The OId World of the New Republic

Dept of Treasury notice

As someone who works on the late colonial period (1730s-1770s) in a field dominated by the “early republic,” it is easy to feel as though I am working on the margins of the field of early American history rather than what is actually the middle or center of what we usually define as early America (i.e., 1607 to somewhere between 1848 and 1861).[1] Yet, in this brief, speculative post, I will suggest that—in terms of my own subfield of political history and political culture—one of the things missing from much of the scholarship on the early republic is the colonial period itself.  Continue reading

The Paradox of Popular Sovereignty

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

Process and Protest

One of the biggest difficulties I find in teaching the American Revolution is explaining to my students the large time gaps between so many of the most seminal events of the Revolution. The popular narrative of the Revolution has a tendency to conflate the Stamp Act with the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution, with perhaps a quick pause to celebrate Washington’s victory at Yorktown. Yet if the Stamp Act crisis happened today, it would be 2024 before we reached the Declaration of Independence, and 2035 before the Constitutional Convention met.

Over the last month or so, it’s been difficult to follow world news without seeing protests of some sort. Turkish protestors in Istanbul have attended demonstrations in opposition to Prime Minister Erdogan; Brazilians have protested the huge sums being invested in the 2014 World Cup at the same time many inhabitants are suffering from crushing poverty. In future years, it’s quite possible we will look at both protests as a seminal moment in their countries’ histories; stepping stones en route to a considerably more substantial change in governmental systems. Continue reading

Reconsidering Edmund Morgan’s “The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89″

In line with Matt Karp’s look back on Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution from last month, I’d like to take this opportunity to reconsider a classic work in early American history, Edmund Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89, which has just recently made it to its fourth edition. I have a long relationship with this slim volume. For many years before I began my undergraduate work as a 30-year old non-trad, I had been reading early American history, particularly classic works in the historiography, which has fascinated me since the beginning. I spent years going through the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries’ 970 shelves and one of the earliest books I read was Birth of the Republic. A decade later, I am now extremely fortunate to be doing my doctoral work at Yale University, where Morgan taught and worked for three decades. Though he has long since retired into reclusion (having just turned 97 last month), he still casts a large shadow over the department. Graduate students here (myself included) whisper about a rare Morgan sighting and get excited when they find one of his books at a book sale with his name (and/or marginalia) written in it. So I very much appreciate this opportunity to return to and reassess this work. Continue reading

More Public than Spherical: The NNPH and the “Public Sphere”

Historians of early America often stereotype each other as being adverse to the use of theory. However, a closer look at the historiography of early America over the last century does not bear out that claim. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Progressives derived their materialist conception of history from Marx.[1] The Progressive interpretation held for decades until the 1960s when a group of historians based at Harvard University displaced it with an interpretation influenced by the sociological theories of anthropologist, Clifford Geertz.[2] Even though postmodernism and postcolonialism, as theories, never took a strong hold on the field, there have been early American historians who have sought to incorporate, in a general sense, their broader modes of inquiry.[3] The historiography of early America has hardly been devoid of theory over the last one hundred years.

Nevertheless, a deeper look into each of these examples shows us that early Americanists’ relationship with theory has been anything but obsequious. Perhaps, it is best defined as casual or, better yet, utilitarian. The Progressives appropriated the generalities of Marx’s historical materialism without embracing either his sociological analysis or his broader dialectic. Similarly, the ideological historians of the 1960s and 1970s used Geertz’s definition of ideology as the mediation of experience into the structure of consciousness without attempting to apply the rest of his intricately complex theory regarding cultural systems. Following in that tradition, early Americanists over the last twenty years, particularly those associated with the New New Political History, have loosely appropriated the Habermasian concepts of the “public sphere” and “civil society” while casting aside both small but fundamental details and the much larger particulars of Habermas’s argument.[4] Continue reading

Politically Incorrect?

I consider myself a child of the ‘new new political history’. When I first started in graduate school,  books like Simon Newman’s Parades and the Politics of the Street and David Waldstreicher’s In The Midst of Perpetual Fetes helped a constitutional geek recognize the necessity of taking a broad definition not just of political activity, but also of political actors. Beyond the Founders was a wonderful introduction to the possibilities of political history – the way in which a whole host of diverse experiences influenced and shaped political culture during the early republic. Their portrayal of early American political culture was a welcome change from previous histories focusing excessively on elites (and thus tending to promote ideology ahead of political action), or social histories whose model of class consciousness seemed a bit too heavily grafted on to a period in which some (if by no means all) elite political leaders possessed a real claim to widespread popularity.

Of course, the plea to get historians to move ‘Beyond the Founders’ hasn’t been a wholesale success. While Chris Beneke may have suggested that the plethora of books about ‘Founders’ would inevitably slow down, even some Beyond the Founders contributors themselves contributed essays to Alfred Young, Ray Raphael and Gary Nash’s recent Revolutionary Founders. In both popular culture and in academic circles, the trope of ‘founders’ or ‘framers’ or a ‘revolutionary generation’ still looms large. The question I want to explore in this blog post, then, is this: If the NNPH promised to provide a history that synthesized political narratives with social and cultural history, why do we seem to find it so hard to move beyond the founders? My suggestion will be this: for all that the NNPH revitalized political history after the ‘social turn’, much of it was strangely detached from high politics. Continue reading

“There was a great argument yesterday on female excellence”: Gender & the Newest Political history

One of the most striking features of the “newest political histories” has been their careful attention to questions of gender. Four essays (for example) in Beyond the Founders, the capstone-cum-manifesto of this particular historiographical moment, deal directly with the political nature of gender identities in the early American republic.[1] The privileged place of gender in these histories makes a great deal of sense–if the goal of the “newest political histories” is to broaden cast of characters in political history and explore the intersection of “cultural” and “ordinary” and “traditional” politics then questions of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality should be central. Gender, along with race, was a key way to demarcate between who was in and who was out of respectable politics in the new nation.

The most productive, and perhaps influential, use of gender as an interpretive lens has been in the political history of women. Many of the earliest works of what could be called the “newest political history,” and those which best exemplify the movement, are histories of women and politics.[2] This generation of historians has shown that women were clear actors in early national politics and print culture–through newspapers, the theater, parades, books, and the salon. Not only were women a direct participant in politics “out of doors” and in print, femininity was deeply politicized in the early national period. In the highly charged politics of the early republic, much was up for grabs–a great deal of prestige and power would be gained (or lost) depending on where the line of respectable political behavior of men and women was drawn. Continue reading