Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding (review)
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American Revolution, Revolutionary War, Founding Fathers

Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding. By Alfred F. Young and Gregory H. Nobles. (New York: New York University Press, 2011. Pp. 286. Cloth, $79.00; paper, $26.00.)

This book consists of two long essays. The first, by Alfred F. Young, was originally published in 1995 and assesses the historiography of the American Revolution, especially in the half-century following the end of World War II.1 The second, by Gregory H. Nobles, focuses on the last two decades and explores the ways in which Revolutionary scholarship has expanded and shifted in that time. The result is a useful survey of an enormous body of work, and at the same time a telling recapitulation of the field’s evolution and fragmentation.

Young begins with a discussion of J. Franklin Jameson’s The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Princeton, NJ, 1926) to consider how scholars came gradually to ask whether, and to what extent, the American Revolution caused a transformation in the social order. He then traces the evolution of the field, dividing scholars into interpretive camps defined by their dominant political ideologies. Though Jameson’s book was more suggestive essay than fully fleshed monograph, Young argues that it helped to shift scholarly attention from the origins [End Page 499] of the Revolution to its outcomes, and from elites to ordinary people. In Jameson’s wake, the Progressive historians kept his emphases alive. Young calls particular attention to the work of Curtis P. Nettels, Merle Curti, and Merrill Jensen, and also notes the importance of Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin as training grounds for graduate students. From the 1930s to the 1970s, dozens of scholars probed and modified Progressive assumptions, and we can see patterns of evolution and variation in their thought. Jensen, for example, argued for an “internal revolution” (41) but thought its achievements were compromised in the political sphere, while his student Jackson Turner Main contended that the social effects of the Revolution were modest, but political democratization was substantial.

Young argues that the era of the Cold War gave rise to a generation of “Counter-Progressives” (47) who were intent on downplaying social conflict and rejecting both Marxism and relativism. Scholars like Daniel J. Boorstin, Louis B. Hartz, and Robert E. Brown contended that the colonies were free and democratic to begin with, so they viewed the Revolution as little more than “a mopping up operation,” as Hartz put it(52), which enshrined in principle the conditions that already existed in fact. Edmund S. and Helen M. Morgan’s book on the Stamp Act crisis, which appeared in 1953, offered a “peculiar blend, rescuing whig thought from the economic interpretation of the Progressives while embracing the imperial school’s sympathies with suffering loyalist gentlemen and a distaste among conservatives and liberals for the mob” (56). Even when Morgan argued, more than twenty years later, that the simultaneous rise of slavery and freedom was the “‘central paradox’ “ (57) of American history, he held to the view that the Revolution was largely consensual, since the institution of slavery kept this potentially radical lower class unarmed, disenfranchised, and politically inert.

Young characterizes the 1960s and 1970s as an era when the rise of New Left and New Social history contended with a second wave of Counter-Progressivism for historiographical dominance. He touches on Staughton Lynd and Jesse Lemish, two scholars whose political radicalism shaped their scholarship and impacted their career trajectories. Both challenged conventional Progressivism as they sought to reconceptualize history “from the bottom up.” Young also addresses the work of many other historians who detailed “the contours of the small community” and “class stratification in the large seaboard cities” (90). Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood are the only two historians Young identifies as Counter-Progressives [End Page 500] in this era, and his treatment of them is ambivalent enough to call into doubt the appropriateness of the category. In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 1967), Bailyn argued unequivocally that Revolutionary ideas were inherently radical and had enduring social effects. But later, Young contends, both in his...