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
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. 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. 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. 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. Continue reading
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
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. 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. 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
This is my first “real” blog post for The Junto, though I’ve been a spectral presence each Sunday with a gathering of links on early American history (which the past month or so has revolved a great deal around Lincoln and Django Unchained). One of my aspirations in agreeing to contribute, and one of my hopes for a developing conversation, centered on the opportunity to discuss teaching early American history, from the 100-level survey to upper-level courses. So I offered for this post to write something about teaching primary sources, without at the time knowing quite what I would say.
Then, last week, the National Association of Scholars released a report assailing colleges in Texas (the flagships – UT-Austin and A&M) for teaching too much “race, class, and gender,” and not enough political, diplomatic, and economic history. I wrote about a few of the report’s shortcomings at Publick Occurrences 2.0 on Friday. You can read the substance over there, but as I was writing I realized that I want to extend my thoughts to think more deeply about what we do in the classroom. Continue reading