Marjoleine Kars, Michael McDonnell, and I are delighted to announce that we are beginning work on a new three-volume Cambridge History of the American Revolution.
If ever there were a time for undertaking a major, encompassing, systemic reexamination of the American Revolution, now is that moment. There is broad public interest, boosted on bookshelves by “founders chic” and propelled in the popular mind by TV series like Turn and the cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton. This enthusiasm promises only to grow over the next decade with the approach of the sestercentennial of the founding of the United States. As academic conferences, anthologies, special scholarly journal issues, and an increasing number of dissertations about the American Revolution indicate, we are in the midst of a major reevaluation of the American Revolutionary scope, its meaning, and its legacy. Capitalizing on this interest, we propose a new, three-volume history of the American Revolution, consolidating the work that has been done over the past three decades, surveying the field, and offering paths forward for future exploration.
From the 1970s to the 2010s, historians of the American Revolution have greatly expanded our understanding of the scope of the Revolution. Such efforts can (and have been) caricatured as rehashing debates over the extent to which the Revolution was one of ideas or actions, consisted of an ideological conflict or a social one, or was waged as a war of independence or civil war. Yet the best scholarship over this time has transcended such simplistic dichotomies. A new generation of scholars has explored a wider range of experiences. They have moved beyond those bewigged few commemorated on street-signs and dollar bills to examine enslaved tobacco pickers and enraged tenant farmers, free black soldiers and struggling white seamstresses, mobile Indian families and ambivalent sailors, radical scribblers and reactionary preachers. They have combined this broader research focus with a wider geographic purview. Moving beyond the rebellious thirteen colonies, they examined the Revolution across the North American continent and the Caribbean, assessing its place in global cross-currents of people, trade, and ideas. They surveyed the more obvious benefactors of revolution. But they also included those who struggled against or suffered from it, among them the full span of loyalists from the wealthy to escaped former slaves, Indian groups allied with either side, and partisans and veterans of all stripes. While far from comprehensive, these efforts enormously broadened and deepened our understandings of common people as well as of more traditional elite figures. Expanding our optics now forces us to grapple with the many meanings of the American Revolution—both to contemporaries and in the centuries since—and how they were infused with deeply held beliefs about race, gender, time, place, and the human condition.
In addition to exhibiting the creative fruits of three decades of scholarly exploration, this collection will guide readers along two freshly cut trails through the wilds of the American Revolution. One of these paths is blazed by a younger cohort of scholars less invested in the ideological questions of “why” debated by their intellectual grandparents or in the social questions of “who” explored by their direct academic predecessors and more in the procedural question of “how.” Informed by the methodology of new institutionalism, empowered by a wider availability of sources, and often leveraging new digital methodology, these enterprising historians are shifting our focus from structures to practices. Their efforts expand our understanding of how various people navigated military occupation, community conflict, governmental paralysis, interpersonal relationships, institutional collapse, and the slipperiness of allegiance. Their work highlights the interplay of class, race, and gender in everyday transactions in a period of deep division and grand possibility. The second track sees violence, disorder, uncertainty, and trauma as central not only to lived experience of the Revolution but also as a shaping force in culture and politics. From Georgia to what would become Maine, and from the Atlantic beyond the Appalachians, people suffered bouts of chaos in conflicts ranging from scattered to intense. Farms, mills, and houses were burned or gutted; as many or more civilians and soldiers alike died of disease as from violence; and many of those who survived suffered trauma that historians have only barely begun to understand. How, scholars now wonder, did disorder and disaster affect the American founding?
While not ignoring important older scholarship that has stood the test of time, the Cambridge History of the American Revolution aims to showcase the best of the most recent wave of revolutionary scholarship, and to chart its future course. We have selected the authors of the individual chapters primarily for their standing in the various fields of studies on early America, the American Revolution, and the Atlantic World – and their ability to communicate their research in engaging ways. They reflect a mixture of younger and more established scholars from the Americas, Australasia, and Europe, well positioned to assess crucial scholarly debates in a larger global context. Contributors will be tasked with introducing readers to the history of the American Revolution and its future. We envision this Cambridge History as both a valuable reference tool for novice readers and as a guide to productive new directions. The marketplace for American Revolution history is crowded but contains nothing similar to what the Cambridge History promises to offer. There are many textbooks on the topic. Their narrative demands allows them to only introduce the issues that our contributors will have the space to address in depth. The publishing world has experienced a nearly uncountable profusion of monographs on the American Revolution, amplified by a more recent outpouring of works on the Atlantic, the African Diaspora, Continental studies, and the Age of Revolution more generally. Only an expansive three-volume work such as we propose could dare to survey and assay this literature.
The Cambridge History will highlight the most important trends and topics within a large secondary literature. Contributors will have the space to grapple with their topics in depth and breadth, yielding essays that will enlighten experienced scholars as well as engaging lay readers in the field. The popularity of the American Revolution will draw in an audience; the organization and topics covered in the volumes will help expand and stimulate discussion. In the best tradition of the Cambridge Histories, this will be a scholarly project that aims to lead and shape the field, and entertain, educate, and engage a broad audience of non-professionals.
