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Reviewed by:
  • Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic by Tom Cutterham, and: Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions by Caitlin Fitz, and: Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth by Holger Hoock, and: American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783–1833 by Benjamin E. Park, and: American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804 by Alan Taylor
Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic. By Tom Cutterham. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2017. 205 pages. Cloth, ebook.
Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions. By Caitlin Fitz. New York: W. W. Norton/Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016. 366 pages. Cloth, paper, ebook.
Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth. By Holger Hoock. New York: Crown Publishing, 2017. 575 pages. Paper, ebook.
American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783–1833. By Benjamin E. Park. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 264 pages. Cloth, paper, ebook.
American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804. By Alan Taylor. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. 701 pages. Cloth, paper, ebook.

Then of a sudden sacred Janus, in his two-headed shape,offered his double visage to my wondering eyes.A terror seized me, I felt my hair stiffen with fear, and with asudden chill my bosom froze.

—Ovid, The "Fasti"1

We are at a threshold in explaining the founding of the United States. When coupled with other collections of essays, prominent conferences, and recent and forthcoming works, the five books under review here announce the unveiling of a new portrait of the American founding, and of the nationalism [End Page 545] or American character it produced.2 It is, I would argue, the fifth edition of the founding portrait—the American Revolution 5.0.

The revolutionaries themselves rendered the first one. It was a self-portrait of their actions while they were performing them. The revolution was, in their eyes, a masterpiece, a phenomenon in human history—a singular example of liberty, benevolence, opportunity, and, well, happiness for all the world to follow. Fifty years later, a new romantic portrait emerged. This one purposely erased its predecessor's universalism and instead celebrated the unique character of America's heroic founding and the justice this beneficent episode had spread across North America. The romantic portrait dazzled those who gazed on it for nearly a century, until early twentieth-century critics less impressed with what they thought the revolution not only permitted but arranged—industrialized capitalism, corrupt politics, and social inequality—crafted a replacement. For these new artists, the excesses and exploitations of the Gilded Age had gnarled roots that went back to the original sin of 1787. The Founders, they maintained, had sought only to feather their nests and those of their friends, and they created a republic that would do just that, real participatory democracy be damned. The Progressives' severe, chastising portrait—the American Revolution 3.0—hung alone in the galleries for a far shorter run than its predecessor, as a competitor was already under development within thirty years. This rival returned the revolutionaries' ideas to the forefront, arguing that the Founders had been motivated by concepts of liberty, consent, and representation that made the revolution different, better, and even more radical than revolutionary popular uprisings in Russia, France, or China. [End Page 546] The third and fourth portraits hung next to one another for the last half of the twentieth century, as artists continued to add details and scenes to their preferred painting and sometimes threw paint onto the other as their disagreements grew increasingly bitter.3

Now, it seems safe to say another version has arrived. Our new revolutionary portrait has many facets that distinguish it from those that came before, although it is not wholly sui generis. First, it does not place the thirteen mainland American colonies at the center but rather features other places on the continent, the Atlantic Ocean, and even the hemisphere. More importantly, it is a chaotic canvas, one Jackson Pollock rather than John Trumbull would paint, featuring actors of all races, classes, and genders across the western hemisphere whose stories make for clashing colors and colliding lines.4 Finally, even though some of the older sketches of republican freedom and consent are yet visible, when the viewer stands back to assess its mood, the hues of this new founding portrait evoke desperation rather than inspiration, with depictions of blood, smoke, and iron obscuring but not erasing the representative politics and constitutions featured in previous iterations. The institutions and the nationalism or national character depicted in this painting are contested, problematic, and coercive.

In short, we now have Janus's American Revolution. Janus, the revered Roman god of origins and endings, of doors or thresholds that can be crossed in either direction, of the past and the future—"opener of the softly gliding year, thou who alone of the celestials dost behold thy back," as Ovid introduces him—is an appropriate patron for this emerging portrait.5 Our new originary revolution is a double-facing one that has retained some of its awe and inspiration (constitutional experimentations with republican self-government, religious freedom, antislavery, and opportunity) but also produced feelings of anxiety and horror, for its experiments were only possible because of a catastrophic war that strengthened a national commitment to slavery and legitimized the destruction of Native peoples through continental conquest. The ideological experimentation and political creativity so triumphed in previous iterations appear on our new canvas as the result of violent upheaval and bitter deals that tended toward exclusion, pain, and suffering. Like Ovid's dread-filled reaction to [End Page 547] beholding Janus, our American Revolution is one governed by sheer terror, fear, and wondering eyes, but our eyes, too, are dazzled by the fascination of possibility and realization of its limits.

