You know the feeling: that moment when, in the midst of crafting a sentence, you realize that the notes you made in the archive are…incomplete. I’m a transcriber, and not one to take digital photographs. I just know myself well enough to recognize the fact that transcribed words are more useful for my writing than image after image of manuscript pages that I will procrastinate from analyzing. This preference, however, means that I’ve encountered more than a few errors in my transcriptions of manuscript sources and secondary works alike. I catch my mistakes from the latter when I’m proofing a piece of writing before I submit it; I’ll go back to the book or article, read it and my quotes side by side, and discover that I’ve left out a “the,” or transposed two words, or typed part of the same sentence twice. Preventing all of my blunders on manuscript transcriptions is another matter entirely, and it is to manuscript research that I’d like to turn in my response to James Merrell’s article in Early American Studies. Continue reading →
Some of our (very) regular readers will know that I have a penchant for occasionally adopting a bit of the role of contrarian. For me, it serves as a way to shake myself into thinking differently about something, and I would hope it does the same for the reader. For this roundtable, it could have been quite easy to sing the praises of Dr. Merrell’s excellent article, and go on a 500-word rant about why historians should always seek out the manuscript sources over older published collections. However, I think my slot in this roundtable is an excellent opportunity to try to approach the article differently, one that attempts to historicize its meta-argument from a documentary editing perspective. Continue reading →
Many of us have been there. Sitting in front of our computers, we fret over how we will find the time and funding to examine important manuscript sources at faraway archives. And then, a few keystrokes later, we find that those sources are available in published form. Relief floods over us, replacing anxiety. But should we really be so relieved?
James H. Merrell’s recent article in Early American Studies asks exactly this question. Entitled “‘Exactly as they appear’: Another Look at the Notes of a 1766 Treason Trial in Poughkeepsie, New York, with Some Musings on the Documentary Foundations of Early American History,” it suggests that we should not be so quick to assume that published versions of manuscript sources faithfully reproduce the originals. 
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 →
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 bear on that central document of American political and national identity. 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 →