Nationalism FAIL: suck it, Revolution.


It’s not just that it’s difficult to teach the quintessentially nationalistic course in American history in an era in which a great deal of the historiography is transnational or at least comparative, although that is a challenge for me considering the way I teach the rest of my courses.  It’s really the overwhelmingly nationalistic, solipsistic, chest-beating, flag-waving, screaching bald eagle totality of the historiography.  In the United States at least, there is no more nationalistic course, and no course that is taught in such a one-sided, pro-American manner.  And the students love it!  They demand it, in fact, and they revel in the opportunity to indulge in nationalist agitprop in their essays.

Every course I ever took on the American Revolution–from unreconstructed Whiggy consensus historians to the leftiest of the New Lefties–was unanimous in its judgment that the Americans were right to seek independence from Britain, and American military and diplomatic victories were cheered unreservedly.  The courses differed only in that the the Whig-consensus dudes argued that everything was pretty cool for everyone who counted by 1787 or thereabouts in the land of the World’s Last, Best Hope, whereas the New Lefties focused some attention on the people the American Revolution didn’t liberate:  enslaved people, poor white men, Native Americans, and women of all ethnicities, and pointed out the unfairness of it all that so many were left out of the World’s Last, Best Hope. 

Even the U.S. Civil War, which these days is taught in most universities unapologetically with an overwhelming nationalistic Union bias, has a more ideologically diverse historiography.  (It’s not a diversity I particularly respect, the weird little world of the Lost Causers, but it exists.  There is no such thing as a pro-British or even mildly skeptical school of thought on the American Revolution in the United States today.) 

So what’s the alternative?  I suppose it could be interesting to teach a course on the American Revolution from the British point of view, except that 1) that would be one week’s worth of material, so little did the colonies in rebellion matter to Great Britain, and 2) questions about British imperial history demand a much more global scope than “the American Revolution” offers.  Like the survey course, the American Revolution may need to have a stake pounded through its heart.

37 thoughts on “Nationalism FAIL: suck it, Revolution.

  1. Well, I didn’t take the early survey, took the one that started in the Gilded Age, had been avoiding it because of the nationalism but now I just had to graduate so could not put it off. Signed up, didn’t know/care at that point who the professor was, but it turned out to be Leon Litwack and it was one of the very best courses I took in college.

    A course I’d like to give would do Independence wars across the Americas, and even though US was first I wouldn’t start with it. I’d make them familiar with Haiti (a radical independence, with abolition) and Peru (a conservative one, where the point of getting independent was to get less democratic not more), for instance, before US.

    Then US could be seen in broader context of anti colonial wars, or wars of colonial negotiation as one should perhaps say. Louisiana was under Spain then and New Orleans reported to the head bureau in Havana. Benjamin Franklin raised payroll for the Battle of Yorktown in 24 hours, gathering silver from Havana elite. Bernardo de Galvez, governor of N.O., had been getting arms and supplies from here and the Caribbean and smuggling them up to George Washington; Spain was enjoying getting the British out of their land down here and chased them to Florida and then out of Florida; England decided (and this was while it was fighting US up north) to go get back at the Spaniards by trying to take Nicaragua.

    All this makes it far more fun, and it’s easier to see ambiguities in the independence movements when it’s not the country you’ve learned to be patriotic about in school.


  2. Z, I think you’re right that a “New World Revolutions” or “American RevolutionS” course is the way to go, if one must deal with it at all. I really wish I had been trained in Latin American history so that I could do this competently.

    I always teach about Gabriel’s Rebellion and the Haitian Rev., but that’s even too provincial for me now.


  3. I’m teaching an ‘arguments for America’ course right now. It’s a history of [mostly] U.S rhetoric from ‘encounter’ through the Civil War. This first time around I know that I’m falling a bit too easily into the strains of nationalism. I’m hoping, though, that the rhetorical focus will eventually help students disrupt the idea that “America” is a natural good and realize that instead it’s an argued, debated, and contradictory construction. In other words … maybe directing attention to the mechanisms of nationalism themselves is one way to circumvent the typical problem? I’ll let you know if I ever succeed… (don’t hold your breath!)


