Big History: Weighing the Benefits and Drawbacks of a Comparative Project

Casey Schmitt is a PhD candidate in History at the College of William & Mary, where she is writing a dissertation on the Iberian roots of seventeenth-century Anglo-American slave law. This is her second guest post, following her first on the value of storytelling and the use of audiobook primary sources in the classroom here.

barbadosmapA little over a year ago, I switched research interests from the study of eighteenth-century contraband trade between Jamaica and Cartagena de Indias to a comparative study of the codification of slave law in the greater Caribbean. Admittedly not too drastic of a change, I was nonetheless daunted by moving from a historiography containing a select number of significant works to a field where innumerable scholars have dedicated entire careers. Like any graduate student, I began working through the library stacks here at the College of William and Mary, seeking answers to what I thought would be easy questions: Were the legal regimes of European slave societies shaped by their interactions with other slave societies in the Caribbean? Were English slaveholding practices modeled off of successful Portuguese or Spanish examples? Why were there so many institutionalized efforts to codify slave law in the seventeenth century and did these separate legal dialogues unfold in conversation with one another? As you can probably guess, none of these questions have proven as easy to answer as I thought. Continue reading

Putting “Republicanism” in Its Place

“By 1990,” wrote Daniel Rodgers, the concept of republicanism in American historiography “was everywhere and organizing everything, though perceptibly thinning out, like a nova entering its red giant phase.” A quarter of a century later, it can seem barely more than a dull glow—and in part, we have Rodgers’ essay to thank for dimming the lights. If republicanism’s 1970s high-water-mark was followed by a decade of furious debate over republicanism-versus-liberalism, scholarship after 1990 often framed itself as moving beyond precisely that anachronistic question. There was, apparently, no such conflict in the minds of revolutionary-era Americans. The problems that troubled them were different ones entirely.[1] Continue reading

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 Less Backward: Ten (Relatively) Recent Books That Anyone Interested In Early American History Should Read

The day after Christmas, The New Republic published a piece by Senior Editor, John J. Judis, entitled “Looking Backward: Ten Books Any Student of American History Must Read.” The piece began promisingly (flatteringly, even): “I woke up on Christmas morning thinking about American historians.” [Editor's Note: Wouldn't the world be a better place if more people did that?] Judis closed the opening paragraph with the following caveat: “They’re my favorites; they’re not the best books.” Each book was followed by a paragraph with some combination of a brief synopsis and Judis’s own reactions. I have linked to the article but, just for reference, I’ll list his ten picks here: 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

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