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 →
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.
As 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. 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 →
How 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 TheStructural 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 →
I 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 →
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!” Continue reading →
Many months ago, I posted the first of what I hoped to be a quarterly series highlighting recent articles I enjoyed, and inviting readers to do the same. Sadly, life got in the way, and so I have a bit to make up. As a recap for this roundup’s purpose: there are so many journals publishing quality articles in the field of early American history that it is difficult, if not impossible, to keep up. So this list serves as a reminder that you need to catch up on new issues, a identify articles I found especially important, as well as a chance to highlight the work of young scholars and friends. Just because an article doesn’t make the list doesn’t mean I didn’t like it—in fact, I am way behind on my own reading—but it is an invitation to list your own favorite recent articles in the comments below.
The following articles were published between March and September, and obviously reflect my own interests and background. Also, remember the fantastic articles in the special WMQ issue on families and the Atlantic world that I highlighted a few months ago. Continue reading →
As a Brit teaching early American history in the US, I’m often asked how I came to be fascinated by the American Revolution. My answer is generally some version of the following: I’m fascinated by the American Revolution because there are so many reasons why it shouldn’t have ended with the creation of an American republic. Not only was the notion of independence from Britain a daring and risky move, but there were many reasons why the North American colonies could not cohere once they had broken with the mother country. Investigating the ways in which Americans tried to bridge the many gaps between themselves to create powerful and lasting governmental structures is one of the key themes of my research.
A large part of the answer to that conundrum, at least once historical focus shifts to the early republic, is the Constitution. Though, as I have written elsewhere, the mechanics of writing and ratifying the Constitution were scarcely the pristine and perfect process of popular imagination, the longevity of the Constitution must rank as one of the most significant achievements of the revolutionary era. Yet a close look at pretty much any period of American history sees the Constitution wielded as a partisan weapon as often as it is venerated as a ligature holding the separate states together. That is a curious paradox, for there is an implicit and serious criticism in describing a governmental act as “unconstitutional.” It suggests a lack of patriotism and a lack of common feeling; it implies mistrust, rather than emphasizing shared responsibility. Continue reading →