I read Peter Charles Hoffer’s Revolution and Regeneration: Life Cycle and the Historical Vision of the Generation of 1776 for the first time in 1983, the year it was published. I was a young scholar, searching through the church and parish records of New England for evidence on the social sources of American Puritanism, and I appreciated the wisdom of his advice to historians on social-scientific methods of bridging the gap between ideas and social experience. At the time historians were divided over the American Revolution—whether it was a social or an intellectual/ideological movement—and I thought Hoffer’s attempt at a synthesis was timely.
Reading Revolution and Regeneration again nearly forty years later, I am reminded of its originality. Both his life cycle approach to and his wide-ranging prosopographical research on the founders are still unmatched. So too is his multidimensional view of their collective lives, covering as it does their personal and public existence, their lives in their entirety, from youth to old age, and their intellectual essence as expressed in their historical writings. Underappreciated at the time of its publication, Revolution and Regeneration deserves our attention today.
Hoffer’s generation of 1776 is a sizeable one. It consists of twenty-one men as different and as distinguished as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, and James Wilson and Eldridge Gerry. They did not have the same politics and ideological loyalties, nor did they belong to “a band or bloc” (7). But they shared nearly as much as divided them. A few knew each other well and most “worked in close touch with each other” (8). All of them were leaders of the Revolution, who “directed public affairs, and intellectual activities” over the course of the revolt (4). They were also part of a self-made elite, “selected by their own talents, by the recognition of their peers, and by the contingencies of long life” (7). Born in the 1740s and 1750s (save John Adams, who was born in 1735), they participated in the Revolution when they and the Revolution were young. At the same time, they were strikingly long lived, dying according to my calculations at an average age of seventy-two. More remarkably, nearly 40 percent of them lived into their eighties, and John Adams, outlasting them all, lived to ninety-one. For these young men of 1776, their Revolution was not the conventional 1763–89, nor even the less conventional 1763–1815, for 67 percent lived past 1815, and 33 percent to 1825 and beyond (4).
Conceiving of the Revolutionary era in the most comprehensive manner possible, according to the founders’ long life spans, Hoffer makes a major discovery: the existence of “a compelling set of puzzles in the young revolutionaries’ ideas of history” (10), two of which come to light in the post-1789 period. The founders took American history very seriously, considering it “perhaps the most important measure of their own and their nation’s value. History was a bridge between self-evaluation and participation in the world around them” (10). Yet over “the course of their long careers as spokesmen for the revolution and the republic, the young men of 1776 as a group issued a series of extraordinary and baffling pronouncements about American history” (10). On four separate occasions, they changed, often abruptly, their vision of history. Why, and with what effect? These are the questions Hoffer devotes the major part of his book to answering.
The first such change took place during America’s movement from resistance to revolution in the period 1763–76. Raised to believe that American history was a continuation of England’s, the young men of 1776 suddenly broke from their elders in the last of three imperial crises and proclaimed a history all their own. America was different from Britain, they were realizing, and thus it deserved a separate history and polity. If the Declaration of Independence befit their growing acceptance of themselves as independent actors, it also posed threats to their survival, now that England, their former protector, was the enemy.
The second shift in the founders’ historical vision occurred in the period 1776–89, when revolutionaries successfully fought off certain vestiges of English history known as “the iron laws of Whig history” (41). They were well versed in these laws, which forewarned of inevitable republican decay, but they chose to be republicans anyway. Now the laws “haunted” them. “None of them escaped the burden” (42). In the meantime, signs of personal and public instability, brought on by the dislocations of a bloody and long war, abounded. What to do?
The revolutionaries’ solution to this puzzle was the idea of American exceptionalism. “Quite without warning, in the 1780s,” Hoffer correctly observes, “they discovered that American history was without parallel,” and “thus not governed by the inexorable laws of historical decay” (11–12). The Constitution and its federal framework came to stand for the novel idea of America’s uniqueness. As Madison said at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, American history, with its “‘representative principle’ and its ‘enlightened people,’” was simply different from the rest of the world (57). A key aspect of this differentness was federalism: “A new federal system, unseen in other nations’ histories, could be conceived and would be successful in America because American history was unparalleled” (57).
The third change in historical vision, occurring in 1789–1815, centered on the personal and public tasks of generativity. “No generation embraced this doctrine more fervently than the young men of 1776,” for they knew that “the transmission of the mores and values of a culture to its inheritors ensures it survival” (70). Fathers for the most part, the founders politicized “the schools” and refitted “them as factories of republicanism. A new era in education was at hand, in which the generation of 1776 had a large stake” (70).
