference think of these presenters, historic site staff, and audiences. It seems as if they operate in parallel universes that do not communicate with each other.
The presenters at the American Revolution Reborn conference knew that real fighting had occurred:
Travis Glasson, Temple University, “The Intimacies of Occupation: Fraternization, Compromise, and Betrayal in Revolutionary-era Newport” spoke on the raid to capture the British commander of Newport’s garrison
Zara Anishanslin, College of Staten Island (CUNY), “‘This is the Skin of a Whit Man: Visual Memory and Materiality of Violence in the American Revolution,” spoke on a gruesome incident in Sullivan’s Campaign in the Mohawk Valley which included a soldier holding in his hands the scalped skin of a white man and contrasted it with the more genteel setting of a lady at an 1824 ball in honor of Lafayette with gloves on her hands
Denver Brunsman, George Washington University, “‘Executioners of the Friends and Brethren’: Naval Impressment as an Atlantic Civil War,” mentioned in passing the British loss of superiority at sea
David C. Hsuing, Juniata College, “Environmental History and the Revolution: Gunpowder as a Test Case” wrote on the same salt petre (spelled differently than at Clermont) crisis that Livingston responded to.
However, at no point did these military-related microhistories coalesce into any sort of grand narrative on the military history which led to America winning the war except for some passing references to the French contribution. In the final session, the comment was made that without discussing the logistics of how the war was won and the French role, all one had was a debating society. The conference almost ended on this thought which might be a starting point for a session in a future conference. Ironically representatives from the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail were in the audience but that history really wasn’t addressed in the conference. Nor was Washington’s decision to temporarily abandon his fixation on liberating New York City and to go to Virginia where a decisive blow subsequently was administered. In his comments on the Violence and the American Revolution session, Marcus Rediker, University of Pittsburgh, drew on the insight of the conference from The American Revolution in the Civil War session that the number of disaffected was higher than previously realized to conclude that the observation made it even more extraordinary that the patriots won. But how they did so despite those odds was not a conference topic.
By coincidence, some events immediately following the conference further highlighted the separate paths on which scholars and the America people experience the American Revolution. According to a note in the New York Times on June 13, 2013, a $50,000 book prize for military history will be awarded annually beginning in February 2014 to be known as the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize (with former NYS gubernatorial candidate Lehrman apparently the funding alternative to Fox.). Josiah Bunting III, president of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, said the purpose of the prize is to restore military history to “an important place in university curricula.” Then in a paraphrase of a well-known dictum, Frank said “If we do not learn from the conflicts of the past, we will be doomed to repeat them.” This effort is undertaken to resist the atrophying of this area of scholarship in the United States and abroad. Both scholars and popular historians are eligible for the prize.
The article goes on to report a divided audience and identity for military history. On one hand, military history dominates the best-seller lists. Evidence of this phenomenon appeared on the final page of The Arts’ section of the newspaper where a two-column page-length ad for Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick under the heading “The New York Times Bestseller” was displayed. On the other hand, the academics focus on the topics of race, gender, and civilian-military relations according to Robert M. Citino, a visiting professor at the United States Army War College. In his email to the NYT, he observed that the academics address “every aspect of the war except the fighting,” which is consistent with the overall tenor of the American Revolution Reborn conference.
The article mentioned a historiographic essay which Citino had written as the most recent overview of the field. I looked up the article on the internet and was able to download a PDF of “Review Essay – Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction,” American Historical Review, 112 2007:1070-1090. As was noted during the conference particularly by Fitz, digitization makes research much easier and faster than it used to be. Brendan McConville, Boston University, concluding session moderator also spoke of the digital impact on existing paradigms and frameworks. It certainly helped me obtain Citino’s essay. A few excerpts from the article are still timely six years later:
Military history today is in the same curious position it has been in for decades: extremely popular with the American public at large, and relatively marginalized within professional academic circles….[I]t has largely vanished from the curriculum of our elite universities.
Citino expressed little confidence in any change occurring and closed with a plea to the prejudiced academic community to try something daring and read a military history. Perhaps commentator Peter Thompson, Oxford University, said it best when he observed that the conference consisted of suburbanites without gun permits or military experience but who lecture on violence and pass judgment on others who are violent. Ironically, based on a show of hands, few of the colleges represented at the American Revolution Reborn conference even teach a class on the American Revolution anymore anyway yet alone one covering military history. Sometimes it seems in American history classes especially in high school that American history skipped from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the Constitution in 1787 with nothing happening in-between…except in New York where Saratoga might appear on a statewide test.
