Revolutionary America

Revolutionary America

Course description and themes

As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton has recently demonstrated, the world of the American Revolution was more than boring old men in wigs complaining about taxes. The American Revolutionaries grappled with questions of race, gender, and class in ways that still affect U.S. society today. Moreover, the revolution as a shared national concept has inspired countless myths that American society continues to face.

This course offers an overview of the political, social, and cultural history of the American Revolution and its era. It focuses heavily on the lived experience of ordinary people, including women, Native peoples, and African Americans. Here are some of the questions we will be returning to throughout the course:

  • Causes: what caused the revolution? What was it about? What did words like “liberal,” “republican,” and “democracy” mean to the revolutionaries?
  • Ordinary people: how did non-elites, women, Native peoples, and African Americans shape the revolution? How did it affect their lives?
  • Geography and chronology: when and where was the revolution?

Course goals

This course has three major goals. First, it is intended to give students an overview of the history of the revolutionary period. Second, it is focused on improving students’ ability to analyze primary sources. Third, it aims to improve students’ ability to compose effective arguments in writing. 

Course materials

This course does not have a textbook. You will read a few secondary sources written by historians and a larger number of primary sources written during the revolutionary era. These sources are listed below and available on Canvas. You may purchase a copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense if you wish to read it in paper form. It is available cheaply online. Free versions of Common Sense are also available in digital form.

Additionally, some weeks you will listen to podcast segments from the radio program BackStory. I have provided a link to the SoundCloud page, but if you have a smartphone you can also download the episode through your podcast app.


  • 5% Meeting with instructor (50 points total)
  • 20% Attendance and participation (200 points total)
  • 10% Discussion leader (100 points total)
  • 25%: Response essays (250 points total)
  • 10%: Final essay (100 points total)
  • 15%: In-class debate (150 points total)
  • 15%: Inquiry-based assignment (150 points)


A+ (97–100%) A (93–96%) A- (90–92%)

B+ (87–89%) B (83–86%) B- (80–82%)

C+ (77–79%) C (73–76%) C- (70­–72%)

D+ (67–69%) D (63–66%) D- (60–62%)

F (59% or below)

Meeting with instructor

You are required to find a time to meet with me one-on-one sometime within the first three weeks of class. This meeting is intended to provide an opportunity to discuss your expectations and hopes for the class, your learning needs, and any concerns you may have in a casual, non-confrontational atmosphere. We may also discuss how this course can help you in your particular course of study at Indiana University and your career.

This conversation does not need to be long. It could last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. We may speak in office hours, before or after class, or at another time depending on your availability. In extraordinary circumstances, I will consider staging this conversation over email (though I prefer an in-person conversation).

You are responsible for either attending office hours or setting up another time to meet with me during the first three weeks of class. This assignment is graded as a pass/fail. In other words, if you attend a meeting with me, you will receive a 100% A+ for the assignment, which constitutes 5% of your final grade. If you do not, you will receive 0%.

Attendance and participation

Attendance and active participation are mandatory. Success in this course requires that you attend class, listen attentively during lectures, take clear notes, and participate during group work and class discussions.

Attendance will be taken at the beginning of each class. You are allowed three absences from class without penalty. Please save these absences for when you need them. Each additional absence will lower your attendance and participation grade by a third of a grade. For example, a fourth absence would lower this grade from an A- to a B+.

Absences beyond the first three may be excused only in the most extreme circumstances, and only then with documentation of the emergency (for example: being in the hospital counts as an emergency; attending a wedding does not).

Discussion Leader

You will be required to lead an in-class discussion about one of the primary sources that appear on the course schedule below. Primary sources are marked with an asterisk (*). We will pick our readings by the end of week 1. Discussion leaders will be required to come to class prepared to speak briefly (2-3 minutes) about the source and whatever context might be appropriate to understand it, and 3-4 questions or prompts for discussion. You may wish to meet with me about your source in office hours.

Response essays

Beginning with week 2, you will compose a brief, 700–1,000-word (roughly 3–4 pages—though I will be evaluating the essay’s length based on the word count, rather than the page count) essay that responds to a question about the previous week’s lectures, reading, and discussion. In total, five essays will be assigned. Essay 1 will be worth 5% of your final grade and Essays 2–5 will count as 10% of your final grade. They will be graded according to these criteria:

  • Essay makes a clear argument that responds to the prompt.
  • Essay demonstrates thoughtful engagement with course materials (i.e., readings, podcasts, lectures, class discussion).
  • Essay is clearly and concisely written, with proper spelling and grammar.

