Whither Early American Intellectual History?

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 21.34.40Last 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 200820092010, 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.

Typical attendance for a panel on early US intellectual history.

Typical attendance for a panel on early US intellectual history.

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.

An approximation of what may happen to a presenter who "outs" him/herself as an intellectual historian at an early Americanist conference.

An approximation of what may happen to a presenter who “outs” him/herself as an intellectual historian at an early Americanist conference.

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.

10 comments on “Whither Early American Intellectual History?

  1. Great questions, Ben. And they’re questions I suspect anybody who works before the Gilded Age has asked herself after going to USIH.

    I think you’re right about the role of self-contained early-American-studies research centers and journals. I think you’re also right about the lingering importance of Bailyn and Miller, but this has a double effect: The works that USIH people still think they have to assimilate/engage/challenge are positively ancient from the perspective of early American studies, and conversely, when early Americanists try to tackle questions of USIH interest, they often struggle to transcend an antiquated whiggish political frame. People in both groups are still writing as if the liberalism-republicanism debate is the state of the art in early American intellectual history, even though neither USIH people nor early-Americanists seem to find that debate especially interesting any more. (I engage in gross generalization here, obviously.)

    Also, there’s the Atlantic problem, which you’ve mentioned. I’m coming to think that this is a huge difficulty for people who want to bridge the gap–specifically because we’re talking about U.S. intellectual history rather than American intellectual history.

    As I recall, S-USIH got started, thanks largely to Tim Lacy, through the H-Ideas email list. It was a reaction to the overwhelming European focus of most self-identified intellectual historians. In other words, USIH exists to free intellectual history from the assumption that “intellectual history” is the study of European thinkers. So it was very important, from the beginning, that USIH be a United States project, not a project about European thought in the western hemisphere. I totally understand that impulse, and it has a lot of great implications (including a populist implication that gets us away from certain smug assumptions about what “thought” is). But it’s had two big problematic implications: First, it skewed USIH discussions toward topics that were (supposedly) relatively indigenous, like Pragmatism and American religious movements. And second, it makes it very difficult for us to connect today’s studies of early American print, religion, education, or even politics to USIH. It’s just not possible to engage in state-of-the-art early American scholarship and yet write as if the U.S. is the right context for most early American intellectual life–certainly before 1776, but actually for decades after that, too.

    This doesn’t have to be a big problem; I don’t think there are any border police at USIH conferences or publications to make sure you don’t start talking about London or Brazil. In fact, in my experiences, USIH audiences love transnational scholarship. But I suspect that defining the overall scholarly conversation as a discussion of the United States has a pretty powerful indirect effect, if only by making it difficult to prove that early Americanists doing intellectual history are actually engaged in the same sort of thing as modern Americanists doing intellectual history.

    • Tim Lacy says:

      Ben, Jonathan, Michael, and Others:

      As Dan said below, thanks for the shout out! It’s great to see the conference discussed here—even if I wasn’t at this year’s event in Irvine (my first miss!). I’ll be back at the conference next year in Indianapolis.

      On Jonathan’s reference to me above, and the start of the conference and society, he is largely correct—but makes an crucial error, an error of extension, that I want to emphatically correct.

      When I started the USIH blog, I did indeed desire for more study of *U.S.* intellectual history, and more coordination of existing study, on U.S. soil. I asked for this because it seemed that the ISIH meetings were often out of the country, and therefore expensive and inaccessible. There seemed to be little or no organization of study in the U.S. itself. So the call for a U.S.-based conference was about economy and affordability. Given those practical considerations, I never intended for the blog and conference (nor the then-distant, hazily-imagined ‘society) to be about ideas that grew out of the U.S. alone. Not at all. And I don’t think those attracted to the blog ever intended that, and I don’t think it’s borne out over the blog and society’s existence. That kind of myopia was never explicitly called for in the early CFPs or advocated at the blog.

      I put the “U.S.” moniker on the blog because I wanted to acknowledge that ideas and intellectuals operated differently in the context of the U.S. as a nation state. The “U.S.” designation was also made out of humility. I didn’t want—and I don’t think the other bloggers wanted—anyone thinking that we were speaking for The Americas generally—not South, Central, Latin, or North America. So “U.S.” gave us focus, specificity, and humility, to my mind.

      But I want to reiterate the crucial point: in my view, the blog and the early conferences were never ever intended to be limited to discussions of indigenous ideas, nor even just American-born intellectuals. And this just isn’t my assertion. I think proof that this was not the case would come out of an examination of early posts, where we were happy to discuss all sorts of European ideas and thinkers as they were received in the United States.

      As Jonathan noted at the end of his comment, the conference—from the beginning—is noteworthy for its acceptance of a broad range of panels, ideas, and areas of study. And, as he noted, we’ve been open to transnational scholarship. This only makes sense because of the practical issues with ISIH that I noted above. Some can’t make those out-of-country meetings, so they should be able to confer with us—at affordable rates!

