Fifty years after Charles Beard’s address to the American Historical Association, it is surely a cliché to say that every generation writes its own history. Each generation has its own visions and needs, which its version of history expresses. The theme of Revolution and Regeneration is that a single generation writes its own history many times, as its spokesmen grow older. As the “generation of 1776” matured, they faced a series of crises and opportunities. Their ideas of history—particularly their own earliest exploits—changed as they confronted these episodes in their lives. Their intellectual struggle to fit their understanding of America’s past to changing personal circumstances was a vital exercise for them and is a neglected subject today. The shifting notions of history in their private researches and public expressions beckons the historian of ideas and the psychohistorian. Revolution and Regeneration attempts a marriage of these two approaches.
To explain how the young revolutionaries of 1776 arrived at the particular intellectual solutions they embraced and to identify the uniformities in those solutions, I have borrowed a concept well known in social and developmental psychology: life cycle. The notion of “stages” of adult maturation employed in this book has the same heuristic value as concepts of role behavior and status consciousness in social history, economies of scale in economic history, and reference groups in political history. Psychohistory is the use of a set of tools—psychological concepts, findings, and insights—to explain human behavior and thought; in this case, the turnings and twistings of the younger revolutionaries’ views of American history. The approach succeeds—the methods prove their worth—if the reader feels a little more enlightened about the deepest meanings of the historical ideas of this generation.
I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the staffs of the Widener, Houghton, and Lamont Libraries of Harvard University, the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress, the Butler Library of Columbia University, and the University Libraries of Notre Dame and Georgia. This book has had a long gestation, during which I have turned to teachers, colleagues, and friends for guidance. Chief among these are the hardy souls who undertook to read and emend various versions of the manuscript. My thanks go to Bernard Bailyn, Mary Young, John C. Burnham, Alden Vaughan, Michael Kammen, Peter Shaw, and N. E. H. Hull for their perceptive comments and gentle criticisms through the years. To Paul Nagel and Lester Stephens, successive heads of the University of Georgia Department of History, and William Owens and Abraham Tesser of the university’s Institute for Behavioral Research, all of whom arranged for released time for me to complete this project, my gratitude is equally great. A grant from the Office of the Vice-President for Research of the University of Georgia made possible the inclusion of the portraits of Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, and I would like to thank Vice-President Robert C. Anderson for this assistance. Michael Justus performed wonders checking citations and quotations in the text. Karen Orchard coordinated the editing with skill, patience, and dispatch. Charles East, editor of the University of Georgia Press, kept faith with this project when its author’s spirit flagged. Such a debt is easily acknowledged but impossible to repay.