________

This new portrait of the American Revolution is the product of many artists, but the head of the workshop is Alan Taylor. Taylor's 2016 American Revolutions is already the urtext for understanding what we think now. Because this work is a continuation of Taylor's magisterial 2001 survey American Colonies, it picks up many themes developed in that book, especially that the appropriate scope for examining the revolution includes the whole of the North American continent.6 However, in its framing, narrative, and even titling, American Revolutions is a refutation of the touchstone work of the American Revolution 4.0, Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution.7 For Taylor, Wood's insistence that, when contrasted with the French or Russian Revolutions, the American Revolution was "good, orderly, restrained and successful" (3) obscures far more than it illuminates. Wood's comparison only works, Taylor insists, if one focuses on the experiences of a very few. Widening the scope means the eye must encompass a far messier scene. For most people in North America who encountered the revolution, Taylor argues, upheaval and destruction abounded. Americans—a term that Taylor notes should include loyalists and disaffected colonists as well as patriots—killed each other over politics and enslaved one-fifth of the population. Those who did not flee their homes to become refugees suffered through America's worst economic decline until the 1930s.

That upheaval is central to the story of the American Revolution because the political creativity that previous interpreters made the keystone of American exceptionalism arose out of such chaos. "Indeed," Taylor writes, "the accomplishments of independence, union, and republican government seem all the more remarkable given the grim civil war at the heart of the revolution" (4). Taylor's plural American revolutions were complex affairs that produced more complications than they resolved. Indeed, he contributes far more dark colors to the founding portrait than light ones, with the creation of a new extended republic only "intensif[ying] trends already underway, including political assertion by common men, territorial expansion at native expense, and the westward spread of slavery" (479). Independence did not redeem the sins of colonial America; in fact, Taylor stresses, its new constitutional regime exacerbated certain inequalities and "created powerful new contradictions" (479) of race and gender hierarchies. [End Page 548]

Several themes stand out in Taylor's masterful synthesis. First is the centrality of violence. Whereas previous generations of revolutionary historiography often treated the Revolutionary War as a sideshow, Taylor does not. American Revolutions covers fifty-five years of North American history, but about 40 percent of the book focuses on the nine years from 1775 to 1783. In these chapters, Taylor focuses on the unconventional, irregular nature of the war, describing how patriots battled loyalists around New York City, Native peoples in the Ohio Valley, and the enslaved in the Deep South. Patriot coercion is a constant theme; Taylor underscores, for example, how revolutionary leaders shored up popular support by encouraging aggression toward suspected loyalists.

Another important aspect of Taylor's synthesis is his gaze outward from the thirteen mainland colonies. In discussing the revolution's origins, he spends more time in the Ohio Valley than New England. As he did in American Colonies, Taylor pays attention to how the revolution shaped life on the Gulf Coast, across the Great Plains, and in California. The "shock waves that accelerated the upheavals underway among native peoples" throughout the continent, Taylor explains, came from "the American Revolution on the east coast" (275)—but the revolution intensified, rather than caused, gathering currents. He even tracks those waves to South America, sketching how the Tupac Amarú rebellion in the Andes threatened Spain's empire in the early 1780s. In North America, the changes would be lasting, for the particular way the patriots justified their movement was "premised on the ability of common whites to obtain private property by taking land from Indians" (277–78); one cannot understand Taylor's revolution without the possibilities for exploitation perceived in the West. Similarly, Taylor follows the chapter entitled "Wests" with "Oceans," documenting the important role of the Atlantic in the revolution. He situates Yorktown in an entirely naval context, stressing French admiral François Joseph de Grasse rather than George Washington, while documenting how the war's repercussions rippled through the Caribbean too.

In his final summation—though he does not say so explicitly—Taylor's revolution is a disappointing one. Gradual abolition, an icon of the revolution's success for previous generations of historians, appears almost as an afterthought. Taylor mentions Pennsylvania's 1780 abolition law in the final chapter, but only to emphasize just how gradual it was, with people still enslaved in the state in 1847. Emancipation, he shows, galvanized northern racism, and in the South the revolution "proved a curse" (475) for African Americans. Taylor concludes his volume in 1804 depicting millions of republicanized Americans, armed with their purchase of Louisiana, poised to swarm all over North America.

That invasion would be a violent one. But, as Holger Hoock claims in Scars of Independence, the bloodshed promulgated in the American interior [End Page 549] carried forward the real spirit of '76. America, his subtitle contends, had a violent birth. Hoock claims his is the first book on the American Revolution "to adopt violence as its central analytical and narrative focus" (xi). This is an overstatement, but it is indicative that Hoock's book, too, features what Taylor calls the "grim civil war" (4).

