By Nathan Perl-Rosenthal
Scholars choose the plots that structure their histories and these choices involve more than deciding which events to discuss. Each plot embeds an emotional arc and potential political lesson into the historical narrative.
Take the case of two canonical works on the American revolutionary era from the late 1960s: Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic. These works are, as to plot structure, both comedies, in the sense that the conflicts and tensions the authors develop in the early parts of their books find a satisfying resolution by the end. For Bailyn, independence largely resolves the ideological contradictions of the imperial crisis. For Wood, the Constitution offers a triumphant endpoint to the conflicts over republicanism in the early Republic.
Both books, by virtue of their comedic plots, offer a hopeful vision of early national politics. There is conflict and contestation in the plot of each one, to be sure—as there would be in any comedy—but it finds a safe resolution by the end. “Fulfillment,” as Bailyn called the Constitution, or Wood’s “American Science of Politics.” An intelligent nonexpert reader, encountering one of these books, can hardly avoid the sense that American politics is fundamentally wholesome—perhaps even a work of genius.
Continue the story of Creation to 1815 or 1850, however, as scholars did during the following decades, and the comedic plot of contradictions resolved seems much less plausible. Once one adds in the struggles over antebellum slavery and expanding manhood suffrage, the contradictions of the revolutionary era seem to multiply instead of finding resolution. The fact of republican ideals shot through by white male supremacy and elitism lends itself to far less irenic types of plot. Reading works like Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic, with its almost classical tragic plot, or the dark romances of resistance and repression that run through the writings of Alfred Young and Woody Holton, it is hard to escape a sense that revolutionary politics was a failure at best; at worst, hypocritical or devious.
Historians do not need new endpoints or new evidence, however, to conjure such new plots into being—as Nicholas Guyatt’s Bind Us Apart and David A. Bell’s Napoleon: A Concise Biography show. Each one re-plots a familiar revolutionary story using largely familiar materials. By doing so, both Guyatt and Bell significantly change its affective arc and leave the reader with a very different political moral.
Guyatt’s book argues that early American “white liberals,” in trying to manage racial conflict, invented the notion of racial segregation. White reformers have long been a kind of bright spot for historians of the post-revolutionary era: a handful of well-intentioned men and women struggling for a better world in the midst of slavery and reaction. The originality of Bind Us Apart lies not in its evidence, most of which is already well-known, but in its retelling of this story as a classical tragedy: racism, Guyatt argues, was the inner flaw of his heroes, early American reformers. With an elegance that Aristotle himself might have admired, Guyatt sets out the case that the reform movements contained the seeds of their own betrayal. Instead of improving race relations, reformers lay the groundwork for the entrenchment of racial injustice after the Civil War ended slavery.
David A. Bell’s book aims, conversely, to revise a well-established tragic plot. Scholars have long seen Napoleon as the betrayer of the French Revolution from within. He rolled back innumerable revolutionary reforms (including the abolition of slavery) and sought to reimpose monarchic forms of governance and social order. Yet, Bell argues powerfully, the Napoleon we know could not have existed without the Revolution: his career, his rise to power, even his ideas, are imaginable only within the context of the Revolution. Napoleon was not the revolution’s tragic flaw; he was also, in a real sense, its embodiment. Neither tragedy nor comedy, this plot offers a suitably ambivalent beginning to the epic of modern French politics.
The next and last post investigates how these emplotted histories of the age of revolution, with their affective and political charge, can help shape conversations about the present.
(Part I can be found here) (Part III is here)
Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California. His first book was Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution. He is currently working on a cultural history of the age of revolution, circa 1760 to 1820s.
Title image: Crispus Attucks, Boston Massacre, Federal Works Agency. Work Projects Administration. Division of Information. (07/01/1939 – 1943)
 A similar case in Latin America is Túpac Amaru rebellion. Narrate the rebellion within a narrow chronology, from its beginning in 1780 to its bloody end in 1783, and the story is one of failure. The rebellion was, as a matter of fact, crushed. Historians using this chronology have usually emplotted the event as tragedy. Extend the chronology of the study even a bit, though, and other plots for the rebellion become possible. The failed revolt can be reimagined as a premature inkling of the successful independence movements to come, transmuting the event from a tragedy into the opening act of a larger epic or romance of independence. See Charles F. Walker, The Túpac Amaru Rebellion (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 267-275, esp. 272.
3 thoughts on “Plotting Revolution, Part II: Politics of the Past”
Very interesting points, especially on the intent and re-examination of historical works based on the type of narrative being presented. I’m sure that choosing the start and the finish of any historical narrative would involve some kind of deliberate choice that fits within the overall story the author wants to tell, but Mr. Perl-Rosenthal’s point on comedic vs. tragic style is one I hadn’t consciously considered. Very illuminating, thank you.