History 233 Reading Guide

Origins of the American Revolution

  • Gordon S. Wood, Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century, William and Mary Quarterly 3d Ser., 39.3 (1982), 401-441.   JSTOR

Further reading: 

  • Jesse Lemisch, Jar Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America, William and Mary Quarterly 3d Ser., 25.3 (1968), 371-407.   JSTOR
  • Keith Mason, Localism, Evangelicalism, and Loyalism: The Sources of Oppression in the Revolutionary Chesapeake, J. Southern History 56.1 (1990), 23-54.  JSTOR

With this reading, and the further reading if you have time to do it, we continue our examination of the causes of the American Revolution, and the connections between ideology, society, and culture.

Gordon Woods essay makes an important contribution to the historiographical discussion of the ideological origins of the American Revolution.  He argues that, instead of focusing on the degree of consistency in the ideas of the Revolutionaries (was theirs a conservative, principled defense of American liberties or a paranoid reaction to conspiracy, plotting, violence, and greed), we should ask why they thought the way that they did.  To explain their fears of conspiracy, he describes the evolution of premodern and early modern understandings of cause and effect, causal attribution and assumptions about knowable causal explanations. 

  • What is his thesis—his argument?  Where does he present it?  Does he have a single thesis or a series of arguments?
  • How does his develop his discussion and argument in his article?  What do the section breaks (from II to VII) represent or designate?
  • Does his characterization of the colonists' changing ideas about causality help us understand eighteenth-century colonists reasonable fears of conspiracy? 
  • Does conspiracy as a causal explanation clarify or confuse our understanding of the ideological origins of the revolution?

Further reading: 

Jesse Lemisch was an early proponent of writing history from the bottom up—of examining the place, thought, and conduct of the inarticulate members of society, and using that to revise our understanding of American society and polity.  In this article, Lemisch gives voice to a class of Americans—merchant seamen—who had been dismissed or ignored by historians.  What can their reasons and motives for sailing, and their experiences at sea (and on land, especially in urban areas, as sailors) tell us about Revolutionary American society and politics?  How did the particular risk that they faced with impressment shape their views (and uses) of unrest, riot, resistance—and liberty?  What evidence does Lemisch present to support his characterization of their behavior as a kind of political expression and their sentiment as ideology?

Keith Masons article focuses on the sources of discontent on the Eastern Shore of Maryland during the Revolutionary War.  The gentry who composed the revolutionary leadership faced what Mason describes as a three-pronged assault on both their traditional authority and their patriotic cause. He characterizes the sources of discontent as localism, evangelicalism, and loyalism.  Whose interests in Chesapeake society did each of those forces represent?  In which constituencies did these forces overlap?  How does his account of a rural, peripheral, southern society add to our understanding of the complexity of American society and its response to the opportunity and the meaning of the American Revolution?