Teaching the first half of the American history survey has become a more complicated job over the last few decades. The reason is quite simple—the purview of early American historians has broadened significantly in the same period. A narrative from Jamestown to Independence to Civil War is now a narrative that begins with (or even before) the Columbian Exchange. A geographical focus that formerly considered the “thirteen colonies” almost in isolation now extends northwards to Canada, westwards to the Mississippi, southwards to the Caribbean, and across the ocean to Europe and Africa. A predominantly white, male, Protestant cast of characters has welcomed women, people of color, Native Americans, and others to its merry band.
All of this is a good thing. But it runs up against a critical problem—the amount of time in a semester has not extended at all. To take account of newer historical approaches therefore requires critical editing of syllabi and a rethinking of approaches. That means there will be, for want of a better term, “winners” and “losers” in terms of the material covered in the survey course. My contention is that the 18th century is the main loser from these changes—and I wonder, at times, what the implication is for our students’ understanding of key currents of American history. Continue reading
The ratification of the Federal Constitution is a notoriously difficult historical event to categorize. On the one hand, it is a watershed moment; the creation of a consolidated federal government with extensive power is a clear break with the immediate post-Independence traditions of American governance. Yet at the same time, it is traditionally seen as the final achievement of a revolutionary generation—the fulfillment of the ideals of the Revolution. Continue reading
Welcome to another of The Junto‘s weekly round-ups of things that caught our eye in the rest of the Internet this week. Find the links after the jump! Continue reading
I don’t like Abraham Lincoln. Working in Springfield, Illinois, that’s not an especially popular viewpoint to hold. Yet it is working in Springfield, Illinois, that has really led me to that conclusion. It’s almost impossible to escape the shadow of Honest Abe here. Bronze statues sit prominently in downtown; all sorts of programs and buildings at my university bear Lincoln’s name. His face even peers out from every license plate in the state. It’s a historical cult of personality that can feel alienating to a revolutionary specialist.
(Though he does have a good nose for sniffing out dodgy car dealers.) Continue reading
Readers of early American history blogs will undoubtedly have come across the recent kerfuffle regarding the divide between academic and public historians of the American Revolution, which stemmed from a series of posts by Peter Feinman assessing the conference. Much of the debate has centered around this post, in which Feinman chided academic historians for their failure to answer the question: “Was the American Revolution a good thing?” Roy Rogers posted an excellent response to this here last week; J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 had other reflections on Monday (and is continuing to address the topic in other posts).
If Inventing The People is a work of consensus history, it is not one that seeks to celebrate blindly the development of an Anglo-American tradition of popular sovereignty. “The popular governments of Britain or the United States rest on fictions as much as the governments of Russia and China” (13). Indeed, many of Morgan’s most important conclusions in the book are remarkably radical—reminding us that all power is at some level arbitrary, and that appeals to rationality alone cannot justify any single system of government. Indeed, governments that try and conform to the letter of their appeals to the people could not long hope to survive. “The fiction must approach the fact but never reach it” (91). Thus, while Morgan unquestionably concludes there is a coalescence of ideas of popular sovereignty, it is not a reassuring consensus. The consensus on the dominance of popular sovereignty is necessary, for else a community can never be made fit to govern. Continue reading
Last weekend, historians of the early Republic convened in St Louis for the SHEAR annual meeting. As is normal for a meeting that takes place each year in mid-July, the heat and humidity during the day was rather intense (I somehow suspect this is a deliberate design to make the air-conditioned conference rooms a welcome solace!). As with Tom’s post covering the Omohundro conference last month, I can’t possibly hope to give complete coverage. As ever, the number of panels I wanted to attend was greater than the number of panels I could physically attend—the sign of an invigorating conference, for sure, but also a conference whose scope can’t be summed up in 1000 words. If you attended, please add your own reflections in the comments. Continue reading
This post comes to you from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in St Louis. If you’re at the conference, please come and say hello!
The SHEAR Annual Meeting kicked off this year with the Presidential Plenary session, “Missouri: Crossroads of the Early Republic?” Using the conference’s location as a jumping-off point for discussions of the diverse and multifaceted history of the early nineteenth century, four distinguished historians offered reflections as if located in Missouri, looking across the North American continent in different directions. Walter Johnson then concluded the roundtable with the notional title “Looking Forward,” but calling attention to some ways in which the session might profitably be used by historians looking to introduce new themes and stories into their teaching. Continue reading
There’s a nasty undercurrent of triumphalism latent in much analysis of recent events in Egypt. When considering how the “Egyptian Revolution” seems to have gone awry in recent weeks, some commentators have lauded the experience of the American Revolution and proclaimed the importance of civil society. If only Egypt had the mature society America possessed in the 18th century, they seem to say, maybe there wouldn’t be a necessity of military control. It’s as if they read Tocqueville and assumed that he spoke timeless truths about the entirety of American history, rather than really thinking deeply about the process of winning Independence. (Then again, we already knew that about George Will, didn’t we?) Continue reading
Over at Slate last week, our Junto colleague Eric Herschthal reviewed some of the latest popular histories of revolutionary America, including two new studies of the years around 1776 by Richard Beeman and Joseph Ellis. Eric takes a very critical view of the analytical stance of the books–arguing that they are too in thrall to outdated and invalidated historical techniques; focusing too much on elites and ‘leadership’ at the expense of more recent trends in scholarship, such as the new emphasis on those who stayed (or tried to stay) neutral during the Revolutionary War.
Perhaps the most provocative part of the review is this statement:
“If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different?”
To me, the answer seems self-evident. Continue reading