January 26, 2016
7 min read
Jordan Taylor, Ph.D. student at Indiana University and Regional Editor of the OI Map, has this report from the recent AHA conference. Now, he says, is a great time to be studying revolution. Find out why.
State of the field report from AHA 2016, Atlanta
Battle of Vertieres, Haiti, 1803
Early modern historians studying revolution find themselves in a field radiating with energy. In addition to a rich body of scholarship published over the past decade, one sign of the field’s vitality are the new ways that scholars have found to communicate about the revolutionary past. One site for these conversations was a 2014 William and Mary Quarterly–Early Modern Studies Institute workshop on the Age of Revolutions. Another emerging venue is the recently-launched Age of Revolutions blog, edited by a pair of early-career historians of Europe.
Most recently, the American Historical Association meeting in Atlanta hosted four well-attended and lively panels that focused explicitly on revolution. On Thursday, January 7, a state-of-the-field panel on “Revolutions” featured four papers by junior scholars of revolutions in America, France, China, and the Middle East. This was followed by an all-day workshop titled “Rewriting Revolutions,” inspired by the 2014 WMQ-EMSI event, on Saturday, January 9. This workshop boasted a dozen papers focusing on St. Domingue, West Africa, the British Empire, New Grenada, the United States, France, and even sailors on the Atlantic itself.
The geographic expansiveness of these papers reflects historians’ turn away from a Eurocentric model of the Age of Revolutions (most famously articulated in Robert Palmer’s foundational two-volume The Age of the Democratic Revolution). If most historians would agree that the more inclusive model improves on Palmer’s narrative, it also raises a number of fundamental questions about the intellectual stakes of studying revolution. Conversations at the four AHA panels reflected a creative discomfort with the task of building a shared set of mutually intelligible vocabularies, methods, and periodizations for the Age of Revolutions.
Part of this discomfort arises from the need to establish a common conceptual framework for what we mean when we talk about revolution. To paraphrase one audience member at the state-of-the-field panel, “Are we beyond or before defining revolution?” If scholars are willing to jettison Palmer’s label of “democratic” to designate revolutions, another audience member asked, do they have a replacement? Do they need one? At various points, participants offered the concepts of movement, empire, eventfulness, state-building, and rapid structural change as features that might define the Age of Revolution—though questions remained about the distinctiveness of these features to a discrete historical period.
A second kind of discomfort arose from methodological questions. Presenters drew from a refreshing variety of methods: literary criticism, material culture analysis, environmental studies, quantitative aggregation, microhistory, and more. Their wide-ranging work banished any notion that study of revolutions requires a focus on high politics. Yet questions remained. Should historians engage in more comparative work? Can one understand this period without working across multiple linguistic spheres? If historians’ work is driven by narrative, do they cede the analytic to social scientists? And what does it mean that historians no longer engage with social scientific analyses of Age of Revolutions?
Finally, presenters and audience members alike grappled with questions of periodization. The organization of Thursday’s state of the field panel, juxtaposing historians of the American and French Revolutions with historians of modern revolution in China and the Middle East, foregrounded questions of comparison across time and space. Yet Saturday’s workshop, whose title explicitly directed its focus to the years 1750–1850, attracted more attention to the challenging question of when the Age of Revolutions began and ended. Notably, Yale’s Steven Pincus energetically called for a more expansive periodization of the Age of Revolutions to reach back into the middle of the seventeenth century.
This short recap can only provide a tiny window into an eight-hour marathon “revolutionary jamboree.” taking place over about eight hours. Dozens of observations and provocations would be of great interest to a broad audience of early Americanists—Nathan Perl-Rosenthal’s diagnosis of an emerging hemispheric approach to the Age of Revolution, Julia Gaffield’s challenges to the standard periodization of the Haitian Revolution (and Jane Kamnesky’s invitation to import Gaffield’s point into an American Revolutionary context), and Ashli White’s fascinating discussion of the material and cultural history of the cockade. A more detailed blow-by-blow account is available in Storified collections of the tweets for the state of the field, workshop panel 1, panel 2, and panel 3. Moreover, we can look forward to new debates and questions imminently. Bryan A. Banks, co-editor of the new Age of Revolutions blog, has posted his reflections on the AHA’s revolutions panels. William and Mary Quarterly readers can also look forward to a review essay on “Narrating the Age of Revolutions,” by Sarah Knott, based on the 2014 WMQ–EMSI workshop that she convened, due to appear in the January 2016 issue.