      Thanks again for bringing a bit of the conference here to Junto. Hot tip: Tomorrow at USIH I will be discussing M.J. Adler’s potential connection to 18th-century Scottish sentimentalism!

      Most sincerely,


      • Thanks very much for the correction, Tim. I was working entirely from memory, and I’m not surprised I got that wrong; I really should have dug up some of those early discussions before commenting. (It’s possible that I was conflating your work with what I was thinking about at the time, or perhaps what someone else said in some other context.)

        So, to emphasize what I got right: I’ve never seen S-USIH, or the people who affiliate with it, do anything except encourage discussions that cross borders and boundaries. I do think the “U.S.” in the moniker is a bit tricky for early Americanists, but that’s not because of any deliberate choice on the part of people working with S-USIH.

  2. Fantastic post, Ben! I should start with the caveat that I helped put together one of the early American panels at USIH in 2012 (which sadly was canceled due to hurricane). I think you’ve nailed two of the ways that I also think about this issue.

    “So an early Americanist might do work that could be categorized as “intellectual history,” but they will be quite reticent to admit is as such because of the continued negative connotations of the category within the field.”

    THIS. Unfortunately, even after all these years, there still exists a view by many historians that intellectual history is an antiquated and, more pointedly, inherently elitist methodology. So much so that, you are right, historians who do engage with ideas are loathe to call themselves intellectual historians or even to label their work as intellectual history. I primarily identify myself as a historian of political culture, yet most of my work has dealt with ideas in some form or other. I think the sort-of post-cultural turn notion that I work from is that intellectual history (when not done in the pre-1950s mode) IS cultural history, in a sense. Many critics are responding to intellectual history as if all intellectual historians are still working from the same methodology as Perry Miller. Most critiques I’ve seen of intellectual history in this vein are not based on any kind of broad reading in the field but on these outdated (and, it must be said, largely uninformed) perceptions of the actual work in 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.”

    I think this is true to some extent. Contrary to the critiques, the best intellectual history of the past two decades, for me, is less focused on transmission of ideas than on the dissemination of ideas and its consequences. That is, if you’re studying ideas that were powerful enough to have been broadly disseminated and therefore to have become important to the lexicon and perspective of a given society or group, then you have, in effect, cultural history. For a recent early American example of this, see Michal Jan Rozbicki, Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. But I also I think a lot of Pauline Maier’s work provides examples of this. From Resistance to Revolution contains perhaps the best explication of radical Whig thought in the colonies but unlike Bailyn, Maier showed how those ideas played out on the ground.

  3. Michael’s comment about dissemination brings to mind something else I wanted to say. In modern-American scholarship, the arguably tautological concept of the public intellectual has come into wide use lately as a tool both for fending off charges of obscurantist elitism and for hand-waving away a lot of uncomfortable questions about reception and influence. (Russell Jacoby popularized it as a foil for purely academic intellectuals; the “public” intellectual is a thinker who doesn’t just talk to other thinkers.) This has helped open up the field to a lot of research on figures who had less stupendous academic qualifications. In other words, it’s helped to further differentiate intellectual history from the history of ideas, making the field more congenial to historical scholarship generally.

    But the public intellectual is problematic from the standpoint of early American intellectual history because the concept implies a certain kind of communications-media context. The term was developed for discussing intellectual life in the twentieth century, and it’s hard to adapt it for a setting where we can’t assume some kind of mass print circulation, where popular authorship was typically anonymous or pseudonymous, where cheap print was typically pirated from Britain, etc. Some of the most interesting recent early-American work on communications, like Trish Loughran’s Republic in Print, in fact, is specifically aimed at making it difficult for us to make any sort of blithe assumptions about how far American writing usually traveled. So one of the tools that has helped reconcile US intellectual history to modern-American historical writing in general isn’t really available to us.

    In addition, the public intellectual is almost always understood as a dissident, a thinker working against the grain of modern life. That assumption usually doesn’t work very well for early American print culture until, again, some point well into the nineteenth century, because it assumes mass media and the hegemony of industrial capitalism more generally.

    As one possible piece of evidence, I’d submit the trajectory of Harvard’s smaller annual Conference on Public Intellectuals, which has foregrounded the public intellectual as a cultural figure—and, after a couple of years of virtually no pre-20th century presence, has started explicitly limiting its CFPs to the 20th and 21st centuries. There are a lot of reasons for that, I’m sure—some of them related to the conference’s explicit political purpose—but I suspect it doesn’t help that it’s so hard to assume pre-20th-century (or at least pre-railroad) intellectual life is compatible with the concept of the public intellectual at all. (I think it is, sort of, but it takes all kinds of extra work to address the relationship.)

