"Of These Men, How Shall I Speak"First, let me offer a few compare-and-contrast conclusions. Progressive historians have in common the world-view that goes with the economic interpretation of history. They do not, however, always conclude the same things (Jameson and Turner argued greater economic democracy, for example, while Beard argued the Constitution as a document written by the wealthy to protect the wealthy). To a great degree, progressive historians are interested in geography, especially insofar as geographical factors are determinants in history. This interest varies, of course, from writer to writer, but Turner and Jameson are the best examples of those who ascribe to water-and-dirt determinism. Moreover, progressive historians, presuming that one defines the term as a historian who belongs to a school of thought, are interested more in the common man than in the great leaders; they are more likely to examine the writings of J. P. Martin than of George Washington. They are in fact the predecessors of today''s social historians. This focus is consistent with a great-forces-over-great-men deterministic view, inasmuch as "the will of the people" becomes a great force akin to rivers and towns. But the last common factor is perhaps the most important: progressive historians are generally in agreement that the war was a true revolution, and their meaning of the word transcends the mere throwing-off of "British tyranny" that so enthralled writers like George Bancroft and Mercy Otis Warren. This last factor brings me to the second part of my conclusions, which is to me rather more important than the first part.
The argument that the war was a revolution is essentially universal among the progressives; that is, it is universal among those who took "progressive" world-views as they wrote. But the flip-side of revolution is consensus. Turner, Becker, Jameson, et al. argue that the war was fought for, or at least caused, greater democracy in the colonies. This may be true; that is, wars tend to cause the end of Old Orders and ancient regimes, but that is hardly a singular thing to say about the American Revolution. All of our wars have caused some sort or other of significant social change and reform.
But the argument that I wish to advance is this: in being "revolutionary," the colonists demonstrated a sort of consensus thinking. If they wanted greater democracy, that was not really change so much as it was an affirmation of the existing order. Those who gained votes and other social privileges were saying, in effect, "The existing order is pretty good; it is so good in fact that I want a greater role in it. I want a bigger piece of it." These were no sans culottes cutting off the heads of kings and aristocrats as the Frenchmen did in their frenzied Terror. No; these were Englishmen who desired home rule, who at first sought to preserve local autonomy and loyalty to the King, not to Parliament; and it was only later that they slipped into the position of demanding sovereignty.
The second half of the rebuttal to the thesis that states that the war was a revolution because of the change it wrought is this: since all of the wars the United States has fought have yielded dramatic social and political change, then they must all be revolutionary. The World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, the American Civil War: all were revolutions in this context. But then the term begins to lose its meaning to a sort of rhetorical inflation, just as what were once bit players in Hollywood are now listed as "stars," and what were once "stars" are now "superstars." (What''s next, novas and supernovas?) To put it another way, if the wars were all revolutionary, then none of them were.
This brings me back to Turner's statement quoted at the beginning of this paper. What he said in 1920 could easily have been said a few years after the end of the Vietnam War. Or it could just as easily be said today, with reference to the upheavals being caused by the Information Revolution. And what of the events in eastern Europe and their consequences in the United States as the realization hits that the Cold War appears to be over?
If everything is revolutionary, then nothing is.