On Sunday, at the 2014 OAH Annual Meeting, I was part of a roundtable discussion entitled “Is Blogging Scholarship?” Several other participants have posted their thoughts on the subject; there was also a great deal of live-tweeting, and our own Joe Adelman has also joined (and developed!) the conversation. The discussion itself was fantastic, and was videotaped for later broadcasting. But in reflecting on the panel, I’ve found there are some points I wish to re-emphasize, and some problems I have with the way the entire roundtable was framed. Continue reading
A Call to the Most Bland and Boring Pieces of Paper You’ve Ever Skipped Over in the Archives
Vouchers! Receipts! Bills of exchange!
The paperwork of empire, particularly that of credit and finance, is probably not what gets most of us up in the morning. In the archives, we skip over the dull sections of the finding aids—warrants, no thanks!—and instead dive into correspondence and maps and bound volumes and clippings. The more adventurous of us might even call up account books—but those individual receipts? They’re lucky if we ever take them out of the box.
And why would we? Unless we live in a world of down-and-dirty finance or economics or material culture, they seem not only besides the point, but, even more, incredibly hollow. What do we get from reading a quick statement that someone was eventually paid for delivering a barrel of pickled cabbage in 1760? Especially when we can read in frantic detail the correspondence about how that barrel fell into the Mohawk River, burst open, got hauled back onto a bateau, arrived at Fort Stanwix, was re-opened, reeked, was declared unfit for consumption, continued to reek, was declared fit for consumption, reeked some more, ordered northward to Oswego, reeked still, and finally was delivered to a garrison comprised mostly of Germans who (our correspondents assumed) would think they’d been gifted sauerkraut.
It’s the correspondence, we might argue, that gives us actors and action. In it, even a barrel—brown, wooden, boring—becomes something dynamic.
But who delivered that barrel? How long did it take him? Where did he begin his trip? Was he a merchant contractor, a militia man, a professional sled driver? And what did he get out of a journey, in the dead of winter, through the type of paralyzing cold you can only feel in upstate New York, with barrels of spoiled pickled cabbage?
Exceedingly important questions like these suddenly make the boring, bland, bureaucratic paperwork appear just a little (a very little?) more interesting. Continue reading
“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. Continue reading
A few months ago my partner and I moved to a new apartment, for the first time since I began living in New York full-time. The best part of moving to me, for purely selfish reasons, was it created an opportunity to fully reorganize my library for the first time in three years. Our old apartment was much smaller than our current place which left my ever-growing doctoral candidate’s library relegated to one and a half bookshelves. This led to all kinds of organizational chaos and housecleaning headaches – with books tucked away in closets, stacked on desks, piled in corners. Many times while writing I found myself looking for a book for a reference or citation say, for example, my copy of Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor (which always seems to vanish) and I knew, for the life of me, that I had the book somewhere in the apartment, but had no way to even begin to find it without tearing the place apart. At the new apartment I have, thanks to my partner’s beneficence, the space to fully store my library in real bookcases and in some sort of proper organizational scheme.
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
When did you realize Christopher Columbus was a jerk?
I’m not sure if I actually received the “traditional,” Samuel Eliot Morrison and Daniel Boorstin-inflected education on Columbus during my child and young adulthood. I remember that my high school history course (c. the early 2000s) sped through Columbus and discussed a bit about his bad human rights record. My excellent college-level history courses, of course, provided the standard exploration, found in virtually every modern textbook of repute, of the Columbian Exchange unleashed by early European exploration and conquests in the Americas. I imbibed, during my childhood, the general story about Columbus in American culture—that “he sailed the ocean blue in 1492” and “discovered” America—but, if there were any lies my teachers told me, it certainly wasn’t about the earliest encounters between Native Americans and Europeans in the Caribbean.
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States changed my life.
I grew up in very historically minded family. My recollections of my boyhood and tween years are filled with sweaty summer memories of traipsing with my mother and sister through every Revolutionary and Civil War battlefield between the mid-Atlantic and Upper South—from Gettysburg to Yorktown. We regularly took the Orange Line into Washington to go to the National Museum of American History. The History Channel, when we had cable, was a regular fixture on our television. All of this history education was very traditional—all Presidents, bloodshed, and American Exceptionalism. My understanding of American history only became more traditional once I entered a conservative Catholic high school.
According to my calendar—everyone has alerts set to eighteenth-century military actions, right?—today is the 254th anniversary of the French surrender of Quebec. Forget Constitution Day, this is the hottest event of your week.
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).
Few issues trouble historians of all stripes more than the disconnect between “popular” and “academic” history. Somewhere in the mists of the recent past the Age of Hofstadter gave way to, at best, the Age of McCulloch and, at worst, the Age of Barton. The waning influence of professional historians in the public sphere particularly troubles the historical blogosphere. The popular-academic history disconnect is something addressed a lot here at The Junto, including with a podcast.
I am, as I said on the JuntoCast episode, particular dour about the possibility of bridging this gap. Academic historians, public historians, and interested members of the public more often than not talk past each other. How each group defines “good” or “useful” history is often so at cross-purposes that it sounds like one side is speaking English, another French, and another Dothraki. My attention was recently drawn to a series of posts by Peter Feinman at New York History, which deeply entrenched my Eeyore-like-sullenness when it comes to these questions. Continue reading