In the interview below, author and historian Andrew M. Schocket discusses his longstanding love of history, the inspiration behind his new book, and his thoughts on the shifting legacy of the American Revolution.
We would also like to extend our thanks to the interviewer, graduate student Adam Crockett, for generously allowing us to publish the piece here.
Q: When did you become interested in history, and was it always American history?
Andrew M. Schocket: Even as an adolescent, I was interested in history. I was lucky to have wonderful American history teachers and a teacher of European history who was Russian. Russian history is the history of suffering and perseverance, the steppes and the winter, forbearance and, of course, the state and Mother Russia. By contrast, American history is the history of promises kept and broken, of liberty and power, of many groups figuring out where they fit in the grander dreams they have for themselves and the nation.
Is your particular area of expertise the era of the American Revolution?
It is, and I’m finally getting back to the American Revolution in my writing. It was what I went to graduate school to learn and write about, and still my greatest passion in history. My first book, on the origins of corporate power in the United States, was an exploration of how Americans in Philadelphia reorganized their polity and economy in the aftermath of the Revolution. I’m now working on several projects. Chief among them is a book about the scale of violence during the American Revolution, and how it was mostly resolved by the end of the eighteenth century. The violence and dislocation of the Revolution has been greatly downplayed. Admitting that, what I’m asking is, given that a majority of Americans were either neutral (“disaffected,” they called it) or loyalist, what led people to begin to recognize their new governments—local, state, and national—as legitimate? Why did they start obeying the laws, serving on juries, paying their taxes? As with so many questions about the past, it’s also partly inspired by the present, as we look around the world and wonder how to restore some sense of order to the many countries suffering chaos. That said, it’s a question I’ve been thinking about on and off for close to twenty years.
Was the spark for this really a political flyer? How long have you been writing this book for?
Invoking a political flyer served was a good hook to my chapter about politics in Fighting over the Founders, because it’s something that so many of us has encountered. But the book came out of some work I was doing around 2008, as I was writing a more theoretical piece on future directions of the scholarship on the American Revolution. Most historians in America are very unreflexive, that is, don’t think much about our own position in our scholarship, as we are taught to be, and especially most historians of the American Revolution. How could we, and the general public, understand the American Revolution without considering the lenses through which we view it? So I began to look around at political culture and popular culture to see how we encounter the American Revolution, and the book grew from there.
Do you feel that American history is unique in that regard? Is America a land of “promises kept and broken”?
It is, perhaps to a greater extent than most countries, because American nationalism may have a stronger dose of idealism to it than most. Nationalism for most countries is bound up more centrally with ethnicity. To be sure, historically and even in the present day, many Americans have imbued American nationalism with ethnocentrism. Nonetheless, a nation that claims to be a “citie on a hill,” dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” whose sovereignty is vested in “we the people,” and that has a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is one that has many promises woven into its fabric.
Do you feel you’ll ever have an answer to that question, of what inspired the “disaffected” to recognize the new government?
Maybe. Stay tuned. But even if I have an answer, as with the work of any historian, it won’t be the last word.
When did you settle on the terms “organicist” and “essentialist” for the different political parties? Specifically, at what point did you recognize
the patterns in their respective discourses?
It was clear that there was a stark difference in the kinds of language that Republicans used versus what Democrats used. It surprised me a little, in that I had expected that they would be pretty similar. The use of “essentialism” was pretty easy, as it’s a term already out there describing a similar mindset in other contexts. ”Organicism” was harder, and it’s not as perfect a fit, which is why I devoted some space to defining both of them and the history of the concepts.
It’s not exactly a historian’s job to predict the future, but then where’s the fun without it? Given how you’ve said most of the landscape was
dominated by essentialists up until the 1970s, do you see organicism eventually becoming the dominate view? If not, what do you see happening farther down the road with regards to how the public sees the Revolution the farther away from it we get?
As best I can tell, essentialism and organicism are both becoming entrenched, just in different ways than before. Popular and political culture are too vast for large elements of the national self-image to disappear; plus, in some ways these two threads represent deep fissures in American culture that show no signs of going away. We’ve been debating the American Revolution for over two hundred years. It will be fascinating to see how the debates will go concerning the next big milestone, the nation’s sestercentennial, or whatever we decide to call the nation’s 250th anniversary.
And finally, the most important question, what do you like to drink when you’re writing?
Water neat, sometimes with a water chaser. Although apparently best practice suggests alcohol for creativity, and caffeine for productivity.