Yes, Virginia, there was an American Enlightenment

State of the Field PanelThanks to John Fea’s live-tweeting and subsequent reflections on OAH panels this past weekend, I would like to address some of the points and comments made during the panel entitled, “State of the Field: The Trans-Atlantic Enlightenment in America.” Since Twitter is problematic in getting across complex ideas due to its 140-character limitation, I have chosen a few of the tweets in which the comments seemed to me to be common arguments or perceptions that I have previously encountered.

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Looking for “a World of Love”: Jonathan Edwards in the Big City

nyc1728Jonathan Edwards is so strongly identified with Connecticut and Massachusetts that it’s easy to overlook where his pastoral ministry began: near the waterfront of New York City. In 1722, Edwards took a temporary position as the minister to a small Presbyterian congregation in Manhattan. He was about nineteen years old.

Edwards’s months in New York shaped him in at least two ways. First, according to his own account, Edwards developed a stronger desire for personal holiness. In New York, he wished increasingly to be “in everything a complete Christian.” Second, he grew in missionary zeal. Holding long religious conversations with his host family (who were immigrants from England) and observing life in the Atlantic port, he came to a more global awareness of the faith. He put it this way:

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Was the American Revolution a Civil War?

William Ranney, Battle of Cowpens, 1845, oil, South Carolina State House“Every great revolution is a civil war,” as David Armitage has recently remarked. That insight could change the way we think about the American Revolution. Contemporaries understood it that way—or at least, they did at first. David Ramsay, the first patriot historian of the war, held that the Revolution was “originally a civil war in the estimation of both parties.” Mercy Otis Warren wrote that the fires of civil war were kindled as early as the Boston massacre. But in the narratives of these historians, the moment the United States declared independence was the moment the conflict stopped being a civil war. It was no longer being fought within a single imperial polity. Now it was a war between two nations.[1] Continue reading

Rethinking the Early American Map

AmeriqueSeptentrionaleIt’s time we remake the North American map.

Open up most any early American history book and flip to the list of tables and figures. Chances are you’ll find—if provided—maps devoid of almost any indigenous peoples. If the book is more recent, perhaps instead you’ll find that the author included two maps: one of European settlements, and one of Native American peoples. Or, just maybe, you happen to have on hand one of the few books to merge all of these together. But look closely and see if you can find the usual tension—an unbalance resulting from the projection of European empire on one hand, and the illustration of limited, isolated, scattered indigenous nations on the other.

How can so many maps of colonial North America display European power and political influence, but not do the same for American Indian polities and groups?

Maybe the better question is, how can we overcome our own historiographical strictures and the limitations of seventeenth and eighteenth-century maps to better portray the American landscape?

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Whither the 18th Century?

American ColoniesTeaching 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

Rough and Ready and Real

Ratification coverThe 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.[1] Continue reading

Cold Water and Living Documents

There is a breed of historians known, colloquially, as “cold water” historians for their drive to pour analytic “cold water” on the politically or historiographical fashionable arguments. Pauline Maier most certainly belongs to this historiographical polar bear club.[1] As anyone who read her New York Times obituary (or any other, really) knows, Maier is famous for describing Thomas Jefferson as “overrated.[2] Her wonderful American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence brings the most powerful weapons of the skeptical historians— context and contingency—to bear on that central document of American political and national identity. Continue reading

The New Old Revolutionaries

It’s often said that we tell old stories to get new ones, a truth self-evident in my favorite of Pauline Maier’s many works, The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980). And everything I admire about her as a scholar rolls in with the first lines of that barefaced preface: “Let me confess at the outset that this book, though it answers some questions of the sort historians are trained to ask, has also been—and was meant from the outset to be—a personal adventure. I wanted to know better what it was to be an American of the late eighteenth century and to live through the American Revolution” (xiii). Maier’s prosopography of five men and their “worlds,” accentuated by a thoughtful “interlude” on the rigors of political life in the colonies, marked a change in how historians used individual biographies to retell the Revolution to post-bicentennial Americans. First given as a series of lectures at New York University in 1976, the essays gather a fairly random matrix of people for a group shot of colonial life: Samuel Adams, Isaac Sears, Dr. Thomas Young, Richard Henry Lee, and Charles Carroll. Few had appeared in solo biographies, and if they did, it was often in fairly dim light. In fewer than 300 pages, Maier promised to deliver the story of “not just why Americans made the Revolution, but what the Revolution did to them.” How to get at it? Continue reading

Pauline Maier and the Republican Revolution

FRTROne of the things that set Pauline Maier apart was the exuberance she brought to the work of history. That joyful zeal is charmingly expressed in the metaphor she used to evoke the intellectual atmosphere in which she wrote her dissertation and first book, From Resistance to Revolution (1972).[1] “In the heady days of the 1960s,” she recalled in 1991, a group of Bernard Bailyn’s graduate students shared the exciting “conviction” that “a great historical paradigm, an interpretation of the Revolution that had stood for most of the century, was collapsing like some great empire, and that another, equally powerful, was already coming into view” (v-vi). It was, indeed, a “‘revolution’ in historical understanding” (ix). Continue reading

Wood & Holton on the Constitution

Was the purpose of the constitution to protect democracy from being ruined by the people or to protect commerce from being ruined by democracy? This was one of the questions put to Gordon Wood and Woody Holton in a debate held a few weeks ago at the University of South Carolina. A full video of the event has just been released on YouTube, and is embedded below. For anyone familiar with the work of these two historians, the debate will constitute a useful recap of the distinction between their two interpretations of the origins of the federal constitution. And for others, I hope it might be a kind of teaser for their excellent books! Continue reading