The ground strewed with the dead and the dying; the impetuous charge; the steady and successful repulse; the loud call to repeated assault; the summoning of all that is manly to repeated resistance; a thousand bosoms freely and fearlessly bared in an instant to whatever of terror there may be in war and death . . .
Veterans! you are the remnant of many a well-fought field. You bring with you marks of honor from Trenton and Monmouth, from Yorktown, Camden, Bennington, and Saratoga. Veterans of half a century! when in your youthful days you put everything at hazard in your country's cause . . .
—Daniel Webster, Bunker Hill Monument, dedication address, June 17, 1825
When Americans in the nineteenth century remembered the Revolutionary War, as Daniel Webster did at the Bunker Hill dedication in 1825, they painted images with their words of defiant patriots facing off with British redcoats. They told of valiant soldiers fighting for the cause of democracy and of a populace rallying around them and the cause for which they fought. "The principle of free government adheres to the American soil," Webster declared in the same speech. "It is bedded in it, immovable as its mountains." Such a rendering of the Revolution was intended to instill democratic ideals and nationalistic feeling in a generation born after the war. As Webster noted with no small a hint of concern, "Those who established our liberty and our government are daily dropping from among us. The great trust now descends to new hands." The idealism imbedded in Webster's speech represents the very first popular interpretation of the American Revolution. Its influence still lingers in the American psyche today.
But, as The American Revolution Reborn shows, the experience of living through the American Revolution, rather than its romantic memory, was a far more complicated affair than Webster's glorified depiction. This perspective can get lost as time makes the American victory at Yorktown in 1781 appear a mere fait accompli and the eventual prosperity of the nation that the war secured an inevitable result of a democratic revolution. The historians in this volume avoid this trap. The authors themselves embody the promise of the present generation, and their work hints at a future of renewed interest in the struggle for independence. They recover the uncertainty, fears, and discord in American society during a war that did eventually succeed and give rise to a new nation. But that eventuality is of little concern to them. Rather, they want to treat the Revolution as a historic event divorced from the interpretative pressures the present can sometimes place on historians. For our authors, the American Revolution was a lived experience filled with many contingencies and alternative paths. As one of them asks, "What did this divisive and bloody wartime experience mean to its many participants?"
Consider some of the things the authors of the following chapters observe. They present strong evidence to suggest that a majority of the American populace were neutrals. Indeed, a set of our authors challenge us to rethink loyalty and allegiance during the war. Seaports, they show, were torn apart by warring armies, with many residents simply swearing allegiance to whatever power prevailed at a given moment. Other urban denizens seized the opportunity British occupation presented to declare their continued loyalty to the British Crown. The American countryside was no different. Disillusioned with the tactics of both sides, many farmers simply tried to stay out of the fray. On the high seas, impressment, one of the reasons Thomas Jefferson cited in justifying American independence in the Declaration, was, in fact, a tool both sides used, and sometimes imprisoned sailors switched sides as a means to find their way back home.
Meanwhile, other contributors provide new insights on the way the war for American independence altered the status quo in many colonies turned states. War measures in the South, for instance, strengthened the institution of slavery, as patriots' use of slave labor to serve their political and military ends also rechanneled the distribution of wealth and power in their favor. The production of saltpeter, an ingredient necessary for conducting war in the eighteenth century, spurred a race to manufacture it on the home front that challenged Americans' knowledge of science and the environment.
Finally, other essayists take a more global perspective on the Revolution to demonstrate that the coming of the American Revolution and the war itself tested the limits of an expanding British Empire. The fracture of the British Atlantic community raised questions about the best ways to hold an empire together politically, while upsetting the social institutions that once bound colonists and Britons together.
While these perspectives aim to cast the American Revolution anew, they also aim to do something more. They mean to reinvigorate a field. Collectively, the essays reflect both the past successes of and current frustrations with a previous generation of scholars who once dominated the scholarly landscape. For the past several decades, scholarship on the Revolution has generally fallen into one of three competing schools. There is the neowhig school that emphasizes the power of ideas as the catalyst for the Revolution. Then there is the neoprogressive school, which pays more attention to the economic discontent and social discord in the colonies that propelled common people to rebellion. And then there is the neoimperial school, which focuses on the breakdown of imperial politics and the function (and dysfunction) of institutions of empire. These historiographical schools have expanded our understanding of the cause and course of the American Revolution, and they have all influenced the contributors to this volume, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly. But none of our authors attempt to conform to one school or another. Rather, they seek to upset the patterns of historical inquiry that have defined scholarship for the past generation.
Our authors also disconnect their scholarly interpretations of the Revolution from the nation-building project to which it has so often been tied. Americans have always linked the American Revolution and the founding of the United States to the political efforts they undertake in the present, as Webster's speech reminds us. The Revolution, in other words, has persisted in the present. Its principles—real or imagined—have animated our society. It has been alive in our popular imagination, in the bestseller lists, in dramatic miniseries, in the inaugural addresses of presidents, in the protests that have filled our streets and parks, and in the built environment of our oldest cities. The present has always influenced historians' interpretations as well. The nineteenth-century historians who vaunted the rise of a democratic nation were self-consciously trying to inculcate certain values in a populace still learning about itself. In the early twentieth century, historians concerned about the rise of big business and corruption in politics in their own time took a more jaundiced view of elite leaders at the founding, with many arguing that economic interest rather than political principles drove revolutionary fervor. The major schools of interpretation in the late twentieth century likewise tracked contemporary events. The neowhigs' emphasis on the power of ideas to explain the cause of the Revolution and lay the foundation for the Constitution coincided with the heightening of the Cold War clash of ideologies. The neoprogressives' insistence on the power of ordinary people and the importance of class rose alongside the New Left and its critique of American power and capitalism. And the neoimperial scholars' stress on political institutions and other processes that stretched across the Atlantic tracked the growth of international organizations and the greater integration of economies around the world in the 1980s and 1990s.
