“The list,” says Umberto Eco, “is the origin of culture… What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible.” This impossible project has inspired dauntless gallants from Homer to BuzzFeed, and even in our own brief existence, The Junto has already made a valuable contribution to that noblest of list genres, the year-in-review inventory.
Today I’ll attempt to advance the cause of culture with a few notes on the particular infinity of early American history articles published in 2012. Unfortunately I can’t apologize for my own personal and intellectual biases, which lean toward international politics, slavery and abolition, and historiography, all of it within the nineteenth century. A successful list is usually just private prejudice, artfully compressed and shrewdly disguised—Homer, after all, chose to focus on the Achaeans’ black ships and famous spearmen rather than their haircuts or favorite foods; the BuzzFeed guy sems to have a thing for marine mammals. But you should know where I’m coming from before we proceed._____________________________________
James H. Merrell, “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 69, no. 3 (July 2012): 451-512 (with responses from Andrew Cayton, Wendy Warren, Juliana Barr, Michael Witgen, Mark Peterson, and Merrell himself).
- Merrell’s review of the language that American historians use to write about American Indians is as exact as it is exacting, with careful deconstructions of problematic terms like “precontact,” “The New World,” “backcountry,” “wilderness,” “hunting grounds,” and even “early American history” itself (there wasn’t anything “early” about 1492, let alone 1776, for indigenous Americans). The essay is light in tone but heavy in temper, producing a kind of fierce jolliness that occasionally recalls George Orwell, an obvious model for this kind of phrase-by-phrase demolition job. Even when I felt he overreached, Merrell’s rigor made me pause and reconsider: is “settler violence” really such an oxymoron in an age of Baruch Goldstein?—but then again, why should belligerent colonialists get to own this peaceable noun? On the whole, I do think Merrell neglects the possibility that real tension may emerge from competing historical goods—a strictly accurate and largely neutral vocabulary, on one hand, and the imaginative reconstruction of limited historical perspectives, on the other. But this is an essay worth wrestling with—both as a political statement and a painstaking examination of historical prose.
Heather Morrison, “ ‘Making Degenerates into Men’ by Doing Shots, Breaking Plates, and Embracing Brothers in Eighteenth-Century Freemasonry,”Journal of Social History 46, no. 1 (2012): 48–65.
- Morrison says it well, but probably Ke$ha said it best: “Young hunks, taking shots / Stripping down to dirty socks.” Ladies and gentlemen, your late eighteenth century Freemasons! An easy winner for Article Title of the Year.
Gregory P. Downs, “The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States’ Transational Path from Civil War to Stabilization,” American Historical Review, 117, 2 (April 2012), 387-409.
- Downs: “Too often, however, transnationally inclined U.S. historians look to Europe for the circulation of ideas, and to Latin America for the movement of people and raw commodities.” Very true, but this highly original reconstruction of Reconstrution politics proves that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Peter Kolchin, “Comparative Perspectives on Emancipation in the U.S. South: Reconstruction, Radicalism, and Russia,” Journal of the Civil War Era 2, no. 2 (June 2012): 203-232.
- Another global perspective on Reconstruction, from one of the Original Masters of international history (and remember, Kolchin’s classic work on slavery and serfdom stopped the narrative well before emancipation). Almost painfully dense with comparative insight.
Ada Ferrer, “Haiti, Free Soil, and Antislavery in the Revolutionary Atlantic,” American Historical Review 117, no. 1 (February 2012): 40-66; Vanessa Mongey, “A Tale of Two Brothers: Haiti’s Other Revolutions,” The Americas 69, no. 1 (July 2012): 37-60; Doris L. Garraway, “Empire of Freedom, Kingdom of Civilization: Henry Christophe, the Baron de Vastey, and the Paradoxes of Universalism in Postrevolutionary Haiti,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 16, no. 3 (Nov. 2012): 1-21; Joseph L. Celucien, “‘The Haitian Turn’: An Appraisal of Recent Literary and Historiographical Works on the Haitian Revolution,” Journal of Pan African Studies 5, no. 6 (Sept. 2012): 37-55; “Forum: Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the Atlantic System,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 69, no. 3 (July 2012): 541-638 (with contributions from Laurent Dubois, Philippe R. Girard, Julia Gaffield, and Deborah Jenson).
