- A Negotiated Revolution
John Murrin, Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton University, has traveled the lecture circuit for the past few years delivering a paper that bemoans the state of scholarship on the American Revolution. In fact, he concludes his sweeping historiographical overview by declaring the field dead, caused by an otherwise unknown scholarly process of "self-immolation." He outlines a moment of efflorescence in the 1970s and 1980s that led, unexpectedly, to the field's fiery demise in the 1990s. The historiographical process of "self-immolation" that Murrin sketches pits the Neo-Whig School (what we might think of as high politics that privileged the ideas and intellectuals of the Revolution, or "top-down" history) against the Neo-Progressive School (the experiences of the non-elite who made the Revolution happen, or "bottom-up" history). Energetic debate is often the sign of vibrancy in scholarship, but in this case, the argument became unproductive as scholars in opposing schools stopped debating in favor of hurling heated invective at one another. Today, Murrin contends, all that is left of this once-dynamic field are charred remains and cold ashes. Murrin's lecture is at once a eulogy and a call to arms.
While some may dispute Murrin's take on the state of the field, the rift he describes is real. New works on the Revolution always seem to fall into one of two camps, with few trying to surmount ideological divisions. Both Barbara Clark Smith's The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America and Benjamin Irvin's Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors offer a new approach, one that tries to bridge this divide and could portend the beginning of a new era for the field. Politics takes center stage in both books, though Smith and Irvin avoid the trap of studying high politics to the exclusion of low politics or vice versa. Instead, they construct a conception of politics that tries to merge the politics [End Page 31] that happens inside the halls of power with that which happens outside of them. The American Revolution provides a perfect moment to study this relationship. As both Irvin and Smith show, the formation of new governments necessitated by Independence created a contest within American society over who exactly possessed political authority and how exactly that power was exercised. Throughout her work, Smith calls this debate a "negotiation," and it forms the foundation for her analysis of early American politics. Although Irvin uses the word "negotiation" far less than Smith does, he provides a very good definition of what Smith means when he describes his analytical framework: "Properly speaking, this book is neither a history from the top down nor a history from the bottom up, but rather a history of a place between, a place where elite statesmen and ordinary individuals together forged and contested the values of the Revolution and the identity of the American republic" (p. 15).
Their common approach to studying Revolutionary politics might lead one to think that they drew similar conclusions about the legacy of the American Revolution, but, in fact, their perspectives on the Revolution's effects could not be more different. Irvin concludes that the interplay between the Continental Congress and the "people out of doors" established the popular politics that has defined American civic life, while Smith sees the Revolution as the death knell for popular politics, as hinted by her title The Freedoms We Lost. Their shared approach—defining Revolutionary-era politics as a negotiation between elite leaders and the non-elite masses they were supposed to be governing— helps forge a new path for analyzing Revolutionary politics, but their differences also provide some cautionary tales for scholars.
Barbara Clark Smith's book is a sweeping account of early American political...