Revolutionary Era

The Impact of Social and Cultural History

Political history, once considered to be “elitist, shallow, altogether passé, and irrelevant to the drama of everyday lives,” has begun to shift under the influence of social and cultural history, into a branch that “ask[s] new questions and encompass[es] new groups.”1 Mark Leff, in his article “Revisioning U.S. Political History,” defines the practice as one which “deals with the development and impact of governmental institutions, along with the proximate influences on their actions.”2 With the influx of new perspectives, historians have expanded this definition to include research into “behavioral tendencies,” “the uniqueness of individual experience and the ways in which social life is created through politics and culture.”3 Leff argues for such an expanded interpretation by highlighting social and cultural history’s ability to strengthen political history’s “coherence” and to widen “the American historical experience to unprecedently broad and diverse audiences.”4 The addition of these lenses allows for a more comprehensive and inclusive version of the political past.

Social history has increased historians’ approaches to a variety of topics, such as the American Revolution. Whereas traditional political history focused on elite male politicians, government structuring, and nationalist views, the social lens opened debate into new realms of unexplored ideas, including women’s roles in nation-building and the early-American leaders’ involvement in slavery. For her book, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, Cokie Roberts took the social approach to political history in examining the women who were central to the success of the new American nation. Kenneth Morgan chose to investigate the seldom referenced association of Revolutionary America’s leading political heavyweight with the institution of slavery for his article, “George Washington and the Problem of Slavery.” Both of these accounts demonstrate how the social lens has altered political history by illuminating marginalized groups and compressing glorified perspectives.

The cultural lens has had a similar impact on the political history of the Revolution. Themes involving government systems and deified leaders now include explorations into religious influence and humanizing characteristics. Louis Hartz examined how America’s beliefs shaped her development, from instigating a revolt to establishing a democracy, in his 1952 article, “American Political Thought and the American Revolution.”5 Newer biographies, such as David McCullough’s John Adams and Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, rely on their subjects’ personal writings to generate personalities who are less exalted and more relatable.

According to Julian Zelizer, this shift largely began after the 1970s: “historians lost their interest in government institutions and public policy […] Social and cultural historians focused on studying American life from the ‘bottom up.’”6 In this vein, historians began to recognize that, in order “to understand social experience,” there first must be “a clear sense of just who we are talking about since experience is not uniform, but varies by social position.”7 Political history became more representative of the whole of society and provided “us with real people and their puzzling lives,” rather than just merely being a study of the elites and their systems of governing.8

The analysis of the social and cultural lenses in conjunction with political history exposes the importance of applying various perspectives to gain a much fuller understanding and appreciation of the period under consideration. These additional lenses offer opportunities to ask new questions and explore new ideas. When applied to the research of Moravians in eighteenth-century North Carolina, these perspectives generate new queries into how the American political landscape, which at that time was embroiled in revolution, influenced Moravian society and culture. The Church “endeavored to abstain from any participation in the political movements” and encouraged each member “to be unbiased in his political views.”9 Therefore, it would be a fascinating study to compare and contrast America’s Enlightenment views with the Moravians’ Pietist views of the Revolution and to explore how women factored into the politics of both societies.

[1] Mark H. Leff, “Revisioning U.S. Political History,” American Historical Review 100, no. 3 (June 1995): 829, 853,

[2] Leff, 829.

[3] Paula S. Fass, “Cultural History/Social History: Some reflections on a continuing dialogue,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (Fall 2003): 39,

[4] Leff, 830.

[5] Louis Hartz, “American Political Thought and the American Revolution,” The American Political Science Review 46, no. 2 (June 1952): 321-342,

[6] Julian E. Zelizer, “History and Political Science: Together Again?,” The Journal of Policy History 16, no. 2 (2004): 127,

[7] Fass, 43.

[8] Fass, 45.

[9] Reverend Levin T. Reichel, The Moravians of North Carolina: An Authentic History (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1857), 68.

* Featured image courtesy of Tom via Flickr