- The World Is Not Enough
Of all my on-campus interviews that failed to turn into jobs, I can only blame globalism for one. Things were going well until I sat down with the search committee to discuss the American Revolution syllabus I had sent ahead. I had developed a technique called “contrasting twins,” in which student essay-writers hunt for un-obvious differences between two superficially similar texts—say, two biographies of Mercy Otis Warren or the first and final drafts of the Declaration of Independence. I emphasized my commitment to this method of eliciting students’ originality by entitling my syllabus, “The Era of the American Revolution: A Comparative Approach.” Big mistake. The committee members interpreted the three words I had tacked onto my course title as promising comparison between the American War of Independence and other world revolutions. They thought they had found themselves a global-ist—until they got to know me.
I might well have landed that job if I could have reached into the future for a copy of The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution. From the first essay (P. J. Marshall’s “Britain’s American Problem: The International Perspective”) to the last (Leora Auslander’s “America’s Cultural Revolution in Transnational Perspective”), this book’s global emphasis makes it very different from anthologies and reference works on the Founding era published as recently as ten years ago. Some of the authors weigh Americans’ activities and experiences between 1775 and 1783 against those of distant peoples (mostly in Great Britain and its Caribbean colonies). Others discuss the war’s impact on Britain. Auslander compares the American and French Revolutionaries’ use of clothing as a political statement. And so on. Editors Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky highlight the book’s transnational focus with their choice of cover art: John Singleton Copley’s painting of a Revolutionary War battle that was fought not in North America but on the British island of Jersey, just off the French coast, on January 6, 1781. The combatants are British and French; [End Page 32] the only soldier with an apparent connection to the thirteen rebel colonies is the dying British commander’s black servant.
Almost inevitably, placing the War of Independence in global context diminishes it. The Handbook authors portray Britain’s impact on North America in the years after 1783 as heavier than most people realize, especially in the areas of commerce—Henry Clay once called the American states the “independent colonies of England” since they were still “commercially slaves” (p. 475)—and culture. (The citizens of the new nation preferred British novels to those written by their fellow Americans.) On the other hand, the British footprint was surprisingly light in 1763, and putting these two corrections together forces us to revise downward our estimate of how far toward independence the Revolution moved America.
Widening the lens to take in the rest of the world is only one of the ways in which most of these authors make the War of Independence seem smaller. In their introduction, the editors endorse Gordon S. Wood’s characterization of the American Revolution as radical, and Allan Kulikoff celebrates farmers’ success at parlaying their indispensible military contribution into substantial democratization. But most of the other authors imply that the radicalism of the American Revolution has been greatly exaggerated. Michael Zuckerman undermines Wood’s “before” picture, using Dr. Alexander Hamilton’s eye-opening 1744 journey through the North American colonies to show that they were already very different from the mother country three decades before the Declaration of Independence. (As Zuckerman notes, Hamilton was accompanied by his slave Dromo—a reminder about the foundations of America’s white male egalitarianism.) Terry Bouton, Ray Raphael, and Christopher Tomlins all argue that the “Democratic Moment,” as Raphael calls it, was temporary. Raphael even offers the stunning surmise that ordinary freemen “were never again so directly in charge of their effective governing apparatus as they were during the brief period after British rule had begun...