Scars of Independence begins with the Boston Massacre, contending that the blood that ran onto King Street was not anomalous but would become all too common for many Americans in the 1770s. "We must write the violence, in all its forms, back into the story" (12), Hoock contends, meaning the injury to both bodies and minds. Scars of Independence then catalogs many of the violent episodes of the revolution: patriots hunting loyalists and throwing them into harrowing subterranean cells, British warships cannonading coastal American towns, German mercenaries raping New Jersey women, Continental soldiers plundering colonial houses and torching Native ones, and the sheer chaos of the southern theater in the early 1780s.

Despite Hoock's framing of these stories as forgotten, Scars of Independence spends considerable time retelling ones that will be familiar to scholars, including a whole chapter on the well-documented Huddy-Asgill affair. Hoock's most original contribution comes in his reconstruction of the September 28, 1778, British assault on Old Tappan, New Jersey, where about 650 men under the leadership of General Charles Grey—already infamous to Americans as the officer who orchestrated the "Paoli massacre" a year before—attacked about one hundred sleeping Virginia cavalry troops. Grey's men killed fifteen and captured or wounded more than sixty with bayonets and clubs. Hoock's narrative of what became known as the "Baylor Massacre" is riveting, full of screams in the frosty night, slashing sabers, stomping boots, and disorientation. The damage comes home: "The British started to bayonet their defenseless victims, crushing bones and leaving gashing wounds in the men's stomachs, chests, backs, and limbs. Withdrawing the blade, as much as plunging it in, tore muscles, arteries and organs" (257).

At the book's outset, Hoock argues that Scars of Independence is not just a book about gory scenes but "also a story about stories: narratives of persecution and suffering, barbarity versus civilization, retaliation and reconciliation, that accompanied physical and psychological violence" (xi). He discusses how patriots took advantage of atrocity stories such as the Baylor Massacre or Hessians raping New Jersey women or the murder of Jane McCrea by "skillfully developing the forensic practices that would help justify their war—rendering mutilated American bodies with vivid anatomical detail and emotionally powerful rhetoric" (267). But Hoock needed to press this analysis further. As he saturates the page with torn tissues and ruptured organs, the reader must ask: What did this carnage add up to? [End Page 550] How did communities react to these incidents? He notes how the British decision to embrace "violence, far from terrifying rebellious colonials into submission, seemed instead to fan the flames of insurrection" (90). How, then, did patriot leaders come to profit from the horrors they faced? What were the political consequences of this brutality? Hoock does discuss how violence pervades the Declaration of Independence's climactic grievances against King George III, suggesting how integral the war was to American independence. But more analysis of the relationship between violence and the legal and political dimensions of America's birth—as is found in Taylor's volume—would have made Scars of Independence an essential book for scholars of the revolution.

Moreover, things were even more gruesome than Hoock conveys. There is a single fleeting reference to "a particularly brutal frontier encounter at Cherry Valley in eastern New York" (279). Worse, the Ohio Valley is almost completely absent, a rather egregious omission given the volume of blood spilled there. There are no mentions of Henry "the Hair Buyer" Hamilton, the ritual torture of William Crawford, or the grisly executions ordered by George Rogers Clark. The bloodiest year of the revolution in the Ohio Valley was 1782, in no small part because of the ninety Native people bludgeoned to death in the Gnadenhutten massacre. If we are to make a full reckoning with "America's Violent Birth," as Hoock has subtitled Scars of Independence, then a detailed exposition of these events—rather than an account of the single murder of Joshua Huddy and near execution of Charles Asgill—is necessary.

Nevertheless, Hoock's contribution—introducing some new scenes and primary sources, synthesizing some more familiar ones, and collecting them together into one anthology of wartime violence—adds more blood and smoke to the emerging revolutionary portrait. In 1815, John Adams wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson that laughed off the importance of the role the conflict played in the world-historical achievement of the American Revolution. "The War?," he wrote, "That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775."8 This sentiment enthralled a previous generation of historians—Bernard Bailyn made it the leading epigraph of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution—but it is safe to say that Adams's misleading quote is now thoroughly discredited.9 It has no place in the Janus portrait. It is now [End Page 551] impossible to deny the importance of the eight-year conflict in recounting the history of the revolution; nothing—even ideological or constitutional interpretations of the American Revolution—makes sense without accounting for the violence, coercion, upheaval, and destruction of the Revolutionary War.

