Saturday, June 20, 2015

Tilting at Windmills, Vol. 1, No. 6

American Revolution Historiography: Part II
     (This is a continuation of yesterday's History According to Jim post) We left off yesterday after explaining the Imperial school of thought. Near the middle of the 20th century another change in how historians viewed the Revolution took place. Historians began to look for common ground or what they termed a consensus of the past. In their eyes, a consensus existed among colonists in their overthrow of the British rule. To these historians, the colonists agreed on most political aspects. The historians rejected class conflict, minimized the significance of political thought, eliminated the divisions between groups, and removed the economic elements proposed by the Beards. 

Daniel Boorstin
     These historians included Daniel Boorstin, Forrest McDonald, and Richard Hofstadter. They saw the Revolution as a limited event, one that sought not to replace the current political world, but to improve upon it. This was a conservative interpretation in that they were practically denying the large changes wrought by the event. The consensus interpretation would not last long though with even Hofstadter transitioning from it in the 1960s.

    In what I think may be the most dynamic change of interpretation, a school of thought that focused on the political rhetoric of the Revolution emerged in the 1960s. This is the Neo-Whig school and it has had a very impressive impact on how the event is seen. This school began with Bernard Bailyn and his students at Harvard which included Gordon Wood, Pauline Maier, Michael Kammen, Jack Rakove, Mary Beth Norton, and many others. This is also labeled the Republican school of thought.
Bernard Bailyn

     Bailyn and his students rejected the consensus view and resurrected the political ideas behind the event. In fact, Bailyn placed the terms liberty and freedom at the heart of the patriot movement. Gordon Wood took that even further building upon Bailyn's ideas and stressed just how radical an event the revolution was. Their interpretation was that the colonists wanted an entirely new form of government. In Wood's eyes, this meant equality or egalitarianism in the new order. Edmund Morgan can also be placed in this school.

   While the Neo-Whig school is still dominant, another school has risen known as the Left. This school focuses on the bottom up approach to history and is found in all aspects of historical thought, not just the Revolution. In many ways it complements the Neo-Whig school from the bottom up perspective, but the Left incorporates class warfare, economic issues, social, gender, and race elements into the interpretation. 

     Historians such as Edward Countryman, Gary Nash, Ray Raphael, and Howard Zinn represent the Left although Zinn is considered to be part of the radical Left. All of these Left historians focus on the role of the average person, the marginalized, and the oppressed in developing their histories. Zinn goes farther by saying the elites of the colonies seized the actions of the people in order to create a government that they would control. While there is some element of truth to that, the political actions of those elites were definitely inspired by the people and what they wanted.

     The result is a vibrant and evershifting look at the American Revolution. Right now both the Neo-Whig and Left views hold sway in academia. All of the other schools of thought are still present although almost none of them have any support from academic scholars. Instead modern political rhetoric is often the driving force behind the support of these older and outdated interpretations. 

     Obviously there is no one solitary interpretation. In many cases, the two newer schools exist side-by-side or even mingled together. Both have strong evidence to support their interpretations as well as a blending of them. Disagreements of opinion also exist which is healthy for the study of the Revolution as it prevents the ideas from becoming stagnant.
Gary Nash
Jack Rakove

In Memory of Pauline Maier

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