A book review in the New York Times dated June 7, only days after the conference, raised a related issue. The two books reviewed were the aforementioned Bunker Hill and Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, by Richard R. Beeman, retired University of Pennsylvania professor. He was not a speaker at the conference and to the best of my knowledge, meaning no questioner identified himself as Beeman, was not at the conference either. What is relevant here is the book reviewer quoting Beeman writing, “One of the recurring themes in this account of the decision for independence is the importance of leadership.”
The role of leadership was conspicuous by its absence during the conference. There were occasional references to the fact that the presenters were sitting under the portraits of Franklin (it’s in the building of his society where the conference was held), Jefferson, and Washington, two of the Rushmore presidents. Matthew Spooner, Columbia University, stated as a preface to his presentation that no one talks about George Washington…and he didn’t break with conference protocol in his paper “Disorder, Slave Property, and Economic Development in the Revolutionary South.” His focus was the neglected importance of the South in the American Revolution historiography. When asked about the role of leaders, he mentioned that there were many bad leaders. Boonshoft had been asked about leadership in his paper just prior to Spooner and he confined his response to the specific area of people who graduated from the Presbyterian academies, the topic of his paper. Still one is left to wonder with all these disaffected people and bad leaders, how exactly did America win? Apparently in the new scholarship, leadership is just as unimportant as military history. Presumably a Civil War conference on new scholarship will ignore Lincoln and one on World War II will omit references to Roosevelt. Thompson disdainfully referred to “airport best-selling biographies” meaning some of those very popular historians who will be eligible for the $50,000 prize in military history. This attitude probably reflected the mood of many of the attendees. However as Countryman noted there really was an incredible collage of people during the Revolution which does explain the proliferation of biographies.
The issue of leadership became a crucial one in the conference proceedings at least as far as I am concerned. Non-academic J.F. Gearhart asked one group of commentators if they thought the American Revolution was a good thing. Is the world a better place because the American Revolution occurred? The pained look on their silent faces spoke volumes. The anguished mental gymnastics of the three visibly uncomfortable academics was reminiscent of an American President coming up with “What is ‘is.’” Finally Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University, managed to say (and I am paraphrasing), “There were some good things which came out of the American Revolution and some bad things.” Gearhart pressed her to provide a “net-net” rendering on the Revolution. She declined to do so and laughingly noted that her students want her to do the same.
Her answer called to mind the motto from the 1980s: “some people are communist, some people are capitalist” meaning so why can’t we all live together. “Because it is a god-damned Evil Empire” replied the simple-minded American-exceptionalist president Ronald Reagan. Everyone knew that the Soviet Union would be around forever…which turned out to be about five years in real time. The post 9/11 actions of simple-minded American-exceptionalist president George Bush reinforced the negative attitudes towards traditional interpretations of the American Revolution by the Vietnam era and post-Vietnam generation scholars. Commentator Linda Colley, Princeton University, emphatically called on Americans to stop stressing exceptionalism. (I have double exclamation points in my notes on her comment.) Out with city on a hill. No more last best hope of mankind. Forget about making the world safe for democracy. America has no rendezvous destiny. America is the problem not the solution for thinking it is the solution and not the problem.
The conference, without meaning to, exposed two critical issues. First how did George Bancroft become Laurel Thatcher Ulrich? When did elitist Americans change from being proud to be Americans to looking like deer frozen in the headlights when asked if the American Revolution was a good thing? One suspects that Vietnam was a point of inflection for this transformation but even before then there were American intellectuals who saw the Soviet Union as the wave of the future and Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition. McDonnell commented on some of America’s shortfalls today in living up to its ideals. His judgments are valid but miss the point. I asked him privately why someone who admittedly is connected to what seems like half the countries in the British Commonwealth became interested in the American Revolution. I hope I am not breaching his privacy, but his response was that a high school elective in American history when he lived in Canada set him on the path which brought him to this conference on the American Revolution Reborn. Before we could pursue this line of communication further, the conversation was brought to a close by other obligations to people he knew, but it would be nice to know not only how Bancroft became Ulrich but why non-Americans study the American Revolution.