Herman Husband and Failures of the Historical Imagination

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.

15 comments on “Herman Husband and Failures of the Historical Imagination

  1. Benjamin Park says:

    Fantastic post, Ken; I really enjoyed this. And I think you present a very approachable model that could be used in the classrom: reactionary, rather than historical precedence.

  2. I’ve been puzzling over your post a bit, Ken, not least because I agree with the general sentiment (and have engaged in some myth-busting myself, as you know from several joint efforts). I do think it’s a good point to make that replacing one set of Founders with another still leaves us with an impoverished model that requires there to be Founders. And in fact, my first thought about your piece was, well what about George Robert Twelves Hewes? Or Deborah Sampson? Of course those are other figures that Al Young has pointed to as “Revolutionary Founders,” even if not in that volume, which does include figures perhaps less “successful” than Husband, such as Phyllis Wheatley or Joseph Plumb Martin. In some ways the solution is to piece together many of these stories to show the multiplicity of foundings, that is, to make the relatively straightforward point that the Revolution meant many things to different groups of people (and occasionally different things to the same person at different times).

    What I want to take issue with, however, is your last paragraph and your characterization of looking to the past as reactionary. I would argue that they were not trying to ignore the past, but rather were very explicitly trying to learn the lessons of the past, particularly about the failure of republics. Returning just to “The Founders,” their writings are littered with thinking about how to break precisely the pattern of inevitable failure to which they saw all republics as doomed, from John Adams to Federalist 10 to Washington’s Farewell Address. I would therefore suggest (in the free-thinking spirit of the blog comment) that their approach to history was to make odd applications of unusual readings of the past.

    On a certain level, then, the willful misreadings of the past that popular commentators engage in carries on a long tradition in American history.

    • Ken Owen says:

      Joe, I don’t think I was quite trying to say that looking at the past was necessarily reactionary; it’s that the past was more than just a simple morality tale. Yes, ‘The Founders’ were fearful of a history that showed all republics to be doomed, but at the same time, they recognized that there were new parts to their society that provided great opportunities for them. Some of the most innovative thinking of the Revolution came from a determination to turn previous thinking on its head – I’m thinking here particularly of Madison in Federalist 10, but it’s present in a number of works, whether they focus on the American climate, the circumstances of colonial origins, the temperament of the American colonist, religious pluralism, and so on and so forth. This stands in contrast to much of today’s construction of historical narratives, that either seem to talk about recreating a golden age or else try and hold up exemplary historical figures who we should follow. Whether from a consensus or a progressive school, that’s not tremendously satisfactory.

      One of the books that did influence my thinking in writing this post was ‘The Presidents We Imagine’ by Jeff Smith. He essentially argues that in some ways, it has been fictional writers who have predicted change in the Presidency much more effectively than political writers – or, to put it another way, we need to imagine that certain forms of change are possible before they can be enacted. (I realize here we’re getting back to the ground in our discussion of Lynn Hunt over at Publick Occurrences). It seems to me that being able to use history as a useful tool requires more imagination in the uses to which we want to put the past.

      • I take your points, and let me see if I can continue the conversation without going too far afield.

        Part of why I brought up Hewes and Sampson (aside from the fact that Al Young has been on the collective minds of early Americanists since his death last month) is that Young’s approach to historical memory may be useful to help determine how to proceed as historians acting in the public sphere (non-Habermasian division). That is, by understanding the means by which actors in a particular period attempt to use the past, we gain a better understanding not only of the past itself but also of the political stakes in the present moment. From there, perhaps, we can encourage our students and the general public to engage with arguments based on the Founding with a keener eye both to its usefulness and the ways in which others with modern-day agendas (political or otherwise) use the past.

        I may expand on these thoughts over at Publick Occurrences today with reference to Parson Weems’ biography of Washington, which came to mind because it’s the anniversary of his death. I taught my students that chapter of the work this semester with some of these questions in mind. We’ll see if I have time!

        • Ken Owen says:

          I agree with much of what you say here, Joe. I think from a teaching perspective, what we might need to think about is giving students a really good understanding of confirmation bias. (A lesson that would be salutary in our own research, too, I think!). It’s common to hear students say things along the lines of ‘I’m amazed how similar this is to what we’re going through today’. While that is a fruitful line of inquiry, I am going to emerge from this discussion much keener to finish the discussion by asking ‘OK, how is this not like what we’re going through today? Why does that matter?’

