When I was preparing to teach a course on the American Revolution last spring, I wanted to ask students to build an interpretation of the revolution’s causes. But I kept coming back to the same problem: most of my assignment ideas seemed to implicitly encourage them to focus on a single cause for the revolution.
Historians know better than to attribute any major event, like the American Revolution, to a single cause. While we can argue about the correct mix of factors—republican ideologies, economic incentives, efforts to protect slavery and white supremacy, demand for Native land, cultural changes, etc.—no serious scholar would claim that the revolution had a single cause and that nothing else mattered. The past is too rich and nuanced for that.
For that reason, a question like “What caused the American Revolution?” is an impossible one to answer in a brief essay. Asking students to answer some version of that question with evidence would be asking them to ignore most of what they had just learned. A good essay exhibits clarity, and nuance is challenging to clearly convey in just a few pages. When I thought about how I would answer some of the prompts I was considering, I realized that I was setting students a nearly impossible task.
I was pondering this pedagogical problem while re-reading Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions, where I encountered an anecdote about a New Hampshire Loyalist during the American Revolution named Oliver Parker. In 1776, a Patriot committee imprisoned him for writing the following “Receipt [sic, he meant “Recipe”] for a Whig.”
Take of conspiracy and the root of pride three handfulls two of ambition and vain glory, pound them in the mortar of faction and discord, boil it in 2 quarts of dissembling tears and a little New England Rum over the fire of Sedition till you find the scum of folly wood to rise on the top, then strain it through the cloths of Rebillion, put it into the bottle of envy, stop it with the cork of malice, then make it into pills called Conspiracy of which take nine when going to bed say over your hypocritical prayer, and curse your honest neighbor in your bed chamber and then go to sleep if you can, it will have so good an effect that all the next day you will be thinking how to cozzen cheat lie and get drunk abuse the ministers of the Gospel, cut the throats of all honest men and plunder the Nation.
Parker’s recipe was obviously more a product of anger than analysis, but if you can get past that, he was doing something very interesting. He was representing causal forces as ingredients and cooking implements in a recipe for revolution. Some were quite large (“2 quarts of dissembling tears”) while others were smaller (“a little New England Rum”), which suggested a crude kind of interpretation.
It occurred to me that I could build an assignment modeled on Parker’s example that asked students to build their own evidence-based, multi-causal interpretation of the revolution’s beginning. To that end, after a unit on the causes of the revolution, I asked them to create a recipe for the American Revolution, allegorizing their interpretation of the revolution with ingredients, interactions between ingredients, proportions, and the finished product. They also wrote a 500–600-word reflection explaining their thought process, how it demonstrates their interpretation of the American Revolution, and how it relates to the material we had covered in class. I decided to assess the assignments according to demonstrable effort, creativity, and connection to course materials (in equal measure, mix together until blended).
My students had fun with the assignment. Some went for their favorite dishes: ramen, beer, cake, latkes, stew. Molasses appeared in more than a few, because of our discussion of smuggling and the political economy of the revolution (we felt vindicated when a later reading included John Adams commenting, “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.”). A few student even left, unsolicited, the actual recipes that their assignment was based on. I’m a vegetarian, so some of these appealed more than others, but I remember grading these in the late morning and struggling not to leave the office early for lunch. Others did their best to help me to suppress my appetite by including blood or tar in their recipes.
The reflections allowed students to evaluate the evidence that they encountered in the readings, class discussion, and lectures, and show how they used it to build a coherent, multi-causal interpretation of the revolution. I was asking them to perform a very difficult intellectual task (indeed, the idea that something can be a cause of the revolution without being the only cause is something that some of the critics of the 1619 Project can’t seem to get their heads around). Asking students to do this work within the format of a traditional essay would have made it even more difficult.
It was helpful that I prefaced this assignment with a discussion of why understanding the interaction of structures, cultures, and agency is essential for grasping historical change. We talked about how an event like a revolution usually happens through the interactions of individual decision-making alongside and within medium- and large-scale forces and contexts. An important event usually isn’t the sole product of a “great man,” but neither is it solely the product of an abstract force like “capitalism.” Framed in this way, a recipe assignment is a useful way to ground an otherwise abstract conversation about scale, agency, and inevitability.