So Sudden an Alteration


"So Sudden an Alteration": The Causes, Course, and Consequences of the American Revolution

9-11 April 2015


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A conference to be held at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston in recognition of the 250th anniversary of the passage of the Stamp Act. Sponsors include the MHS, the David Library of the American Revolution, the Lowell institute, Boston University, and Williams College.



This program has filled, and registration is now closed. LIMITED space is available to attend the conference keynote address, which is a public program, on Thursday at 5:00 p.m.

To RSVP for the Keynote only, contact Kate Viens, Research Coordinator, at or 617-646-0568.


Jump to hotel information.

Conference Overview

Jump to program schedule.

In view of the Revolution’s foundational importance in American history, it is surprising that since the 1980s and early 1990s it has not attracted more attention from the academic community. One reason may be that the “Republican Synthesis” has seemed so compelling that reconsidering the war and its causes has seemed daunting to many.

“‘So Sudden an Alteration” aims to break out of the well-worn grooves of historical inquiry that have defined the study of the Revolution for the past fifty years. The program is designed to promote two types of conversations, shaped by (1) traditional questions of origins and consequences addressed from new perspectives; and (2) questions of intersection—how the Revolution either affected or redirected longer-term patterns of change. In so doing the conference will bring into focus key themes intended to inspire future scholarship.

The conference will feature a keynote address by Woody Holton, the McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, “‘Not Yet’: The Originality Crisis in American Revolution Studies,” and a proposal by Boston University Professor of History Brendan McConville, "The Great Cycle: The Professional Study of the American Revolution, 1960-2015," which offers a new approach to thinking about the conflict. It will also include nine panels, each consisting of a discussion of three precirculated papers; a wrap-up discussion; a visit to the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library; and an introduction to Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr., the Society’s digital collection of the Revolutionary-era publications that Dorr, a Boston shopkeeper, assembled between the mid 1760s and the mid 1770s, commented on, and indexed.

Conference papers will be made available in advance to those who preregister; they will not be read aloud. In nine sessions on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, essayists and commentators will offer brief remarks; then, a discussion with the audience will follow.

Accommodations for the Conference

We regret that the room block at the Inn at Longwood Medical has filled.

Conference Program 

Thursday, April 9

3:00-3:15  Welcome

3:15-4:45  Session I: The Stamp Act Crisis

Molly FitzGerald Perry, College of William and Mary, “‘Disorderly Negroes, and More Disorderly Sailors’: Resistance, Agency, and Audience during the Stamp Act Crisis"

Nancy Siegel, Towson University, “‘The Bitch Rebels’: Stamp Act Protests Through the Visual Medium of Engravings and Medals”

Craig Smith, Brandeis University, “Stamping on American Honor: British Taxation and the Collectivization of Colonial Ethical Identity” 

Comment: Richard D. Brown, University of Connecticut

4:45-5:00  Break

5:00-6:00  Keynote Address

Woody Holton, University of South Carolina, “‘Not Yet’: The Originality Crisis in American Revolution Studies”

One of today’s leading historians of the American Revolution, Holton is the McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of three books, each widely acclaimed. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Meaning of the American Revolution (1999) received the Merle Curti Prize of the Organization of American Historians. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007) was a finalist for the National Book Award in non-fiction. Abigail Adams (2009) earned the Bancroft Prize.

Professor Holton will devote his talk to the problems historians in recent decades have encountered when writing about the Revolution and the prospects for a new understanding of the event. His own writings have focused on the Revolution’s social and economic contexts.

6:00-8:00  Reception

Friday, April 10

9:00-9:15  Welcome

9:15-10:45  Session II: The Boston Massacre

Eric Hinderaker, University of Utah, “Empire of Liberty, Empire in Arms: The Boston Massacre in an Anglo-Atlantic Context”

Peter C. Messer, Mississippi State University, “‘A scene of Villainy acted by a dirty Banditti, as must astonish the Public’: The Boston Massacre and the Customs Conspiracy”

Serena R. Zabin, Carleton College, “An Intimate History of the Boston Massacre”

Comment: Cornelia H. Dayton, University of Connecticut

10:45-11:00  Break

11:00-12:30  Session III: Toward the Revolution

Christopher P. Magra, University of Tennessee, “Press Gangs Were Bad for Business: British Naval Impressment, Atlantic Commerce, and the Economic Origins of the American Revolution”

John G. McCurdy, Eastern Michigan University, “The Quartering Act and the Evolution of American Space" 

David Preston, The Citadel, “The American Triumvirate: Washington, Lee, Gates, and the Military Origins of the American Revolution” 

Comment: Robert A. Gross, University of Connecticut

12:30-2:00  Lunch (on your own)

The Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library is hosting a luncheon for attendees to learn about the Central Web Portal, which features a comprehensive collection of American Revolution maps from the Map Center and the world’s foremost cartographic collections. The Boston Public Library is between a 10- and 15-minute walk from the MHS. The Map Center will lead a group from the MHS to the BPL at the end of the morning sessions. WE REGRET THAT REGISTRATION FOR THIS EVENT IS NOW CLOSED.

