In preparation for the Massachusetts Historical Society’s upcoming conference on the American Revolution, there have been some really great posts at the Junto and Historiann about the state of the field for the American Revolution. I’ve been particularly interested in the discussion about labeling this era and field of study: do we call it “the American Revolution” or “Revolutionary America,” and what difference does it make? I approach this question not as a revolutionary historian, but as an early republican scholar* who teaches the Revolution in a course called “Revolutionary America.” In the midst of this really great discussion about research and historiography, let’s think also about how this trickles down into the revolutionary classroom.
This is my second time teaching Revolutionary America and it’s one of my favorite courses that I get to teach. I was just talking last week to some colleagues who teach the French Revolution and they were asking whether they were working in an era when nobody cares anymore about that topic. Not a problem for the American Revolution! The class is mostly filled with non-majors who have a genuine interest in the topic. Most of them are wonderful. They ask great questions, and I have a lot of fun. But this can bring its own particular baggage. Many of my students come to class thinking that they know what they’re going to learn before I even open my mouth or pass out the syllabus on the first day (Nathaniel’s post on teaching the Constitution is great on this). At least a handful of them read the kinds of bestselling founding fathers biographies that I can’t quite get around to. And they ask me about them. There’s a bit of a disjunction between what I want this class to be and what some of them want this class to be. I think, in fact, that it comes down to some of them wanting a class on “The American Revolution,” while I want to (and do) teach “Revolutionary America.”
This means that I do very little military history (though they are welcome to write their papers on military topics). It means that I talk a lot about culture, about women, and about slavery. It means that we have a wider chronology, ending in 1815. The central themes of the class are two-fold. One theme has to do with identity and what it meant to become American, and I talk about this as part of an imperial story and try to get them to think about the American Revolution as not just the war that created the United States, but also as a civil war that broke apart an empire and raised new questions for both sides about politics and culture. The other major theme has to do with who gets to decide the answers to those questions. In other words: whose revolution was it?
One thing that I’ve been doing this time around is emphasizing the memory of the American Revolution. To that end, I’ve assigned Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture, and a chapter from Margot Minardi’s Making Slavery History. Their final assignment will be to find a contemporary reference to the American Revolution—cultural or political, they can choose—and write a paper exploring the ways that the present uses the past. What is remembered, and what is missing? What are we talking about today when we talk about the Revolution? I think most of my students would be shocked to hear that historians think that the scholarship of the Revolution has become stale because references to the Revolution are all around us. Why would historians not be interested, too? I’m hoping that one of the things they will take away from this class is to be able to think more critically when they hear the Revolution being invoked. Hopefully they will be able to fact-check a bit, but more than this, I hope that they will become alert to what it means to claim the authority of the Revolution behind you. We’ve talked enough in class about how contested the meaning of the Revolution was, even for those Americans who lived through it. Hopefully they will come out of the class thinking more about the ways that that contested meaning has lived on.
*Well, an early republican scholar whose research focuses on the relationship of the early United States to Great Britain. I should admit that I am partial to the “Revolutionary America” framework at least in part because its more expansive chronology lets me and my work take part in the conversation.