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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The Week in Early American History

TWEAHHere in the United States, today is Memorial Day, a holiday originally created in the late 1860s to honor the Union Civil War dead, and now a time to commemorate all of America’s war dead.  Because it’s also observed as a three-day weekend, we’re bringing you a special Monday holiday edition of The Week in Early American History. On to your morning reading…

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The American Revolution: People and Power

huntington-gateIt’s increasingly clear that, while the era of grand syntheses may be over, there will be no shortage of provocative new work on the American Revolution. Last week the Huntington Library hosted the third major conference on the revolution in as many years, following those organised by the McNeil Centre in 2013 and the Massachusetts Historical Society back in April. The American Revolution: People and Power may have been smaller than its two predecessors, but what it lacked in scale it made up for in intellectual focus and cohesion. In this post, rather than giving a straightforward recap, I’ll report what I took away as the headlines. Continue reading

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

When the Old is New

Sometime in the 1990s, NBC decided to promote its usual lineup of summer reruns with the tag line, “if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” I’ve thought about that line occasionally since I started grad school, and came to it again this week as I’m working on syllabi (including, yes, a belated book order) for the fall semester. The problem I’m facing is a familiar one: how to balance the desire to engage in discussions of the newest work on a given topic—in this case the American Revolution—with the fact that they haven’t yet encountered some of the classic arguments.

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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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Race, Riot, and Rebellion: A Bibliography

protesting-stamp-actThis morning on the other side of the Atlantic, I woke up early in preparation for a seminar on William Otter, whose History of My Own Times closes the list of our readings in my Revolutionary America class. Essentially, Otter was a brawling, violent, white man in the 1800s, living variously in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. He jumped from job to job while engaging in various aggressive “sprees” against African Americans, Irishmen, and anyone else who seemed a likely candidate before becoming a burgess of Emmitsburg, Maryland.[1] And instead of getting up to prep this morning, I remained in bed, glued to the #BaltimoreUprising and #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter, as, I’m sure, were many of you during the late hours of the night. During times like these, it’s part of our jobs as historians to acknowledge that different types of violence have specific meanings that change over time. And so Juntoists have compiled a bibliography for our mutual education. Continue reading