One of the key difficulties of teaching the American Revolution is the seeming inevitability of it all. Why did Britain even bother pursuing its bothersome colonists? After all, the patriot cause was so noble and glorious that there was surely no way that such perfidious villains as the redcoats could possibly have triumphed. And yet within that myth, there is a persistent paradox: the patriot cause is often “proven” by the victory of such an inferior force against the strongest military power in the world in the late 18th century. But for this narrative to make any sense at all, there must have been a real risk of defeat; unless Britain could realistically have defeated their colonists, why would the morality of the patriots be of any consequence whatsoever? Continue reading
The final outcome of the Junto March Madness wasn’t really a surprise. Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery: American Freedom was the most heavily nominated book when we compiled the bracket, and no challenger really came close to defeating it as it stormed through the tournament like a juggernaut. Morgan’s easy victory invites reflection on why the book remains such a well-loved classic. Today, I am going to offer a few preliminary thoughts as to what we can can learn from the tournament, with all usual caveats about the unscientific nature of the process still in force. Continue reading
Today is the day you’ve all been waiting for with eager anticipation–the official unveiling of the Junto’s March Madness bracket! Thank you to all who nominated books yesterday–this whole project wouldn’t have been possible without it.
The response to yesterday’s call for nominations was overwhelming, with over 150 books receiving nominations, and over half of those receiving more than one mention. As such, The Junto’s Selection Committee had a difficult task whittling down the nominees to a bracket of 64, and an even tougher time organizing it into something resembling the NCAA tournament.
As a Brit teaching early American history in the US, I’m often asked how I came to be fascinated by the American Revolution. My answer is generally some version of the following: I’m fascinated by the American Revolution because there are so many reasons why it shouldn’t have ended with the creation of an American republic. Not only was the notion of independence from Britain a daring and risky move, but there were many reasons why the North American colonies could not cohere once they had broken with the mother country. Investigating the ways in which Americans tried to bridge the many gaps between themselves to create powerful and lasting governmental structures is one of the key themes of my research.
A large part of the answer to that conundrum, at least once historical focus shifts to the early republic, is the Constitution. Though, as I have written elsewhere, the mechanics of writing and ratifying the Constitution were scarcely the pristine and perfect process of popular imagination, the longevity of the Constitution must rank as one of the most significant achievements of the revolutionary era. Yet a close look at pretty much any period of American history sees the Constitution wielded as a partisan weapon as often as it is venerated as a ligature holding the separate states together. That is a curious paradox, for there is an implicit and serious criticism in describing a governmental act as “unconstitutional.” It suggests a lack of patriotism and a lack of common feeling; it implies mistrust, rather than emphasizing shared responsibility. Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, the American History Guys at Backstory took on the issue of representations of history in film. Of most direct interest to those of us here at the Junto was the interview of Mark Peterson by Peter Onuf, asking why there were so few movies about the American Revolution, and why they were so terrible. The answer Peterson proffered was about patricide. The difficulty of evoking sympathy for the killing of a father figure that wasn’t manifestly evil led the British to be portrayed as caricatured villains – and even Hollywood audiences weren’t buying a tale so badly spun. Continue reading
One of the reasons I am so enthusiastic about being a member of The Junto is that I have long thought blogging provides an excellent opportunity for the development of academic writing. While the typical forms of academic writing are highly formal, blogging (and other forms of digital media) provide a semi-formal arena in which historians can discuss and develop their ideas, taking advantage of an extended virtual community whilst simultaneously providing some structure and order to their thoughts.
