Michael D. Hattem has a thoughtful review on the stagnation of scholarship on the American Revolution over at the Junto. He writes about the ways in which intellectual histories of the coming of the Revolution were preeminent in the 1960s, and then dominance of social histories of the effects of the Revolution in the 1970s and 1980s. He also writes about the call for transnational or global histories, which work against interests in writing about quintessentially nationalist events like the Revolution, and finally concludes:
I would argue that the last thirty years (and the explicit raison d’être of the conferences, i.e., the stagnation of Revolution studies) show us unlikelihood of “new directions” organically emerging from working within these paradigms. That is not the fault of the paradigms or the historians working within them since it was not something they appear to have intended to achieve. But I also do not think those paradigms lend themselves to producing the kind of consensus required to actually forge new directions in a field that has been so mired in such a deep rut for so long a period of time. To break out of this rut––to reconstruct the Revolution, as it were––will require more than that. It will require historians who care about the American Revolution as its own topic to confront our historiographical predicament head-on.
Go read the whole thing–it’s worth it, even if I don’t think he provides a lantern out of the darkness and disinterest in the Revolution. Many of the distinguished scholars he mentions have tried–and failed–effectively to re-ignite our interest. Hattem must be at least a little younger than me, because he left out an organizing event in that 1960s and 1970s frenzy of scholarship on the Revolution, namely, the 1976 Bicentennial.
The Bicentennial, for anyone who can remember it, was a Big Freakin’ Deal. Remember the national and international events of the previous two years: Watergate and President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation; President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon; the final flight out of Saigon and the end, finally, of the U.S. War in Vietnam. 1960s radicalism ground to a parodic end with the 1974 kidnapping and conversion of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army. 1976 was also a Presidential election year featuring the never-elected either to the Vice Presidency or the Presidency Gerald Ford and the newcomer from Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter.
I was only seven at the time of the Bicentennial celebrations in the summer of 1976, but remember its incredible build-up through the early and mid-1970s. Colonial and Revolutionary revival was big in domestic architecture and the decorative arts. My childhood home, built in 1974, was a Ryan Home model called “The Bunker Hill,” and as I recall the other models of homes built in our neighborhood also had names like this derived from Colonial places and Revolutionary War battles. (I can’t find a link to confirm this–maybe some students of recent U.S. vernacular architecture can confirm?) The neighborhood built just a half-decade earlier than mine had streets named after a mash-up of Cavalier Virginia and Civil War battles: Williamsburg,Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Fredericksburg. I grew up reading in the light of a lamp with a base like a Revolution-era drummer in the family room of the “Bunker Hill.” I remember curtains printed with eighteenth-century drums and arms, and summer tops with eagles in red, white, and blue on them. The fashions on display here in the photos speak for themselves!
Close to Independence Day, an actual wagon train of Conestoga Wagons led by horses and commanded by some overland historical re-enactors and hippies came to town and camped at Olander Park in our neighborhood. Was it they who staged the parade through town that featured a float re-enacting the Boston Tea Party, with “colonists” dressed as “Indians” throwing Lipton Tea bags at the crowd? (One of those tea bags hit me in the face! I got curious about why tossing teabags around had anything to do with the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War. It was perhaps the event that made me an early American historian.) I don’t think I’m unique among scholars in their mid-40s and older; Jill Lepore has written about her memories of the 1976 Bicentennial in essays in The New Yorker which are reprinted in some of her recent essay collections, and I see a great deal of similarity in the way she and I both remember the 1970s and its engagement with early American history.
The point of this personal reminiscence is to say that I think those of us who remember 1976 and the build-up to it are not the scholars who will likely re-ignite interest in the American Revolution. Our interest in early America may have been fired by the Bicentennial celebrations, but by the time we got to college and graduate school, most of the truly important and innovative work on the Revolution had been written (or was well on its way.)
For me, it was books like John Shy’s A People Numerous and Armed; Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic; Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters; Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom; Gary Nash’s Forging Freedom; Sylvia Frey’s Water from the Rock; and Al Young’s work on George Robert Twelves Hughes, for example. What was left for a young scholar to say in the 1990s after that embarrassment of riches?
My bottom line: I think it will take a fresh generation with no memories of the 1970s to revolutionize studies of the American Revolution. What do the rest of you think, those of you who remember the 1970s as well as those of you who don’t?