Editor’s note: This is the third post on the American Revolution Reborn Conference. You can read the complete series here.
The conference also was important for the themes it didn’t include as was brought out in some of the questions and comments.
An area of significant omission was one with particular significance for New York State: military history. One attendee from Boston sitting in the front row just in front of me privately expressed his keen disappointment at its absence from conference.
For a New Yorker, the absence of military history from the master narrative of the American Revolution undermined the place of the state in the story. One would never know from this conference that the Hudson River was an object of great importance in the American Revolution.
One would never know from this conference that the environment/ecology/ topography courtesy of the Ice Age in this specific political context made control of the Hudson River and its port city of New York a centerpiece of the military strategies on both interrelated sides. Stories that were based in New York were overlooked in the Philadelphia conference and received short thrift just as they had in the histories written by the New England/Harvard scholars of the 19th century.
* The story of Saratoga in the boonies becoming one of the largest settlements in America if only for a battle wasn’t told or even mentioned
* The story of a fort being built at the west point into the Hudson River by the dangerous S curve which Benedict Arnold later sought to surrender to the British and which immigrant Thomas Cole made his first painting wasn’t told or even mentioned … except indirectly by a consultant to historic sites sitting in the audience who described how moved she had been reading Washington’s letters of how deeply affected he had been by Arnold’s defection
* The story of Washington’s continued presence in the Hudson Valley region after Yorktown because he feared the British in New York might try again wasn’t told or even mentioned
* The story of the American prisoners of war held on ships in New York and the non-battlefield fatalities wasn’t told or even mentioned (I did mention this to Ted Burrows when I saw him a week later in Cooperstown for the NYSHA conference. Since his reply was in private, I won’t include it here).
Besides an image of patriots overthrowing the statue of King George III in New York City shown by commentator Margaretta Lovell, University of California, Berkeley, and the experience of one man in the Mohawk Valley in the paper by Zara Anishanslin (see below), New York did not figure prominently in the conference proceedings.
Ironically, some nearly concurrent events in New York highlight the disconnect between military history and New York and the American Revolution Reborn conference in Philadelphia. From north to south these events are:
* Fort Ticonderoga announced it was hosting its Tenth Annual Seminar on the American Revolution, September 20-22, 2013, colloquially known as the War College. The weekend seminar focuses on the military, political, and social history of the American War for Independence. The new dimension for the upcoming conference is a tour of the Saratoga battlefield.
* Saratoga National Historical Park announced it was assuming control of the historic hill where Burgoyne surrendered his sword located along Route 4, one mile south of Schuylerville where the Victory Monument missing Arnold is located.
* Clermont State Historic Site in Columbia County posted a blog by historian Geoff Benton on the efforts of Robert Livingston to build two gunpowder mills in Dutchess County due to the salt peter crisis at the beginning of the war, a topic that was addressed at the conference.
* Lance Ashworth, West Point graduate and president of the Fishkill Supply Depot in Dutchess County near Mount Gulian and across the river from Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, spoke about his organizations ongoing efforts in Congress to protect the site including the burials of the soldiers from commercial development.
Turning slightly away from New York, Ashworth spoke to the New Jersey American Revolution Roundtable, an active group which meets in Morristown at another Washington’s Headquarters. The programs from the previous month included a bus tour of the New York City battlefront led by Barnet Schecter, author of a book on the subject, and a talk by Robert Selig on “The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route.” The fall season will begin with Jim Nelson, author of George Washington’s Secret Navy: How the American Revolution Went to Sea.
One wonders how the audience of these talks, tours, and events would respond to American Revolution Reborn conference and what the participants in the conference think of these presenters, historic site staff, and audiences. It seems as if they operate in parallel universes that do not communicate with each other.
The presenters at the American Revolution Reborn conference knew that real fighting had occurred:
Travis Glasson, Temple University, “The Intimacies of Occupation: Fraternization, Compromise, and Betrayal in Revolutionary-era Newport” spoke on the raid to capture the British commander of Newport’s garrison
Zara Anishanslin, College of Staten Island (CUNY), “‘This is the Skin of a Whit Man: Visual Memory and Materiality of Violence in the American Revolution,” spoke on a gruesome incident in Sullivan’s Campaign in the Mohawk Valley which included a soldier holding in his hands the scalped skin of a white man and contrasted it with the more genteel setting of a lady at an 1824 ball in honor of Lafayette with gloves on her hands
Denver Brunsman, George Washington University, “‘Executioners of the Friends and Brethren’: Naval Impressment as an Atlantic Civil War,” mentioned in passing the British loss of superiority at sea
David C. Hsuing, Juniata College, “Environmental History and the Revolution: Gunpowder as a Test Case” wrote on the same salt petre (spelled differently than at Clermont) crisis that Livingston responded to.
