The debates about revolt

A Blackwell Companion to the American Revolution

June 16, 2000

Purchasers of this substantial volume may well feel initially aggrieved with the publisher. The editors' introduction assumes, in passing, that the reader will already know that this work substantially reprints something called the Encyclopedia . In fact, the dust-jacket makes no mention of it, and the only notice is a minutely printed line on the title verso stating that "Some of the material in this book first appeared in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution ".

But even though in this case "some" means more than 75 per cent, the new version should be welcomed as a valuable and revealing source of information and ideas on the founding experience of the United States. This edition lacks the Encyclopedia 's 100-page biographical dictionary and most of its illustrations, but it retains the useful chronological table drawn up by Steven Sarson. Otherwise, the volume consists of 90 interpretative articles, compared with 75 in the Encyclopedia , all written by experts in the field and intended to be accessible to a non-specialist audience, including students and historians of other fields and periods. The 71 essays that are retained nearly all have updated bibliographies, but only a few show signs of significant revision as a result of recent publications. These limited changes, together with the 19 new essays, provide an indication of how the field - at least in the editors' judgement - has changed in the past decade.

The American revolution is consistently defined in this work as the break with Britain and the creation of the new republic. It was therefore appropriate that the original anthology emphasised political, constitutional and intellectual history, and though the balance has shifted, these emphases still survive. Interestingly, the authors of essays and bibliographies on these subjects have felt little need to revise them, reflecting how unfashionable political and constitutional history has become in the face of the hegemony of cultural history.

The continuing pre-eminence of the ideological interpretation fashioned by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood is marked by the retention of a whole section devoted to "concepts" - such as liberty, sovereignty and republicanism - that energised the rebellion and then underwent transformation in the revolution's troubled internal debates. In the only new contributions, Michael Zuchert debates the tensions within the revolutionaries' assertion of "rights" that evolved from the traditionally English to the universal, while Cathy Matson traces the ways in which Americans grappled with the prospect that competing selfish "interests" might destroy the res publica unless some device were found to balance them within a national political system.

The main revisions in the excellent opening section on the colonial "context" derive from Jurgen Habermas's concept of the "public sphere". Habermas's emphasis on the role of language and communication in creating social awareness and cultural agreement compels some revision of the existing essays on cultural development and the inclusion of an essay on the emergence of "civic culture" before the revolution. In this notable contribution, David Shields argues that the growth of an arena of public debate marked by civility supported government and provided the means of influencing the exercise of power of all kinds.

These developments were promoted by the movement of peoples and goods around the empire. In a new essay, Richard Johnson demonstrates how, in the 18th century, the balance within the empire shifted from the direct trans-oceanic communication of each colony with the metropolis to improving land-based and coastal communication between the colonies. Closer contacts encouraged more cultural convergence among the colonies, which, for all their differences, increasingly came to recognise their common legal and political inheritance. As Jack Greene intimates in a new chapter on "Identity and independence", the colonists shared the demand that the metropolis should treat them as freeborn Britons; and when their rebellion necessitated that they create new governments, they produced state constitutions that (as Donald Lutz shows) reflected their common political culture.

The growing realisation that war was the main motor of change in the 18th century results in the largest block of new work. Thomas Purvis spells out the significance of the seven years' war against France, while six other new essays examine the role in the war for independence of the Continental army and the militia, the US navy, the home front and popular resistance to the revolution. Mark Kwasny emphasises the guerrilla warfare in these years, destroying crops, homes and lives and directly affecting a greater proportion of the civilian population than would even the American civil war. Yet none of these essays greatly alters the picture of the revolutionary war painted in Don Higginbotham's magisterial and graceful treatment in the two essays reprinted from the original work.