You may submit your essays on Canvas. If you experience a computer glitch, print it out and bring it to class. Essays will be due before class starts on the days listed below.

  • Essay 1: (5% of final grade)
  • Essay 2: (5% of final grade)
  • Essay 3: (7.5% of final grade)
  • Essay 4: (7.5% of final grade)

Resubmissions: Students who have demonstrated that they have engaged with the course materials in a response essay may be allowed to resubmit a revised version for a higher grade at the instructor’s discretion. If your essay shows signs of being sloppily done or lacking engagement with course materials, you will not be permitted to resubmit it. This policy is intended to allow you to learn from your mistakes and grow as writers.

By prohibiting resubmissions of low-effort work, I aim to prevent students from turning in weaker papers and then resubmitting something stronger in order to evade the essay deadline, which would be unfair to other students. If you are invited to resubmit an essay, I will note this in my written comments on it. Note that you may only resubmit once time per assignment.

In-class debate

On June 8, we will have an in-class debate over the question, “Should the U.S. Constitution be ratified?” The debate is set in June 1788 at the Virginia ratifying convention. Half of the class will be assigned to argue the affirmative, and half will be assigned to argue the negative. Each team will prepare for the debates with short readings and with in-class strategy sessions.

Participation in the debate will count towards 15% of your final grade. You will be assessed based on your preparedness, your participation, and your engagement with the relevant issues and course materials. Each team will be given reading materials to prepare for the debate. More details will be forthcoming about this. I will judge each team’s performance, based on the criteria above, and the winning team will be given 5 extra credit points.

It is very important that you attend class this day. If you miss it due to an excused absence such as a documented medical emergency, you will be required to write a 1,500–2,000-word essay laying out the arguments and strategies of the pro-ratification or anti-ratification forces (depending on which team you were assigned to) to be due on June 13.

Inquiry-based assignment 

Over the course of four in-class History “Lab” days, you will be conducting a research project based on one of three digital databases. By May 17, you must choose which of the three databases you will be working with. On that day, we will be exploring the databases in teams.

You will be graded based on the following:

  • Step 1: Creation of an original historical inquiry. (due May 22)
  • Step 2: A research plan. (due June 5)
  • Step 3: Critical analysis of three pieces of evidence that address your research question. (due June 11)
  • Step 4: A brief 400-500-word reflection on the limitations of your evidence and database. (due June 11)

All research will be conducted in class, in collaboration with your peers, and under my supervision. Your writing for this project will be done outside of class.

You will not necessarily be answering the historical inquiry that you will create for step 1. However, you will be thinking about how you might answer that question using the database available to you and working with three pieces of evidence to addresses your inquiry. The goal for this exercise is to experience historical research first-hand.

Final paper: 

Using course materials (i.e., primary sources, secondary sources, lectures, in-class discussions, and podcasts) you will write an essay that begins with a brief sentence starting “The American Revolution was ______.” In other words, I want you to define the revolution using a specific thesis statement, and then support that argument with evidence. In order for it to be a manageable essay, you may should limit the scope of your argument. For example, “The American Revolution was a political, social, and economic event that took place in the eighteenth century” is much too broad for a paper with a 2,000-word limit. A more tightly focused thesis statement might be “The American Revolution was a social revolution” or “The American Revolution was a war of ideas.” Come up with your own interpretation of the revolution and focus on something that intrigues you. The paper will be graded not according to whether I feel your interpretation is correct or not (within reason—no “The American Revolution took place in Moscow in 1917.”) but how effectively you support your argument. In essence, it will be evaluated using the same criteria as your response essays (see above). You will be expected to pay careful attention to the feedback you receive on these weekly essays.

Your final paper will be worth 10% of your final grade. It must be submitted to Canvas by 6:00pm on Thursday, June 16 (the last day of class). It should be approximately 1,500–2,000 words in length (that’s around 6–8 pages).

Send me your thesis statement by Tuesday, June 6 for comments. Failure to send your thesis statement will result in a 7.5-point deduction from the final grade. If you would like to submit a full draft for my consideration, please do so by Thursday, June 8 or earlier.