The Hourglass Effect in Teaching the American Revolution

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal

Many of us who teach the American Revolution in an Atlantic and global context have run into the “hourglass problem:” A course that is geographically capacious at the beginning and the end but narrows in the middle to eastern North America. This post analyzes that problem and examines some solutions, one of which draws on my essay, “Atlantic Cultures and the Age of Revolution,” published in last year’s WMQ-JER joint issue (William and Mary Quarterly 74, no. 4,  667–696).

The hourglass problem arises from trying to synthesize old and new ways of seeing the American Revolution in a single course. You probably start your class with a wide-angle early modern frame: Big, oceanic topics like global empire, Atlantic slavery, and the consumer revolution are good for framing and explaining the coming imperial crisis. But before long, the course’s terrain contracts as you turn to the traditional chronology of the Revolution. One feels the squeeze already with the Sugar, Stamp, and Townshend Acts. After early 1770, it gets hard to leave eastern North America. First one is in Boston for the Massacre, then explaining the local politics of the Coercive Acts, followed by Lexington and Concord, and the debate over independence. The same goes for the war years and the critical period. A reopening outward typically only gets underway in the 1790s.

Here are graphic representations of this problem. In these images, time is on the x-axis and geography on the y-axis.

This one (←) is inspired by the diagrams in D.H. Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies; this one (→) is a more schematic view.

The geographic cinching-up of the 1760s and 1770s, by temporarily shutting out events anywhere but North America, paradoxically ends up reinforcing the very exceptionalist narrative of the Revolution that a wider lens is supposed to help us avoid. The wider world may play its part in the revolutionary era, this approach implies, but during the crucial period of the 1770s and 1780s there is a particular and special North American story that must be told. The decades of the crisis and the war become, in effect, a very local revolutionary black box:

This black box is not necessarily the traditional “top down” narrative of the Revolution. It can equally well be constructed around a story from the “bottom up” that emphasizes the disfranchised and marginalized. But so long as the rest of the world is shut out during the revolutionary decades—the waist of the hourglass—the course will still end up asserting the uniqueness and incommensurability of the American case.

So how can one incorporate the wider world into an American Revolution course without falling into the hourglass problem? One strategy has been to sidestep entirely teaching the political narrative of the Revolution centered on the eastern shore of North America.   Graphically speaking, that resolves the problem thus →

But let’s assume for a moment that abandoning the political history of the Revolution altogether is not an option for you. A more satisfying solution, which one sees in a number of syllabi today, is to tell the story of the revolutionary decades in parallel with simultaneous developments elsewhere in the continent and the world.

Here is a graphic representation of what that course would cover. In this graphic and the next one, time is on the x-axis and course hours are on the y-axis.  The area under the curve is proportionate to a topic’s weight in the course at a given moment:

The signal advantage of this approach is that it thoroughly relativizes the revolutionary narrative in North America. A course taught in this fashion constantly reminds students that the East Coast circa 1780 was not the bellybutton of the world—that, indeed, the stories of other places and peoples were just as compelling and important as the East Coast narrative. (I have used different shading for each region to stress that in this course each regional narrative is fundamentally autonomous.) By layering narratives from multiple regions into the course from the outset, it provides a far better way to incorporate the wider world into the narrative of the American Revolution than the on-and-off strategy that produces the hourglass form.

A disadvantage of this approach to teaching the Revolution is that it sets up a direct trade-off between diversity of perspective and depth of coverage. The more one relativizes North America by including disparate themes and events from other places, the less room there is to address each region in the limited amount of class time that one has. The risk is that one ends up squeezing out necessary material (like the story “from above” or “from below” of the Revolution in eastern North America), or that one’s coverage of some regions becomes superficial or schematic.

A more radical approach to addressing the hourglass problem is implicit in “Atlantic Cultures and the Age of Revolution.” The article proposes—as a research strategy—that we examine how the American Revolution was shaped by distinctive eighteenth-century cultures, shared around the Atlantic world, which also shaped the other revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Digging out the revolutions’ shared roots, I argue, makes it possible to reconnect the revolutionary experiences around the Atlantic and to better grasp the importance and distinctiveness of each individual revolution. (This emphatically does not mean denying the American Revolution’s transformative power in the region, nor its wider global significance.)

What would a course on the American Revolution look like with this approach in mind? First, it would begin by sketching out the common traits of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world—not just in the British empire but across imperial boundaries. In the article, I focus on the example of letter-writing practices, but in a course one could emphasize other common cultures such as agricultural practices; urban lifeways; monarchical political culture; and so on. Second, you would want to use these shared traits to constantly relativize and contextualize the American experience. (I will come back to this point below.) Third, those shared elements would provide a basis for incorporating contemporaneous revolutions into the course, starting in the 1780s. The idea would be to see these revolutions not as disparate phenomena in distant regions, but as branches off of the same trunk in constant interaction.

Graphically, the course would look something like the following. As in the previous diagram, time is on the x-axis and course hours are on the y-axis: the shaded areas are proportionate to a topic’s weight in the course at a given moment. Arrows represent particularly important moments for making comparisons or discussing mutual influences:

This course is similar to the one I just discussed in two ways: It consistently incorporates the wider world, and it avoids the hourglass effect. But it differs in two important ways. First, it stresses how shared Atlantic practices, cultures and institutions tied the era’s regions and revolutions together. (This is represented graphically by the addition of a bloc of time devoted to those shared roots and by the use of a single shade for all regions.) Second, it reduces the need to trade off breadth for depth of coverage. Because each region partakes of the same transatlantic “shared roots”—they are, conceptually, part of a single discussion—coverage of any one region adds depth to the overall discussion rather than forcing “cuts” to analysis of another region. (Represented graphically by the constant amount of area for each topic in every time period.)

I’ll conclude by going back to Lexington and Concord, a particularly tricky point in the course if one wants to avoid the hourglass effect. Where are the “Atlantic cultures” to be found in this story of British regulars marching into a provincial burgh? Not far off at all. Civic militia were an almost universal feature of the Euro-American world, who generally defended local interests—as the American militiamen did. The British regulars’ tactics had much in common with those of career soldiers elsewhere in the Atlantic, from Prussia to Cape Colony. And the confrontation between the two was hardly unusual. The Dutch patriot revolt, the early French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution—to name just a few—were also set off in part by similar clashes. In this light, the events of 1775 look less like a special phenomenon in eastern North America and more like one example of a much wider pattern of conflict that helped to shake the political foundations of eighteenth-century governments around the Atlantic world.

Getting rid of the hourglass effect isn’t easy, but it is worth the effort. We owe it to our students to show them that the United States has always been not just in the world but also of it.

7 May 2018

About the Author

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is Associate Professor of History and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California.

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