Historians of early America often stereotype each other as being adverse to the use of theory. However, a closer look at the historiography of early America over the last century does not bear out that claim. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Progressives derived their materialist conception of history from Marx. The Progressive interpretation held for decades until the 1960s when a group of historians based at Harvard University displaced it with an interpretation influenced by the sociological theories of anthropologist, Clifford Geertz. Even though postmodernism and postcolonialism, as theories, never took a strong hold on the field, there have been early American historians who have sought to incorporate, in a general sense, their broader modes of inquiry. The historiography of early America has hardly been devoid of theory over the last one hundred years.
Nevertheless, a deeper look into each of these examples shows us that early Americanists’ relationship with theory has been anything but obsequious. Perhaps, it is best defined as casual or, better yet, utilitarian. The Progressives appropriated the generalities of Marx’s historical materialism without embracing either his sociological analysis or his broader dialectic. Similarly, the ideological historians of the 1960s and 1970s used Geertz’s definition of ideology as the mediation of experience into the structure of consciousness without attempting to apply the rest of his intricately complex theory regarding cultural systems. Following in that tradition, early Americanists over the last twenty years, particularly those associated with the New New Political History, have loosely appropriated the Habermasian concepts of the “public sphere” and “civil society” while casting aside both small but fundamental details and the much larger particulars of Habermas’s argument.
However, this charge of “theoretical infidelity” is not made to criticize. Rather, it is made to highlight how a group of early Americanists seized on the theoretical aspects of an argument made regarding a specific time and place, taking from it what they wanted (or needed), and, in the process, broadened the entire field’s notions of political history, political participation, the polity, and its relationship to national politics and the state.
The Habermasian “public sphere” was first applied to early America in 1990, shortly after the first English translation of Habermas’ 1962 dissertation, by Michael Warner. In Letters of the Republic, he essentially married the development of the public sphere and republicanism in the colonies. More importantly, he tried to remain as faithful to the original Habermasian argument as the colonial setting would allow. The pretense to fidelity would end there.
Essentially beginning with David Waldstreicher and Simon Newman’s studies in the mid-1990s of the political meanings and processes underlying popular celebrations, a veritable explosion of literature on political topics ensued. But this was not elite political history. It was something different. Waldstreicher and Newman showed how Americans in the early republic participated in the political process beyond voting or acting within the rigid party structures. Jeffrey L. Pasley’s The Tyranny of Printers showed how local printers played an important (even, decisive) role in defining Jeffersonian politics on the ground, which in turn shaped the national party. The NNPH and the rise of “political culture” also offered opportunities for a broadening of race and gender studies that subsequently allowed us to see how minority and disenfranchised publics could nevertheless have profound influences on political culture and its direction.
These works, and others like it, re-defined early national politics as a two-way street rather than a one-way cul-de-sac. They did this not by applying Habermas’s argument regarding the public sphere to the early republic but simply by thinking in terms of the abstract notion of the existence of a public sphere. The “rational-critical debate” which defined the public sphere for Habermas? The notion that this was “a category of bourgeois society?” These two defining features of Habermas’s argument were simply discarded by the NNPH, which allowed them the latitude to pursue much broader inquiries.
Where do we stand now? The NNPH has left us with an amorphous, shadowy public sphere. Something which can be whatever one wants or needs it to be at any moment. The lack of a consensus among NNPH historians around terms like “public sphere” and “civil society,” despite the best efforts of John L. Brooke, contribute to a broader problem of the conception of “political culture.” Exactly what is “political culture?” For some, it could be almost anything. That lack of definition can either continue to produce the kind of leaps in inclusion made by the NNPH or, perhaps more likely, its lack of a categorical frame will see it collapse in on itself.
Michael D. Hattem is a PhD student at Yale University.
 Indeed, Richard Hofstadter also wrote of the “Consensus School,” which followed the Progressives: “In its origins I believe it owed almost as much to Marx as to Tocqueville.” See Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 451.
 Clifford Geertz, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” in Ideology and Discontent, ed. David Apter (New York: Free Press, 1964), 47-76.
 For recent works that employ or discuss a postcolonial approach to early American history, see Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America, ed. Robert Blair St. George (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000); David Armitage, “From Colonial History to Postcolonial History: A Turn Too Far?,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 64, no. 2 (2007): 1–4; Jack P. Greene, “Colonial History and National History: Reflections on a Continuing Problem,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 64, no. 2 (2007): 235–250.
 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Boston: The MIT Press, 1989).
 Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990). The first use of Habermas’s “public sphere” by an Americanist occurred in Thomas Bender, “Whole and Parts: Continuing the Conversation,” in “A Round Table: Synthesis in American History,” Journal of American History 74 (1987), 125. However, this does not imply that “public opinion” in early America had been ignored before the 1990s. One could cite dozens of examples. For one older example, see Richard L. Merritt, “Public Opinion in Colonial America: Content-Analyzing the Colonial Press,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 27, no. 3 (1963): 356-71.