The Spy Who Came in from the Confederacy

1862_LON_14_1862_NPL_P385[SVC1]He was, at first, another young shadow hurrying through Westminster Hall. He carried flimsier credentials than most, papers hastily sent by a new nation called the Confederate States of America. It was November 1862, and, since spring, he had stretched expenses to accommodate the bare $750 granted to fund his secretive mission. Still, regular sightings of the worn, 29 year-old Swiss-American stranger, who had shipped to London via the fiery newsrooms of Richmond and Mobile, caused a flutter of concern among British peers. Within weeks, the constant American shadow near Parliament became a very real worry. “He is but a private gentleman, it is true,” one M.P. fretted, “yet he may leave his card at the Foreign Office, and possibly find his way upstairs.” Continue reading

The Week in Early American History

TWEAHThe past two weeks have been busy ones in Early American History! Continue reading

Winter Reads

Just in time for your holiday shopping list, here’s our preview of new titles—share your finds in the comments! Continue reading

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