          Additionally, the notion of a non-Habermasian division makes me wonder exactly how a Historians’ Conference would be subdivided, and who would get which playoff berths! (Surely we would need to use computer rankings rather than a selection committee…)

  3. Aaron Knapp says:

    A succulent post with some profound insights that I am still trying to wrap my head around. A couple of thoughts with not a fraction of the original post’s profundity:

    1. I think figures like Husband do broaden our understanding of the period, so long as they are not made to usurp traditional founding fathers (the tendency, i think, of Gary Nash), but rather to complement or “converse” with them. Many revolutions were fought, many constitutions ratified. One recent example of such an approach in the context of ’87 might be Saul Cornell’s ‘The People’s Constitution Vs. the Lawyer’s Constitution: Popular Constitutionalism and the Original Debate over Originalism’, Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, 23 (2011), 295. Perhaps Hogeland also adopts a similar dialectical approach? (Have not read his book yet).

    2. The historical relevancy of failure — one of my favorite topics: As Hogeland suggests, important and efficacious figures are indeed often overlooked because, in the historian’s judgment, they did not enjoy “success” in their time. And as Professor Owen adds, the judgment itself seems to involve a bit of anachronism. I think it is immensely important that we, as young historians, critically revisit those individuals and groups, particularly in the revolutionary, founding and early national periods, deemed by previous generations of historians to have “failed” in their aims. Often we might find (as with the anti-federalists) that they did not fail at all! Or that they failed in the short term, but succeeded in the long-term. But we also need to look for their voices and influence in the ideas and writings of the “victors.” Even if we conclude that they did in fact fail, moreover, failure often lies in the back of major historical transformations. Daniel Shays may have failed in his immediate aims (though do see Leonard Richard’s alternative take), but in another way he and his brethren arguably changed the nation forever. To take another example, outside of “early America,” the populists, according to Gerard Magliocca, while failing to achieve their stated objectives, nevertheless effectuated a sea change in American constitutional jurisprudence.

    3. Finally — and I apologize for not developing this thought further — as to the historical consciousness of early Americans, I do think we need to distinguish between ’76, ’87 and 1800.

    Thank you again for this.

    Aaron Knapp
    Boston University

    • Ken Owen says:

      Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comments, Aaron. To respond to them in turn:

      1) Yes, I fully agree with you here. And I’m certainly not arguing that we shouldn’t study figures like Husband. The notion of portraying the ‘conversation’ between different historical figures, familiar and unfamiliar, is a useful one, and one that I’ll certainly try and bring into my own teaching. (What an interesting assignment that would be – write a dialogue between Madison and Husband on the proper focus of a republican society!).

      That said, I instinctively recoil from the notion that ‘many revolutions were fought’. I realize the idea is pervasive in recent historiography, but I can never separate myself from the fact that the American Revolution is of such historical importance for the creation, ultimately, of one political entity, however diverse and multifaceted. Showing the roads not travelled is critical, for sure, but I think that we may have gone too far and stopped being able to see the forest for all the trees.

      2) I guess my comments follow on from the last point – but yes, I think spending more time on failure, and in particular on the constructive aspects of failure, would be well worth a more detailed study. Saul Cornell clearly provides a model for this in The Other Founders; another book I enjoy for the consideration of Anti-Federalist development is David Siemers’ Ratifying The Republic. Thanks for highlighting this – actually, some of my dissertation deals with looking at the success of movements often considered to have failed, and I’ll bring that out more as I revise.

      3) Couldn’t agree more with you on this point, Aaron – at the risk of being guilty of self-promotion, I had some reflections on this on my own blog – http://observationandinspection.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/violence-democracy-and-passage-of-time/

  4. Thanks, Ken, for a very thought-provoking piece. Like Joe, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what I make of the last few lines. Those are going to need to percolate for a little while. That said, I think your point about replacing one set of “founders” for another is well taken. We would do well to consider the possibilities of a more integrative, more genuinely inclusive interpretation of the American Revolution, both politically and socially. Rather than a model based on class conflict (á la Nash, Countryman, etc…), perhaps we would be better served thinking in terms of class interaction. In some of my own previous work on New York City in the 1760s and early 1770s, I tried to stress the interrelationships in terms of political economy between “classes” (a term I still find somewhat problematic in the context of eighteenth-century America). This is not to say that works like Revolutionary Founders and pretty much anything by Nash or Young are not important in and of themselves, but are they definitive in terms of understand the Revolution on the whole as a political, social, or cultural event? Are we not still just getting a different side of the Revolution?

