- The American Revolution:New Directions for a New Century
In 1909, Carl Becker pithily suggested that the American Revolution was not only a dispute over "home rule" but also over "who should rule at home."1 In the century since, that formulation has proved to be liberating in opening up scholarship to the many levels of conflict that any revolution entails, but it is also binding in that scholarship has been circumscribed by the hoary paradigms of the Revolution-as-independence-struggle or as-internal-struggle. In recent decades, historians of early America have replayed Becker's division—one that he recognized as a false dichotomy—in increasingly starker contrast. Just as when Becker wrote, we still have a Whig school and a Progressive school, each with its recognized dons, deacons, dissenters, dominions, and detractors, arrayed in the academic equivalent of armed camps and trading barbs in conference papers and book reviews. The two significant deviations on these themes have been the historiographies of the Revolutionary War and of the Revolution's imperial dimensions, but neither fully defines the Revolution.
After an explosion of pathbreaking work from the early 1960s to about 1980, most recent scholarship has elaborated on these inherently incomplete models, challenged some of their elements, or tried with limited success to amalgamate them. The exceptions, brilliant as some of them are, we take as outliers, difficult to place within existing historiography precisely because they do not fit in established lines of analysis. But there is hope. We now appear to be on the cusp of exciting new approaches to the American Revolution. This essay maps out the directions I believe we are going, gives examples of recent trailblazing work, and offers suggestions about how we might move forward as we enter another century of scholarship.
The first path, and perhaps most important step forward, is to consider the American Revolution not as an event, but as the process of challenging, redefining, and reconstituting the very nature of authority in the British empire and then the United States. That process centered geographically in the thirteen colonies that rebelled, but played out everywhere in the empire, from the Ohio River Valley woods to Jamaican plantations, and from Independence [End Page 576] Hall to Whitehall. It happened at different rates: it could have been in the quick succession of thoughts and feelings in the moments some colonists felt compelled to decide whether to be loyal to their beloved king or make up their hearts for independence, or in the long century during which the legitimacy of monarchy became gradually replaced by popular sovereignty. Every political institution had either to find some way to reassert its will under the new conditions or be swept away and replaced by a competitor. In many places, two or more sets of institutions existed at the same time before one established (or reestablished) broad legitimacy. People strove to reshape new institutions that reflected not only new ideas about how society and government ought to work, but they did so in a way that implicitly or explicitly acknowledged continuing differences in economic, political, cultural, military, and social power. Although this process was at its core political, it was political in the broadest sense of that term: not one merely of elections and governmental policy, but one that involved a challenge to the very nature of the relationship between Americans and the state, and by extension, with ramifications for every institution in America, for American culture, for relations between Americans, and for how Americans conceived of themselves.
Essential to this idea of the American Revolution as a process is that, to put it simply, people and institutions behave differently at various points of unrest than during more stable times. The loosening of authority, the chaos of war, the exhilaration of liberty, and the rage of revenge led people to do things that they never would have imagined doing just a few years, months, or even moments before. To some extent, revolution has an inherently acceleratory aspect to it. The process was far more complex than simply tit-for-tat or escalating retaliation, but prompted the improvisation of new modes of behavior that fit...