However, at no point did these military-related microhistories coalesce into any sort of grand narrative on the military history which led to America winning the war except for some passing references to the French contribution. In the final session, the comment was made that without discussing the logistics of how the war was won and the French role, all one had was a debating society. The conference almost ended on this thought which might be a starting point for a session in a future conference. Ironically representatives from the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail were in the audience but that history really wasn’t addressed in the conference. Nor was Washington’s decision to temporarily abandon his fixation on liberating New York City and to go to Virginia where a decisive blow subsequently was administered. In his comments on the Violence and the American Revolution session, Marcus Rediker, University of Pittsburgh, drew on the insight of the conference from The American Revolution in the Civil War session that the number of disaffected was higher than previously realized to conclude that the observation made it even more extraordinary that the patriots won. But how they did so despite those odds was not a conference topic.
By coincidence, some events immediately following the conference further highlighted the separate paths on which scholars and the America people experience the American Revolution. According to a note in the New York Times on June 13, 2013, a $50,000 book prize for military history will be awarded annually beginning in February 2014 to be known as the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize (with former NYS gubernatorial candidate Lehrman apparently the funding alternative to Fox.). Josiah Bunting III, president of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, said the purpose of the prize is to restore military history to “an important place in university curricula.” Then in a paraphrase of a well-known dictum, Frank said “If we do not learn from the conflicts of the past, we will be doomed to repeat them.” This effort is undertaken to resist the atrophying of this area of scholarship in the United States and abroad. Both scholars and popular historians are eligible for the prize.
The article goes on to report a divided audience and identity for military history. On one hand, military history dominates the best-seller lists. Evidence of this phenomenon appeared on the final page of The Arts’ section of the newspaper where a two-column page-length ad for Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick under the heading “The New York Times Bestseller” was displayed. On the other hand, the academics focus on the topics of race, gender, and civilian-military relations according to Robert M. Citino, a visiting professor at the United States Army War College. In his email to the NYT, he observed that the academics address “every aspect of the war except the fighting,” which is consistent with the overall tenor of the American Revolution Reborn conference.
The article mentioned a historiographic essay which Citino had written as the most recent overview of the field. I looked up the article on the internet and was able to download a PDF of “Review Essay – Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction,” American Historical Review, 112 2007:1070-1090. As was noted during the conference particularly by Fitz, digitization makes research much easier and faster than it used to be. Brendan McConville, Boston University, concluding session moderator also spoke of the digital impact on existing paradigms and frameworks. It certainly helped me obtain Citino’s essay. A few excerpts from the article are still timely six years later:
Military history today is in the same curious position it has been in for decades: extremely popular with the American public at large, and relatively marginalized within professional academic circles….[I]t has largely vanished from the curriculum of our elite universities.
Citino expressed little confidence in any change occurring and closed with a plea to the prejudiced academic community to try something daring and read a military history. Perhaps commentator Peter Thompson, Oxford University, said it best when he observed that the conference consisted of suburbanites without gun permits or military experience but who lecture on violence and pass judgment on others who are violent. Ironically, based on a show of hands, few of the colleges represented at the American Revolution Reborn conference even teach a class on the American Revolution anymore anyway yet alone one covering military history. Sometimes it seems in American history classes especially in high school that American history skipped from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the Constitution in 1787 with nothing happening in-between…except in New York where Saratoga might appear on a statewide test.
A book review in the New York Times dated June 7, only days after the conference, raised a related issue. The two books reviewed were the aforementioned Bunker Hill and Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, by Richard R. Beeman, retired University of Pennsylvania professor. He was not a speaker at the conference and to the best of my knowledge, meaning no questioner identified himself as Beeman, was not at the conference either. What is relevant here is the book reviewer quoting Beeman writing, “One of the recurring themes in this account of the decision for independence is the importance of leadership.”
