U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Long American Revolution

I am teaching a course entitled “The Long American Revolution” in the spring 2011 semester that uses the Revolutionary War and the Civil War as bookends. Yes, not the most radical reworking of history, but we don’t have enough faculty in my program to offer separate courses on the Revolution and the Civil War. However, I also think the course has an integrity of its own and can raise some questions and themes that courses with a more limited scope could not necessarily explore.

I draw on the usual suspects for my baseline view of the period: James McPherson, Sean Wilentz, Eric Foner, Ira Berlin, and Mark Noll. I’d like to do two things with this course: first, provide a decent historical arc to the period that completed a radical expansion of political liberties and a profound restructuring of the economy and second, to investigate the myths about this period that continue to echo loudly in the present day, from the role religion played in the founding and in the Civil War to ideas about what constituted a public, a citizen, and a nation.
I have ordered six relatively short (under 250 pages) monographs that cover, basically, changes in religion, slavery, the Revolution, Lincoln, and the economy during the period.
To have some kind of continuity, I am treating the course as intellectual history, so we will look at the keywords (to borrow from Daniel Rodgers still useful book, Contested Truths) that fostered political and cultural debates. For example, we’ll look at the term liberty as a way to track change over time.
So, in the midst your turkey stupor, if you have a chance, I would like to hear suggestions for keywords, texts, and (especially) primary documents that you believe would push this course in interesting and unorthodox directions. I think I have the fundamentals covered, but would like to hear what imaginative avenues others might suggest to explore.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Sounds like a great course, Ray!

    Among your primary documents, think about including some Confederate statements of what the Confederacy was about (i.e. slavery). I don’t know if Indiana is as bad as Oklahoma when it comes to Neo-Confederate conventional wisdom, but the “secession-was-about-states-rights-not-slavery” meme is as common here as BBQ and bass fishing.

    You’ll find some actual Confederate documents explaining secession in terms of the “peculiar institution” in Loewen and Sebesta (eds), The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, which was just published by the University Press of Mississippi.

    Another absolutely necessary primary document (for very different reasons): Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

  2. I had good results with the Bedford/St. Martins collection “Women’s Rights Emerges from the Antislavery Movement,” which centers on the letters of Angelina and Sarah Grimke. Its contents provide students with the opportunity to look at the intersections of race, gender, the Great Awakening, and how religious ideals can be used for anti/pro feminist arguments and anti/pro slavery arguments.

  3. Ben, we do a good bit of fishing in Indiana–yes, the state’s rights explanation is the standard that I deal with every semester. Thanks for the great source on the confederacy.

    Steve and Donna, thank you both for the tips. I have Howe’s book and have mined it to great benefit. Donna, I am not surprised you recommend a book that can be so useful as a point of intersection for multiple themes. Your own work does this quite nicely!

    Thanks to you all. Happy Thanksgiving

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