  4. well my students ate up the American Rev from the British perspective, although that was in a Brit history survey. I used Jasanoff’s recent Liberty’s Exiles, which went over decently well. But I think you have to lay down a certain amount of pipeline: Glorious Revolution, and Seven Years War in particular, for the British arguments about parliamentary authority and asking the American colonies to pay for their defense to make sense. And as for the American colonies not mattering to the Brits, that’s not exactly true. The British recovered from the loss quickly, but it was significant in a lot of ways: Colley’s Britons and Brown’s Moral Capital get into some of these less tangible ways that the loss of the American colonies transformed Britain itself.


  5. I think I’ve said this here before, Historiann, but if you’re having such a hard time finding less American-centric historiography, look at the historiography for Canadian history of the same period–and this is particularly true of the 18th and 19th centuries. Canadian historiography also tends to often question the emergence of Canada, which might provide an interesting contrast for your students to the much more gung-ho, unquestioning American point of view. Canadian history of the 18th century tends to be very much “North American” history, going right back to the high school level. Perhaps a good “hook,” or way into getting your students to think differently about the American Revolution, might include starting by looking at George Washington’s role in the British army during the Seven Years’ War.

    I regularly shock American history grad students by pointing out that a good 40,000 Americans were so disgusted with the American revolution that they moved to what’s now Ontario, and they formed the core of what later became English Canada–no settlers spoke English on the Canadian mainland before the United Empire Loyalists showed up. But light-hearted as those encounters tend to be, I’m a little surprised to see some of the same point of view coming from you, Historiann, who’s working on early Quebec–I mean, yes, I do know that most Americans tend to equate “America” with “North America,” so they forget Canada exists (and a lot of propoganda in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries deliberately encourged that point of view), but I wasn’t expecting to see that point of view from you. I guess those blinkers are even stronger than I usually realize if even someone with your research interests can forget that there’s another country on this continent with a very different relationship to British imperialism and the American Revolution–effectively, a country that owes its existence to refusing, repeatedly, to join the USA’s rebellions.

    Okay, I’ll get off my “Hello! Remember Canada?!” horse now…but seriously, I do think that you’ll find some much more contested views of the American Revolution in the type of books one finds in Canadian libraries, which might help you out if you end up teaching the American Revolution course again.


  6. Well here is something interesting: when I was teaching the Revolution in my survey class this semester I spent about half the discussion presenting the British point of view. Usually students like to play along but then get right back to their flag waving, eagle screeching conclusions that “we” fought the good fight. This year, however, I had TWO students write essays in their midterms arguing that the colonists were wrong to revolt. That was a pleasant surprise, but then I started to fear that it was actually an expression of extreme conservatism taken to its logical conclusion. Not sure what to make of it, but a first for me!


  7. I’m with you, Historiann! This has been an incredibly annoying problem, figuring out how to get students to escape the nationalistic flag-waving that usually crops up, more or less naturally, whenever Americans think about the Revolution. I’ve developed a number of approaches, some of which are similar to those discussed above.

    First off, I’ve adopted a broad global approach: I call the class “The Age of the American Revolution” and talk not only about the rest of the British Empire, but about France, Haiti, Latin America as well. While it’s true that a British view of the Revolution would be hard to stretch to a whole class (though not impossible), there’s lots of great primary and secondary sources that look at the Revolution from various non-thirteen-colonies perspectives. This tends to annoy some students, but they deal with it.

    Second, I give an introductory lecture specifically intended to dissuade flag-waving. I talk about how my ancestors were loyalists (which is true), and how important it is to look at the Revolution from both sides. And I specifically forbid students from referring to the Patriots as “we” (something that a great undergraduate teacher taught me), in order to encourage some distance.

    Finally, like Canuck Down South, I talk about Canada. A lot! I start the course with the British Conquest of Quebec and end it with the Patriots’ Rebellions of 1837. This also annoys students; “too much Canada,” they say in evaluations. But hopefully they learn to place the Revolution in a broader context, and see that it was more than just a passage in US national history.


  8. Wim Klooster’s recent book *Revolutions in the Atlantic World* offers a pretty good comparative overview for students. But I teach it in a survey, not the “American Revolution” course, which remains provincial…


  9. This is why I became a medievalist. For as long as I can remember, stretching back to grade school, I was turned off by the transparently ideological dimensions of the way US history was taught to me. It felt like indoctrination long before I knew that word. It’s kind of a shame, though, because there may be others who have this response, who are turned off from studying US history and adding their perspective to the conversation.


