- The Revolutions of Revolution Historiography:Cold War Contradance, Neo-Imperial Waltz, or Jazz Standard?
Clearing the decks for thirty-three essayists in their very useful entry in the Oxford Handbook series, Edward Gray and Jane Kamensky make a graceful, yet telling, goodbye-to-all-that move. The historiography of the American Revolution has been dominated by two schools of thought, equally intolerant of each other and, Gray and Kamensky imply, allergic to newer approaches. This battle between top-down and bottom-up intellectual and social historians has reinforced a movement away from “the origins of the United States” and [End Page 23] “toward explorations of larger Atlantic or continental arenas.” As a result, for American historians, despite “the best-seller list,” Kamensky and Gray say, “the Revolution has come to occupy a distinctly less prominent place than it held a generation ago” (p. 1). Fortunately, though, they bring us essays that go international, “institutional,” and “cultural” while bridging patrician-plebeian divides.
Well, it’s good to see the problem named and for editors to explain the ample and successful efforts of the historians in the volume to think big and to combine the social and the intellectual in the cultural. But a longer and broader perspective on Revolution historiography suggests more continuity—and a higher likelihood of persisting interpretive conflict—than this declaration of historiographical independence would suggest.
The partner left out of the Whig-to-Progressive, neo-whig–to–neo-progressive two-step here, although it waits impatiently in the wings, is the imperial school. We might think of it as the third way that has repeatedly turned the debate over the Revolution from an old-fashioned contradance into a waltz. In dialogue with, but not reducible to, British imperial history, imperial historians from Charles McLean Andrews to Lawrence Henry Gipson to—more recently—Jack P. Greene and his students have stressed many of the very things that Kamensky and Gray celebrate in Atlantic history: attention to the long duree, to institutions, to colonization, and to the ocean—as well as to the British side of the story and the impact of events abroad on the decisions of political actors. Much of what goes under the trendy label of Atlantic history is really neo-imperial history.
The best examples of the genre show an ability to absorb and develop insights from the other schools, but the neo-imperial turn has tended not to call itself that. This is partly because the new Atlantic historians do not shill for empire as some of their forebears did. (Rather, they celebrate the cosmopolitanism of people who moved or got moved around.) It is also because the neo-whig and neo-progressive historians who dominated the conversation during recent decades agreed on nothing so much as the mustiness of the old imperial histories, with their obvious neglect of both ideas and ordinary people. In 1957, even as he called the imperial school’s “great idea” a “revision in need of revising,” Edmund S. Morgan could say that “it has done more than any other to shape our understanding of the colonial past.”1 But by the late 1980s, while a portrait...