At this time of the semester, amid my ever-increasing piles of grading, my thoughts naturally turn to the syllabi for next semester’s courses. One of my guiding principles in preparing syllabi is the importance of introducing students to the breadth of historical writing; to demonstrate the ways in which diverse groups of people reacted to the same event in very different ways. When teaching early American history, this often casts me in the position of “debunking” various myths about the past—or, at least, forcing my students to think more clearly and carefully when making statements about the foundations of America. This, I like to think, serves the useful purpose of demonstrating how ordinary citizens—those outside the pantheon of “Founding Fathers”—imagined the development of their society, and to show how their vision of political participation was often very different from that claimed today as ‘what the Revolution was all about’.
In many ways, though, my take on the Revolution relies less on “debunking” myths than in widening the participants in the historical story. I suppose “problematizing” or “complicating” the myths is a more accurate description—after all, it’s impossible to escape the fact that the historical significance of the American Revolution rests on the creation of a new nation-state and several new political polities. More recently, though, I’ve come to wonder exactly what I’m hoping to achieve with the broadening of the understanding of the past. No matter how far we widen “founding myths” to encompass a variety of explanations for the promise of America, reliance on these myths can never help us explain the present—they can be a guide only. At my most cynical, I wonder even what sort of guide they can be.
I thought about this particularly as the election cycle reached October. There was hardly a newspaper without some sort of historical context on the page. Was the first debate most like 1960, or 1976, or 1984, or 2004? Did the economic numbers show that this was a Carter-Reagan election? Yet there was something profoundly unsatisfying about all the coverage. Because, as we found out on election night, the key story about 2012 was how it was not like any previous election—how demographic models that relied on past turnout were horrendously wrong; because the American electorate looked and thought differently about a whole range of issues than it had in the past.
Herman Husband has been one of the figures used by a number of different Progressive-influenced historians in attempting to recover the class-based politics of the Revolution. He is certainly one of the most fascinating recurring characters in the story of American Independence, from his involvement in the Regulator Movement in North Carolina, through to his movement to Pennsylvania (and subsequent enthusiasm for the 1776 state constitution), and his prolific pamphleteering on the democratic promise of the “New Jerusalem.” Husband provides a salutary tale of democratic promise, though, forced to flee North Carolina to escape death for his political activity, he would later be singled out for arrest in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion, only to die of pneumonia near Philadelphia before he could return back west.
Nor do you have to look too far to find new and interesting literature on his significance. He is a key player in Terry Bouton’s work on Pennsylvania, Marjoleine Kars’ book on the Regulator movement, and figures as one of Young, Nash and Raphael’s “Revolutionary Founders.”
William Hogeland’s new book, Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation, also mentions Husband. Hogeland argues that the failure of public history to carve out a place for Husband means that “we don’t understand early American history.” He isolates two contributory factors. First, Husband did not succeed in his endeavors, thus subverting traditional “hero narratives.” Second, much of his democratic agrarian ideals derived from millennial evangelicalism, thus meaning that he falls awkwardly between the modern left and the modern right, unloved by either.
There are two key problems inherent here in our understanding of history. One problem is only viewing the past through the lens of the present; this casts history as little more than a morality tale with simplistic portrayals of actors who, in real life, were necessarily far more complex. But there’s a problem, too, if we only think of the past as a guide for the present—for it can blind us to what is new in our own world. I’m sure I don’t need to enumerate the myriad ways in which founding-era history suffers from these problems, especially in the public imagination.
But I do wonder—does thinking of Herman Husband as an alternative founding father really help matters? To take the Revolutionary Founders chapter as an example, the interest of Wythe Holt clearly lies in the notion of an agrarian republic in which the influence of moneyed men was radically diminished. And yet, while Husband was no Robert Morris, he was scarcely a subsistence farmer, either. There is a danger, in other words, that in promoting a new set of revolutionary leaders, historians are simply replacing the familiar “Great Men” with a more Progressive set of new faces, i.e., familiar tropes of revolutionary leadership twisted slightly for less conservative ends.
What strikes me as particularly strange in all of this is that the historical significance of the Revolution rests on the fact that political actors of all stripes didn’t feel themselves hidebound by history as they strove to break the imperial connection with Britain. History informed them, for sure, and it is notable how far the minutes of constitutional conventions, for example, are littered with considerations of historical precedent. Yet for many revolutionaries, looking at the messages of the past would have been profoundly reactionary, for it told them how republics were certain to fail, doomed to descend into tyranny by vested interests inside and out. But it wasn’t just the successful who threw historical lessons to the wind; unsuccessful dreamers like Herman Husband did exactly the same thing. If there is a familiar message from the Revolution, it is a paradoxical one—that our search for lessons from the founding is actually a failure of the historical imagination. We need to (try to) look at the present by imagining how the future will see us as the past.