2:00-2:30  Introduction to Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr.

2:30-2:45  Break

2:45-4:15  Session IV: Slavery and the American Revolution

Paul J. Polgar, College of William and Mary and Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, “The Revolution in Race”

John A. Ruddiman, Wake Forest University, “Is This the Land of Liberty? Continental Soldiers and Slavery in the Revolutionary Tidewater and Low Country”

Gloria McCahon Whiting, Harvard University, “‘the Negroes have left’: African Americans and the Politics of Emancipation in Revolutionary Massachusetts”

Comment: Alan S. Taylor, University of Virginia

4:15-4:30  Break

4:30-5:30  The Great Cycle:  The Professional Study of the American Revolution, 1960-2015

Brendan J. McConville, Boston University

Moderator: Conrad Edick Wright, Massachusetts Historical Society

Saturday, April 11


Session Va: Conducting the American Revolution

Amy Noel Ellison, Boston University, “‘A Reverse of Fortune’: The Invasion of Canada and the Coming of American Independence, 1775-6” 

Herbert Johnson, University of South Carolina, “Logistics and Constitutionalism in Washington’s Army”

Barry Levy, University of Massachusetts—Amherst, “Ready to Fight: The Realities of Organized Violence in New England and the American Revolution”

Comment: Edward F. Countryman, Southern Methodist University

Session Vb: Implementing the Federal Government

Michael A. Blaakman, Yale University, “The Marketplace of American Federalism: Land Speculators, Governments, and the Post-Revolutionary Mania in Lands”

Benjamin H. Irvin, University of Arizona, “” ‘[H]aving now placed the whole of Invalids . . . on one footing’: Impaired Revolutionary War Veterans, Disability, and Federalism in the Early Republic”

Gautham Rao, American University, “The American Revolution and the American State: Rethinking the Problem of the Federal Government” 

Comment: Rosemarie Zagarri, George Mason University

10:30-10:45  Break


Session VIa: War and Displacement

Donald F. Johnson, Northwestern University, “Stocked Shops, Empty Stomachs: Everyday Experience and Personal Politics in Revolutionary Cities under British Rule”

T. Cole Jones, Johns Hopkins University, “‘An act never excusable’: The Politics of Retribution, Congressional Retaliation, and the Nullification of the Convention of Saratoga”

Christopher Sparshott, Northwestern University in Qatar, “The Revolution’s Biggest Refugee Camp: A Reinterpretation of Wartime New York City”

Comment: Fred Anderson, University of Colorado

Session VIb: Revolutionary Settlements

Tom Cutterham, New College, Oxford University, “‘What ought to belong to merit only’: Fashioning Elites in the New American Republic” 

Brett Palfreyman, Museum of the City of New York, “The Non-juror Problem in Pennsylvania” 

Andrew M. Schocket, Bowling Green State University, “Making Solons from Outlaws and Cincinnati from Rebels: Civic Opportunity and the End of the American Revolution”

Comment: Joanne Freeman, Yale University

12:15-1:45  Lunch (on your own)

1:45-3:15  Session VII: The Global Revolution

Matthew Rainbow Hale, Goucher College, “Assessing Consequences: A Comparative Analysis of the American and French Revolutions’ Respective Impacts on American Political Culture”

Dane Morrison, Salem State University, “Exporting the Revolution: American Revolutionaries in the Indies Trade” 

Kariann A. Yokota, University of Colorado at Denver, "Early America and the Post-Revolutionary Transpacific World" 

Comment: Eliga H. Gould, University of New Hampshire

3:15-3:30  Break

3:30-5:00  Wrap-up


Stephen A. Marini, Wellesley College

Daniel K. Richter, University of Pennsylvania and McNeil Center for Early American Studies

Fredrika Teute, Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Gordon S. Wood, Brown University

Moderator: Patrick Spero, Williams College


Sincere thanks to our sponsors, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the David Library of the American Revolution, the Lowell Institute, Boston University, Williams College, and an anonymous donor.