Last week, I attended the annual conference for the Society of United States Intellectual History, this year held in Irvine, CA. It was a fun time, and I learned enough and met enough people to consider the conference a success (and worth the 12 hour flight from London!). Yet one thing struck me the entire weekend, and was reinforced by Mark Peterson who gave words to my thoughts during his session response: why is there a paucity of work on early America within the recent surge of interest in US intellectual history? Or, to ask a different, but still related, question, why do so few historians of early America do work on intellectual history, or self-identify as intellectual historians?
First, a few specific points on the S-USIH conference. The paucity of papers on early American history is not a one-time deal, as it has been the case throughout the handful of conferences so far (see also schedules for 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012). Every year has seen a small number of sessions devoted to issues preceding 1900, and even fewer preceding the nation’s founding; by my count, out of the 183 panels in the Society’s six years, there have been 18 panels that fit the former category, and 5 papers to fit the latter. (It is tragically ironic that the only presenter scheduled to speak on a pre-1776 paper this year had to pull out at the last minute, thus making it a literal fact that each paper could take the American nation-state as fact.) Historical figures who used to dominate American intellectual history, like Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Jefferson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, are absent, as are currently in-vogue figures like Phillis Wheatley, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, and Sarah Osborn. The Federalists who so captured the republican thesis historians of the 1970s and 1980s are not engaged, and neither are the Anti-Federalists who captured the cultural historians in the 1990s and 2000s. The importance of religion continues to gain prominence in intellectual histories, as seen in this year’s program, but religion prior to pragmatism is unaccounted for, despite the upswing in scholarship on religion in the colonial, revolutionary, and antebellum periods. This is all to say that there are topics and interests aplenty in early American history to justify engagement with the field of intellectual history, yet the connection doesn’t seem to be there at this moment.
Now let me be clear that I don’t think the fault is with S-USIH, at least not primarily. (A case could perhaps be made that an association often takes the form and interest of the founding members, and this particular organization was founded on the work of a group of bloggers who focus on the twentieth century; a similar complaint could be that I organized The Junto around my interests of revolutionary and antebellum American cultural and religious history. But I don’t think that these are determinative factors.) These conferences depend on proposals and submissions, and I bet (at least, I hope) that they would be the first to plead for more papers on early American history. Indeed, the fact that they have now accepted a proposal from me on two separate occasions shows how desperate they must be! And at past conferences they have had plenary sessions devoted to the work of early Americanists, like a plenary address by Pauline Maier. So no, I don’t think the Society is to be blamed, which means we should look elsewhere.
The first pragmatic, and boring, answer is that historians of early America already have a variety of venues at which they can present—the Omohundro Institute, the McNeil Center, SHEAR, associations for the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, etc.—which perhaps outnumber those available to 20th century Americanists. These conferences feature, in a given year, a broad number of papers that would fit the parameters of S-USIH, so a major component of this issue might just be one of institutional priorities.
But there may still be more “there” there. For starters, at least for the revolutionary period, early American historians today still frame their work in opposition to the quintessential works in intellectual history like Wood and Bailyn. (Perhaps the same could be said for colonial historians and Perry Miller.) If the post-social and post-cultural turn historians continue to define their field as contra-republican-thesis, both in content as well as form, then those concomitant categories may also be eschewed. This is the case, I argue, even for those who are appropriating many of the tools of intellectual history. So an early Americanist might do work that could be categorized as “intellectual history,” but they will be quite reticent to admit it because of the continued negative connotations of the category within the field.
But more importantly, I think the field of early American history has done a respectable job in recent years of incorporating aspects of intellectual history into the general narrative that the specialized field is no longer seen as pertinent. For instance, I would say that the New New Political History movement proved successful at incorporating, as one example, both political thought and political practice. In religious history, scholars have followed the example of David Hall by incorporating the latest principles from cultural, book, social, and intellectual theory into an impressive synthesis. Or, to take one more example, Brett Rushforth’s recent, and multiple-award-winning, book on French and indigenous slavery in the new world shows how the various disciplines that were previously seen as distinct are becoming quite blurred.
There are a few other ideas I could bring up—that intellectual history’s increasingly dominant “globalization” theory does quite fit the same Atlantic framework used by early Americanists, the lack of non-elite white men to fit the intellectual history category in early America when compared to the larger number of possibilities in the 20th century, etc.—but I hope these can get the conversation started. So, I conclude with two questions and a request: first, does the S-USIH conference astutely represent a chronologically truncated field of intellectual history? If so, why? And finally, whether there is a problem or not, I’d encourage more early Americanists to get involved with S-USIH, both through the blog—where I hear they are looking for more contributors—as well as their annual conference, which, I should again emphasize, put on an enlightening and engaging experience last weekend.
Regardless, I hope to see more Junto-ers at next year’s conference in Indianapolis!
NB: I have been intentionally vague when it comes to defining “intellectual history.” This is partly because I think the field is best when it is elastic enough to accommodate a broad number of people and approaches (especially in early America, so as to not be rooted only in Dead White Men), and partly because I am still suffering jet lag, need to hurry this up and get back to finishing a dissertation chapter, and otherwise unable/unwilling to engage an issue that requires anything more than superficial thinking.