The role of leadership was conspicuous by its absence during the conference. There were occasional references to the fact that the presenters were sitting under the portraits of Franklin (it’s in the building of his society where the conference was held), Jefferson, and Washington, two of the Rushmore presidents. Matthew Spooner, Columbia University, stated as a preface to his presentation that no one talks about George Washington…and he didn’t break with conference protocol in his paper “Disorder, Slave Property, and Economic Development in the Revolutionary South.” His focus was the neglected importance of the South in the American Revolution historiography. When asked about the role of leaders, he mentioned that there were many bad leaders. Boonshoft had been asked about leadership in his paper just prior to Spooner and he confined his response to the specific area of people who graduated from the Presbyterian academies, the topic of his paper. Still one is left to wonder with all these disaffected people and bad leaders, how exactly did America win? Apparently in the new scholarship, leadership is just as unimportant as military history. Presumably a Civil War conference on new scholarship will ignore Lincoln and one on World War II will omit references to Roosevelt. Thompson disdainfully referred to “airport best-selling biographies” meaning some of those very popular historians who will be eligible for the $50,000 prize in military history. This attitude probably reflected the mood of many of the attendees. However as Countryman noted there really was an incredible collage of people during the Revolution which does explain the proliferation of biographies.
The issue of leadership became a crucial one in the conference proceedings at least as far as I am concerned. 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.
Her answer called to mind the motto from the 1980s: “some people are communist, some people are capitalist” meaning so why can’t we all live together. “Because it is a god-damned Evil Empire” replied the simple-minded American-exceptionalist president Ronald Reagan. Everyone knew that the Soviet Union would be around forever…which turned out to be about five years in real time. The post 9/11 actions of simple-minded American-exceptionalist president George Bush reinforced the negative attitudes towards traditional interpretations of the American Revolution by the Vietnam era and post-Vietnam generation scholars. Commentator Linda Colley, Princeton University, emphatically called on Americans to stop stressing exceptionalism. (I have double exclamation points in my notes on her comment.) Out with city on a hill. No more last best hope of mankind. Forget about making the world safe for democracy. America has no rendezvous destiny. America is the problem not the solution for thinking it is the solution and not the problem.
The conference, without meaning to, exposed two critical issues. First how did George Bancroft become Laurel Thatcher Ulrich? When did elitist Americans change from being proud to be Americans to looking like deer frozen in the headlights when asked if the American Revolution was a good thing? One suspects that Vietnam was a point of inflection for this transformation but even before then there were American intellectuals who saw the Soviet Union as the wave of the future and Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition. McDonnell commented on some of America’s shortfalls today in living up to its ideals. His judgments are valid but miss the point. I asked him privately why someone who admittedly is connected to what seems like half the countries in the British Commonwealth became interested in the American Revolution. I hope I am not breaching his privacy, but his response was that a high school elective in American history when he lived in Canada set him on the path which brought him to this conference on the American Revolution Reborn. Before we could pursue this line of communication further, the conversation was brought to a close by other obligations to people he knew, but it would be nice to know not only how Bancroft became Ulrich but why non-Americans study the American Revolution.
18 thoughts on “American Revolution Reborn: Missing New York”
How did the Conference leave out NY’s important participation in the American Revolution? What? I guess they have never read Jeff Shaara’s book, The Glorious Cause! It was this book that sparked my curiosity when I moved to the Hudson Valley from Long Island in 2006. In exploring the locations in his book, I learned just how important this area was for a successful Revolution. Peekskill, West Point, Cornwall on Hudson, Mahopac (Sybil Ludington), etc…
Reminds me of the time that I was in graduate school for an advanced degree in Philosophy in 1973. I felt that Logic and an Intro to Philosophy course would be instrumental to middle schoolers for their future educational success. I was po-pooed by my professors for “diluting” Philosophy. Just goes to show you….”scholars” sometimes do not know everything. Logic is a core course in most Catholic schools and Intro to Philosophy is taught as an elective in many public schools.
As for the American Revolution? Hooray for the Red White and Blue!!!
You are certainly correct to note the importance of the Hudson Valley in the American Revolution and let’s not forget the Battle of Long Island either.
