- The American Revolution Reborn ed. by Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman
To say anything original about the American Revolution is quite an ambitious undertaking; few events or processes have been more extensively described, analyzed, and evaluated by historians in the nearly 250 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Yet Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman's handsomely produced volume, The American Revolution Reborn, which includes essays by both established names and early career scholars, lives up to the promise of its title: it presents fresh and interesting new perspectives on a much-studied subject.
Many of the essays address not-so-new aspects of the revolutionary experience, but always from perspectives that provide novel insights. Slavery is represented by Matthew Spooner's piece on the transfer of slave property in the revolutionary South and (less directly) in David S. Shields's intriguing essay "The Power to Be Reborn"; Native Americans by Zara Anishanslin's study of memories of violence in John Sullivan's campaign against the Senecas; the common soldiers' perspective in Michael A. McDonnell's examination of remembering (and forgetting) the War for Independence; religion by essays on the controversy over a colonial bishop by Katherine Carté Engel and on evangelical revivalism and revolutionary mobilization by Mark Boonshoft. Aaron Spencer Fogleman provides a chapter on transatlantic migration that explores the changes wrought by the revolution, and Denver Brunsman looks at naval impressment as part of "an Atlantic Civil War."
Several of the authors offer more than fresh insights into well-considered subjects; they take us off in new and unexpected directions. Particularly notable in this respect are contributions on the revolution and West Africa by Bryan Rosenblithe; on boundaries in Edward G. Gray's fascinating study of the colonial origins of the Mason-Dixon line; and on an environmental history of the War of Independence in David C. Hsiung's groundbreaking study of the Continental army and its gunpowder supplies.
The collection as a whole certainly encourages new thinking on the revolution. Above all, the essays succeed in the goal of undermining the traditional flag-waving triumphalist narrative that still informs most popular accounts. In its place, we see a much more complicated picture in which contestation comes into view almost everywhere. The revolution appears—quite rightly—as a bitter, bloody, and fractious civil war. Loyalists and loyalism therefore enjoy some prominence (much more than they would [End Page 799] have done if this set of essays had appeared twenty or more years ago), with thought-provoking contributions by Travis Glasson on Newport, Rhode Island; Aaron Sullivan on Pennsylvania; and Kimberly Nath on the experiences of the Shoemakers, a family of Philadelphia Quakers. No less interestingly, perhaps, these and other essays help to uncover the less conspicuous "middle ground" (108) between the proponents for the revolution and their adversaries—neutral, apathetic, fence-sitting, and prudential participants in the revolutionary drama finally enjoy the coverage that their probable numbers merit. One of the great virtues of this collection is to remind us of the contingent nature of allegiances. In dangerous times, many individuals understandably tried either to align themselves with what appeared to be the winning side or to avoid too close an association with any of the warring parties for fear of losing their property, their freedom, or even their lives.
In view of the uniformly high quality of the contributions, the excellent introduction by Spero that sets the collection in scholarly context, and the splendid closing battle cry offered by veteran revolutionary historian Zuckerman, it may seem churlish to sound a critical note. But the volume misses some important opportunities. For all the editors' ambition to challenge and decenter the "patriotic" or "nationalistic" narrative of the revolution, this collection gives its readers a remarkably American-centered sense of an event that involved and affected many parts of the globe; this study is most definitely not nationalist, but it is still framed by the nation. Zuckerman's moving conclusion finishes with the observation that "we...