Plotting Revolution, Part II: Politics of the Past

Age of Revolutions

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…

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