By examining the Revolution as a lived experience shadowed by an unknown future, our contributors avoid the implicit teleology of the scholars who preceded them. Their depictions of this moment may not lead to the clear interpretative frameworks that once defined studies in the field, but they may, ironically, provide a more accurate picture of an event that was, after all, a very messy one. Indeed, the great schools of thought that have dominated the history of the era, each with its own established line of interpretation, may have obscured more than clarified the true nature of the American Revolution. Instead of trying to fit the past into one of these schools, our authors embrace the diversity of experience and reject straightforward narratives to explain the course of history.
In this volume the Revolution appears as a civil war as much as a fight for independence, as the product of a failed imperial project as much as a moment of nation building, and as influenced by the environment as much as by ideology. This impetus to complicate the interpretation of the Revolution might seem to run counter to what is often taken to be the historian's obligation to clarify the past. But the willful quest for messiness is also part of a cycle that defines the development of most historiographies. When entrenched paradigms loom over a field in an almost stifling way, as seems to have been the case with the three interpretative schools of the previous generation, new scholars aim to unsettle the established narratives and approaches. While still influenced by the historians who came before them, the scholars contributing to this volume nonetheless refuse to be bound by their predecessors. Individually, they hope that their new perspectives on the Revolution will produce new interpretations of the past that move our understanding forward in new directions. Indeed, the geographic, methodological, and thematic range of these papers suggests that the new paradigm, at least for now, may be that there is no single paradigm that can do justice to an event as multifaceted as the American Revolution. Although almost all our authors share this common impetus, their convergence did not arise by design. Each essay began as a separate study undertaken by an individual scholar, and most of them are parts of large book-length projects currently under way. In themselves, the chapters range widely. Geographically, they span a considerable swath of the globe, covering events in Europe, Africa, and America. Topically, they touch matters as diverse as the integration of Scotland with England, British policies toward West Africa during the 1760s, and the political economy of southern slave plantations. Methodologically, they run the gamut as well, with the environment, material culture, high and low politics, religion, demography, and economy as the foci of their analyses. Their diversity reflects the very nature of an event of global proportions.
Yet, despite their differences, some common themes help tie certain sets of these essays together. We have therefore arranged the essays into four parts, each of which elaborates a common concern that unites the group.
The first is "Civil Wars: Challenging the Patriotic Narrative." This cluster of essays investigates the disparate loyalties of men and women living through the American Revolution in conditions of constant flux. Rather than depict the war as one fought by a doggedly determined people bent on overthrowing a monarchy, they reveal the fears, anxieties, and mixed loyalties of a populace caught in the midst of a destructive and violent conflict. For example, one of our authors finds that in 1777, as Philadelphia fell to the British and Washington hunkered down at Valley Forge, most Americans were unsure of what the fighting was really about, what its outcome would be, and what thirteen independent yet united states would become. Another brings the turmoil of Newport, Rhode Island, to life by showing the trials and tribulations of people battered by war and torn apart by competing allegiances. Similar uncertainty is peppered throughout the essays of this volume. Whether looking at the internal battles of families torn apart by the war or at people trying to survive in an occupied city, these authors show that the experience of war was traumatic for most Americans and that the convictions and commitments of those caught in the midst of the violence were anything but unequivocal.
The second is "Wider Horizons: Decentering the Nationalistic Narrative." These pieces shift our focus from North America to consider the way other forces and parts of the world either affected or were affected by the American Revolution. Here we have historians examining the way institutions functioned in the era of the Revolution. One author contrasts the success of the Anglo-Scottish union in 1707 with the failure of the British Empire after 1763. Another shows the fissures emerging in the Anglican communion in the years preceding the Revolution. Another looks at the growth of dissenting academies in the eighteenth century and reveals that these institutions in North America educated a crop of leaders who challenged the established authority of the British Empire in 1776. Yet another shifts our gaze to West Africa to show that the divisiveness of the Revolution reverberated throughout the British Empire. Whether examining attempts to grow transatlantic denominations or comparing the politics of the Scottish Union of 1707 to the failed attempt to integrate North America into the empire in the 1760s, they show that, in the years before American independence, most British people on both sides of the ocean were more concerned with strengthening the empire than with dividing it and building anew.
The third is "New Directions." These investigations advance innovative methodological approaches to the age of the Revolution. A southern scholar analyzes the hidden economy of slave labor. A student of material culture explores the strange history of a preserved piece of skin. An environmental historian canvasses the technical and economic factors that limited American production of the saltpeter the rebels had to have to sustain their war effort. The fourth and final part is "Legacies: The Afterlife of the American Revolution." These essays call into question our assumptions about the Revolution as a founding moment for the nation. They variously argue that it had a massively potent and positive effect on the new nation and the New World, that it had no real effect, and that its outcome remained unresolved long after the constitutional settlement. While the authors of these studies appear to agree on very little, together they force us to confront the significance of the American Revolution to the history of the United States. Indeed, their very disparities capture the spirit of this book.
The Conclusion tries to do the one thing many of these essays avoided: put their collective work in the context of the present. We hope that the range and diversity of viewpoints contained in these pages will spur scholars and students to think on the Revolution anew.