But what does this mean for how we think about those two correspondents and their colleagues, the so-called Founding Fathers? In Gentlemen Revolutionaries, Tom Cutterham argues that the American Revolution shifted the ground for them too—sort of. It created new cultural, political, and social contexts, which in turn transformed how Americans thought about justice and power. But some vestiges of the old order remained. Like Taylor's synthesis, Gentlemen Revolutionaries stresses both continuity and change. Cutterham suggests that historians have been too quick to view the revolution as a rupture that obliterated the colonial values of deference and hierarchy. The ultimate goal for colonial elites before 1776, he asserts, had been independence—the economic, social, political, and cultural ideal of not being beholden to another man. This was the planters' definition of "the good life."10 Cutterham maintains that the revolution provoked them to revise that ideal to include commercial values of interdependence—the economic, social, political, and cultural ideal of increasing strength by securing elite connections and networks.

The men who led the revolution saw themselves as gentlemen, Cutterham contends, whether their peers concurred or not. They "set themselves above the ordinary, common man" (1). But because they justified their insurgency as predicated on popular sovereignty, they found themselves in a new predicament: the equality they promoted threatened the power they aspired to as a ruling class. In other words, the revolution convinced them that if they wanted to exert the kind of power and influence that gentlemen previously enjoyed, they needed to stick together and adapt to the upheaval.

Cutterham's book is a history of the 1780s—the period after the aftermath of Hoock's devastating Revolutionary War—and of how elite white men tried to channel new forces of popular sovereignty and democracy into conduits they could control. He begins by explaining how the war offered unique opportunities for marginal men such as Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox to become gentlemen. These not-gentlemen in the Continental army officer corps—especially Knox—sought to turn [End Page 552] their wartime achievements into a permanent claim of elite status with the creation of the Society of the Cincinnati. But, Cutterham explains, some elites supported the public outcry against the Cincinnati's apparent revival of aristocracy. This exposed rifts between the gentlemen who held older colonial values that underscored property as the best signifier of status and these new revolutionary gentlemen-on-the-make who embraced consent and some semblance of popular sovereignty. But with popular insurgencies on the wing in several states, this disagreement needed to be resolved. Faced with real threats of radical democracy, "that division faded in the face of challenges from below" (36).

To control a people imbued with perhaps a different idea of what the revolution was all about, many elites set about "a new campaign to put an end to disobedience" (37). Nouveau gentlemen such as Noah Webster and the group of poets known as the Connecticut Wits, including Joel Barlow, embarked on a campaign of cultural hegemony via public education and print culture meant to make "sure all Americans knew their places, and acted their parts" (37). Others (Hamilton again) fought redistributionist schemes of confiscating loyalist property, hyped postwar plans to protect American contracts, and clamored for commercial institutions such as banks and canals to secure elite wealth.

Their project was foundering by the middle years of the 1780s. By 1787, things were downright critical, with a rebellion in Massachusetts only the worst symptom of runaway assemblies and popular movements. Benjamin "Lincoln and his Cincinnati forces," as Cutterham calls the Massachusetts troops that dispersed the Shaysites, had been "harsh" (139), and elites braced for even darker days; as Cutterham puts it, "America's gentlemen would tear down the union rather than submit to popular rule" (150). Luckily for these interdependent gentlemen revolutionaries, James Madison's push for a new compact ensured it would not come to that.

Cutterham concludes that "the extraordinary creativity and innovation of the founding generation's political strategists" arose out of this rechanneling of the gentility drive, out of "new justifications and new modes of exercising power" (160) brought on by the revolution. "In their wish to continue being gentlemen," he argues, "they took upon themselves the task of revolutionaries" (160). Cutterham insists there is new interpretative ground here, but it is somewhat difficult to find. His portrayal of initially divided elites forced to close ranks in the face of popular rebellion in order to retain their status joins the previous scholarship of Woody Holton, Michael A. McDonnell, and Alan Taylor.11 That the 1780s was a quest for order after [End Page 553] a messy insurgency that produced radical and threatening conceptions of democracy and equality sounds like the old Federalist interpretation of the "critical period," warmed over with a dose of anxiety, fear, and modern worries about wealth inequalities and antidemocratic political machinations.

More to the point, Cutterham should have taken into consideration those elites who rejected the gentlemanly ideal, for there were many who did not simply relinquish their commitment to consent when faced with the prospect of popular rule.12 In American Revolutions, Taylor writes that the revolution produced "a new breed of politician [who] appealed to the aspirations of middling farmers and artisans and to their resentments of elites who clung to the colonial emphasis on deference. The savviest of the new politicians was George Clinton, a man of common origins but fierce ambition" (355). Neither afraid of popular sovereignty nor anxious about rechanneling gentlemanly values of deference, Clinton embraced the challenge of the revolution, but in ways that were in drastic—and threatening—opposition to Knox or Hamilton. "Common voters appreciated that Clinton celebrated their way of life instead of displaying the traditional elitism within his grasp" (356), Taylor argues. Clinton was a member of Knox's Society of the Cincinnati, but he did not yearn to be a colonial gentlemen.

