J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, September 01, 2013

Revisiting “The American Revolution Reborn”

Discussion of this spring’s “American Revolution Reborn” conference in Philadelphia continues, albeit focused on one particular moment. Peter Feinman of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education described that exchange this way on the New York History Blog:
Non-academic J.F. Gearhart asked one group of commentators if they thought the American Revolution was a good thing. Is the world a better place because the American Revolution occurred?

The pained look on their silent faces spoke volumes. The anguished mental gymnastics of the three visibly uncomfortable academics was reminiscent of an American President coming up with “What is ‘is.’”

Finally Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University, managed to say (and I am paraphrasing), “There were some good things which came out of the American Revolution and some bad things.” Gearhart pressed her to provide a “net-net” rendering on the Revolution. She declined to do so and laughingly noted that her students want her to do the same.
Michael Hattem of the Junto Blog replied in a comment:
I think you misjudged her reaction, which was less that of a “deer caught in the headlights” than of mild bemusement. I also think that you have totally misinterpreted the audience’s reaction, as well. The vast majority of the audience, who were academics, did not have their breath taken away by Ulrich’s pause or her response. Rather, they were stunned that such a simplistic and impertinent question would even be asked at a conference like that and they were silent because they were waiting to see how Ulrich would address it.

To her credit, she addressed it quite diplomatically and respectfully (more so than I suspect some in the room would have done). As she said, it was the kind of question that is asked by undergraduates with little to no experience with academic history as a discipline. The first thing an undergraduate learns in a college-level history class is to avoid such generalizations because they can never convey the actual complexity of history.
That response might be reflected in how Liz Covart’s mighty comprehensive recap of the conference didn’t make space for that question and answer.

Michael Zuckerman, one of the conference’s organizers, attacked the broad conclusions that Feinman drew from that exchange:
In one of his most severe swipes at those academics, Peter lamented their lack of any apparent pride in the Revolution. People everywhere, he says, take pride in the birth of their own country; only ivory-tower elites do not. But, in this regard, Peter did not attend the same conference I did. He blogged as though we all understand and agree on the story of that birth. BUT WE DON’T. That, it seemed to me, was the burden and the anguish of the conference.

A bunch of well-meaning scholars who don’t even know their own minds with any assurance, let alone think they know “the truth” of that birth, came together in the hope that, together, they might make more sense of it than they now do. The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in that birth. The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth?

Pride was not the mood of the conference because humility was.
To some extent this is a political debate. Feinman’s Cold War rhetoric borrows from the right and Zuckerman’s warnings about economic inequality and lack of opportunity come from the left. But it’s also about the questions that modern historians can or should answer.

There was a further response from Feinman here, and sharp commentary by Roy Rogers at the Junto.

Hattem called Gearhart’s question “impertinent,” which has the double meaning of being irrelevant to the ongoing conversation and slightly rude besides. I didn’t think that question was either of those things. But I found it to be a poor question.

TOMORROW: Was the American Revolution a Good Thing?


G. Lovely said...

I am an Architect. Long ago before I really knew anything of the theory, history, and practice of Architecture, you could have asked me "What's your favorite building?" and I would have had a ready answer. Now when people ask (and they still do) my answer is convoluted, nuanced, and couched in qualifications.

When you know little or nothing, simplistic questions are easy to ask and answer, but with greater knowledge comes the awareness that few things in this world are black and white, at least for those of us not merely looking to score cheap political points.

John L Smith Jr said...

Even though I'm very pro-American-Revolution (whatever that means), I found the question asked to be "simplistic"...the type you would hear in an elementary school classroom in asking an open-ended question to young students. To be overly-simplistic perhaps in my own answer - I consider the American Revolution a great leap in casting off monarchies and empowering the strength of republicanism ... still to this day, 250 years later. Perfect, it is not. But in my way of thinking light years better than socialism or communism. A work in progress, like all of us.

Anonymous said...

I like the question. I think it opens up a discussion about the Am. Rev. to a broader audience. Being an American my gut reaction is of course the world is a better place. But nearly all the text books have been written by my fellow Americans. I think it's important to step back and ask what was lost. Huzzah for simple questions.

Xathos said...

If you are a Native American from any tribe that was west of the Appalachian Mountains in 1773 the American Revolution was terrible. The Constitution didn't apply to you. If you were a black slave it wasn't a good thing either. Instead of the words liberty and freedom applying to you, they were stripped away or denied to you. The western expansion of the US would later take in territories where the Spanish and later Mexicans had originally claimed. The people of those areas found themselves displaced by Americans so the Revolution wasn't good for them either.

The Revolution ignited a process that was not good for a great many people. Maybe the end of it when it is reached (if ever) will be good for everyone, but it hasn't reach that point yet.