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Current Issue Article Abstracts

Winter 2017, Vol. 37.4

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Introduction: Expand or Die: The Revolution’s New Empire

Alan Taylor 

Does focusing on the American Revolution distort the colonial past to serve a teleology? What happens to our histories if instead we plant the revolution in the middle of a longer flow of change: Does it appear more or less transformative? This joint issue of JER and WMQ explores "writing to and from the Revolution." Dwelling on continuities rather than transformations, the articles cast doubt on how revolutionary the revolution truly was. First, the revolution generated racial distinctions that associated freedom with whiteness. Second, it regularized state formation to balance the interests of older states with frontier elites’ longing for social mobility and secure private property in land and slaves. Third, the revolution accelerated westward expansion to relieve social tensions and reduce taxes in the eastern polities. The patriot victors reaped freedom and prosperity, but that success contained contradictions that would provoke a new civil war. 

Toward a Social History of Federalism: The State and Capitalism To and From the American Revolution

Andrew Shankman

This essay examines the relations between state formation, capitalism, and slavery in North America from the early eighteenth century through the post-Civil War era. By examining a series of case studies involving important policies, wars, and crises that occurred during this 150 year period, the essay argues that we must simultaneously consider the process of state formation and the rise of a capitalist economy that very much involved slavery. Recent distinct scholarly literatures have argued for a much stronger and more powerful U.S. nation state, and for understanding slavery as the core of American capitalism. This essay, by calling for a social history of federalism, argues that we must think about the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. nation-state, and the compatibilities but also major differences between free and slave labor regimes and political economies. This essay seeks to bring more precision to our discussion of the nation-state in the early American republic by asking what conditions allowed it to act with real coercive authority, when it could do so, why it could do so, and just as importantly, when and why it could not. The possibilities and limits for state power had a profound impact on the growth and development of the North American slave political economy, and on its thorough interconnectedness with continental, indeed global, capitalism. It was this very interconnectedness that produced the hegemonic breakdown and the disintegration of the national polity and nation-state in civil war.

1776, Viewed from the West

Jessica Choppin Roney

This article examines the process of state-formation in the new United States republic after 1776 through a case study of the brief-lived state of Franklin (1784–c.1789) and its successor, Tennessee, which achieved statehood in 1796. The article asks why Franklin failed and Tennessee succeeded within such a short time-span and what both tell us about how the new United States and its citizens were working out questions of sovereignty and self-governance after 1776. I argue that westward moving white settlers never rejected the state; they merely wanted to control its formation themselves. However, the violence of white settlers in places like Franklin, focused on dispossessing neighboring Cherokees, contributed to evolving federal policies that backed away from a robust embrace of settler sovereignty as might have been implied by Revolutionary war-era rhetoric. Eastern policymakers, existing “parent” states like North Carolina, and wealthy speculators increasingly argued that western settlement needed to be centrally controlled, leading to the imposition of policies like the Northwest Ordinance. Tennessee was the first territory and state to enter the union under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance, but it controverted the spirit if not the letter of that law, reflecting the fact that white settlers continually asserted their own capacity and right to self-determination.


Paul A. Gilje

Ideas about free trade and open commerce drove early American foreign policy before the War of 1812. Concern with expansion was not entirely absent from American diplomacy, but until the 1820s, 30s and 40s, it played a less significant role in foreign policy decisions than trade. Before the Revolutionary War both the British and American believed that their empire was based on commerce and not conquest. They engaged in wars for empire determined to secure the colonies from outside threats and to defend commerce. The American Revolution began in controversies over the regulation of commerce and taxation (usually connected to trade as well). The Revolutionaries sought to establish a new diplomatic regime based on free trade. They persisted in this concern in the creation of the Confederation government and with the establishment of the American republic under the Constitution of 1787. All of the major treaties between the United States and other nations before 1812 concerned commerce, even when they included territorial acquisition. The Louisiana Purchase began as an effort to secure commerce on the Mississippi by gaining the port of New Orleans. Conquest first emerged as the salient policy in dealing with Native Americans, and was then extended to Florida, Texas, and northern Mexico thereafter. However, even when manifest destiny had become the focus of American foreign policy, commerce and free trade remained important.

Conclusion: Writing To and From the Revolution

Serena R. Zabin

The articles in this joint issue do not offer such comfort. Rather, they remind us of the angry hostilities and high costs of founding the United States. By no means were these conflicts restricted to the battlefield, nor were the clashes somehow contained in a political system neatly divided between a British imperial state and a nascent American one. Instead, as these articles demonstrate, struggles emerged everywhere: in the imagination, among settlers, in marital relationships, even in poetry. These articles show us that the struggle to define and confine who “we the people” are was a major facet of the American Revolution. The struggle continues; a truly inclusive democratic republic has never, except in rhetoric, been a part of the American story.



The Washingtons: George and Martha, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love by Flora Fraser (review)

Cassandra Good
David Head

Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution by Caroline Cox (review)

John A. Ruddiman
Brett Palfreyman

Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution by Nathan Perl-Rosenthal (review)

Christine E. Sears


The American Revolution, State Sovereignty, and the American Constitutional Settlement 1765–1800 by Aaron N. Coleman (review)

William K. Bolt