Building Intellectual Community at SHEAR

Students of the early American republic: I urge you to apply to SHEAR 2016’s Graduate Research Seminars!

The program, which debuted last year, brings together grad students and senior faculty clustered around four “hot” themes in the field for an hour and a half or so of small-group discussion. Lunch is free. The sessions are open to current graduate students and those who earned a Ph.D. during the 2015-16 academic year. A one-page dissertation abstract is all it takes to apply. Best of all, this year’s lineup of topics and faculty is just as wonderful as 2015’s was. Continue reading

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Murphy Swing

The greatest baseball players fail to get on base the vast majority of their at-bats. In fact, Daniel Murphy—second baseman for the Washington Nationals—currently holds the title for the highest batting average this season at .411. To many, that batting average justifies the $37.5 million, three-year contract the Nationals just signed with Murphy. That’s $37.5 million for failing six out of ten at-bats. To be fair, when he does make contact with a pitch, he usually scores runs and contributes to the Nationals top standing in the National League East. Continue reading

Teaching with Databases: An Early American Atlanticist’s Conundrum

SourcesDuring my three years of teaching in England, it’s become apparent that students in my American history classes spend a lot of time worrying about access to primary sources. As an undergraduate myself, I knew that upper-level assessment turns on the ability to find and analyze primary sources—that stipulation is no different in this country. What’s clear, however, is that whereas as an undergraduate I could go to the stacks and wander around until I had a pile of travel narratives, diaries, and monograph reproductions related to early American Atlantic history, that’s not necessarily the case here for students taking classes on early American history, Native American history, the Atlantic world, slavery, trade, and colonization. The costs of a Readex subscription, just for example, are too expensive for the library to justify when most students aren’t going to research early American newspapers. As a result, I’ve had to think hard about how to ease students’ worries about locating sources. Continue reading

Historians and Hamilton: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality

How does a crony capitalist son of a whore, and a militarist pumped up by delusional aspirations of honor, grow up to be feted by liberal scholars? [*]

Since the turn of the millennium, historians have lambasted the phenomenon of Founders Chic as a fundamental distortion of history. Placing the roles of specific, prominent individuals at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era meant that popular histories exaggerated the importance of individuals, at the expense of understanding the contribution of less-celebrated Americans or the role of broader societal and historical processes. Yet much of the reception of Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway, seems to suggest that hagiography is acceptable, so long as it’s done to a catchy song-and-dance routine. It’s as if the only problem with Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Ron Chernow is that they didn’t write to a hip-hop soundtrack. Continue reading

James Rivington: Printer, Loyalist, Spy?

rivington

A fabulous but somewhat ominous engraving of Rivington hanging in effigy from a tree in New Brunswick, N.J.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the printer of the New-York Journal, John Holt. I focused on his newspaper’s mastheads, arguing that those mastheads were an effective medium through which he could shape political ideas and, subsequently, mobilize support. What I did not fully explain, however, was that he was not the only printer in New York City to change his masthead—James Rivington did it, too.[1] Continue reading

Commodification, Specialization, Mechanization

This post is the second in a two-part report on a roundtable session at this year’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, entitled, “Open Question: What’s the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal. Yesterday’s post focused on Beckert’s comments, today’s looks at Rosenthal’s.

IMG_3913The new historians of capitalism have sometimes been criticised for refusing to offer a definition of their object of study. At the OAH panel, Caitlin Rosenthal (an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley) responded to that criticism directly. The refusal to start out with a strict definition has been, on one level, an asset to recent scholarship—freeing it from earlier dogmatic approaches. But the downside, Rosenthal said, is that it leads to misunderstandings among historians, and between historians and economists. Her tentative definition, then: “Capitalism exists where capital (and through capital, power) is consolidated in such a way that labor can be highly commodified.” Capital is at the centre, but so is labour; and what connects them is the process of commodification. Continue reading

Primitive Accumulation as Creative Destruction?

This post is the first part of a two-part report on a roundtable session at this year’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, entitled, “Open Question: What’s the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal (Ed Baptist was sadly unable to be there). My first post will focus on Beckert’s comments, my second on Rosenthal’s.

As a protagonist in the debate over slavery and capitalism, Sven Beckert’s principal aim seems to be to show just how crucial violence was to the emergence and success of capitalism. This violence is not something standard, mainstream, or traditional accounts—the kind we see in economics textbooks or breezy historical surveys—are willing to acknowledge. Rather, the role of violence and slavery in the history of capitalism was erased, Beckert noted in his roundtable comments, by a “process of mystification,” an “active act of forgetting,” that took place from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Especially after the Russian Revolution and the beginning of the Cold War, he argued, American scholars and public intellectuals transformed the story of capitalism into a story of the spread of freedom. In this narrative, the nineteenth-century Civil War took on the role of a violent clearing of the decks, eliminating slavery as a remnant of the past, and opening the way for capitalist modernization. Continue reading