In answer to your question, I should report that after I wrote this essay divided into five posts in New York History, I sent it to the conference organizer, Mike Zuckerman. That began a series of extended email exchanges between us. As he pointed out, the conference was not intended to be comprehensive. Every topic on the American Revolution could not be included. Furthermore, he sought to focus on new scholarship so the question is not was New York important but what new scholarship has emerged on the topic and if so, did those scholars respond to the call for papers. He also now knows that I have organized Teacherhostels/Historyhostels on the American Revolution at Saratoga, Fort Ticonderoga, and in the Hudson Valley based at West Point. He is quite willing to participate in a New York-based program on the American Revolution if one can be put together.
Whoa, not even to mention the Newburgh conspiracy, the quashing of which was essential to the path of Democracy in the United States, or the grand mustering out at Newburgh, which was actually the largest encampment of the war — so big the population of the camp exceeded that of any American City in 1782-83. That there was no battle and no bloodshed here masks the importance of these events, but they were fairly momentous.
You are correct point out the importance of the Newburgh Conspiracy. As mentioned in the previous comment. the American Revolution Reborn conference was looking for new scholarship and I don’t know what the status is in that regard here.
What your comment does point out is the need for New York to do a better job of promoting its own story in the American Revolution in the classroom and to tourists.
The Hudson River was the single most important feature in the entire war. Near Peekskill and Continental Village, at what was to be called “West Point”, Washington’s advisors said: “From this place we can throttle the entire river.” That “S” curve was the secret. Square rigged sailing vessels needed a trailing wind to move. To negotiate the “S”, they lost the wind and became targets at more than one point. They would need to be pulled thru by rowers in longboats, or wait for the tide change to get up/down.
It had to be defended !! The British knew it controlled the destiny of New England ! They only went south after the huge loss at Saratoga; “We’ll go back North after we put the South in its place” they said. Washington Irving writes of it in his final book, the 5 (6?) volume biography of George Washington, his namesake !!
Your points are well taken. You and I have stood at the “S” curve and have seen its importance. But this was not a conference about military and political strategy. Apparently the new scholarship does not focus on these issues, there was nothing new to say about them, or the people who are working in this area didn’t submit abstracts. If New York want to tout its role in the American Revolution, it needs to call its own conference.
From your summary, it doesn’t seem that the Battle of Long Island (aka Battle of Brooklyn) in late August 1776) was mentioned at the conference. It could have been the end of the war if Washington had not successfully evacuated his troops.
Your comments are similar to those about the importance of controlling the Hudson River and the Battle of Saratoga. In general none of these were part of the discussion at the conference. If any of them had gone the other way we might not be having this exchange of comments.
But not to belabor the point, the conference was focusing on new scholarship. It well may be that the young scholars today, or at least those who received the call for papers, simply aren’t interested in pursuing this line of research. The best way to address this issue is for New York to have its own conference.
Dear Peter —
These first three posts — and especially this third one — on the American Revolution are wonderful. Both the conference and your reporting on it raise a slew of important issues. I’d like to present a very quick response to this third report.
1 – On the importance of New York viz, military history, remember that the British chased the newly formed New York State legislature progressively north, until it —- and the invaluable colonial and state records that remain a treasure for historians —- wound up in Albany. On the way, the British blithely burned to the ground the city of Kingston, one of the way-stations for the state records.
2 – We are all of our times. Whether Bancroft, Hofstadter, Ulrich or Feinman, we cannot write history outside of when we live.
3 – If we are to understand the history of our country, we need to study its military history — and we can do that from both the top down (leaders, political maneuvering, strategy and tactics) and the bottom up (volunteers and draftees, social history, impact of war on the home front). Countryman did give us a sense of how complex were the issues and peoples of the American Revolution. But it takes an historian of a different caliber to be able to lasso all these bottom up and top down histories to create a (relatively) complete narrative. [[ A very good attempt (the best so far) for the Civil War is McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom.” ]]
4 – “… with all these disaffected people and bad leaders, how exactly did America win?” Your question is spot-on.
