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Understanding the Consequences of American Independence

In the middle of July, 1776, the garrison at Fort Ticonderoga gathered together to listen as the post commander read the text of the Declaration of Independence aloud. According to one observer, the troops rejoiced, saying “Now we are a people!” But what did that mean? Who were “the American people” and what were they supposed to do next?

To commemorate the anniversary of American independence, the series editors of Jeffersonian AmericaCharlene Boyer Lewis, Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter Onuf, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, and Robert Parkinson—have selected five outstanding books on the American Revolution that explore different facets of the problems American independence created. Published between 2009 and 2017, these five series books each shed new light on culture, civic participation, democracy, and international affairs in the age of the American Revolution when they first appeared, and the arguments advanced in their pages have stood the test of time and still inform current debates. In 2021, we see ourselves at a crossroads about fundamental issues of participation, democracy, belonging, and America’s place in the world. These books help us see how Americans in 1776 grappled with the challenges of independence, and that revolutionary past still informs our debates today.  

Leonard Sadosky’s pathbreaking Revolutionary Negotiations: Indians, Empires, and Diplomats in the Founding of America (2009) changed the script of early American diplomatic history. Not only does his book detail how Revolutionary leaders first learned, performed, and reshaped the political culture of diplomacy, it also demonstrates that negotiations around Native council fires mattered as much to Patriot political education as those conducted in European capitals. By bringing Native leaders into a historiography of diplomacy that had traditionally focused exclusively on European treaty conferences, Revolutionary Negotiations was indeed a revolutionary piece of scholarship.

So was another book published in the Jeffersonian America series in 2009. In The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774-1804 Douglas Bradburn examines the problem of American citizenship and how the definition of “an American” was intertwined with the problem of union. Who did these new Americans belong to? What benefits did they get for that belonging? Who didn’t get those rights? Bradburn’s book offers important answers to these essential questions and remains an important title in citizenship studies and on early American politics.

“Citizen” wasn’t the only term that the American Revolutionaries struggled to define. Michael Jan Rozbicki’s Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution (2011) tackled another big watchword—arguably the most important concept of the American Revolution: liberty. His was a book ahead of its time. Rozbicki provocatively argues that we haven’t really understood “liberty” at all; seeing it as a self-evident truth is all wrong. Integrating cultural and political history, Culture and Liberty changed how we think about the most basic keywords of the Revolution and is worth revisiting now, when pundits invoke liberty as a rallying cry in all manner of contentious cultural and political debates.  

If Rozbicki contends that we need to pay closer attention to what “liberty” meant in eighteenth-century America, Seth Cotlar tells us we need to do a better job understanding liberty’s most important evangelizer, Tom Paine. In Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (2011), Cotlar puts Paine into a broad context, searching for roads not taken in the Age of Revolutions. The rise, fall, and rebirth of Paine’s reputation is, Cotlar argues, another way to trace the complicated history of democracy in early America. Cotlar’s vital text is a history of ideas from the bottom up, reconstructing the ways in which everyday people engaged with Paine’s writings to push radical theories about politics and economics, thereby making clear that “democracy” was as contested a concept in Revolutionary America as were “liberty” and “citizen.”

Finally, Spencer McBride’s Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (2017) reexamines the role clergymen played in the development of political culture in early America. During the Revolution, British officials snidely accused Congregationalist clergymen of acting like a “black regiment,” meaning that their black robes served as quasi-uniforms in the Continental Army. From their pulpits, the British alleged, these men of the faith preached independence. McBride revisits this historiographical chestnut, arguing persuasively that those accusations were right: Protestant clergymen were in fact key political actors during and after the Revolution. His book is a necessary reminder that historians who ignore religious leaders can’t really grasp how political culture, national identity, and government institutions developed in Revolutionary America.

These five monographs are crucial for understanding the problems created by American independence. When they were released, reviewers called them, variously, “excellent and enjoyable,” “essential,” and “a complete rethinking of the Revolution.” They have lived up to and still embody all of these attributes. They changed the questions historians ask and they recast how we see and interpret our nascent nation’s diplomatic and political culture. Anyone seeking to understand the core American concepts of democracy, liberty, and citizenship is well advised to start with these five key texts. Not only have these titles become staples on PhD examination lists, they also deserve a wide public reading to help inform debates about the relationship between church and state, what it means to be a citizen of the United States, and the possibilities (and limits) of political radicalism—debates that are as current and lively now as they were on July 4, 1776.

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UVA Press is pleased to offer a 30% discount on the titles featured here. Please specify code 10SUMMER when you order any of these books through our website or by calling 1-800-848-6224.

 

 

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