Volume 1: Contexts
Volume 2: Revolutionary Moments
Volume 3: Continuities, Changes, and Legacies
The three volumes will have a largely chronological structure, centering on key events, issues, and personalities in the era of the American Revolution. While generally following a chronological organization, many chapters will address broader, thematic topics that move across time and space. This is particularly true in Volumes 1 and 3, in which we’ll emphasize the context and causes along with the impact and consequences of the Revolution, respectively. We have included below the tentative titles of each chapter. In our instructions to contributors, we will also provide several keywords to guide authors, and ask each to think carefully about the topics they have been assigned and the relationship between their work, that of other contributors, and the project as a whole. We have made a deliberate decision not to solicit specific essays on women or people of color (beyond those on slavery). Rather, we will explicitly instruct our authors as part of their charge to include the widest range of people in their contributions, thus providing for readers, in each essay, an integrated view of the topic’s complexity and a window into the many roles that a range of actors played in every facet of the Revolution.
Volume 1 explores the many contexts that shaped the Revolutionary era, as well as the longer-term structures, ruptures, and causes of the Revolution. It opens with a sweeping survey of the imperial and continental polities of the mid-eighteenth century that would soon come in to conflict, before delving in to the social, cultural, economic, and political forces that would structure colonial and imperial responses to the changing circumstances wrought by the Seven Years’ War. Volume 2 follows a more strictly chronological format to cover some of the familiar events of the American Revolution, from the outbreak of conflict at Lexington and Concord in 1775 through to the ratification of the Constitution. Within this more traditional framework, the volume breaks new ground in emphasizing the internal conflicts within the thirteen colonies, as well as the continental, hemispheric, and global forces shaping warfare and politics in this era. Volume 3 looks at the early years of the new Republic, and helps situate the American Revolution more broadly in the era of sweeping change known as the Age of Revolution. It also delineates the short- and long-term changes—social, cultural, environmental, political, economic, demographic—across the new states and the wider shockwaves emanating from the Revolution across space and time, from its epicenter in late 18th-century North America to the corners of the globe in the present day.
Finally, to help achieve our stated aims of encompassing a wide array of perspectives on the Revolutionary era, we also propose a unique innovation. Each volume will feature up to five chapters capturing in-depth “viewpoints.” Some of these chapters will focus on a lesser-known character; others will examine a particular, less explored, sub-region, or place. Using a “grain of sand approach,” these chapters will dig deeper as we narrow our optics, to make vivid and concrete for readers the broader Atlantic and hemispheric trends discussed throughout all volumes. For example, an essay in Volume 3 on the diaspora at the end of the Revolution might focus on the life of Billy Blue, a free black revolutionary soldier and convict who ended up as one of the founders of Australia. Billy Blue’s viewpoint illustrates the difficult choices enslaved Africans faced during the Revolutionary War, and the far-reaching effects of those choices. His story reveals the international consequences of American independence as Britain searched for a new place to send convicts and imperialists turned their attention to the Pacific. Another viewpoint may examine the revolution from the vantage point of Mobile or the Carolina backcountry. We envision these “viewpoint” chapters will prove popular for classroom use and will draw readers to the volumes’ broader survey essays.
The Editorial Team
The general editors are supported by an international Advisory Board composed of senior and distinguished scholars in the field. Board members will advise the general editors in shaping the overall vision of the volumes, identifying and approaching potential authors, contributing chapters to the volumes, and advising as needed in the revision process.
The Advisory Board includes:
Zara Anishanslin (University of Delaware), Anna Arabindan-Kesson (Princeton University), Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor (University of California, Davis), Woody Holton (University of South Carolina), Sara Johnson (University of California, San Diego), Sarah Knott (Indiana University), Holly Mayer (Duquesne University), Simon Newman (Glasgow University), Sarah Pearsall (Cambridge University), Gautham Rao (American University), Michael Witgen (University of Michigan), and Peter H. Wood (Emeritus, Duke University).
Marjoleine Kars’s first monograph, Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina (2002), explored the many inter-related layers of complexity of that conflict, from the personal to the Atlantic World, and its many facets, prompting a significant rethinking of the roots of the American Revolution; she is now completing a volume on the 1763-1764 Berbice slave uprising, examining how internal divisions along lines of ethnicity, class, and gender shaped the insurgency. An essay about this work recently appeared in the American Historical Review and won the 2016-2017 Biennial Article Prize, Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction; the 2017 Carol Gold Best Article Award, Coordinating Council for Women in History; the 2017 Kimberly Hanger prize, Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Southern Historical Association, for the best article appearing in the fields of Latin American, Caribbean, American Borderlands and Frontiers, or Atlantic World history; and the 2017 Vanderwood Prize of the Conference on Latin American History.
Michael A. McDonnell
Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolution Virginia (2007), which won the New South Wales Premier’s History Prize in 2008, offers perhaps the most complete state-scale study we have that fully explores the relationship between violence and the American Revolution, and his second book, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (2015), winner of a Michigan State Historical Society Award and a Western Historical Association Prize, re-centers early American history from the perspective of Indian country. McDonnell also has editorial experience having recently published an edited collection, with three others, entitled Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation-Making in the US from Independence to the Civil War (UMP, 2013), and another, with Kate Fullagar, entitled Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age (JHU Press, 2018). He has published numerous articles on the American Revolution, winning the Lester Cappon Prize for the best article published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 2006, and his work featured in the Organization of American Historians’ Best American History Essays (2008). He is currently working on two book projects that deal with the American Revolution and its legacy: one entitled The Revolution in Black American Life (with Clare Corbould), and the other entitled War Stories: The Meaning of the American Revolution.