  10. You could teach Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux,” for a representation of the revolutionaries as a mob of yahoos and the sympathetic character as the loyalist and ask why Hawthorne would choose to represent the revolution this way.

    And there has to be some way to bring in the Pueblo revolts over in the southwest into this same conversation.


  11. I think it’s the centering on the American Revolution of 1765-1787 only that is at the root of the evil I sketch here. All of your comparative suggestions are terrific–but I guess I remain skeptical of their use in anything that still centers on the Am Rev.

    I think being a women’s & gender historian means that I’m naturally skeptical of a political/imperial imperial approach. I’m on the record as having pointed out that broadly comparative histories that focus on “creolization,” “hybridization,” “ethnogenesis” and the like tend either to romanticize or omit entirely the rape and other exploitation of women that makes that “culture change” possible. IOW, I didn’t go into this line of work to talk about the late 18th C only–it’s just an occupational hazard.

    My tendency is to avoid teaching that class until I decide what I really want to do. Whatever I’m doing, I’m boring myself and I find it difficult to muster the intellectual energy necessary to make it a decent class for the students, so perhaps avoidance is for the best for everyone concerned.


  12. This is a problem that I have had with the revolutionary period for a while now. Thinking about my intellectual development because of the job market, I actually place my interest in transnational approaches to my undergraduate days and a course on pre-Revolutionary America (I believe that was the course title).

    It was back in the late 90s, and I had just spent a semester reading all about the English Civil War for a reading course when I took a seminar in Early America. Whenever we read about the mid-17th century in the Americas, I kept thinking about Cromwell, George I, and all the other folks across the water that were never mentioned in any of the histories we were reading.

    Now, I look at a later period in US history, but that course (and the absences in the reading) have kept me looking at what was going on elsewhere and how it interacted with/influenced the people I study.

    Thanks for this post. I hope to teach an American history survey, and the thoughts of your readers will help put together a more diverse reading list.


  13. How about a Rise and Fall of the Middle Ground approach. You have to push the time frame boundaries a bit back to 1700 say and up to 1812.

    And yeah, once you get past “the British weren’t gonna add seats to Parliament because of the Glorious Revolution” piece there isn’t much to add. This did not stop a couple of my students from writing “the British wanted to oppress the Americans” in the cause and effect question: Explain how British conceptions of how many people could serve in Parliament helped cause the American Revolution. Sigh.


  14. Interesting. One of the more popular courses in the summer school in Oxford that I run is “British Perspectives on the American Revolution.” Of course that’s partly because the instructor is a great teacher. And then, students who spend their summer in England often have a tinge (if not a broad streak) of Anglophilia.


  15. squadratomagico: the chest-thumping and flag-waving not only turned me off of US history. They turned me off of all history. The eagle-screeching may bear a higher cost than is generally recognized. I don’t think I’m alone in that reaction.


  16. I get at this from the British perspective through literature (being a Brit Lit prof). William Blake’s _America_ is actually pretty good at revealing that the American revolution is/will be as bloody as all the rest, and points to the violence that a so-called triumph of enlightenment reason will cause even if people don’t want to look at it.

    What squadrato says is true of me, too, though I didn’t go back as far. I was very much inclined to study things Not American and pre-“modern.”


  17. I second Squadratomagico’s point: As an undergrad, I avoided US history like the plague, precisely because of the nationalist bent in popular history. It certainly contributed to my interest in the histories of other parts of the world.

    That said, grad school and my Americanist colleagues have shown me that the US has an interesting and exciting history especially in comparative perspective. Maybe you need a better brand or marketing slogan? How about, “The American Revolution: New and improved, now with 35% less jingo!”


  18. I think a course on “American RevolutionS” would be a lovely goal for a collaborative syllabus-writing project via Google Docs or somesuch. There’s no reason that a few (or more than a few) people with different expertise on the western hemisphere and Atlantic world couldn’t come up with a set of readings and topics that would work, with minor alterations, at all of their institutions.

    As for the “overwhelmingly nationalistic, solipsistic, chest-beating, flag-waving, screaching bald eagle totality of the historiography”: The week in my gradschool seminar where we read a recent book and a few articles on the US c. 1770-1810 convinced me that, even if I’d been interested in that time period to begin with, I didn’t want to work in a subfield with such venomous, high-stakes debates.


  19. “I didn’t want to work in a subfield with such venomous, high-stakes debates.”

