Historical Charts and David Ramsay’s Narrative of Progress

A while back Slate’s “The Vault” blog ran a piece on John Sparks’s “Histomap” from 1931. I was recently reminded of that post as I came across a number of eighteenth-century historical charts during my dissertation research on eighteenth-century American history culture.[1] In the eighteenth century, there were conflicting understandings of historical time. Some understood time to be cyclical, as evidenced by the rise and (inevitable) fall of empires throughout history. Increasingly, however, historical time was coming to be understood as linear (in a mechanical, Newtonian sense). With the linear conception came the idea of historical time as being fundamentally progressive. This conception was further distinguished by those who understood it in terms of a narrative of social and political progress and those who understood it in millennialist terms, i.e., time progressing toward the end-of-days. These ideas shaped the ways in which one thought about history, and, in a time when historical distance was far more truncated than today, they had a profound effect on how one viewed their contemporary world. Historical understanding and, hence, historical writing were undergoing significant shifts in the eighteenth century. One of the by-products of these developments was the historical chart.

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Set in Stone

Stone LibraryEvery president has a past, and to his regret, John Adams did not save all of it for history’s sake. “Whatever you write preserve,” he directed his grandsons in 1815. “I have burned, Bushells of my Silly notes, in fitts of Impatience and humiliation, which I would now give anything to recover.” Continue reading

Natural Histories

hannah

See the world through Hannah Winthrop’s eyes. Your gaze dips down into the high-polished tea table and shears past John Singleton Copley’s brush, into summer 1773. Shown here serenely grasping a nectarine branch, Hannah likely knew that her world—what she called the “same little peaceful circle”—was spinning into a new revolution. Continue reading

The King’s Arms?

IMG_1862Paper soldiers on the march, and tin men tilting at swordpoint: these were the first battle ranks that Grenville Howland Norcross, aged 11 in Civil War Boston, led to glory. Between phantom invasions and replays of Antietam with “relics” received as gifts, Norcross gobbled up the military heroics popularized by the era’s dime novels. In a childhood diary that illustrates how “lowbrow” literature grabbed the imagination of a warsick homefront, Norcross chronicled his progress through the antics of Kate Sharp, Old Hal Williams, and Crazy Dan. By 1875, Norcross had outgrown his toy battalions, graduated Harvard, and stepped into a law career. An avid autograph collector, from his Commonwealth Avenue perch Norcross nurtured the city’s flourishing history culture, taking a leading role at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Bostonian Society. He rose to serve as Cabinet-Keeper for the Massachusetts Historical Society, supervising the intake and cataloguing of major collections including, by April 1920, the library of historian Henry Adams. At the Society’s next meeting, held in the midafternoon of 10 June, Grenville Norcross reported on the Cabinet’s newest curiosity, which has proven a royal mystery ever since:

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Guest Post: Disaster, Death, and Distilleries

Today’s guest post comes from Jordan Smith, a PhD Candidate in Atlantic History at Georgetown University. His dissertation, “The Invention of Rum,” investigates the development and production of rum in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic World.

Warning: This post contains graphic accounts of industrial accidents.

RumOn a recent research trip to Barbados, I stopped by the Mount Gay Visitors Center. There, between tastes of a variety of rums, tour guides regaled me with a heroic tale of Barbados’s place in the invention of rum. Afterwards, I was handed a brochure which proclaimed Mount Gay to be “the rum that invented rum.” The reasoning for this marketing strategy is simple enough—Mount Gay is one of many distilleries that makes a financial killing off of linking their product to a happy history of ingenuity and originality. Yet accounts of eighteenth-century distillery disasters suggest that this invention and innovation of rum was often undergirded by shocking violence.   Continue reading

Murder!: Entangled History, String Theory, and Narrative

caribmap

On a dark and stormy night in July of 1729, a vicious murder occurred in the port city of Veracruz. Okay, I don’t actually know if it was stormy on that night, nor was the murder particularly vicious but, for narrative effect, bear with me. On the evening in question, a Dominican priest accompanied by an entourage of the town’s residents walked to the trading factory of the British South Sea Company to pay the factors a visit. According to Inquisition records, as the group approached the factory, shots were fired from within the building, and the Dominican priest fell dead. The man who fired the fatal shots—William Booth[1]—claimed that he had not recognized the priest and fired in self-defense. As Booth argued, marauders frequently roamed the streets after dark and he assumed the visitors wanted to rob him. Booth was sentenced to five years hard labor in North Africa—a veritable death sentence—and the South Sea Company’s factory in Veracruz barely survived the incident, which reached the diplomatic tables of Europe.[2] Continue reading

The Spy Who Came in from the Confederacy

1862_LON_14_1862_NPL_P385[SVC1]He was, at first, another young shadow hurrying through Westminster Hall. He carried flimsier credentials than most, papers hastily sent by a new nation called the Confederate States of America. It was November 1862, and, since spring, he had stretched expenses to accommodate the bare $750 granted to fund his secretive mission. Still, regular sightings of the worn, 29 year-old Swiss-American stranger, who had shipped to London via the fiery newsrooms of Richmond and Mobile, caused a flutter of concern among British peers. Within weeks, the constant American shadow near Parliament became a very real worry. “He is but a private gentleman, it is true,” one M.P. fretted, “yet he may leave his card at the Foreign Office, and possibly find his way upstairs.” Continue reading