The American Revolution Reborn conference raised significant issues which require further investigation, analysis, and comment.
In the concluding session, Kathleen DuVal, University of North Carolina, observed that paradigms had changed: the expectations people had in 1750 of what the world would be like in 1800 turned out to be wrong. Ed Countryman, Southern Methodist University, after the first session, commented that we live I interesting times and asked: Where do we go now in American Revolution scholarship? So if the world in 1800 was not what people expected in 1750, what is the story to be told, the national narrative to be written of how America went from the world it thought would exist in1800 to the one which did exist in 1800?
American Revolution as Civil War
One recurring theme in the conference was the American Revolution as a civil war. This was due because the second session focused specifically on that topic. This civil war occurred both between America and England and within America. In another session, Denver Brunsman reported on the increase in desertion in the British fleet because sailors did not want to fight fellow English. Shortly after the conference, an op-ed piece in the New York Times quoted Elizabeth F. Cohen, Syracuse University who had written in a op-ed piece for the Washington Post in February:
During the 18th century, there were no illegal immigrants in the United States, but there was a large group of people who possessed a far more noxious threat than those who overstayed a visa or crossed a border without an inspection. There were British loyalists — men who had taken up arms against the American revolutionaries and risked their lives to undermine the very foundation of our union.
Here in Westchester, New York, Morris Dyckman, a Loyalist, who made his fortune working for British quartermasters during the Revolutionary War, returned after the war, began to build what became Boscobel which in the 1950s was relocated to Garrison in Putnam County. Not only could Loyalists return then, some who departed to Canada later did so. The United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada continues to honor its American ancestry. This year its conference was May 30-June 2 almost exactly overlapping with the American Reborn Conference. There last bus trip was in 2010 to the Mohawk Valley; I hosted one once to the Hudson Valley. One of the speakers was Ray Raymond, a then British diplomat of Huguenot descent, married to an American and an admirer of fellow diplomat John Jay. The ties between the cousins are many and perhaps it may be said that the English peoples on both sides of the civil war have done a better job of coming together than have the Blue and Gray on the two sides of the American Civil War.
The session specifically on the civil war during the American Revolution focused on microhistories to resurrect an abandoned term. Travis Glasson’s, Temple University, paper “Intimacies of Occupation in Revolutionary Newport,” examined a grading system used by Ezra Stiles to chart the degree of patriotism of the citizens of the community as a way of trying to convince himself that the majority were on his side as a patriot. Michael McDonnell, University of Sydney, spoke about the majority of the population as disaffected evident by the title of his paper, “The Other Three-Fifth: Neutrals in the American Revolution.” This neutrality was something to forget in the effort to forge a nation after the victory. Kimberly Nath, University of Delaware took a more narrow focus looking at one family in “Loyalism, Citizenship, American History: The Shoemaker Family.” Feeding the family was a priority and this personal element was part of the mircrohistory. Aaron Sullivan, Temple University, reiterated the messiness of the struggle at the local level in his paper, “In but not of the Revolution: Neutrals in British-Occupied Philadelphia.” He observed that people were disturbed by the excesses of the actual war effort and that the neutral or disaffected people affected the course of the war by their actions as well as their inactions. This observation echoed McDonnell’s comments on the messiness of war and the resultant inadequacies of a simplified national narrative. One of the questioners of Sullivan elicited the comment that every revolution is a civil war. Commentator Li Jianming, Peking University, stated that all Chinese revolutions were civil wars.