5 – It is a good thing that the hagiographic and nationalistic histories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been upended. In their place we have had histories of seminal importance, stories which look at different classes of people. This revolution of the past 50 years, however, has thrown out the baby with bathwater. Instead of praising great men and events and military prowess we have ignored them — consigned them to the dust bowl of history, if you will. Are we surprised, then, that our understanding of the American Revolution suffers from gaping holes once again? The most important word in the preceding sentence is ‘we.’ Who is ‘we’? At the conference and in many other venues, it certainly does not include those who are buying those disdained “airport best-selling biographies.” It most certainly does include a number of academic historians, several of whom appear to have attended the conference.
6 – Lastly, and following closely on item 5, I do not believe we should force Professor Ulrich or others to betray their political beliefs at a history conference. Academic historians have a much bigger problem: how to make their knowledge, their understanding of history, relevant to all those airport book buyers. The history they, the general public, create is equally valid, and as many studies have shown, the public trusts academics the least when they look for places to get history. As historians, we need to spend more time trying to bridge that gap, not lamenting it our criticizing who is on the other side. [Hooray for Public History!] That is why the military history of the American Revolution is important.
On Tue, Jul 16, 2013 at 5:38 PM, wrote:
I live in Michigan and I do know about the Revolutionary War in New York! I read your conference report part III with a great deal of interest. I have studied both the political and military history over the years and found the military side of of the War of far more interest. Perhaps the reason is that there is far more discipline in writing of the military side. I am not at all surprised that there was almost no mention of the battles or those that fought and died. Certainly the panelists were selected by their pals so that they could talk to each other about their common interests. Funny thing, I do not recognize any of the names that you indicated were on the panels. Perhaps it is because only their friends read their publications. If the military side is to be discussed, the panels need to be authors which have an interest in the military.
I have visited all of the battlefield sites at least twice in the Lake Champlain – Hudson River Valley over the years, and it gets more interesting on each trip. I was pleased to hear from you that something is being done to the surrender site of Saratoga. It was in sad shape the last time I was visited. I feel that I am always missing out since I live so far from the battlefields of the Revolutionary War (and the War of 1812).
I have received your through Lance Ashworth. I worked on the legislation with Congress starting in 2004 with Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey when he first introduced his first bill. I worked with enthusiasm until 2012, hoping that it would pass. I finally lost interest last year when I found that most of those in Congress are looking mostly for votes, and not to do what is the right thing. Of prominence is Sen. Schumer. I hope that Lance can keep on it to finality.
I could continue, as I believe we have a similar view of history and politics. However, I conclude….
Very truly yours,
Great write up! It never ceases to amaze me how even the school district $25K + per student here in the Town of Philipstown (Garrison/Cold Spring/Nelsonville) does not expose the kids to what is right here literally under their feet – – “The story of a fort being built at the west point into the Hudson River by the dangerous S curve which Benedict Arnold later sought to surrender to the British and which immigrant Thomas Cole made his first painting…” And that Washington rode (and slept here – Mandeville House). And Major John Andre was led on the roads – escorted by a hundred dragoons.
Wish there were more grants for writing about local history, : ( Know of any?
Past Vice President (2012), Friends of Fishkill Supply Depot
I read your entire essay on the Rev War conference. I thought it was well written, to the point and I guess I am not surprised. It seems this call for papers and discussions of these papers is a good idea. A group called the Western Frontier Symposium use to hold a similar type of conference every other year at Fulton Montgomery Community College. They held four of them, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011. The topics were Key Colonial Figures (Sir William Johnson, Philip Schuyler, Nicolas Herkimer, etc.) and related items; Sir William Johnson; 19th Century Transportation; and Colonial Settlement and Culture. For some reason, it seems the new wave of historians only want to gloss over the military or the George Washingtons of the era for a more liberal, politically correct approach. Many of the papers did seem interesting, however, a Rev War Conference to me would discuss key battles, key players, military strategies, why battles were lost or won, and some of the topic from this conference sprinkled in. It is really too bad that the Revolution is glossed over in schools and it seems colleges are taking the same approach. I hope the group that put on this conference makes an adjustment to the topics for papers. I did see a few papers of interest; “The Other Three-Fifth: Neutrals in the American Revolution;” “Loyalism, Citizenship, American History: The Shoemaker Family;” “In but not of the Revolution: Neutrals in the British-Occupied Philadelphia;” “This is the Skin of a White Man: Visual Memory and Materiality of Violence in the American Revolution;” and”Environmental History and the American Revolution Gunpowder as a Test Case.” Where there any papers that you suggest reading?
