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  • The Room Where It Happened: Race and the American Revolution
  • Ittai Orr (bio)
American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804. By Alan Taylor. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. 681pages. $37.50 (cloth).
Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. By Nicholas Guyatt. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 403pages. $29.99 (cloth).
Building the Land of Dreams: New Orleans and the Transformation of Early America. By Eberhard L. Faber. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. 441pages. $35.00 (cloth).
The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution. By Robert G. Parkinson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 768pages. $45.00 (cloth, eBook).
Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America. By Jen Manion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 278pages. $45.00 (cloth).

What can racism explain, and what explains racism? What do we miss when we dismiss the role race played in the machinery of American history? Some scholars find evidence of racial thinking earlier than the first English settlers’ arrival on American shores; even Shakespeare’s Caliban, Othello, and Shylock testify to (if they do not endorse) the prejudices of early modern Europe. Others point to the newfound interchangeability of “slave” and “negro” in the slave codes of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, or the elite’s targeted division of the working class along lines of race in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion or during Reconstruction. Still others contend that modern racism did not truly take hold until the nineteenth century, when theories of human malleability were abandoned and heredity became the determinative factor in [End Page 903] almost every aspect of an individual’s capacity and personality.1 Some historians now look anew at the Revolutionary War and its immediate aftermath for clues about how race and nationalism converged, raising questions about how racial hierarchies animated and became reinforced by the revolutionary leaders. Looming large over this new work is the figure of Thomas Jefferson, whose Notes on the State of Virginia included passages that alleged African inferiority to the dismay and vehement opposition of many of his contemporaries. He is the Janus-faced embodiment of America’s contradiction, the enigmatic symbol of slave power and radical democracy, and the loudest of those “drivers of negroes” who in Samuel Johnson’s famous quip yelped so loudly and hypocritically after liberty. For decades, historians have sought to understand the uncomfortable juxtaposition of racial slavery and revolutionary thought, and with “founders chic” at an all-time high, such research seems all the more imperative. Where an earlier generation heard dissonance in the message of the founders and their attitudes on slavery and racial inferiority, a new wave of scholarship debates the degree to which reinforcing the lucrative and fragile racial order was not counter but central to the cause of American independence.

The most common narrative today is arguably one we owe in large part to Abraham Lincoln: that the founding fathers were radical, utopian thinkers who ardently yearned for equal rights for all people. And while the Broadway smash Hamilton dethrones Jefferson as a hypocrite, it too leaves audiences secure in the knowledge that the most important revolutionaries were united in their desire to see equality between the races. Recent scholarship however, has taken a decidedly less giddy approach, promoting a vision of the racial politics of the founding fathers that complicates the view that they were radical—even rapping—egalitarians, and recasts them as expert political tacticians. They join a long tradition that takes up questions of the strange relationship between the American Revolution, race, and slavery, that includes Winthrop Jordan, Duncan J. MacLeod, Gary B. Nash, and many others. MacLeod argued that the Revolution acted as a vanishing mediator that problematized racial prejudice and inequality and set the stage for the defeat of racism by bringing it to the surface. Jordan too painted the Revolution as a necessary step in the eventual abolition of slavery and political equality of black people. Nash had a bleaker perspective that lays the blame as much on northern racism and hypocrisy as on southern interests for the “lost opportunity...


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pp. 903-915
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