3d ser., 74, no. 4 October 2017
The William and Mary Quarterly and Journal of the Early Republic’s joint issue centers on a theme, “Writing To and From the Revolution,” that invites consideration of the revolution’s transformative impact. On balance, this introduction argues, the issue’s articles emphasize continuities over change. A focus on the fallout from a long-lasting civil war, American revolutionary leaders’ efforts to raise funds via western land sales, Indian resistance, and the challenges presented by western settlers offers another perspective. The American Revolution promoted the linkage of three increasingly interdependent social processes: first, the hardening of racial distinctions to associate freedom with whiteness; second, the regularization of state formation to balance the interests of older states with the longing of new state elites for secure private property in land and slaves; and third, the escalation of westward expansion to relieve social tensions and reduce taxes in the eastern polities. The beneficiaries celebrated the results as freedom and prosperity, which they considered the republican fruits of their revolution. But that success contained contradictions that would provoke a new civil war, even bloodier and more destructive than the revolution.
By Michael A. McDonnell and David Waldstreicher
Interpretive patterns in the scholarship on the American Revolution have been less linear and dual than tripartite and cyclical, spiraling through whig, progressive, imperial, neo-whig, neo-progressive, and, most recently, neo-imperial alternatives. As the Quarterly relaunched in 1944, a transition in the cycle was already under way, from an imperial- and progressive-school détente to a neo-whig ascendancy, even as calls for synthesis abounded: each turn in the cycle has featured the appropriation of themes and arguments as well as the rejection of competing analyses and the specific subjects these analyses tended to highlight. 1993 was a moment of transition—alternately celebrated or lamented—as a neo-imperial view of the revolution arose, decentering its republican, liberal, and nationalizing aspects in favor of imperial or transnational continuities. Whether in continental, Atlantic, diasporic, or age of revolution modes, the recent emphases on imperial connections, parallels, and broader optics have begun to reenliven American Revolution scholarship even as they tend to change definitions of what historians mean by “the revolution.” Moreover, recent trends suggest not so much the centrality of the American Revolution to early American, U.S., Atlantic, and global history as, increasingly, the importance of those fields in shaping views of the American Revolution.
Cultural history has become a favored method for studying the revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but its application to the wider age of revolution remains spotty. It has been notably absent from contextual histories of the period, those that—in the tradition of R. R. Palmer—compare rather than connect the era’s revolutions. This methodological gap, which isolates the American Revolution from its contexts, risks distorting the revolution’s interpretation and meaning. A contextual cultural history of the revolutionary era is nonetheless imaginable; this article traces its methodological contours. Cultural practices that were widely shared around the prerevolutionary Atlantic world provided a shared matrix for patriot politics. Work by theorists of culture-as-practice suggests that these cultures would have persisted intact into the revolutionary period and shaped politics in similar ways across the revolutionary Atlantic. A pair of case studies, focused on letter-writing practices and patriot politics in 1770s North America and 1790s Saint Domingue, illustrate how this approach makes it possible to reread individual revolutionary episodes and figures while bringing together disparate revolutionary movements within a shared Atlantic frame.
By Sara T. Damiano
Whether concerned with the American Revolution’s legacies or the gendering of economic life, historians tend to overlook women’s economic experiences during the years of active military conflict. This article suggests that attention to gendered power within wartime practices revises understandings of the revolution and chronologies of the long eighteenth century. By analyzing the correspondence of seven middling and elite New England couples, it finds that, during the years that supposedly preceded the rise of companionate marriage, the economic dimensions of marriage became more, not less, pronounced. The upheaval of wartime heightened the importance of families, letter writing, and emotional language in moderating economic uncertainties. With the war under way and men leaving home for military and government posts, wives assumed enhanced responsibilities in financial matters. Redeploying older patterns of correspondence between business associates, spouses commingled emotional and practical language to make sense of their dual roles as romantic partners and economic collaborators. The American Revolution intensified existing features of eighteenth-century economic life, and ordinary people’s wartime economic practices may have in turn destabilized hierarchical visions of marriage during the early republic.
By Eliga Gould
What did it mean to be a postcolonial nation in the age of the American Revolution? What does the answer tell us about the new world that the revolution helped to create? To find out, this article turns to the brief, spectacular history of the State of Muskogee, an ersatz Indian nation founded on the Gulf Coast by the white adventurer William Augustus Bowles. Boasting its own army and navy, its own flag and vice admiralty court, and its own newspaper and plans for a university, Muskogee showed that the nation-making impulse was not unique to the colonists who declared independence in 1776 but was embraced by Indians, African Americans, and white dissidents and renegades. In its effort to be recognized as “a free and independent” republic, however, Muskogee is a reminder that postcolonial independence was an interdependent condition that required the consent of Britain and the Western Hemisphere’s other imperial powers, including, by the time of Muskogee’s collapse in 1802, the United States. For colonial peoples everywhere, independent nationhood was both the surest path to liberation and a road fraught with potential for new forms of subordination.
In this conclusion to the William and Mary Quarterly and Journal of the Early Republic joint issue “Writing To and From the Revolution,” the tensions between the American Revolution and twenty-first-century America take center stage. The issue’s authors offer competing interpretations of questions ranging from the impact of letter writing to the relationship between the federal government and the trans-Appalachian West. Yet nearly all of them also argue that persistent themes of violence, alienation, and exclusion were endemic to the establishment of the United States. Given Americans’ enduring interest in the founding period, readers of these articles will need to translate their nuanced and abstract arguments for nonscholarly audiences by populating them with a variety of historical actors. Such an approach can help nonspecialist audiences understand the ways in which their own lives contribute to much larger forces of change. In the same vein, many of these articles implicitly demonstrate the potential for new historical studies of the Constitution. When it is reexamined as more than a simple extension or betrayal of the American Revolution, thoughtful studies of its impact on individuals can reveal the unique connections between then and now that the Constitution offers Americans.