For Cutterham, the prefix may have changed, but the suffix has always remained the same: whether independence or interdependence, the Federalist victory in Philadelphia entrenched dependence as a feature of American stability. And in this point lies Cutterham's distinct contribution to the Janus portrait. "Looking back, the revolution can seem like a radical moment" (159), he concludes, but "rather than defeating inequality and hierarchy, the revolution forced it to take on new forms" (160). But the scope of experimentation and innovation extended well beyond the forms he outlines. Cutterham needed to allow for even more new possibilities than he does, more voices that debated what "justice" and "power" meant. Clinton took different lessons from the revolution about how to secure political and cultural power, and these too deserve a prominent place in the Janus portrait.

Benjamin E. Park's American Nationalisms asks different questions of these elite gentlemen. Instead of analyzing them as a class, Park pays close attention to the differences between them, especially in regards to place. Barlow and his circle may have had ideas about what they wanted America to look like, but that does not mean their peers outside New England [End Page 554] shared those visions. For Park, even though the Age of Revolutions transformed nationalism and made it an almost irresistible imperative, no single expression of American nationalism or national character ever coalesced. Because of "competing cultural traditions and a fractured print culture" (xi), not one but several visions of what America was—and should be—developed from the revolution to the middle of the nineteenth century. Early Americans promoted their different answers as they practiced nationalism in the churches, courtyards, and newspapers of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Perhaps, Park suggests, they could not agree on that original founding portrait after all.

Park prizes the local over the national. Conceptions of national identity "varied dramatically during the early republic" (6) because they were tethered to "personal backgrounds, regional cultures, parochial concerns, and localized political systems" (6–7). He also pays attention to how revolutions in Haiti and France influenced these regional or sectional promoters of nationalism. In its essence, American Nationalisms takes the generations-old historiographical chestnut about colonial America—which region is really America?—back to its antebellum roots. Library shelves groan with volumes arguing that their particular sites—New England! the mid-Atlantic! Virginia! the Deep South!—were the true originators of the ordeals, genius, sins, and dreams that marked the United States. That was not an interpretative trick invented by twentieth-century historians (and publishers) to sell books, Park argues; it originated in the 1780s. There was never a stable, consensual notion of what it meant to be an American, even from the start. Each region said that America ought to look like itself.

One of Park's contributions is to pay close attention to the powerful nationalisms developed and circulated by religious leaders. But even among the clergy, there was no agreement. Massachusetts ministers of the standing order responded to the secularism of the Age of Revolutions and the challenges of the War of 1812 by introducing a new and improved form of providentialism, one that both promoted the idea of a national covenant to reinforce the cultural power of the clergy and uplifted their audiences' moral and ethical character. Park's clerics sound a lot like Cutterham's gentlemen: men worried about losing their power and telling everyone to get in line (behind them). But, if New England's Congregationalist ministers promoted nationalism "after their own likeness and image" (112), religious and political leaders elsewhere had their own, contrasting ideas about American providentialism. "If Massachusetts's covenant theology . . . would have seemed foreign to those who inhabited the much more pluralistic state of Pennsylvania," Park notes, "so too would the former's sense of nationalism that was based on such a worldview" (86).

Slavery, especially in this context of emancipation and revolutionary experimentation, only complicated matters. In fact, Park contends, the [End Page 555] United States was always on the road to disunion. In 1790, he argues, Congress's debate over the slave trade compromise proved that "this was a nation divided" (163) and that "deep fissures were exposed" (164). By 1820, slavery had stimulated increasingly sectionalized visions of American nationalism, with northerners promoting national obligations to cultural regeneration and southerners maintaining that the United States was nothing more than a state-based confederacy. With the Nullification Crisis, Americans everywhere abandoned national unity and definitions of patriotism that included those with different interests. John C. Calhoun conceded in 1831: "The attempt to create a homogenous national culture was a misguided dream. . . . [and] the American 'nation' was, at best, a figment of naïve imagination" (205).