    Of course, this leads to a discussion about the need (and even possibility) of synthesis. This is just a very broad, overly generalized, off-the-cuff speculation on my part, but, for me, while the sort-of “holy grail” of early American history of synthesizing political history with the social history of the 1970s and 1980s remains something of a pipe dream, it would seem to me that synthesizing the political and social history of the elites and working class might be possible, in terms of historiographical reconciliation. Of course, that would leave out a vast majority of women, slaves and free blacks, and Native Americans. But I wonder what kind of historiographical dividends it would pay if took a more piecemeal approach rather than lusting after some grand (but damn near impossible) goal of one all-inclusive synthesis.

    • Ken Owen says:

      I’d completely agree on the notion of class interaction, Michael. One of the things that strikes me about the Revolutionary era is that many of the leaders of popular movements can’t be cast exactly as class warriors, and yet maintain huge popularity. (Even someone like William Findley is scarcely fighting for the inversion of class distinctions, yet is elected resoundingly and overwhelmingly).

      You’re right that I think that the solution to these problems comes through some sort of synthesis, but for two schools of history that often work at cross-purposes. And the synthesis can only come if there is sufficient piecemeal evidence compiled across localities to allow the approach to be sufficiently refined and developed. That said, I don’t think it’s an unachievable goal by any means.

  5. This is a great post, Ken. One of the questions I see you raising is essentially the same question that gets asked over and over, in different forms, regarding the Enlightenment: Was it a project or a period? In other words, was the Revolution (or the Founding) a particular politics or a particular political moment — a set of plans or a set of possibilities? (The idea of “many revolutions” sort of splits the difference in a way that takes all the force out of both options.)

    I think that looking to the Founding (whether that means 1776, 1787, or 1800 — or, for that matter, 1828 or 1865) for a fund of ideas about the reformation of human government, or about the limits of authority and tradition, may be much different from looking to it for a particular mixture of equality and liberty or for a particular set of conclusions about natural law. Concepts like “reason,” “natural right,” “equality,” “virtue,” and even “property” embody processes of discussion and conflict, not static principles.

    This is one of the things, by the way, that bothers me about how the republican synthesis has sometimes been articulated in American historiography. The Cambridge School’s (or Caroline Robbins’s) work on early modern English thought isn’t just about a certain tradition of political ideas; it’s about a language of crisis. The “Machiavellian moment,” fundamentally, is the moment you realize that your republic exists in time and could fail, which is supposed to call forth new or revived ways of thinking about citizenship, along with all sorts of uncomfortable questions about authority. Sometimes, I think, American historians have absorbed the bits about citizenship-languages without really grasping the more important element of crisis-language.

  6. Tom Cutterham says:

    Like the others here, I think there’s a lot to draw out and think about from your concluding paragraph, Ken. I take you to be (rightly) criticising our own – that is, mainstream academic history’s – lack of interest in developing and implementing a useful historical practice.

    Regarding revolutionary Americans’ historical consciousness, I’d be really interested in a comparison with French revolutionaries. I don’t know enough to make it myself, but my feeling is that Americans were much more reluctant than the French to tie their project to an outrightly progressive, teleological historical vision. Paine, of course, (and Jefferson?) bridges that gap.

    But I’m really more interested in us. Our standard set of options consists of seeking role models or “simple morality tales” on one hand, and on the other reacting to that with the urge to infinite complication and inclusion. I agree, that set of options represents a failure of historical imagination – imagination about what history might be for.

    When Joe talks about American revolutionaries’ “willful misreadings of the past,” I see him pointing to a pretty unorthodox escape-route. To me that strikes a Kuhnian note – it takes a willful misreading to break a paradigm.

    • Ken Owen says:

      Isn’t one of the reasons for the greater teleology of the French vision the fact that they are so heavily influenced by American republicanism, though? That is – they have a successful model of revolutionary practice to follow, and aren’t left grasping at the Commonwealth or the Dutch Republic or Florence for a useful historical parallel? (That is, if one accepts the terms of the argument – I think there is a teleology in American historical consciousness as well, and one that is brought up quite self-consciously in Jefferson’s notions of stadial development or in Pennsylvanian exhortations to ‘think of your ancestors and your posterity’).

  7. [...] that spirit, I want to pick up on a conversation that Ken Owen began there yesterday with a post on Herman Husband and historical imagination. In that post, Ken suggested that using figures such as Husband as a counter to Founders Chic does [...]

  8. [...] “We need to (try to) look at the present by imagining how the future will see us as the past.” [...]

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