Tom Cutterham is a lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. This interview is based on his new book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic (Princeton University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Gentlemen Revolutionaries?
TC: When I started out as a graduate student in 2010 I wanted to write a book that showed just how very wrong Sarah Palin and the Tea Party were about the founders’ conception of the state. Then I realised Max Edling had already written that book. But while I’d been reading through what Congressmen and pamphleteers were writing in the 1780s I became more and more interested not just in their explicitly political ideas, but in the ways they expressed anxieties about status and stability. The founding really was a revolution in favour of government, but what they wanted government to do, and what they wanted government to protect, were really not the things that I’d expected — so that’s what I wrote my thesis on, and that’s what became the book.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Gentlemen Revolutionaries?
TC: It argues that a hodge-podge of revolutionary elites formed themselves into something resembling a national ruling class over the course of the 1780s, largely as a result of their collective need to respond to what they saw as dangerously levelling and “licentious” democratic movements. On a slightly more meta level, it also tries to show how important political and moral concepts like “justice” itself are shaped by forms of (and struggles for) institutional and discursive power — so you can’t really understand ideas without social relations, or vice versa.
JF: Why do we need to read Gentlemen Revolutionaries?
TC: So, so often I see accounts of the American Revolution skip merrily from Yorktown to Philadelphia, 1781 to 1787, with narry a glance at the years in between. Hamilton the musical does it in a few verses of one song. I hope people will read Gentlemen Revolutionaries and at the very least, get a sense of just how crucial the 1780s were. I also hope it will change the way they think about the process of revolution and the founding, both as a social and cultural epoch and as a series of political events. For one thing, Gentlemen Revolutionaries aims to force people to stop taking debates about the Constitution as the be-all and end-all of political struggle in that period. Of course, you also need to read the book for Noah Webster being a whiny brat, Joel Barlow helping to write a surreal anti-democratic poem, and a mini-revolution in Rhode Island that pretty much no-one ever talks about.
JF: When and why did you become an American historian?
TC: I wanted to be a historian before I wanted to be an American historian. The latter part came towards the end of my undergraduate degree when I was studying the “Age of Jefferson” with Peter Thompson, who became my graduate advisor. Apart from my lamentable inability to learn ancient Greek, which meant I couldn’t be the historian of Alexander’s conquests that I kind of had my eye on being, I think the political context of both the War on Terror, and the global financial crisis (which peaked right in the middle of my undergraduate course) had the effect of always keeping my eyes on the United States as basically the epicentre of world events. That’s how it seemed to me at the time, so trying to understand the United States and its global impact was what I wanted to do as a historian.
JF: What is your next project?
TC: I’m writing a book about the age of bourgeois revolutions in the Atlantic world, which also happens to centre on the remarkable, transatlantic lives of Angelica Schuyler and her husband John Church. Since I began the research in the summer of 2014, Angelica has achieved a much bigger profile! But her life is so much more than her relationship with Alexander Hamilton: it took her to a Paris on the threshold of its own revolution, into the circles of radical reformist politics in London, and back to New York in time to see the age of Federalist dominance come crashing down. In Gentlemen Revolutionaries, I tried to give a sense of character and spirit in the people I wrote about, but this new project is an opportunity to do that in a much more sustained way. It’s about using individual lives to uncover massive structures and processes. Ultimately, the historical is always personal.
JF: Thanks, Tom!