What aspects of or questions regarding the American Revolution need to be further explored by historians?
All of them. I think a return to primary sources and close comparison to modern secondary sources yields some extremely interesting results in the evolution of modern history. Should much of what is now considered history be consigned to the realm of Myth and Legend?
Michael A. McDonnell’s insightful book The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia and Richard Buel’s older Dear Liberty: Connecticut’s Mobilization for War demonstrate the wartime struggles and choices facing leaders and peoples at the colony/state level. O’Donnell is also useful for showing morale issues in the protracted conflict. Similar studies on the war at the state (and local) levels could open new windows onto the Revolution.
How to make the events and people of the American Revolution relevant and interesting to average Americans. In my talks and in substitute teaching I’ve found all ages of Americans want to know about this part of our history, but I’ve realized that some of the books (especially textbooks) are designed to kill any affection for the Founding Era. Yes, we need to correct myths and misinformation I’ve heard (Texas was not one of the original 13 colonies), but we have to connect personally with average Americans. I think you do that through stories. Telling the many amazing true tales that happened and how the rebels involved risked everything for The Cause. Explaining that they (men and women) weren’t so different than us, but that they were everyday people faced with unbelievable peril. That they were tough and resilient … and as far as Washington goes, he just never gave up.
I believe that the impact on the common people of the colonies hasn’t been explored as much as it should be. The story of the common soldiers is hard to find outside of occasional references to Joseph Plumb Martin and Roger Lamb. The impact on the Native Americans was devastating and more work needs to go to developing that aspect of our history.
The missing 16 months between the Tea Party and Lexington and Concord. How does an act of political vandalism turn into a full-scale war? A lot happened during that period that has not made its way into the national narrative. My study of Worcester reveals a full-scale revolution that overturned all British authority, political and military. Was this replicated in other towns? Other colonies? Revolutionary America was overwhelmingly rural, yet you’d never know it from the way we tell the story. We need local studies, lots of them, to get a fuller picture of the Revolution.
Scholars who attended the American Revolution Reborn conference (June 2013) raised 6 questions that they would like to see discussed in new scholarship on the Revolution.
- Is there a need to expand the periodization of the Revolution to cover the years 1760 to 1825?
- Should new scholarship ignore ideology, or use it as a tool to get at how the Revolution happened and how contemporaries conducted the war and politics?
- If scholars decenter the political and ideological from their narratives of the Revolution, are they still talking about the Revolution?
- How can scholars get at the civilian and disaffected experience?
- How can historians get at and understand the violence of the American Revolution?
- How do scholars frame a narrative of the Revolution to include the experiences of the educated elite, slaves, and the implications of European imperial politics?
To those important questions I add:
- What do historians mean when they use the term “American Revolution?” How do they define the event, do they define it differently than contemporaries did? This question will help with the periodization of the event.
- What happened to the loyalists who stayed in their respective states and communities after the war? New scholarship has shown what happened to those who left the 13 states, but it has yet to answer what happened to those who stayed.
The popular notion that the American Revolution was a contest in which Americans fought against the British Army for independence ignores the fact that numerous Americans remained loyal to the British Empire and fought along side British forces. In many ways the American Revolution was not a revolution but a civil war in which Patriot forces were supported by the French and Loyal American forces were aided by the British.
The role of American Loyalists and their leaders in the revolution is significantly under explored. Most people have a hard time recalling any loyalist leaders or describing the loyalist role in military strategy and major battles. Further; the shifting of allegiances, depending upon the tide of battle is not well understood. It is commonly stated that 1/3 of the people were patriots, 1/3 were loyalists and the remaining 1/3 was neutral. There is inadequate research to back up this claim.
Almost all of the loyalist leaders fled the US after the Treaty of Paris and their impact on the revolution was minimized by subsequent writers, as they did not stay around to tell their side of the story.
Much about the campaigns of 1779, 1780, and 1781 in the northern theater remains unexplored. Though Wayne’s attack on Stony Point, Arnold’s attempt to hand West Point to the British, and Washington’s march to Yorktown have been well studied, less well known are (for instance):
- The fighting along the Hudson and the Sound in 1779: British seizure of King’s Ferry, British raids on Connecticut’s coast, Washington’s attempt to recover King’s Ferry, and the American attack on Paulus Hook, N.J.
- Washington’s planned decisive offensive against New York City (fall of 1779)
- The British attempt to capture Washington (February 1780)
- The crucial battles around Springfield, N.J., (June 1780)
- The mini-campaign that evolved around the landing of Rochambeau’s army at Newport, R.I. (July-August 1780)
- Washington’s strategic conferences with Rochambeau (1780-1781)
- The Franco-American campaign against New York (July 1781) and Washington’s decision to go to Yorktown
We need modern portraits of the bit players in the Revolution—on all sides. Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress, comes to mind. And how about a portrait of Benedict Arnold that give his side of the story?
Biographies of historians are also needed. Surely Mark Boatner, author of the Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, and Benjamin Quarles, who wrote the Negro in the American Revolution, are deserving.
