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. As anyone who read her New York Times obituary (or any other, really) knows Maier is famous for describing Thomas Jefferson as “overrated.” Her wonderful American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence brings the most powerful weapons of the skeptical historians – context and contingency – to bare on that central document of American political and national identity.
Maier makes several downright revolutionary moves in her interpretation of the Declaration and the movement toward American independence, more broadly. The most important, and most challenging to the common assumptions of historians and laypersons alike, is that there is nothing truly original about the Declaration. Maier sees the document “as a statement of political philosophy, [it] was… purposefully unexceptional in 1776.” This is a wonderful historiographical two-step around one of the more tortured interpretive battles about the Declaration – if it was “Lockean” natural rights or Scottish “common-sense” that most impacted Jefferson at his drafting table. This analytic move allows Maier to shift to fresh analytic terrain by to drawing careful attention to the political and institutional necessities of 1776. The Declaration of Independence in American Scripture becomes, perhaps, a less revolutionary document and more a document of the Revolution.Continue reading →
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 →
One 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). “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 →
As promised back in August upon her untimely passing, this week The Junto will be dedicated to exploring the works and legacy of Pauline Maier. I will forego providing any biographical details since they can be found in The Junto‘s memoriam for Maier here. Continue reading →
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 →
The influence of Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia is inarguable. For such a lean volume it casts a long shadow upon our understandings of colonial Virginia, the development of slavery in the American South, the relationship between racism and equality, and a variety of other interpretative problems large and small. Scholars since the book’s publication have revised and extended its arguments—into questions of gender and class consciousness—and more than a few have sought to topple its conclusions but Morgan’s central contention that “[r]acism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to the equality that English republicans had declared to be the soul of liberty” remains more or less intact. During my graduate education, at both the master’s and doctoral levels, Morgan’s arguments have served as the starting point in many a seminar meeting’s discussion of America’s long history of racial inequality. Few interpretations of any historical question can claim such sustained influence.
The question I pondered, as I reread American Slavery, American Freedom for this essay, is simple: why? Why has Morgan’s interpretation of colonial Virginia survived, despite the many shifts in the historiographical winds over the last thirty-eight years, when many other powerfully argued interpretations have withered and died? What gives this book its continuing appeal to the historical profession? Continue reading →
Ed Morgan changed the way historians understood the American Revolution. Over a period of about ten years, from 1948 to 1957, he published three important research articles, a monograph, an essay aimed at a general audience, and a historiographical article, all having to do with the coming of the Revolution. It was an amazing burst of work that elevated Morgan to the upper echelons of American historians. Of course, Morgan had previously worked on Puritanism and would go on to do groundbreaking work on colonial Virginia and slavery. But he made his bones with the American Revolution. Continue reading →
Family pictures can be the hardest to frame, and Puritans make for appealingly restless subjects. In tackling the early American narrative, scholars must confront the thorny task of portraying the Puritan family with equal parts theological dexterity and sociological skill, a problem that seventeenth-century artists and modern historians alike have sought to refine. Scholars who take on the Puritans must address sin, salvation, and community-building in a way that does not make American democracy feel inevitable; further, they must seize onto the seventeenth-century peculiarities of transatlantic intellectual life in which the Puritans flourished and fell. Wrapped in New England lore and either exalted or disowned by their descendants, the cultural memory of Puritan contributions to the project of nation-building has inspired a broad spectrum of historiographical views. In the early 1940s, then-Harvard doctoral student Edmund S. Morgan and his colleagues would have encountered a popular narrative of Puritanism, one seemingly destined to smother any effort at new work: America’s Puritan “tribe” had briefly inhabited a tau(gh)t sphere, bounded by covenant theology and laden with impossible ethics, peopled by censorious prudes who excelled at capitalist rhetoric and balked at the sinful frivolity of a stray dance. Or… did they? Continue reading →
This is a very special week at The Junto. Following last month’s sad news of the passing of one of our field’s true giants, Edmund S. Morgan, we all agreed that a weeklong retrospective on his remarkable career was in order. Hence, this week, each day will be given over to a specific work or theme to which Morgan made important contributions during his four-decades long academic career. We hope that this roundtable, being written by graduate students and junior faculty, will provide a snapshot of Morgan’s continuing relevance to new generations of early Americanists almost three decades after his retirement from Yale University. Continue reading →
I bet few graduate students these days haven’t read, or at least seen referenced, Walter Johnson’s essay “On Agency.” Published a decade ago, the essay was prompted by what had become hackneyed trope in slavery scholarship. Everyone seemed to ascribe slaves a role in shaping their lives—“agency”—despite the power asymmetries inherent in the slave-master relationship. Johnson famously called for an end to this kind of writing. But one of his subtler points may have been lost amid his overarching argument. It wasn’t that slave agency was unimportant, but that it had lost its contemporary relevance. Finding agency mattered in the Civil Rights Era, the years in which the scholarship flourished, because it bolstered African Americans’ claims on the nation’s past, and thus its future. Continue reading →