    Heh. Which ones, I wonder? The Lemmon-Henretta debate? The totally invented one between Lance Banning and Joyce Applebee? Gordon Wood versus the Rest of the World? Joseph Ellis Makes $hit Up, Again? Hee. Angels dancing on the head of a pin.


  20. I think the interest taken in the American Revolutions depended on where you were in Britain. There is now a lot of discussion around its importance to the formation of political identities in both Scotland and Ireland, and these were peoples who watched events unfolding in the US in some detail and with regular updates in the press etc. They were far from uninterested…

    On a broader note, last week on facebook there was a ‘letter from the Queen’ doing the rounds, which pretty much addressed the US and told them that she was taking back the US as they were doing such a poor job of governing it (all very droll reasons of course). The same day on the BBC, there was a report of a debate in the States at some legal society, where one side took the British perspective and the other took the US perspective, and they argued the legality of the US’s decision to become independent. And, I thought, hmm it’s interesting that there is such discussion about this decision at this particular historical moment. And, then I see this, which sort of adds to this broader discussion. And, I wondered why are we having these thoughts NOW. And whether the global financial crisis had anything to do with it; or maybe the Kate and William effect?


  21. Cliotropic’s idea is a good one and there would be NEH or FIPSE etc. $ for a multi-institution project.

    You could also co-teach a comparative revolutions seminar with some Latin Americanist, after which you would be competent to rejig survey.

    And/or have an NEH seminar / Institute on this.


  22. Cliotropic & Z are right – the American RevolutionS is totally an NEH seminar or Institute waiting to happen, Historiann. Give it a shot. Its also comparative and transnational. (I hear that’s the hot thing right now. Or at least “Perspectives” said so last year.) A good excuse to get a bunch of American, Caribbean, and Latin American Historians together in a pleasant city to kick the topic around.


  23. This is a somewhat vexing problem, but not one I invest a whole lot of angst in. Teaching will always be an ongoing strain between what we want to teach and what they want to learn. My anti-assessment sensibility (we can’t really know all that much about what “outcomes” are gathering inside the black box known as the human brain) lets me imagine them waking up refigured years later, whatever agitprop it may have pleased them to emit way back then. The guy who called teaching a subversive activity never said you could prove it.

    Indeed, in an anthropological way, I somewhat admire (in the 18th century non-approving sense) a culture that can make people whose forbears arrived relative minutes ago want to own–as “we”–things that happened centuries before that. That said, I do what I can to subvert the trope. I start the course by announcing that whatever the title says there isn’t going to *be* an American Revolution because Anglo-Americans as late as 1750 were doing everything they could to be as British as they could pretend to be, so we should be done by Spring Break. And why would anyone want to leave such a successful empire just as it crested into Atlantic and, really, global supremacy anyway? I invite them to look west from London and know that an acquaintance in 1770 who told them “I’m going out to the colonies/ plantations next year” had a very substantial chance of ending up somewhere on a vast crescent from Newfoundland to Barbados that had no intention of being “independent” of anything. Declarations happen withal, of course, but I note that when Whitehall had to decide what to keep and what to discard, trading Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania for some tiny islands in the West Indies was the Age of Reason version of a no-brainer.

    None of this destroys nationalism, I would imagine, but it lays some modest counterweight against their easy default whiggism. I get the sense that a French historian teaching the French Revolution at the Sorbonne or Strassbourg would find it little easier–if they even wanted to–to construct that event as anything other than a transcendent moment of national affirmation. The nation state will implode when it does, but it will last our time, as Louis XV is said to have said.

    I should also say that my Latin American colonial colleague and I talk all the time about merging our courses one time out, but having already done that with the American and French Revolutions, no dean around here is going to “eat the seats” that would let that happen.


  24. My department uses a common world history textbook, Voyages in World History, that takes a hemisphere-wide + France approach. Chapter 22 is called “Revolutions in the West, 1750-1830.” I also recommend Thomas Bender’s A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History, which was one of several books reviewed by my colleague Robert Shaffer in the December 2009 Journal of World History.


  25. Also, toss out one of Matthew Yglesias’s favorites: If the British had agreed to colonial representation in Parliament early on, how would that have impacted the course of slavery in North America?


