Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding

Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding

Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding

Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding

Synopsis

The meaning of the American Revolution has always been a much-contested question, and asking it is particularly important today: the standard, easily digested narrative puts the Founding Fathers at the head of a unified movement, failing to acknowledge the deep divisions in Revolutionary-era society and the many different historical interpretations that have followed. Whose American Revolution Was It? speaks both to the ways diverse groups of Americans who lived through the Revolution might have answered that question and to the different ways historians through the decades have interpreted the Revolution for our own time.

As the only volume to offer an accessible and sweeping discussion of the period’s historiography and its historians, Whose American Revolution Was It? is an essential reference for anyone studying early American history. The first section, by Alfred F. Young, begins in 1925 with historian J. Franklin Jameson and takes the reader through the successive schools of interpretation up to the 1990s. The second section, by Gregory H. Nobles, focuses primarily on the ways present-day historians have expanded our understanding of the broader social history of the Revolution, bringing onto the stage farmers and artisans, who made up the majority of white men, as well as African Americans, Native Americans, and women of all social classes.

Excerpt

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Whose American Revolution Was It? speaks to the different ways Americans at the time of the Revolution might have answered this question and to the different ways historians in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have interpreted the Revolution for our own time. On one level, the answer to the question in either era might seem quite obvious: Whose American Revolution was it? It was the Americans’, of course, a successful War for Independence from Great Britain. Americans made—and won —their revolution. But no sooner has one said the word “Americans” than other questions immediately come up: Which Americans? Who were the Americans who made the political Revolution of 1776? Who fought to win the War for Independence? And who within America benefited from the results of the Revolution?

The meaning of the American Revolution as both a political and a popular movement has always been a measure of the ways the United States has progressed as a society, particularly in fulfilling its promise in the Declaration of Independence of liberty and equality. Asking “Whose American Revolution was it?” forces us to think about the Revolution in ways that do not offer simple answers but that make for a much more vital and engaging line of inquiry. The question remains contested, and the stakes are still high. Every generation has to come to terms with the Revolution in the context of its own time, looking back to the founding era as a historical touchstone that tells us where we have come from, how far we have come, and perhaps where we still ought to be going. The more we invoke the symbols of the Revolution today, or glorify its famous leaders, the more we need to know it well in its own time, embracing a broad view that encompasses all its inherent contradictions and sometimes unclear outcomes.

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