Thank you again for sending me your essay. It is too bad that the meat and potatoes of the Rev War is being skipped over these days. Hopefully it will end.
Thanks for your response. I have attended three of the Western Frontier Symposia and enjoyed them and traveling about the Mohawk valley. I look forward to the next one. I think if you had one on the American Revolution that Mike Zuckerman the conference organizer would be willing to attend.
I will try to get you the articles in question.
I am glad to hear about activity on the Path front. Even though the Mohawk Valley was eliminated as a region on the Path website, it does seem as if the organizations there are coming together to create Mohawk Valley heritage programs.
Peter wrote: “How did George Bancroft become Laurel Thatcher Ulrich? When did elitist Americans change from being proud to be Americans to looking like deer frozen in the headlights when asked if the American Revolution was a good thing?”
The reaction to Bancroft began in the early 1900s and 1910s with the relativism of Becker and Beard. The desire objectivity in the face of the collapse of positivism at the same time also helped form the foundation. The reaction to Becker and Beard was to stress consensus-based interpretations during the conformist period of the 1950s, also the breeding ground for our modern notion of American exceptionalism. Historians of the 1960s and 1970s were reacting against many cultural aspects of the 1950s. They were also spurred on by current events, for what could be better contradictory evidence of American socio-political exceptionalism than the segregationist movement, conservative anti-women’s rights, the political assassinations, the urban riots, the campus unrest, and, of course, our utter failure in Vietnam (so militarily reminiscent of the War for Independence). The distaste for anything that even smacked of exceptionalism burrowed itself into the profession, especially as the social and cultural turns in the historical profession allowed those new generations of historians to largely avoid studying the American Revolution as an event. In some sense, the current state of profession regarding exceptionalism is borne out of a desire for objectivity, but it also, to some degree, borne out of a hyper-cynicism. This is how we have come to a point where the worst epithet you can hurl at an academic historian of early America is to liken them to George Bancroft (see most recent reviews of work by Gordon Wood). I am all for both being constantly on-guard for and questioning all exceptionalist tendencies. Being aware of these is crucial to any analytical historian. However, if one is driven primarily by cynicism rather than their desire for broader historical inquiry and historical understanding, it can become quite problematic indeed (as I mentioned above about historians avoiding the Revolution altogether). Of course, I am over-simplifying here because of space constraints. A reading of Peter Novick’s “That Noble Dream” along with Young and Nobles “Whose American Revolution Was It?” (for the subsequent Revolutionary historiographical context) would give a pretty good outline of how we have arrived at the current historiographical moment.
Thanks for the information. In the post, the question was primarily rhetorical. If you had been at the conference the deer-in-the-headlight look by the three panelists was literally breath-taking – it took the breath away from the panelists and the audience. The weight of the silence was palpable.
Bancroft obviously would have had no problem answering the question in the affirmative. Actually he wouldn’t even have been asked the question since the answer then would have been self-evident to everyone.
Times have changed especially in the 20th century and since Vietnam and the 60s. One of the more serious issues in my opinion is how We the People go about telling our story in a honest way that will resonate with Americans without belittling them. If our story doesn’t hold us together as a country then the consequences are enormous so it isn’t just an academic issue.
You may wish to read the response by conference organizer Mike Zuckerman to my five-post series on his conference.
Peter, I read Zuckerman’s response and I was indeed at the conference for all four days including the panel in which the question was asked of Prof. Ulrich. 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. Think of how simplistic and unfair the perception is that anyone who won’t come right and make such a generalized statement as “The American Revolution was good” as being “apologetic anti-American” or having an apologetically “anti-American” view of American history. Now you didn’t make that claim but you described the public perception and I would hope you could see why historians would react in that way to such an anti-historical and anachronistic perspective. I think many academic historians (especially of early America) acknowledge the need for historians to expand their audience among the general public but not by prostrating ourselves at the altar of American exceptionalism or nationalism.