  4. Dan Wickberg says:

    Thanks for the promotion of SUSIH, and glad you enjoyed our conference. One of my concerns as president of the organization has been to expand the presence of non-20th c. people in the organization and its conference, so this is timely and very much to the point. As you point out, there are institutional reasons why early Americanists might be less inclined to identify as intellectual historians–unlike scholars of twentieth-century thought, they have some place to go (e.g. SHEAR, Omohundro etc.) rather than being swamped at the OAH. And for intellectual reasons–e.g. the dominance of the republicanism-liberalism debate and the centrality of figures like Gordon Wood and Joyce Appleby well into the 1980s–intellectual history was in crisis and despair throughout the 1980s and 90s in nineteenth and twentieth century historiography, but in early American it still remained prominent. But I do think there is something of a revival of interest in early American intellectual history–I take historians like Caroline Wintererer and Eric Slauter (I know, he’s trained in literature, but we’ll take intellectual history wherever we find it!), and recent books like Margaret Abruzzo’s Polemical Pain and Drew Maciag’s book on Edmund Burke in America as indicative of a vibrant renewal of intellectual history outside the old and stale debates about republicanism and political ideology. I do hope that when the CFP for next year’s conference (Indianapolis October 9-12) comes out, some of the readers of The Junto will send in papers and panels. I think we all benefit when we see the broader issues of the history of thought outside of narrowly specific chronological periods.

  5. mattcrow says:

    I think legal history is where intellectual history is alive and well, even thriving, both in and out of the early American field. I didn’t go into graduate school with any particular interest in the law or its history, but I went in that direction because I kind of unwittingly followed where the history of thought was happening. The study of natural history and the history of science in the Atlantic world is also a place where intellectual history is going on (think of Iannini’s Fatal Revolutions, etc).

    Part of the problem, I think, is a native anti-intellectualism in the field of early american history. As a result, we’ve exported a lot of the workload for the subjects of legal and political thought in particular. Eric Slauter and Jason Frank, for example, are exceptional, but its not a coincidence that they are literary and political theory scholars, respectively. Sarah Knott, Catherine O’Donnell Kaplan, and Drew Cayton are notable exceptions here, but they are very much in conversation with the great literary scholarship that has been doing a lot if not quite all of the intellectual history in the field of early American studies, broadly speaking.

    On the issue of Bailyn, Wood, maybe even Miller, I would hasten to add Pocock and Skinner, etc, I think we owe our colleagues in other fields a little more respect than we are giving them in this discussion, as if they were just not keeping up with us. They stay engaged with those questions and concepts, if not those debates and the terms they were held in, because there are live issues there in a lot of other areas of inquiry. The origins of liberalism and its trajectories are still a big deal for early modern europe, for latin america, for a host of other fields, and really good work is being done. Think of Jennifer Pitts, Annabel Brett, or James Tully just to throw out a few names from the study of empire and political thought. Economics and in particular the history of economic theory and political economy is another place where if you were looking to engage with early American stuff, you would need to turn to some older books. Walking away from sets of questions in the history of thought is a different thing than putting them to bed.

  6. Brian Connolly says:

    I agree with the above that there is a kind of anti-intellectualism in early American history, and that much of what we might think of an intellectual history in early America has been carried out by literary critics and others, Slauter and Frank being two fine examples. In that sense, the trade gap between history and literary criticism that Eric Slauter identified in early American studies find the history of ideas located mostly in literary criticism, with historians, with some notable exceptions, slow to pick up on it.

    The state of early America history and its relation to intellectual history can be seen, I think, in the 1993 state of the field focus published in William and Mary Quarterly. There, Kathy Brown, Michael Meranze, and Saul Cornell, all in different ways, suggested that the future of early American history could be found in an engagement with various forms of critical theory, post-structuralism, feminist theory, and postmodernism. While this would not necessarily have translated into intellectual history is obvious, but that it would have encouraged greater engagement with critique and the history of ideas would have been likely. That their predictions were (sadly) inaccurate is, I think, rather obvious. Especially now, as too many of us pat ourselves on the back for a newfound fascination with empiricism.

    I would also say that the invocations of Wood and Bailyn and the liberalism-republicanism debate are symptomatic of this. While I don’t think we need to engage that debate in the terms set by Wood, Bailyn, Pocock, Appleby, etc., I also think it is entirely problematic that we tell ourselves a story in which we have moved beyond such issues, again, patting ourselves on the back for seeing more than they did, or not being misled by such facile debates. This seems a misguided investment in progress, that our histories get better and more refined with time. We can’t possibly believe that, can we?

    As a way of thinking about how to reengage such ideas, one could do worse than look at Carroll Smith-Rosenberg;s recent book, This Violent Empire, which is engaged with both liberalism and republicanism but does so in a critical manner, where she refuses to be determined by the liberalism-republicanism binary. And to get to the original point of your post, why don’t we think of Smith-Rosenberg’s book as a kind of intellectual history?