In a short conclusion, Park makes explicit the motivation for American Nationalisms: the nativist campaigns of Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich, with their "clarion call to a mythical past when American culture was homogenous" (244), are ludicrous. Rather, "America's nationalist imagination has always been dynamic yet fleeting" (245). This overarching, macro argument—that America has never had a singular national identity—is well taken. The execution of American Nationalisms, however, is not as satisfying. Park identifies a "recent historiographical trend against regionalism" that requires reiteration that "regions mattered to residents of early America" (15). This seems like a straw man. For one, the three regions Park chose to prove this point seem the likeliest candidates and hold the fewest surprises; it does not seem pathbreaking to suggest New Englanders worried about their place in the union and first stressed states' rights as a predicate of remaining in the compact, or that slavery was important to South Carolina's conception of America. And here again, the continental question looms: what about the new states west of the Appalachians? What did religious leaders in Ohio or Tennessee think about the union in the early nineteenth century? How did they envision their place in the federal compact? What did notions of an American character look like in New Orleans? Detroit? Pittsburgh? Inhabitants in those less-studied places must also have contemplated what "nation" meant to their sense of communal belonging; Park's book would have been well served if he had explored their ruminations.

Park is right about one thing: if there is anything that qualifies as an American national characteristic, it is to confuse one's part of the union with the "real America." This is similarly the case for those who blithely use the word American to mean a citizen of the United States. Caitlin Fitz's Our Sister Republics will hopefully exorcise the historian's form of this parochialism by making it impossible for early American historians to exclude Latin American movements in their discussions of how the Age of [End Page 556] Revolutions shaped Americans' (in the United States) conception of themselves in the early nineteenth century.

Our Sister Republics reveals how news of Latin American revolutions and revolutionaries made citizens in the United States feel superior about themselves. When they looked south, Americans gloated that they avoided the traps of civil war, fractured patriotism, and political chaos that gripped Central and South America after independence from Spain. Though Park suggests a bit of humility should have been in order, U.S. citizens in the first decades of the nineteenth century gazed at their own republican reflections with awe and wonder. "In celebrating foreign revolutions," Fitz writes, "U.S. observers were celebrating themselves, and like Narcissus, they were so riveted they could barely look away" (11). An American Revolution full of anxiety, terror, violence, and fear? Hardly. In her examination of how Americans weighed their experiences against their neighbors, Fitz shows them initially promulgating that first portrait, the revolutionaries' own creation, with proud swaths of universalist stripes that evoked human liberty and equality. According to their boasts, what the United States began in 1776 now enthralled the rest of the hemisphere.

Fitz argues that many in the United States paid close attention to the hemispheric revolutions of the 1810s through the 1820s. They toasted their neighbors on the Fourth of July, read accounts of Latin American military campaigns in their newspapers, hosted and aided agents from those conflicts, and even named their babies and towns after Simon Bolívar. In this coverage, Fitz contends, citizens of the United States did not worry about the radical antislavery potential of these revolutions. Instead, "they looked abroad with an instinctive sense of universalism," which "offered a happy vision of hemispheric harmony" (114). Unlike Park, who contends his patriots thought frequently about what Haiti meant for America's vision of itself, Fitz says they willfully ignored Bolívar's relationship with the Haitian republic and Colombia's emancipation. They "seldom dwelled on such complexities" (101), Fitz argues, mostly by refusing to acknowledge what was happening (or might happen) in Mexico or Florida. When Americans celebrated hemispheric revolutions, they meant abstract ones that were far to the south.

Fitz's evidence also leads her in a different direction on the compass, into Taylor's West. In tracking down American families who named their towns and children after Bolívar, she finds this trend to be strongest west of the Appalachians. "Midwesterners were the most likely to name their children Bolivar, with 16 out of every 100,000 newborn white males bearing the name in the 1820s" (130). Southerners were close behind, but there were less than 4 "baby Bolivars" (129) per 100,000 New England newborn boys. July Fourth toasts to Latin American independence, too, [End Page 557] were seldom heard in Federalist New England. But whether they celebrated Bolívar's heroism for economic reasons or they just relished Spain's humiliation, western Americans believed the Liberator's troops were "fighting for American freedom and against European colonialism" and were therefore the "closest, blood heirs to the United States' own revolutionary tradition" (125).

Naming their sons after Bolívar may have also been another way westerners showed their affection for Henry Clay. Fitz argues that the men who wanted to follow James Monroe into the White House—especially Clay, Calhoun, and John Quincy Adams—viewed the U.S. diplomatic relationship with an independent Latin America primarily in terms of how it might gain them domestic political support. And this outpouring of affection for Latin American revolutions not only contributed to defining an American identity but also changed the course of American electoral politics. In 1818, Clay, strategizing that the "grassroots groundswell" of enthusiasm for Latin America might "propel him into" (186) the presidency, began pushing for U.S. recognition of independent Latin American nations. This did not come about. Worse, after the "corrupt bargain" of 1824 in which Clay threw his support to Adams, their Jacksonian opponents exploited the association. Adams's announcement in December 1825 that he was going "to send delegates to the first-ever conference of American nations, to be held in Panama the following year" (195), Fitz argues, was a turning point in American politics, for Clay's and Adams's political opponents saw in it an opportunity to pounce. The ensuing firestorm not only brought the façade of Americans' heretofore color-blind heralding of Latin American revolutions crashing down but also shaped the course of party politics, especially the development of the Democratic Party. For when Jacksonians howled that even attending the Panama Congress would be a grave threat to U.S. slaveholding interests, suddenly the question of race and emancipation—for more than a decade on the margins of the discourse on Latin American independence—took center stage.

