The American Revolution Reborn: New Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century conference was held on May 30 to June 1, 2013, at the American Philosophical Society very near the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. This free event originated by and was made possible through the generosity of Frank Fox operating through the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The McNeil Center, the Library Company of Philadelphia and the future Museum of the American Revolution hosted receptions as part of the conference.
The goal of the conference was to identify new directions and trends in scholarship on the American Revolution. The stated intention was for this conference to commence an ongoing series of conferences (annually?) to further explore and develop the emerging trends encompassing the study of the era of the American Revolution. The specific themes to be addressed in this inaugural conference were Global Perspectives, Power, Violence, and Civil War. The absence of some themes not addressed in the conference was a topic of discussion in some of the Q&A sessions and among the attendees and will be addressed in this essay.
The format of the conference differed from the traditional conference. A call for papers was issued and my impression is that this call primarily was aimed for cutting edge scholarship, for the young scholars in the midst of writing or who had just completed dissertations. Some grey-beards/hairs were included as well based on their research and they joked about their age in their presentations. The accepted applicants were instructed to submit a 10 page paper (8-14 in practice as it turned out) to the conference organizers who then made them available on-line to the registrants for the conference. So for example, I downloaded and printed the papers prior to the conference.
At the conference itself, each of the presenters had 8 minutes to speak. Most presenters used that time to summarize their written papers. One presenter, David C. Hsuing, Juniata College, used his allotted time quite creatively and imaginatively to speak more metaphorically beyond the limits of his paper. He used environmental terms from his environmental-based paper dealing with the edge between the forests and fields to characterize this conference on the impact of the American Revolution as an edge zone. CONFERENCE ATTENDS WERE ENCOURAGED TO CREATE EDGES IN THEIR OWN COMMUNITIES for future study. I have added the bold caps to better reflect his speaking tone, an example of the difference between oral performance and written text in reconstructing history. Hsuing received a deserved hearty round of applause for his innovative presentation. I also was struck by his mention of American imports of northern European timber via Riga because as it turns out, my family was in the lumber business in Riga before my grandfather came to this country. It never occurred to me that I might hear about Riga and lumber in an American Revolution conference. However since Jews were not allowed to settle there at the time of American Revolution, I can’t claim a direct connection to the war effort. Close, but not quite.
Following the three or four 8-minute presentations in each session there was ample time for questions. The organizers of the conference, Michael Zuckerman of the University of Pennsylvania in particular, wanted to maximize discussion opportunity with the audience on the new scholarship which had been presented. His hopes were more than fulfilled as each session led to numerous questions which fully exhausted the allotted time. The audience of over 200 people throughout the length of the conference was fully engaged in the discussion of the presentations. There were no “helicopter” or “parachute” attendees or presenters who whisked in and out for their own session only or only for part of the conference. Even veteran (usually referred to as “senior”) scholars acknowledged that they had learned something new. For example, Caitlin Fritz’s, Northwestern University, paper “The United States in the Age of Revolutions: A Reconsideration” comparing the American responses to the revolutions in Haiti and those led by Bolívar a generation later and Kate Engel’s, Southern Methodist University, paper “Transatlantic Protestantism and the Challenge of the American Revolution” on the split of transatlantic co-religionists during the Revolution (as American churches would split into northern and southern branches before the Civil War) were referred to by numerous commentators and questioners throughout the conference. Presenting in the first session helped imprint these papers as a prism through which subsequent papers and discussions could be viewed.
After each session of presentations by those who had been accepted in the call for papers, the stage was turned over to invited eminent scholars to comment on the papers just presented. Here is where the funding for the conference really kicked in as this group was international in scope and even when American not necessarily local. As usual in this situation, they did not always exactly comment on the previously presented papers, although some tried more so than others. Instead, they often veered into what was of interest to them. By no means did this detract from the quality of their presentations but it did demonstrate the old adage that you can lead a scholar to water but you can’t make them talk about the exact subject you want them to talk about. These presentations led to ample questions and discussion as well frequently among people who know each other well.
At the end of the conference Zuckerman was one happy camper.
Editor’s Note: This post is the first of a five-part series based on a conference on the American Revolution Peter recently attended. Once they are all published, if you would like a copy of the essay, email Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org.