Museum Miles

Houghton HallOne of the serendipitous joys of warm-weather research is (occasionally) fleeing the archive to sample a new city’s eateries, museums, and sites. As you research your way across America (and beyond) this spring/summer, here are a few exhibits worth pausing for—feel free to add more in the comments.

The Smithsonian museums offer a new array of promising shows: join James McNeill Whistler for a ramble through London, 1859; tour treaties made between American Indian nations and the United States; relive the rivalry of Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee; trace the North American birds who have flown into history since 1600 (and see a few more preserved in bronze); or hum along to Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript of The Star-Spangled Banner. The DuSable Museum in Chicago presents “Red, White, Blue & Black: A History of Blacks in the Armed Services” from the American Revolution to the Vietnam War. Or head to the English countryside in late June by way of Houston, when the Museum of Fine Arts debuts paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts from Sir Robert Walpole’s Houghton Hall. At the Met, take a closer look at early American guitars and the workmanship of antebellum artisan C. F. Martin. A train ride to Brooklyn will get you a close-up of “Small Wonders from the American Collections.” To glimpse treasures from the Bodleian Library, including the manuscript of Handel’s Messiah and “the definitive account of Aztec civilization,” stop by the Morgan Library & Museum.

On the West Coast, check out Seattle’s Porcelain Room, and back on the East Coast, watch how American notions of photography, er, develop throughout the nineteenth century: “From its origins in recording the unadorned appearance of the human face, American photography evolved into a means of communicating personal attributes, beyond documentary into the fiction: By the end of the century, people were shown conversing with ghosts, struggling through faux blizzards created in the studio, even confronting their spirit doubles. Rare examples of these “photographic fictions” are included in MIT’s exhibition.” Also in Boston, visit “Tell It with Pride,” the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, currently on view at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

After a long day’s work, enjoy the real-life caper played out in Art and Craft, a new documentary about Mark Landis, and billed as the true tale of “one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history.” At the University of Notre Dame, take a break in the newly reinstalled Snite Museum of Art’s nineteenth-century gallery, reviewed here. For the armchair enthusiast: Browse the excellent database of nineteenth-century French drawings available here, thanks to the collaboration of the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum. And finally, check out the NEH events calendar for library programs, lectures, and more taking place at diverse venues around the country. Enjoy!

How Did Democracy Become a Good Thing?

Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of RevolutionsI spent yesterday afternoon at “a celebration and critical evaluation” of the work of political theorist and historian Mark Philp. My role was to talk about his involvement in a big, ongoing project being done here at Oxford—and around the world—called Re-imagining Democracy. That project has already produced one book, Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland 1750-1850 (OUP, 2013), with contributions on the early American republic by Seth Cotlar, Adam I. P. Smith, and Laura Edwards. It’s a book that may not yet be well known among American historians, but it should be, because the question it’s trying to answer is a very interesting and difficult one: how did “democracy” go from something feared and reviled even as late as the 1780s, to something very different by the mid-nineteenth century, and even to become the quintessential value of American politics that we know today?

A recording of the event is going to come online soon, and I’ll link to it here when it does, but for now I thought I’d share some snippets from my own talk. So:

In the chapters which focus on Britain, Philp and Innes give a somewhat counter-intuitive explanation for this change: “democracy” was primarily redefined not in the process of supporting democratic institutional reform, but in opposition to it. Hoping to leverage the word’s status as a bugbear, opponents used it to smear efforts like the Great Reform Act of 1832. As they put it, “By denouncing the Whigs’ plans as ‘democratic’ (not how the Whigs themselves presented them), the Tories… ensured that the implementation of Reform was widely seen as, for better or worse, a move towards democracy.” For supporters of Reform, especially the radical Chartists, the lesson was clear: if this is democracy, then democracy is something worth fighting for, and perhaps a label worth adopting. Later Chartists turned their attention increasingly to universal manhood suffrage, at least partly on the basis that “so long as political rights and power were unevenly distributed, those with privileged access to power would have the means of advantaging themselves. Without political justice, no social justice.”

The transformation of democracy and its triumph in the modern North Atlantic world have involved a particular kind of re-imagining of the political, and a new demarcation of its limits. As Laura Edwards puts it, for example, “The extension of democracy for some [in the United States] not only came at the expense of others, but also constrained the Revolutionary era’s most expansive notions of democracy.” In other words, it wasn’t only women and non-whites whose power was dramatically limited by the American notion of democracy in the nineteenth century. “Democratic principles,” she continues, “did not extend to governing institutions in an easy, direct way. In practice, state and national leaders’ vision of democracy did not include fundamental changes in the economic or social structure that would put all white men on an equal footing.”

