- Going Continental?Romantic Transnationalism and Contemporary Interpretation of the American Revolution
The twenty-first century's second decade has been defined by conflict between those who would find meaning in nations and national identity and those who believe in a global community or globalism. The resulting clashes fill our news outlets and shape electoral politics in many societies, including our own. It is a struggle that has permeated many aspects of contemporary life and seems unlikely to end soon.
A division that parallels this conflict is evident in the study of the American Revolution. Popular writers, government professors, political scientists, law school instructors, and a few history professors continue to produce scholarship on the Revolution as it has been traditionally understood. These scholars continue to believe that the revolutionary generation's personalities, events, writings, institutions, and achievements are central to understanding both change in the period and the character of our society today. In this turn, the Revolution is seen as the founding moment of a great, if in some ways greatly flawed, nation whose history offers instruction in fundamental questions even now. Most of these writers in no way identify with the extreme forms of nationalism evident in politics today, and they may not even think themselves nationalists at all. But their focus is on the Revolution as part of the national history of the American people, and the sources they use are institutionally and/or culturally a product of the American state and Anglophone culture.
While a national revolutionary history may still have its students as [End Page 539] well as a very broad popular audience, and nationalism may be in vogue among the masses on four continents, national revolutionary history is decidedly unfashionable within history departments. A pronounced fondness for transnational approaches to the past, including the American Revolution, is now at least three decades old and going strong in history departments. Transnationalism, de-centering, margins, vastness and borderlands, oceanic zones, and networks—these are at the center of how professional historians study early America in the twenty-first century.
In fact, as nationalism has swelled and spread in the broader society, early American historians seem to have doubled down on their transnationalism even as it enters historiographic middle age. This affinity for such approaches is in a sense not surprising, given that the professional study of American history developed in part in response to whiggish Romantic Nationalists like George Bancroft, whose vast The History of the United States, from the Discovery of the Continent shaped national historical consciousness in the mid-nineteenth century. Certainly, both the Imperial historians and the original Progressive interpretation expressed hostility to this triumphant nationalist story of the Revolution, and the Progressives' neo-Progressive, New Left, and postcolonial heirs have continued in that general vein.1
Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, by Kathleen Duval, and American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804, by Alan Taylor, are nominally based on the newest transnational approach to the American Revolution—Continental history. Both studies are designed to bring the insights of this approach to general as well as scholarly audiences, and both are clearly written and well organized. But taken together they raise central issues about Continental history that are not easily resolved.
For Professor DuVal, a Continental approach to the revolutionary era is an extension of the "new narrative of colonial history … one that emphasizes cross-cultural encounters, variations and changes in slavery practices, and the changing power dynamics of the entire continent, not just the thirteen British colonies that eventually rebelled" (xxv). Her book joins aspects of the old Imperial school's focus on the European [End Page 540] settlement of North America that de-centered the United States, with the emphasis on race and the other that remains current in the early American field. The major statement of this type of colonial history is probably Taylor's book, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York, 2002).
In the sixteen chapters of Independence Lost, DuVal examines eight lives on the near Southeast frontier and Gulf Coast, an area dominated by Native American and Spanish power from the period before the war to the...