Having created the new union for the sake of “posterity,” the founders then did something “inexplicable.” They split it into two national parties, “a party of liberty” and “a party of order,” each arising “to contest control of America’s past” (11). Though open to charges of risking the Republic, the founders presented partisanship in generative terms; each party, unwilling to trust the other, saw itself as struggling to transmit its own, true version of the Revolution. But Revolutionary history, once a source of national unity, was torn “into two distinct and antagonistic parts, not to be reunited in the lifetimes of these Founding Fathers” (75). Yet that each party “found the materials to build a viable political structure upon the constitutional framework of the 1780s” (99) meant that each promoted the same general ideas of democratic constitutionalism, despite divisions over the nation’s history. Party commitments to generativity also perhaps explain why “the once-young revolutionaries, with a few exceptions, controlled the first federal offices. . . . The generation of 1776 went on to dominate the first twenty years of federal policy making” (66).
Constituting a fourth and final shift in the historical vision of the generation of 1776 was their “renunciation of history,” covering the period 1800–1840. Sadly, partisan politics had cast a deep, dark shadow over the dotage of the founders. “In old age, they asked history to prove the integrity, moral worth, and staying power of what they had done. They found instead scurrilous innuendo and mindless, partisan annals” (118). History, once their tool, now threatened to overwhelm them. Yet, as Hoffer concludes, “although pessimism nagged at these men,” they never surrendered to it (124); though feeling abused by history, they died affirming their role in it. Thus to the very end, “they proffered opinions on slavery, constitutional revision in the states, federal economic policy, and many other contemporary issues” (116).
While Revolution and Regeneration, Hoffer’s first of many books, tentatively presents itself as “an exploratory essay” (2), some of its conclusions have relevance for today’s historiographical discussions. I would like to point to a few areas of contemporary interest. When Hoffer was speculating on the founders’ interest in state building, he had little to go on, since the history of the early Republic was being neglected at the time. That has changed. Historians are now engaged in writing a new history of the early federal government, one that effectively challenges the old idea of a weak, post-Revolutionary American state and finds rather that early federal offices were significant “agents of change” in all areas of America life. See, for example, Gautham Rao’s “The New Historiography of the Early Federal Government.”1
A second promising area for future study concerns the domestic side of Hoffer’s book, on which little evidence had been uncovered in the 1980s. However, recent, important research on the subject, especially the familial changes brought on by the Revolution, is presently under way. By way of example I point to Sara T. Damiano’s “Writing Women History through the Revolution,” which explores women’s wartime assumption of economic power within the family.2
A significant part of the future of American Revolutionary history belongs to historians working on projects in Atlantic and “new” imperial history. I allude, as an example, to Paul M. Pressly’s brilliant On the Rim of the Caribbean, which explores the relationship between those New World areas that “bound together four continents and three races” and the early national government.3 As Pressly’s book concludes, the aftermath of the American Revolution in Georgia “effectively nationalized this part of the world in terms of structures, connections, and outlook. It was a wrenching change that required seven years of war and at least two decades of adjustment to the realities of the emerging cotton Kingdom.”4
Reading Revolution and Regeneration is a reminder to historians of the importance of “getting right” with the founders. Whether your inclination is to bash or to praise them, we must work at understanding them, warts and all. There are examples in the literature on the founders that may serve as touchstones for judicious treatment of them. I think of Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick’s astute assessment of them in The Age of Federalism: “What sets the men of this generation apart from those of any other in American history is that their every response to virtually every question of a public nature was conditioned by their having just been through a revolution.”5 I also think of Bernard Bailyn, Hoffer’s mentor, insisting in To Begin the World Anew that the founders’ efforts “proved to be a turning point in the political history of Western Civilization, radiating out through Europe and Latin America with effects that were as important as they are difficult to interpret.”6 And then there is Hoffer himself, who in one of his many eloquent passages gives this final reckoning of the founders’ considerable legacy: “The lesson here is plain. It is a lesson that the Founding Fathers would have us commit to heart. Their institutions still live. History has not ended, and our fate is in our own hands” (133).
GERALD F. MORAN
1. Gautham Rao, “The New Historiography of the Early Federal Government: Institutions, Contexts, and the Imperial State,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 77, no. 1 (January 2020): 97–128.
2. Sara T. Damiano’s “Writing Women History through the Revolution: Family Finances, Letter Writing, and Conceptions of Marriage,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 74, no. 4 (October 2017): 697–728.
3. Paul M. Pressly, On the Rim of the Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 1.
4. Pressly, On the Rim, 227.
5. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 78.
6. Bernard Bailyn, To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders (New York: Knopf, 2003), ix.