The original volume was accused of offering an elitist view of the revolution, but it contained competing voices that are still powerful. Edward Countryman continues to argue the case for seeing social protest as energising the rebellion, providing coercive power in the form of mobs and manpower for the revolutionary committees. By contrast, David Conroy and Rebecca Starr insist on elite leadership and control of popular action. An interesting light is thrown on these differences of emphasis by Michael McDonnell, whose provocative new essay argues that the wide range of "disaffection" to the patriot cause reflected not only the strength of loyalism in some quarters but also the dissatisfaction of those who objected to the hardships and disciplines necessitated by war. The "disaffected" also included people who wanted a very different kind of revolution, one less gentry led and more sympathetic to the needs of small farmers and the middling sort. Yet other essayists besides Countryman accept that the broadening of power during the revolution contributed to the troubled politics of the 1780s.

The strongest resistance to the revolution came from African-Americans and "Amerindians". The recent emphasis on understanding these non-European groups from their distinctive viewpoints prompts Eric Hinderaker's article revealing how the aboriginal tribes west of the Appalachians worked to retain political and cultural autonomy after technically coming under British control in 1763, and their contribution to the history and culture of the "Middle Ground" - as Richard White has termed the area of frontier interaction - is recognised by Peter Marshall's revised chapter on the west between 1756 and 1776. Similarly, Michael Rozbiki acknowledges the development of a distinctive Afro-European culture among the slaves, while Robert Calhoon emphasises how rebellious slaves helped to provoke the resort to arms in Virginia in 1775 and how maroon communities provided assistance for the British invasion of the South after 1779. Amid these struggles, James Sidbury argues, more clearly defined racial categories began to be constructed: like the Amerindians, African-Americans came to recognise that their common condition and provenance overrode internal tribal and linguistic differences, while whites sought to justify the retention of slavery in a land of republican freedom by expatiating on the racial inferiority of the slaves.

The Encyclopedia 's welcome section on foreign responses to the revolution - especially valuable on Latin America and the sugar colonies - is reinforced here by an authoritative account of Canada's ambivalent involvement, while the chapters on European reactions suggest that revolutionary ideas had relatively little impact outside France. At home, Americans grappled with the consequences of the revolution, discovering how much they had lost along with the imperial connection and how far they remained dependent. For example, Jack Pole's new essay reveals that while the law acted as a lever of reform, the courts clung to English common law and American lawyers still had to study English legal opinions.

In this age of cultural construction, it is ironic that the two most interesting new essays provide fascinating insights into material development. Mary Schweitzer's racy examination of the economic impact of the revolution explains the quandaries of state governments charged with the task of sorting out the losses entailed in the revolution and determining on whom they should fall in the immediate future. She is bitter about the building of future liberal prosperity on the backs of the unfree, but surely it is naively unhistorical to suggest that slavery could have been abolished in the South in 1787? Christine Daniels's explanation of hardening class lines and growing class differences is more measured, but again she emphasises the concentration of wealth after the revolution and the economic decline that ensured that only a few artisans fitted the idealised description of pre-industrial craftsmen that has been so fashionable among scholars of 19th-century social change.

Occasionally, the failure to revise some of the older essays is revealing or disappointing. In women's history, the sole change is in confidence: Betty Wood's hypotheses in the Encyclopedia are now definite statements, suggesting the rapid expansion of a distinguished secondary literature. Silvia Frey's essay on slavery has nothing to say about recent work exploring the conditions affecting the abolition of slavery in the northern states. Similarly, some important recent books - such as Jack Rackove's Original Meanings (1997) on the making of the constitution and Gordon Wood's long-range synthesis The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) - undeservedly receive almost no attention in any of the essays.

In many ways, this is not a convenient book to use. The cross-referencing is flimsy. Some essays lack the references for sources that others provide.The placing of the essays within six unevenly defined sections is not consistent or helpful. There are typographical errors, including authors' names and misprinted dates. And yet, thanks to the vigour, expertise and cogency of the individual essays, this volume will prove a much-valued companion for those who would explore the defining moment of the American republic.

Donald J. Ratcliffe is senior lecturer in history, University of Durham.

A Blackwell Companion to the American Revolution

Editor - Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole
ISBN - 0 631 21058 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £80.00
Pages - 778

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