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
At this time of the semester, amid my ever-increasing piles of grading, my thoughts naturally turn to the syllabi for next semester’s courses. One of my guiding principles in preparing syllabi is the importance of introducing students to the breadth of historical writing; to demonstrate the ways in which diverse groups of people reacted to the same event in very different ways. When teaching early American history, this often casts me in the position of “debunking” various myths about the past—or, at least, forcing my students to think more clearly and carefully when making statements about the foundations of America. This, I like to think, serves the useful purpose of demonstrating how ordinary citizens—those outside the pantheon of “Founding Fathers”—imagined the development of their society, and to show how their vision of political participation was often very different from that claimed today as ‘what the Revolution was all about’.
In many ways, though, my take on the Revolution relies less on “debunking” myths than in widening the participants in the historical story. I suppose “problematizing” or “complicating” the myths is a more accurate description—after all, it’s impossible to escape the fact that the historical significance of the American Revolution rests on the creation of a new nation-state and several new political polities. More recently, though, I’ve come to wonder exactly what I’m hoping to achieve with the broadening of the understanding of the past. No matter how far we widen “founding myths” to encompass a variety of explanations for the promise of America, reliance on these myths can never help us explain the present—they can be a guide only. At my most cynical, I wonder even what sort of guide they can be. Continue reading