    Ok, rant over.

  7. mattcrow says:

    Completely agree on these points. We’ve replaced “neo-whig” histories with an absurdly whiggish historiographical self-understanding. Also agree on Smith-Rosenberg’s work.

    Eric Nelson is another political theorist/historian of political thought doing early American intellectual history, among other things, and doing it provocatively well, albeit in a different vein.

  8. Tom Van Dyke says:

    Ben, thx for your essay/challenge. i attribute the lack of interest in early American intellectual history to simply not being “modern.” It’s more the product of the classical and medieval–as well as Protestant theology–and few are fluent in Aristotle, Aquinas or Calvin.

    Attributing it to the “Enlightenment” is facile, but doesn’t help much, since the Christian-friendly Scottish Common Sense Enlightenment has not a lot in common with the Continental Enlightenment of the more modern-ist philosophes. We know and like Rousseau, but Thomas Reid and Francis Hutcheson are quite obscure.

    unfortuantely the original is no longer online, but I excerpted the delightful Allen Guelzo’s [Gettysburg College]


    Some years back. I think it addresses the ghettoization of “traditional” intellectual history touched on here.

    Do Americans have minds?

    Of course not. “The greater part of the public, and a greater part even of the intelligent and alert public, is simply non-intellectual,” declared Richard Hofstadter in his bluntly titled Anti-intellectualism in American Life in 1963. Of course not, agreed Daniel Boorstin, Hofstadter’s contemporary and (in many ways) nemesis. “When,” Boorstin asked, “has a culture owed so little to its few ‘great’ minds or its few hereditarily fortunate men and women?” Of course not, chortled Henry Louis Mencken, the king of the debunkers, in the 1920s. Precisely because America was the great engine of democracy, it was also the ruthless engine of populism, the land of what Mencken snarlingly called “the booboisie,” “boobus Americanus,” or the “boobocracy.”

    We could, in fact, create quite a long list of testimonies about American mindlessness, and it would include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Jackson Turner, James Fenimore Cooper, and Alexis de Tocqueville (who was dismayed to find that “there is no country in the civilized world” with “fewer great artists, illustrious poets, and celebrated writers”).

    “When foreigners accuse us of extraordinary love for gain, and of practical materialism, they fail to see how largely we are a nation of idealists,” complained the Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce in 1897. We wouldn’t know this, however, if we judged by the way the history of American ideas is usually taught. Take, as a recent instance, William Goetzmann’s new Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism (Basic, 480 pp., $35).

    The America of Tom Paine “was a country of diversity and vastness,” but also of “vagueness.” This “vagueness” Goetzmann assumes to be a virtue in its own right, since it permitted Americans “to constantly redefine themselves” for a century after Paine “in search of an ideal — freedom.” At last, in the 1890s, Americans invented Pragmatism, which turned this incessant reinvention into a philosophy of its own, whose chief accomplishment was to abolish any “moral guides” on reinvention. The chief accomplishment of American thought is thus to free itself — from thought.

    This is not entirely Goetzmann’s fault, since Goetzmann is only following what I’ll call, for simplicity’s sake, the “Harvard Narrative” of American intellectual history, a pattern laid down since the 1920s…The Harvard Narrative proceeds like this: Begin with the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s. Touch, if you like, on the fact that these Puritans possessed a university-trained leadership and organized themselves around a university-trained clergy, sunk deeply in theology and medieval scholasticism. But be sure to dismiss this as little more than some very dense holy-rolling, and simply note in passing that the Puritans founded Harvard College only six years after settling Boston.

    Move as quickly as decency permits to Jonathan Edwards. Not that Edwards is all that interesting as a thinker, but treat him as undoubtedly the last example of whatever thinking the Puritans did. Dwell at length on his role as a hell-fire preacher during the Great Awakening of the 1740s. But dwell even more on the fact that the Awakening died out by 1742, and that Edwards was fired from his job as pastor of his church in 1750 and died just as he was assuming the presidency of Princeton in 1758. Let him stand as a sign of how badly America treats its thinkers, but somehow simultaneously make him out to be not much of a thinker at all.

    This is the last time you will actually need to worry about ideas in this history of American ideas, because you are now ready for an introduction to Benjamin Franklin, the model American and proto-Pragmatist — practical, commonsensical, businesslike, and born with an eye to the main chance. There is room, within the Harvard Narrative, to talk a little bit about the ideology of the American Revolutionaries —–but let Franklin stay at front stage. Jump from there to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists, a few New England Renaissance novelists (Melville, Hawthorne), and then you’re prepared to herald the arrival of William James and John Dewey, and the triumph of Pragmatism as the first, true, and only American philosophy — precisely because it is a philosophy that sees no intrinsic use for ideas, and uses them only as instruments for obtaining results.



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