Of course, it’s scarcely original to ponder the virtues and values of digital media within the academy. Nor would I want to be prescriptive about what sorts of blogging work and don’t work. After all, even in our own field of early American history, we have a variety of examples of how to blog – from John Fea’s diary-keeping style, to Historiann’s more political content, to J.L. Bell’s treasure trove of research notes. Indeed, it’s the informality and immediacy of blogging that provide the greatest opportunities for enterprising historians. Continue reading
I consider myself a child of the ‘new new political history’. When I first started in graduate school, books like Simon Newman’s Parades and the Politics of the Street and David Waldstreicher’s In The Midst of Perpetual Fetes helped a constitutional geek recognize the necessity of taking a broad definition not just of political activity, but also of political actors. Beyond the Founders was a wonderful introduction to the possibilities of political history – the way in which a whole host of diverse experiences influenced and shaped political culture during the early republic. Their portrayal of early American political culture was a welcome change from previous histories focusing excessively on elites (and thus tending to promote ideology ahead of political action), or social histories whose model of class consciousness seemed a bit too heavily grafted on to a period in which some (if by no means all) elite political leaders possessed a real claim to widespread popularity.
Of course, the plea to get historians to move ‘Beyond the Founders’ hasn’t been a wholesale success. While Chris Beneke may have suggested that the plethora of books about ‘Founders’ would inevitably slow down, even some Beyond the Founders contributors themselves contributed essays to Alfred Young, Ray Raphael and Gary Nash’s recent Revolutionary Founders. In both popular culture and in academic circles, the trope of ‘founders’ or ‘framers’ or a ‘revolutionary generation’ still looms large. The question I want to explore in this blog post, then, is this: If the NNPH promised to provide a history that synthesized political narratives with social and cultural history, why do we seem to find it so hard to move beyond the founders? My suggestion will be this: for all that the NNPH revitalized political history after the ‘social turn’, much of it was strangely detached from high politics. Continue reading
Over the last three weeks, Jonathan Wilson and Ken Owen have reviewed the PBS documentary series The Abolitionists. Their reviews of part 1, part 2, and part 3 are already available for you to read. In this final post, Wilson and Owen will discuss the series as a whole, focusing especially on its value for history professors in the classroom.
Ken: Jonathan, I thought that we might start this discussion by looking at the producers’ public statements on what they were attempting with the series. For reference, there is a video entitled ‘Why We Made The Abolitionists‘, and an article ‘From The Executive Producer‘. For me, the most striking statement of the video is the opening assertion that no transformative moment in American history ‘stems from the actions of ordinary Americans as much as the abolitionists’. The producers then say that the five characters that they chose were deliberately intended to invoke different strands of the abolitionist movement.
For the last few years, there has been a recurring news item in early January that sets my historical rage going. The repeated refusal of the Baseball Writers Association of America to elect Mark McGwire and others suspected of steroid use in the 1990s and early 2000s was bad enough. This year tipped me over the edge; the idea that neither Barry Bonds nor Roger Clemens deserve a place in the Hall of Fame is nothing short of preposterous. For better or worse, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, and Bonds defined an era in which baseball regained its popularity after a self-destructive strike in 1994. For the hallowed halls of Cooperstown to pretend they never really existed is willfully sticking heads in the sand.
Of course, the sanitizing of history is not limited to the game of baseball. Every year, the NCAA comes down with ‘sanctions’ on college sports programs for a series of violations, whether academic, financial, or moral. Most typically, those programs are asked to ‘vacate’ their wins – doing nothing to actually award wins to the losers. And the sorry mess of the Lance Armstrong saga reflects a similar tale – those consulting the record books will simply be told that no-one won the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005, as if the race had never been run. At least the ‘vacation’ of title or a blank space in the annals encourages the casual observer to do some further reading on the circumstances. At root, though, it is a cop-out – if the record books don’t give us the nice morality tale that we’d like to see, we just press the delete button and hope that no-one comes to notice. Continue reading
In his recent review of Kevin Phillips’s 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, Jack Rakove argues that in tackling the causes of independence, “Phillips deals with political loyalties more fundamental than the mere matter of party allegiance.” The inference is clear—deciding to be a member or an activist for a political party is one thing; but your nationality is something that defines you in perpetuity. Once revolutionaries chose to take on the label ‘American’, there was no turning back. It was who they were; while that American identity might be complex and multifaceted, there is something about ‘national character’ that stands above the rough and tumble of party politics. Continue reading