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Teaching the American Revolution


Historiann has a good post on the problems with teaching the American Revolution: the extreme nationalism of the students on the subject

It’s not just that it’s difficult to teach the quintessentially nationalistic course in American history in an era in which a great deal of the historiography is transnational or at least comparative, although that is a challenge for me considering the way I teach the rest of my courses. It’s really the overwhelmingly nationalistic, solipsistic, chest-beating, flag-waving, screaching bald eagle totality of the historiography. In the United States at least, there is no more nationalistic course, and no course that is taught in such a one-sided, pro-American manner. And the students love it! They demand it, in fact, and they revel in the opportunity to indulge in nationalist agitprop in their essays.

I don’t teach this course except for coverage in the survey. And I have certainly found Historiann’s observations to be the case. I really push a 2-sided tale here, one of a modernizing state demanding tax revenues from colonies who keep costing the British money because they like killing Indians and starting wars, of differing views of what representation means, of how the colonies have become transformed societies not quite like the English, etc. But the students don’t want to hear it–they want to know that America overthrew those British tyrants without any complexity involved.

Moreover, I find that this narrative remains surprisingly resistant to revision, even among liberals. The Revolution seems to be the one place where a consensus narrative of American history still stands. We can call Lincoln a racist and can question whether he really wanted to free the slaves, we can reinterpret the American story into one of genocide against Native Americans, we can talk about Americans abroad as a plundering power, but the Founding Fathers (with all the patriarchy that implies) remain untouchable.

I am reminded of this post I wrote in 2007 wondering if the American Revolution was bad for America. Rereading it, I’ll admit it’s a bit overargued at times, but I stand by most of the points, at least as interesting counterfactual talking points. What amused me was that progressives found it as outrageous as conservatives. Plus, one conservative site was pretty awesome about it, noting that not only were liberals fantastizing about losing the current war, but were now fantasizing about losing past wars. Outstanding.

I am very curious about the tenacity of this narrative, which perhaps means most in today’s obsession with legal originalism. Why do we still buy into traditional stories of the American Revolution?

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