Book review: The American Revolution Reborn, edited by Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)
For decades, the American Revolution’s scholarship has mostly fallen within the same interpretive schools with little departure. In The American Revolution Reborn, a collection of essays edited by Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman, scholars introduce new source material and methodologies that both challenge long-standing interpretative assumptions and take studies of the Revolution into previously unexplored territory. The essays do not fit neatly into current historiographical trends and so are able to provide a more complete picture of the Revolutionary period.
The book features chapters by fifteen scholars divided into four thematic sections. The first, “Civil Wars,” challenges the commonly accepted narrative of the Revolution. It is easy for modern readers to assume—encouraged both by existing scholarship and popular portrayals—that colonists understood the Revolution in terms of gaining independence and building a nation. However, these essays reveal that large portions of the population were confused about or were generally disinterested in the war’s causes and made choices within their individual best interests. Essays that examine the divided and changing loyalties within families, at seaports, and in cities like Philadelphia and Newport reveal the everyday anxieties and uncertainty about the meaning of the conflict.
In addition to the messy business of individuals choosing and changing sides, readers will meet a large and previously ignored population: the disaffected. Michael McDonnell’s chapter observes that the 75,000 individuals who fled the colonies have been entirely ignored, as has the large population caught in the middle of the war between loyalists and patriots. Denver Brunsman’s chapter shows that even those who were involved in the conflict did not place themselves firmly on one side or the other and provides several examples of sailors who served both sides. After decades of absorbing a loyalist-patriot dichotomy, readers may find the level of disinterestedness in the cause and outcome surprising. Because the Revolution is usually intertwined with the early national period and it holds significance as such to modern Americans, it is easy to project this lens onto colonial citizens. Considering the Revolution in a day-to-day context and utilizing sources that do not fit neatly in the loyalist-patriot narrative, as these scholars have done, provides a much more complete picture of how contemporary citizens interpreted the events surrounding them.
The next section, “Wider Horizons,” provides global context that places the North American colonies within the context of British imperialism and questions the inevitability of the United States’ creation. The arising tensions between the colonies and England are often portrayed from the perspective of the colonists’ grievances and chafing under the increasing regulations imposed upon them. These essays draw attention to another side: the increasing anxiety about North American growth and fears that the center of power of the British Empire would shift to North America. Bryan Rosenblithe discusses how Britain’s struggles in the extremities of its empire led to the imposition of stronger control in the colonies. At the same time, North America’s projected growth did not allow for the same type of union that occurred between England and Scotland, as Ned Landsman examines in his chapter. In addition to the rapid growth in the North American colonies, Mark Boonshoft discusses the rise of Presbyterian educational institutions in the colonies that prepared a generation for taking leadership. Rather than the Revolution arising out of the inevitability of the colonists making their own country, this section portrays the Revolution through British reaction to perceived threats to the empire.
The scholars in the third section, “New Directions,” introduce new methodologies to take the study of the American Revolution down new paths while again affirming the existence of a large disinterested population and the later creation of a nationalistic self-affirming Revolutionary narrative. Zara Anishanslin examines a scalp with writing on it as illustrative of the larger effort to use objects to create a mythological narrative of the Revolution and justify the new United States’ conquering of Native American lands. Using principles of modern science, David Hsiung confirms the methods colonists used to make gunpowder and refutes the claim that poor quality caused supply shortages and suggests it rather indicates a lack of effort by the populace. Matthew Spooner combines the history of slavery and the Revolution to show that the war caused a massive property transfer that created the South’s merchant planter class.
The final section of the book, “Legacies,” examines the enduring impacts of the American Revolution and provides different perspectives regarding its importance and overall impact. For example, Aaron Spencer Fogleman’s work on immigration patterns credits the Revolution with reversing immigration from mostly unfree to mostly free, a radical shift at a time that preceded this pattern in other colonial societies. Edward Gray examines the Mason-Dixon line to illustrate the long term issue of constitutionalism in North America, downplaying the importance of inspired works of the founding fathers. This section demonstrates that perspectives on the Revolution’s impact depend both upon the area of impact studied, and whether one perceives the Revolution as a significant event in itself or as a development in a long series of processes. The untidiness of the conflict is mirrored in its legacies.
In addition to the new material and interpretations that these essays provide, they also serve to open up a larger debate about the meaning of the Revolution. At the same time, the gulf between academic scholarship and popular opinions seems wider than ever as many of the themes that Americans celebrate are called into question. Thinking about a large disaffected and self-serving population that cared little about the causes and outcomes of the Revolution does not exactly seem like something Americans will want to celebrate come the 4th of July. However, humans and their societies are complex and human affairs tend to be messy ones. This book shows that the American Revolution was no different in that regard.
Due to both the overall scope of the volume and the new approaches the essays present, readers who have a firm grasp on both knowledge of the period and the historiography of the American Revolution will find the most to appreciate in The American Revolution Reborn. For readers looking to think about the Revolution in new ways, these essays broach a wide variety of topics that give readers the opportunity to reconsider both the Revolution as a lived event and its legacies.