Academic journal article Early American Studies

The Other Revolution

Academic journal article Early American Studies

The Other Revolution

Article excerpt

I never doubted that the Force of Steam properly apply'd might be sufficient to move a Boat against the Current in most Rivers.

-Benjamin Franklin to J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, February 16, 1788

Suddenly, special issues of journals-not to mention monographs, conferences, symposia, and seminars-are busy discussing environmental historv. The reason is obvious: the planet is in crisis and we, as historians, have the responsibility to explain how we got to this point. The colonial past is a critical moment in this regard, and it is overdue for sustained attention as a distinctive stage in environmental historv. As we look forward to some kind of post-fossil fuel future, looking back at the preindustrial era of American historywill help us identify what is at stake in making a transition into, or out of, a carboniferous energy regime. For that reason, the environment is a potent and relevant historical context, perhaps more so than the social, political, and cultural contexts that have driven the historiography in the field of earlyAmerican historyover the last forty years. Much of that historiography has used the American Revolution as a pivot or terminus, but the industrial revolution and its crucial turn toward carbon-based energy were even more revolu tionarv.

It may seem heretical to make that claim, but too bad-I'm right. The development of fossil fuel economies has had far greater effect on the globe than did the creation of the United States. Indeed, the industrial revolution, the "other revolution" of my title, represents one of the greatest opportunities for earlyAmericanists who are interested in environmental historv, which should mean all of us. And vet the labelpreindustrial has been astonishingly underused. The now keyword-searchable William and Mary Quarterly on JSTOR reveals that, whereas "American Revolution" has appeared in the journal 2,476 times, "industrial revolution" has been invoked a mere 141. The terms "pre indu striai" and "pre-industrial" have occurred 85 and 118 times, respectively, while "pre-Révolu tionarv" and "early modern" outnumber them to the tune of 375 and 747 apiece. The word ratios are but one indication that preindustrial as a label and concept has rarely been deployed to its fullest capacity, that is, to describe both a set of distinctive relations among humans and a network of human connections to the nonhuman portions of the natural world. And so Benjamin Franklin and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur are famous for their statements about earlyAmerican identity even as their discussion of earlysteam power goes unremarked. A survey of earlyAmerican historiography, below, will likewise document a scholarly disinclination to think of the colonies in terms of their material foundations. For this reason, there has never been any great takeoff point in early American environmental historv. Early Americanists have instead been reluctant to think seriously about the material contours of life before, during, and after the other revolution.

In notable contrast, public history, and popular representations of the colonial era more generally, have abounded in detail about material life. EarlyAmerica's preindustrial condition is precisely what captivates the general public. That is not to saythat the public has an accurate vision of the American past. If scholars have found it difficult to imagine the potential of the "preindustrial" as an explanatory label, the public has perhaps been too imaginative in considering earlv America as a time with such primitive material development that it must have been dependent on witchcraft to make things work. Still, it is remarkable that members of the public are more than willing to understand the past in material and environmental terms. At the ven' least, their curiosity offers us a chance to craft betterinformed discussions about the human place within the natural world. As well, the general public may be ahead of us academics in considering the material circumstances of preindustrial society to be of central significance. …

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