Although the Panama Congress failed to live up to the expectations of its promoters (especially Bolívar's) and the threat to U.S. sovereignty was minuscule, the publicity damage was real. Much like the panics instilled today by casting international climate agreements or institutions such as the United Nations as a menace to U.S. sovereignty, the shrill language Clay's and Adams's enemies employed to warn Americans of being too friendly to their neighbors helped embed white supremacy at the core of the Democrats' message. "The Panama debates," Fitz concludes, "both reflected and furthered a new era in American history, a movement away from the nation's founding universalist language and toward a bold new vision of U.S. greatness," one predicated on being "uniquely moderate, uniquely successful, and uniquely white" (213). [End Page 558]

And thus was born the romantic portrait of the American Revolution (2.0). Until Panama, Fitz argues, summer crowds that gathered for barbecue listened to praise of their universal revolution spreading throughout the Americas, but no longer. The new depiction still celebrated heroes bravely defending their rights against crushing tyranny, but it belonged solely to citizens of the United States. This romantic portrait heralded their singular "empire for liberty."

________

Nearly two centuries later, the depiction of the American Revolution and founding of the United States has evolved several times over. We now have Janus's Revolution, one that produces emotions of fear and dread intermingled with those produced by the safety of democratic consent and the security of economic opportunity. It conveys the inherent contradiction of a slaveholders' republic. This interpretation celebrates Thomas Paine's pronouncement in Common Sense "that in America, the law is king," but it concedes that the law too can be capricious.13 We have added scores more actors to the canvas: free and enslaved African Americans, Native peoples, women, loyalists and the disaffected, religious dissenters, and imperial agents from all over Europe. We have added even more places, too: the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, slaving outposts in West Africa, Spanish American colonies, and towns and villages throughout the Gulf Coast, Mississippi Valley, and Great Plains. We have pored over the archive left by revolutionary political leaders and cultural brokers, dissecting their lives into thinner and thinner slices. The American Revolution is more diverse, expansive, and nuanced than ever. The roots and branches of the American Revolution extend seemingly everywhere.

There is a great deal of paint on that canvas. It requires a substantial fixture to secure it to the wall. In fact, this portrait 5.0 might be too overwhelming, too exhausting; the overall experience might produce a sense that it is simultaneously too much and yet not enough. Because we live in a world of endless war, ideological bankruptcy, and cultural imperialism and are surrounded by deep structures of race and gender inequalities, "our" revolution is starting to look much the same.14

Despite the daunting amount of paint on the canvas, it is essential that we remain at work. We need to keep tending to it, to keep returning to the [End Page 559] founding of the United States and its consequences. The American historical profession is now well into its fifth generation. One of the most enduring questions asked over those generations is: Who are we? Thousands of professional historians have revisited this question over and over again, and many of those whose sense of "we" encompasses the United States have tried to interpret and explain what characterizes this extended republican union, this experiment in self-government. Is it exceptional? What makes it different? Are these even good questions to ask?

Of course, the question of exceptionalism has implied superiority, a tacit query into what makes the United States better than any other nation in the world. To answer, historians have often put that nation's founding at the center of the story. This should not surprise. Humans crave origin stories. Knowing the roots of our world, whether explaining the supernatural, the natural, or the national world, is deeply satisfying. Janus, after all, was the Roman god of origin stories, how the Romans coped with their yearning to understand where the earth came from. His doubleness implies a divine vision that casts back into the distant past but also sees into the future.15