- Haiti, so hot right now—and not just Toussaint and the Revolution, which, as Joseph Celucien observes, have been burning up Atlantic history for at least a decade. What’s striking about all these essays, including the hundred-page forum in the WMQ, is their focus on post-1804 Haiti. Both Ferrer and Garraway explore how the Haitian state self-consciously constructed itself as an anti-colonial, free-soil outpost within an imperially enslaved Caribbean—and how this process shaped both Haiti’s internal government and its ongoing salience in the tumutous global politics of the nineteenth century. Mongey, meanwhile, unfolds the fascinating stories of Joseph and Sévère Courtois, Haitian men of color whose disparate military careers reflected the racial and political instability of the Revolutionary Atlantic in the 1810s and 1820s. (Both Courtois, perhaps not incidentally, were Masons, although we have little evidence about their drinking habits). It seems only a matter of time before the Haitian invasion reaches the antebellum and Civil War eras—not only as an unsettling or inspiring memory (as in Matthew Clavin’s recent book), but as an ideological and geopolitical contemporary.
Andrew Heath, “‘The producers on the one side, and the capitalists on the other’: Labor Reform, Slavery, and the Career of Transatlantic Radical,” American Nineteenth Century History 13, no. 2 (June 2012): 199-227.
- International politics! Slavery! Historiographical critique! The nineteenth century! I can’t resist. Really though, Heath’s portrait of the Irish Chartist and proslavery advocate John Campbell weaves its way skillfully between whiteness scholars and their critics, while suggesting plenty of critical new directions for the study of working class politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
John Craig Hammond, “Slavery, Settlement, and Empire: The Expansion and Growth of Slavery in the Interior of the North American Continent, 1770-1820,” Journal of the Early Republic 32, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 175-206.
- While historians have spent the past few decades uncovering the various ways that slavery and American national power grew together, across the early republic, Hammond argues that before 1815, the U.S.’s weakness was more important than it’s strength. Both specific local factors and far-flung imperial geopolitics—not merely the active hand of the U.S. federal government—determined the rise of North American slavery. A model example of an article that condenses, expands, and illuminates a book by the same author.
Nicholas Wood, “John Randolph of Roanoke and the Politics of Slavery in the Early Republic,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 120, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 106-143.
- Wood’s clarifying portrait of Randolph reaffirms a traditional distinction—under fire in some recent scholarship—between defenders of slavery before 1830 and the antebellum Slave Power. In other words: John Randolph ≠ John C. Calhoun, and not only because he skipped puberty, loved Mohammed, and came up with better seafood-based insults.
David Brown, “William Lloyd Garrison, Transatlantic Abolitionism, and Colonisation in the Mid Nineteenth Century: The Revival of the Peculiar Solution?” Slavery & Abolition 33, no. 2 (May 2012): 233-250.
- Why, in 1857, did radical abolitionists heap praise on Hinton Rowan Helper? His Impending Crisis of the South, after all, proposed to solve the problem of slavery by deporting all free blacks to West Africa—a colonizationist program anathema to Garrison, Frederick Douglass and other militants since at least the 1830s. Brown argues that purportedly ‘anti-political’ abolitionists like Garrison were, in fact, fully capable of adjusting their tactics to shape concrete political outcomes—in this case, the presidential election of 1860. A cogent reappraisal in its own right, Brown’s piece also points toward the larger reinterpretation of Garrisonian politics in Caleb McDaniel’s forthcoming Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery.
Michael E. Woods, “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature,” Journal of American History 99, no. 2 (2012): 415-439.
- Woods’s summary of the recent scholarship on Civil War causation may not be as daring or original as Frank Towers’s piece last year in the Journal of the Civil War Era, but it is perhaps even more comprehensive and judicious. A handy oral-exam shortcut for generations of PhDs to come.
Nathan A. Buman, “Historiographical Examinations of the 1811 Slave Insurrection,” Louisiana History 53, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 318-337.
- Academic reviewers haven’t been shy about noting the limitations of Daniel Rasmussen’s undergrad thesis-turned-bestseller, but it remains true (and surprising!) that the 1811 Louisiana slave revolt lacks a definitive scholarly treatment. (Robert Paquette’s forthcoming book may change this). Buman’s piece occasionally runs aground on simplistic notions of “bias” and “objectivity,” but this is still a very handy guide to what historians have, and have not, written about what by some measures was America’s largest slave insurrection.