Imperialism and International Diplomacy
A second recurring theme of the conference was that the American Revolution didn’t occur in vacuum. Bryan Rosenblithe, Columbia University, in his paper, “Where Tyranny Begins: British Imperial Expansion and the Origins of the American Revolution, 1758-1766,” focused on the war as part of a larger story. In this case, who were the people who managed the empire prior to the outbreak of hostilities, what was the role of molasses and the Africa, Caribbean, America links, and what impact did the war have the transformation of the British Empire? In the concluding session, Saunt called for expanding our geographical horizons. What about Russia in Alaska, Spain in the southwest, the Plain Indians and the Hudson Bay? These are perfectly valid considerations if one was writing a history of the continent or of a geographical entity but not on the American Revolution. Those areas are at best only tangentially part of the story of the American Revolution; they became part of the American narrative as the newly-formed political entity expanded to encompass those areas. Commentator Countryman criticized textbooks for focusing on the east coast on America. He noted that the American Revolution occurred in a world of competing empires and the very existence of the new player disrupted the imperial system. Commentator Colley speaking previously but seemingly anticipating this observation by Countryman acknowledged the importance of the global connections but suggested:
1. Protestant United States and United Kingdom were natural allies in the effort to dismantle the empires of Catholic France and Spain;
2. Empires were revitalized post 1776 citing the examples of Napoleon, Brazil, England, and the United States itself;
3. Lessons from the American Revolution included rethinking how an empire should be organized and financed, anticipating Rosenblithe’s point.
During the concluding session, the question was asked about how the French reacted to its defeat in the French and Indian War and its relation to the American Revolution. While Saratoga wasn’t mentioned, one could also ask not only how did the French react to the British defeat there but how did the British react. One could make a case that in the grand scheme of imperial power politics, the Caribbean was more important to the empire than America. DuVal, commenting in the last sessions made the well-founded point that the Caribbean needed to be integrated into the continental story. Also the diplomats who navigated America’s way through this international maze, including Ben Franklin whose portrait loomed over the speakers, deserve attention. Perhaps diplomacy will garner its own session in a future conference.
Eras and Chronologies
An issue raised by the conference was the challenge of deciding when the American Revolution era begins and ends. In the concluding session, Thomas Slaughter, University of Rochester, raised a topic not addressed in the conference but related to his book to be published shortly: causation. John Adams’ observation on the 1760s as the beginning (with the Constitution as the end) seems limited. One may divide this issue into four components:
1. Religious – the role of the Great Awakening as a catalyst for the American Revolution only appeared indirectly in passing through some references to Whitefield; similarly the role of Second Great Awakening only appeared indirectly in passing through the growth of the evangelicals and the coalitions of Protestants in the 1820s (when Adams and Jefferson providentially died on the 50th anniversary of July 4 because what other explanation could
2. Imperial – Daniel Richter, University of Pennsylvania, after the third session, observed that the period from the French and Indian War to the War of 1812 should be viewed as a continuous one. This is certainly true in New York where some of the same sites were involved in the fighting of all three wars.
3. Slavery – Slavery was the unfinished business of the American Revolution. Fritz observed that slavery went from being a necessary evil in 1776/1787 to being a positive good in the 1820s/1830s for southern whites and the Democratic Party. Aaron Fogelman, Northern Illinois University, said slavery had never been more secure than it was in 1775 and became a political problem afterwards. In the concluding session, Alan Taylor, soon to be University of Virginia, noted that the Revolution generated powerful new contradictions. In the Q&A with Aaron Sullivan, the American Revolution was deemed unfilled until Lincoln.
This topic raises an interesting counterfactual question. If the United States of America was to come into existence in 1787, it could only do so by not resolving the slavery issue which many thought would die a natural death soon anyway. That didn’t happen and the continued existence of slavery was the price African slaves had to pay until the Civil War so the United States could be born. It then was the price 750,000 plus Americans paid in the Civil War so it could be finished. So the question is: Would it have been better if the 13 states had attempted to finish the business of slavery after the American Revolution, failed in that effort, and the United States had never been born?
4.Institutional Rivalry – If the story of the American Revolution requires reaching back into colonial times and forward into the early Republic, the antebellum period, and the Civil War, then what does this mean for the academic entities which already have carved out those time periods as their turf?
As can be seen there was plenty of food for thought for the themes raised in the conference for me personally as well as for possible future conferences.