If you want a sanitized, nationalist view of the Revolution and an endless stream of hagiographies of the founders, you can read McCullough, Ellis, Brookhiser and the dozens of others who have cashed in on the reading public’s desire for this Whiggish view. However, if you want to understand the Revolution more deeply outside of a small handful of elites and high politics and to understand how it affected groups of people differently, and how people on the ground actually experienced the Revolution, then you need the academics that were in that room at the APS, because they don’t choose topics or write books based on potential sales. Your instrumentalist and utilitarian view of history is completely at odds with the modern profession, the notion of which is reinforced by your expectations of the conference, which, like most academic conferences, wasn’t meant to provide a thorough narrative of the topic but specialized analyses of important themes. Historians are more concerned with what the Revolution meant to the people who lived through it and its immediate aftermath than what it means to people today. The former is history, the latter is politics. Either knowing or consciously shaping contemporary meanings of the Revolution is beyond the purview of historical inquiry for early American historians.
Thank you for writing. It is good to hear from someone who attended the conference besides the people I spoke to. I don’t doubt that you are partially right about Ulrich’s reaction. She probably was stunned by the question. It is not one a scholar would expect at an OAH or AHA conference. However this wasn’t an OAH or AHA conference and as she stated, she knows what her undergraduates want to hear as an answer. I will also note as I wrote in a subsequent post, that when it comes to the personal side of the conference I defer to the knowledge of Mike Zuckerman since he knows the participants as people whereas I only know them as scholars in the context of the conference. You probably know and spoke with them too and have a better sense of what they meant by the silence than I do.
You also put your finger right on the problem. If the goal American Revolution Reborn conference is to successfully create a new master narrative of the American Revolution that resonates with the American people, then ivory tower academics need to not look down on American people as simplistic and for being unfair for asking “Cut to chase.” We are talking about the birth story of our country which may be considered an issue of some importance to people without your sophisticated education and training in the actual complexity of history. If you can’t even say if you think the American Revolution meaning the birth of the country was a good thing or a bad thing, why should the American public take you seriously?
I confess, however, to being puzzled by your reasoning. Somehow the focus of your first paragraph suddenly switched from a value judgement on the question of the American Revolution to American exceptionalism or nationalism. Are you suggesting that if one states on net the American Revolution was a good thing that is the equivalent of saying America is a city on a hill that can do no wrong? Are you suggesting that if one states on net the American Revolution was the good thing that is the equivalent of supporting every president and presidential act done in the name of exceptionalism or nationalism? Are you suggesting that if one states on net the American Revolution was a good thing that is the equivalent of supporting the Tea Party? To make such a leap which is not warranted by the evidence seems rather simplistic and unacademic to me so I know that is not what you meant to say, but it is implied whether you realize it or not. You are not the only one at the conference to make the leap from discussing the Ulrich question to exceptionlism. Perhaps your definition and mine differ on exceptionalism. Is George Bush or Martin Luther King a better example of American exceptionalism?
I am not sure in the second paragraph when you are specifically addressing me or using the “you” in the general sense. Personally, I don’t recall when I wrote I wanted a sanitized nationalist view of the American Revolution.
As for the authors you chose to denigrate, I will let them speak for themselves in the event they even know about this conference or this conversation.
As for your putdown of me, you seem to be overlooking that I did after all download, print, and read the papers submitted to the conference, drove to it, stayed over in a motel which costs money, took notes on the presentations, and wrote about it. So I did know what the formal part of the conference entailed. As you know my essays was posted to New York History in five parts so I did include a New York angle. As you also would know from the other four posts, comments by readers to the posts, and my replies, that I did explain to readers that the conference was not meant to provide a thorough narrative of the topic but what topics it selected as specialized themes and which ones it didn’t also was part of its message.
You conclude by raising an importance question. Suppose We the People are desirous of learning more about the origins of this country, about what the American Revolution meant to the people who lived through it, and what that means for us today, where should we turn? Based on your answer not to purveyors of a sanitized nationalist view and not to the early American historians who aren’t interested in engaging those people. What then are simplistic people who aren’t attending your Yale, Ulrich’s Harvard, or Zuckerman’s Penn to do? Perhaps now you have a better understanding of why I enjoyed Marcus Rediker’s presentation so much.
Peter, the “you” in the second paragraph was not directed at you personally but meant in a general sense. I should have used “one” instead and regret if my post came off as a personal “putdown,” which it was in no way meant to be. I am a historian of New York and I appreciate the work you do on the blog.
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