Another needed focus is on transition points. For example, what did Nathanael Greene do in his first month as commander in the South to bring order into the chaos he inherited? Similarly, what did Washington do in his first days as general and as president?
The American Revolution as a civil war among Americans but especially the mainstream Americans vs. ethnic, immigrant, and racial minorities. This area of often violent social conflict is only beginning to be discussed in some ways and in several sources including the excellent book by Jim Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King.
All of them. Even the best work needs to be reexamined after a couple of decades. New evidence can arise. Just as important, new perspectives can arise or be recognized as worthwhile. For example, Richard Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston was a very good nineteenth-century history of the first campaign of the war. But he didn’t have access to many sources, especially on the British side. Allen French’s The First Year of the American Revolution was also very good for its time, but it reflects the priorities of that time; for example, it gives little space to Washington’s choice to accept black soldiers into the Continental Army and gets Salem Poor’s name wrong. Another few decades later, and there’s plenty of space for a new study on that topic.
I suspect the sciences will soon affect how we write Revolutionary history in two ways. Environmental history—an understanding of how our ecosystem and long-term climate shifts affect human behavior, and vice versa—can bring out new dimensions of America’s shift to independence. And brain science is telling us more about the genetic and biological bases of such mental conditions as bipolar disorder, addiction, and sexual orientation. We may never be able to write about those conditions in past individuals with the same certainty with which we write about primarily physical conditions like smallpox and tuberculosis, but recognizing consistent patterns may provide more insights into how historical figures behaved.
I agree with my friend Terry Cuff—the war in the Caribbean has been neglected.
The international impact of the Revolution over the next hundred years. The Declaration of Independence had a lot of descendants. It would be interesting to learn how many succeeded, how many failed, who the leaders were.
Some of the most fascinating presentations I have heard at scholarly conferences have addressed religious faith in the Revolution. There has been a lot of work on the Founders’ faith (or lack thereof) but I feel that too little has been addressed to the “people” and their diverse religious views. Much has been done on the religious faith of soldiers on both sides in the Civil War; I haven’t come across a similar study for the RevWar army. A second area that (I feel) has been ignored/played down was Indian relations during the war which I feel set the direction for US Government policy toward Native Americans from then on.
The global nature of the war initiated by the American Revolution is under-appreciated, and deserves further study. Trade was disrupted, and the Revolution became the focus of military and diplomatic efforts all around not only the Americas and Europe, but with impacts as far afield as India and Africa.
Too, I think that in the pursuit of fully telling the story of the events in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, many historians give insufficient attention to events in Charleston, Pensacola and Halifax, all of which were heavily affected by the war, never mind the impact on ordinary people across the countryside of the British Colonies and back home in Great Britain herself.
I’d like to see more analysis of the actual decision to break with England and the preparation of the Declaration of Independence. It has been studied, of course, but there was a great deal of thought, debate, and maneuvering going on- both in the open and behind the scenes. So I guess a more dtailed investigation of the decisions, thoughts, and actions in Philadelphia in June 1776.
Historians should explore… – The rich tradition of militias in the War. Caught between their lauded effort at Lexington and Concord and Boston and subsequent derision and scorn for various sins, real and imagined, the American militia is an iconic group that merits more serious scholarship. After all, it got second billing in the Bill of Rights and it was asserted that a well-regulated militia is “necessary to the security of a free State”. While militia often watched the calendar and weather out of concerns for their family and homes, they served and died alongside Continental soldiers who weren’t much better in the early years of fighting. They were truly our citizen soldiers and Continental officers still welcomed them to add bulk to their enlisted men. I’m hopeful that interested historians will mine this area in terms of their make-up, beliefs, home life, military life, accomplishments and their post-war use, perception, actions and politics.
There is definitely much work to be done. The loyalists have only recently begun to receive long overdue attention. The frontier war is also being studied more, but there is room for plenty of further exploration. British leadership is beginning to get some coverage at the higher levels; little attention has been paid to officers below the high command. Native Americans and African Americans have been the subject of several recent books, but again, there’s a lot more that can be done.
It’s been effectively three generations since academic historians on any significant scale have considered the coming of the Revolution and I think it is due for serious reconsideration, particularly the political and cultural aspects of the break with Britain. I also think there has been a longstanding need to better and more fully understand the effects of the violence of the war on a community level. I also think there is a need for an in-depth narrative and analytical study of the Continental Association and the Committees of Safety and Inspection from 1774-76.
I think all of the big questions have already been fully answered, at least as best we can ever now expect given all of the participants have died, and probably most if not all of the important original source material has been discovered and considered. All we historians do now is shine light on hidden gems not fully considered by others, or tell the stories in ways that resonate better with modern audiences, or assemble the parts of the story in ways that are more eye-opening, or, as I have strived to do in my own forthcoming book, use careful arrangement of the known facts and sometimes logic and even math to establish more substantiated theories of the gaps in our knowledge, thereby allowing me to present a defensible version of the entire story.