But it is not exceptionalism that gives America's founding its value, and though we should rightfully reject interpretations that automatically represent the United States as superior, this should not prevent us from continuing to study that nation's origin story. Though some may recoil, it is important that professional historians who live and work in the United States retain that question of who we are as we continue to toil over the 5.0 canvas with scholars from around the world. These five books explore the contradictions of the double revolution, seeking to explain how Americans coped with terrible violence to their communities and bodies, how they tried to make sense of the chaos and restore order, and how they justified and interpreted what they had done, even long after the fact. They invented and reinvented the revolution as they went along. At the heart of all the conflicts citizens of the United States find themselves fighting over in 2019—legal jurisdictions, constitutional clauses, governmental oversight, political corruption, economic justice, environmental protections, racial bias, gender equality, social fairness, international agreements—lies the soul of the American nation. Those citizens too are interpreting, justifying, and reinventing the revolution. "No generation," Taylor concludes at the [End Page 560] end of American Revolutions, "will ever settle the revolution once and for all. In a constant ebb and flow, we will debate and advance competing and partial versions of our contradictory revolutionary legacy" (478). It is essential that we continue to study, debate, and refine. It is an act of faith. That our current portrait highlights the cruelty, coercion, fear, and violence that went hand in hand with, and in many ways made possible, the revolution's promises of self-government, equality before the law, and personal liberty is not anti-American. Criticism is not treason; it is rather our way of looking back through the door in order to walk more assuredly forward. Our portrait—Janus's Revolution—is messy, ugly, and difficult to digest. It can sometimes be as terrifying as the sight of the sacred god himself, but it is essential that we continue to work on it and, occasionally, step back to take a long look. [End Page 561]

Robert G. Parkinson
Binghamton University

Footnotes

1. Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The "Fasti" of Ovid, ed. and trans., James George Frazer (London, 1929), vol. 1, p. 9, lines 95–98.

2. For conferences, see "The American Revolution Reborn: New Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century," McNeil Center for Early American Studies, Philadelphia, May 30–June 1, 2013; "World and Ground: New American Histories," USC-Huntington Early American Studies Institute, Los Angeles, Calif., Mar. 6–7, 2015; "'So Sudden an Alteration': The Causes, Course and Consequences of the American Revolution," Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Apr. 9–11, 2015. The McNeil Center conference resulted in the publication of Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman, eds., The American Revolution Reborn (Philadelphia, 2016). For essays, see "Writing To and From the Revolution," special issue, William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 74, no. 4 (October 2017): 619–764, and Journal of the Early Republic 37, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 597–783. Recent books include Claudio Saunt, West of Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 (New York, 2014); Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York, 2015); Janet Polasky, Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (New Haven, Conn., 2015); Honor Sachs, Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier (New Haven, Conn., 2015); Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 2016). Forthcoming books include those from Brad Jones, T. Cole Jones, Christopher Pearl, and Matthew Spooner. See also David Waldstreicher, "The Revolutions of Revolution Historiography: Cold War Contradance, Neo-Imperial Waltz, or Jazz Standard?," review essay, Reviews in American History 42, no. 1 (March 2014): 23–35.

3. See Alfred F. Young and Gregory H. Nobles, Whose Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding (New York, 2011). For a taste of the bitterness, see "Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution," WMQ 51, no. 4 (October 1994): 677–716.

4. As should be clear, I endorse Jane Kamensky's assessment that for many reasons paintings and "painters are good to think with," not just for history but for historiography too. See Kamensky, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (New York, 2016), 5 (quotation).

5. Ovid, "Fasti," 1: p. 7, lines 65–66.

6. Alan Taylor, American Colonies (New York, 2001).

7. Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York, 1991).

8. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Aug. 24, 1815, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 1959), 2: 454–56 (quotation, 455).

9. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), 1.

10. Historians have especially explored this ideology in Virginia; see Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790 (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982), 87 (quotation); T. H. Breen, Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of the Revolution (Princeton, N.J., 1985); Bruce A. Ragsdale, A Planters' Republic: The Search for Economic Independence in Revolutionary Virginia (Madison, Wis., 1996).

11. Alan Taylor, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760–1820 (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990); Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999); Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York, 2007); Michael A. McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 2007).

12. See especially Alan Taylor, William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontiers of the Early American Republic (New York, 1995).

13. Thomas Paine, Common Sense. . .. (Philadelphia, 1776), 57.

14. As Michael Zuckerman recently put it, "the scholarly conversation on the Revolution has grown stale in recent years. It has ceased to engage young students of American history, let alone to animate or move them. . . . a dispiriting sense of exhaustion prevails," and thus they have concluded that it needs regeneration, to be reborn; Zuckerman, "Conclusion: Beyond the Rebirth of the Revolution: Coming to Terms with Coming of Age," in Spero and Zuckerman, American Revolution Reborn, 300–318 (quotation, 302).

15. As further evidence of Janus's hold on our thinking about the revolution, Colin G. Calloway invokes him in the introduction to Calloway, The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation (New York, 2018). Calloway also notes how "Janus was not 'two-faced'" but the "god of passages and transitions, beginnings and endings," suggesting that this captures how Washington "looked east to the past and west to the future"; ibid., 14 ("Janus"), 15 ("looked").

Additional Information

ISSN
1933-7698
Print ISSN
0043-5597
Pages
545-561
Launched on MUSE
2019-07-31
Open Access
No
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