  26. Here’s an idea: skip most of the War and the who/whys. Sure, Make them read the D of I (it’s mostly a list of whines!) and the Constitution. Otherwise? focus on the impact. What does it mean to not have imperial rivalries? Especially for Indians. To be divorced from GB at the moment that abolitionism expands? Oops, sorry slaves. To have to recreate legal codes — all based on common law, but can’t like those Brits too much. Not to mention literary culture. I think the question is: what difference did/didn’t the Revolution make, and for whom? (And while we’re at it, how about noting that New Spain still is going strong in the Revolutionary era — did CA missionaries care about the Am Rev?)

    THAT would be a really interesting course.


  27. In addition to everyone’s great wisdom, I think the whole question of whose revolution can make it all more problematic. How does the revolution change that? or not? So ideas of citizenship, representation, etc. all get shifted to benefit some people and not others. My take is that some students are ready to see that now.


  28. My favorite revolution-related quote from my best friend in grad school, who was teaching an early US survey: “Saying ‘The colonies won independence with help from France and Spain’ is like saying ‘Me and daddy killed the bear!’ ”

    (I have no idea how accurate that is; I just liked it a great deal.)


  29. I want to agree with Canuck Down South’s comments above. I’m American but have been exposed to a lot of the Canadian perspective on US revolution, war of 1812, etc, and it really does show you a very different side.

    Not only the loyalists who moved north and became the core of the anglophone population of what became Canada, but other things, for example the fact that a significant number of people in the colonies (1/3 is the figure I remember) opposed the revolution, while another significant chunk were neutral on the issue; the fact that there were actually 15 British colonies, two of which refused to go along with the rebellious 13 (Florida and Nova Scotia, which was populated by people who’d migrated up the coast from New England; and yes both were sparsely populated which is part of the story…); the fact that the revolutionaries targeted as enemies pacifists such as Quakers for refusing to support armed rebellion, which resulted in them being accosted, robbed and therefore many of them (including some of my wife’s ancestors) fleeing along with Loyalists in 1783 to Nova Scotia.

    Not being a historian I haven’t followed this literature indepth, but since I am very familiar with other revolutions, esp. the Russian one(s), I think it’s important to note that the US “revolution” wasn’t really a revolution at all…

    Finally, I wonder if the nationalism/resistance of students to other versions varies by region? I’m in the northeast and teach about US foreign policy, including perspectives that are very much against the US nationalist, exceptionalist perspective, and I find that when I introduce them in the right way, students tend to understand those perspectives.


  30. Edmund Burke wrote a pro-British essay on why the colonists should stay loyal. I make my students read it and it’s an interesting contrarian view.


  31. Edmund Burke, “Speech to Parliament” March 22, 1775. From SELECT WORKS OF EDMUND BURKE eds Payne and Canavan (Indianapolis 1999). I also found a speech “To the Inhabitants of the Province of Mass Bay 1774-75” by Daniel Leonard, which argued for loyalty to the British. These are both in READING THE AMERICNAN PAST volume 1, 4th edition by Johnson (Bedford St Martins).


  32. @Brian Ulrich – not sure that would have solved much. The colonies were fairly adamant they could never have been adequately represented in Parliament owing to the distance involved. And, after all, it was the advice of colonial agents like Franklin which helped start the Stamp Tax anyway.


  33. Another angle of vision on the Am Rev: You might use it as an opportunity to teach about political (and social and cultural) change by showing that, despite all the historiography that focuses on elite leadership, revolution happened only when vast numbers of ordinary, free people mobilized and pressed the elite toward a more participatory and radical position. Who led whom, and who joined whom? Those matters were ambiguous at best, as you can see in the revolutionary committees and crowds that swept the colonies and organized on the common ground of North American societies. (And why have historians through the years missed or misrepresented that mobilization?) Likewise, even if elites managed to contain the most fundamental calls for change, the Revolution did unleash popular thinking. No matter what Jefferson and other Congressmen thought they were saying by linking “all men” and “created equal,” other Americans who were distinctly their social inferiors immediately took possession of the phrase. You can trace a lot of themes from that revolutionary moment, on into the 19th century and beyond, as people built democracy (such as it is and has been) from the bottom up.


  34. The work of J.C.D. Clark could do some good here, especially his essay on the inevitability of the American Revolution (or lack thereof) in his volume of essays, Shadow of History. Old school imperial stuff, and broadly conservative, but no time for American self-congratulation.


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