The Documentary Record on Fire and Reading Intentionality

NewYorkCapitolFireRemains

On March 29, 1911, a fire tore through the New York State Capitol Building. From the third floor of the Assembly Library, where books and papers served as kindling, it shot up to the capitol’s iconic towers. By the early morning, much of the building was in ruins, and many of the books and manuscript papers housed within it reduced to melted ink and char.

Anyone who’s used the Papers of Sir William Johnson knows the fire well. Every other page is a reminder of the embers that destroyed letters, accounts, conference minutes. It’s also a reminder that the current documentary record has been shaped in ways that—while often times hidden away—were also bright and fiery and loud. Continue reading

Guest Post: Teaching and the Problem with Parties in the Early Republic

Mark Boonshoft is a PhD candidate at Ohio State University. His work focuses on colleges and academies, especially the networks forged in them, and their role in the formation of revolutionary political culture.

Boonshoft Flow ChartAs an undergraduate, I found the political history of the early republic to be fascinating. As a graduate student, I find teaching the subject to be utterly frustrating. This surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. I was already interested in early American history when I got to college. Most of my students don’t share that proclivity, to say the least.[1] Generally, they assume that the policy debates of the founding era and beyond—especially about banks, internal improvements, and federalism—are downright dry. That said, our students live in an era of rampant partisanship and government paralysis, punctuated by politicians’ ill-conceived attempts to claim the legacy of ‘the founders.’ The emergence of American party politics is pretty relevant to our students’ lives. So with many of us gearing up to get back into the classroom, I thought this would be a good time to start a discussion about teaching the history of early national party formation. Continue reading

The Public Sphere and Early American Democracy

Das Lesekabinett (1843), Johann Peter HasencleverHow did the particular formation of democratic politics, a rambunctious public sphere, and capitalist social relations come about in the early American republic? I began to talk about this question last month when I asked, ‘how did democracy become a good thing?‘ I argued that the crucial factor was an unprecedented separation between economic and political power, which made democractic politics incapable of seriously interfering with capital accumulation. Today I want to show how Jürgen Habermas’ account of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere helps us see what went on in this crucial separation, and how his account relates to the American case in particular. Continue reading

How Did Democracy Become a Good Thing?

Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of RevolutionsI spent yesterday afternoon at “a celebration and critical evaluation” of the work of political theorist and historian Mark Philp. My role was to talk about his involvement in a big, ongoing project being done here at Oxford—and around the world—called Re-imagining Democracy. That project has already produced one book, Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland 1750-1850 (OUP, 2013), with contributions on the early American republic by Seth Cotlar, Adam I. P. Smith, and Laura Edwards. It’s a book that may not yet be well known among American historians, but it should be, because the question it’s trying to answer is a very interesting and difficult one: how did “democracy” go from something feared and reviled even as late as the 1780s, to something very different by the mid-nineteenth century, and even to become the quintessential value of American politics that we know today? Continue reading

“Barbarities, Extortions and Monopolies”

American colonists’ protest against the 1773 Tea Act involved more than just the Boston Tea Party; and it was provoked by more than just a tax. What sharpened the edge of colonial frustration was the short shrift given to American business interests in the balancing-act of imperial administration—and the triumph, by contrast, of the East India Company. American merchants and smugglers were the big losers in a larger effort to bail out the struggling corporation. As John Dickinson put it in his second “Letter from the Country,” the British policy aimed “not only to enforce the Revenue Act but to establish a monopoly for the East India Company, who have espoused the cause of the ministry; and hope to repair their broken fortunes by the ruin of American freedom and liberty!”[1] Continue reading