Chair: Michael Zuckerman
Zara Anishanslin, “‘This is the Skin of a Whit Man’: Visual Memory and the Materiality of Violence in the American Revolution”
Denver Brunsman, “‘Executioners of their Friends and Brethren’: Naval Impressment as an Atlantic Civil War”
David Hsiung, “Environmental History and the Revolution: Gunpowder as a Test Case”
Biggest Takeaway: The American Revolution is a compelling story that never goes away. However, scholars need to find ways to work the violence of the Revolutionary War into their narratives.
Biggest Question: How can historians get at and understand the violence of the American Revolution?
Anishanslin urged historians to grapple with how colonists experienced, saw, and witnessed the Revolution. Anishanslin believes that material culture offers the best way to understand and interpret the violence of the war; most Americans get their history from historic sites not archives. Americans will better understand that the War for Independence was a bloody, violent civil war if historians and museums can discuss how material culture contains the violence of the war.
Brunsman found that the British Royal Navy impressed tens of thousands of men and yet experienced a low rate of desertion: 7% during the Napoleonic wars. Impressed men stayed in the Navy because of naval discipline, the danger of the high seas, and the fact that sailors took pride in their work. However, the American Revolution caused desertion rates to double to 14%; most sailors deserted within the first year of their service. Brunsman attributed higher desertion rates to longer periods in American ports & ideology; sailors did not want to fight their American brethren.
Hsiung suggested how scholars might use environmental history perspectives to study the American Revolution. Ecologists discuss edge zones: transition zones between habitats, such as forests and fields, where sunlight, moisture, wind speed, and other variables differ from those in a habitat. Several animals thrive in edge zones, like raccoons. Hsiung proposed that historians use the concept of edge zones to study patriots, loyalists, & neutrals. Did communities have patriots, neutrals, or loyalists who thrived in the edge zones of loyalty? A place where they comfortably interacted with people of different loyalties.
Lovell discussed how material culture can provide evidence that can teach scholars something significant when the written record is silent or ambiguous. Artists such as John Singleton Copley & John Trumbull were not more ideologically confused or more financially conspicuous than other craftsmen, but they had chameleon loyalties because of their art. Copley painted portraits of loyalists during the war and Trumbull homage to American victories. Artists helped to fix the public memory of the Revolution and its cast of characters.
Rediker counseled that historians face 2 dilemmas as they re-birth scholarship on the American Revolution: 1. If 60% of the people in the Revolution were disaffected and 20% were loyalists, scholars need to analyze and understand how the patriots achieved their wildly improbable victory. 2. When the new narrative of the American Revolution emerges it will prove completely unacceptable to the political majority of the United States because the new narratives will be insufficiently patriotic.
Thompson views academic historians as a suburban bunch who possess the colossal arrogance to say that they know about the violence involved in the Revolution. An outlier of this false consciousness is the untested conviction that successful revolutions need internal enemies. Historians don’t have a handle on why the Revolution was so violent and they need to grapple with that question. Thompson also advocated that scholars revisit the terminology they use when they describe violence.
Sampling of Question & Answer Remarks
Aaron Fogleman reminded attendees that America was a violent society and that early Americans were used to warfare, slavery, & other types of violence before the Revolution brought intense civil war.
Judith Van Buskirk asked how 20% of the population made a Revolution. She would like to see more work done on power and how people exercised power during the Revolution. Van Buskirk also mentioned types of power: coercion, persuasion, manipulation, and the imposition of norms on a community.
William Pencak suggested that lack of opportunity caused the Revolution. People could not find opportunities out west because the British shut off access beyond the Appalachian mountains. The British Navy also controlled the sea lanes, which blocked Americans from achieving full access to the opportunities of the sea.
Thompson: Remorse. A study of regret in the Revolution would make a good dissertation topic.
Tomorrow: Recap of the Power and Revolution panel
Please leave a comment if you would like to engage with the points and questions raised by this conference.