This recognition, I think, puts some serious pressure on the formulation, “Without political justice, no social justice.” The truth is, it could just as well have been the other way around. We know full well, in our own time, that universal adult suffrage hasn’t broken down the enormous barriers to social justice, the structural inequalities, or the twisted social relations that continue to exist, and which, of course, affect voting patterns and politics in all sorts of complex ways. How, then, did democracy come to mean “political justice” and not “social justice,” universal manhood suffrage and not collective ownership of assets or egalitarian redistribution of wealth and power? The latter had certainly been possibilities within the eighteenth-century meaning of the word, passed down from ancient Greece and Rome. The story of modern democracy is one in which democracy lost its social and economic content at the very moment it gained political ascendancy.

What happened was the separation of the “economic” and the “political” into separate spheres. It was only under the conditions of this separation that a widely dispersed political power, through the universal suffrage, began to appear possible. Power relations, which had hitherto been fundamentally political issues, of lordship and so on—like who owed what to whom, and who could do what to whom, and who could make whom do what they wanted—were transformed into fundamentally economic issues, having to to do with ownership and contract. So if you want to know why democracy—defined basically as a diffusion of formal political power among the people—went from being bad to good, from being not only impossible but undesirable to not only desirable but possible, one way of answering the question is actually extremely straightforward: the real power wasn’t in politics any more; it was somewhere else, in the newly separate sphere of the economy.

If we wanted to chart this transition historically, we would need to look at not only the transformation in the use of the word democracy, as Innes and Philp have done, but also at how propertied classes in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries worked to put their property beyond the reach of politics, to create legal and discursive structures that insulated the real source of their power from any potential democratic threat. We’d have to look, for example, as Morton Horwitz has done in the American case, at the development of contract law and other aspects of private law which place the coercive power of the state at the disposal of private property. We’d have to look at how the U.S. Constitution neutered state governments, and how banks and corporations became private, not public institutions. In short, I don’t think we can consider the question of democracy separately from that of political economy. We can’t take for granted the idea that politics was where the power was, and that democracy really meant dispersing power to the people. The history of the United States simply won’t bear that out—and it may be worth remembering in our own time, too.

The History Carousel, Episode 3: Teaching Across the Pond

The History CarouselToday’s episode, “Teaching Across the Pond,” features Tom Cutterham, Ken Owen, Ben Park, and Rachel Herrmann discussing historical teachers, and debating the merits and pitfalls of teaching in the United States compared to the United Kingdom. Come for the boat race jokes; stay for the pedagogy! Continue reading

The Week in Early American History


Hello and welcome to another exciting week in early American history! This week Alan Taylor joined the likes of Bernard Bailyn, Robert Caro, and David McCullough on the list of two-time Pulitzer Prize winners for his book, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, reviewed by our own Roy Rogers last September. Continue reading

Yes, Virginia, there was an American Enlightenment

State of the Field PanelThanks to John Fea’s live-tweeting and subsequent reflections on OAH panels this past weekend, I would like to address some of the points and comments made during the panel entitled, “State of the Field: The Trans-Atlantic Enlightenment in America.” Since Twitter is problematic in getting across complex ideas due to its 140-character limitation, I have chosen a few of the tweets in which the comments seemed to me to be common arguments or perceptions that I have previously encountered.

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Is Blogging Scholarship? Reflections on the OAH Panel

On Sunday, at the 2014 OAH Annual Meeting, I was part of a roundtable discussion entitled “Is Blogging Scholarship?” Several other participants have posted their thoughts on the subject; there was also a great deal of live-tweeting, and our own Joe Adelman has also joined (and developed!) the conversation. The discussion itself was fantastic, and was videotaped for later broadcasting. But in reflecting on the panel, I’ve found there are some points I wish to re-emphasize, and some problems I have with the way the entire roundtable was framed. Continue reading

A MOOC Confession

Peter Onuf rides into MOOCland

Peter Onuf rides into the world of MOOCs

I have a confession to make. I have been watching some MOOCs. I feel guilty about it, honestly, I do—not so much about the fact that I have been watching them, but more about the fact that I have also been enjoying them.

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