Politically Incorrect?

I consider myself a child of the ‘new new political history’. When I first started in graduate school,  books like Simon Newman’s Parades and the Politics of the Street and David Waldstreicher’s In The Midst of Perpetual Fetes helped a constitutional geek recognize the necessity of taking a broad definition not just of political activity, but also of political actors. Beyond the Founders was a wonderful introduction to the possibilities of political history – the way in which a whole host of diverse experiences influenced and shaped political culture during the early republic. Their portrayal of early American political culture was a welcome change from previous histories focusing excessively on elites (and thus tending to promote ideology ahead of political action), or social histories whose model of class consciousness seemed a bit too heavily grafted on to a period in which some (if by no means all) elite political leaders possessed a real claim to widespread popularity.

Of course, the plea to get historians to move ‘Beyond the Founders’ hasn’t been a wholesale success. While Chris Beneke may have suggested that the plethora of books about ‘Founders’ would inevitably slow down, even some Beyond the Founders contributors themselves contributed essays to Alfred Young, Ray Raphael and Gary Nash’s recent Revolutionary Founders. In both popular culture and in academic circles, the trope of ‘founders’ or ‘framers’ or a ‘revolutionary generation’ still looms large. The question I want to explore in this blog post, then, is this: If the NNPH promised to provide a history that synthesized political narratives with social and cultural history, why do we seem to find it so hard to move beyond the founders? My suggestion will be this: for all that the NNPH revitalized political history after the ‘social turn’, much of it was strangely detached from high politics.

The portrait of a participatory political culture outlined by so many NNPH works has done much to recover the activism of those previously considered ‘inarticulate’. Perhaps most valuable of all (at least to a political historian) is the demonstration that governmental power alone is insufficient to explain how the new political order in the United States rested on a form of popular sovereignty – that even those marginalized in a formal political sense were able to signify their approval or disapprobation of the policies of the new government, and that the new government would be expected to adjust its actions accordingly. Analysis of parades, toasts, parties, and the wearing of cockades vividly outlined the extent to which post-revolutionary America remained a politicized society; that is to say, such were the fears about the fate of republican government that a citizen was making political statements simply by living in America. In this light, then, the demonstration that it was not just voting that gave legitimacy to the claims of the new republic to popular sovereignty were valuable.

But at times, much of the NNPH could be described (as Jeffrey Pasley suggested in a Twitter conversation earlier this week) as the political branch of cultural history. Clearly, that’s a generalization that barely works even at the extremes of the movement. Many NNPH works, such as Pasley’s on newspaper editors and party organizer John Beckley, or Andrew Robertson’s essay in Beyond the Founders, very clearly have traditional political history questions at the heart of their studies. Yet the cultural questions at the heart of other books and essays may have looked at the reception of politics, but didn’t necessarily have a close appreciation of the links between the political process and extra-governmental expressions of political opinions. The notion that parades and fetes could demonstrate popular approval of governmental action is all well and good – but it still leaves an awful lot of agency in the hands of elites, unless clear lines are drawn between popular activity and government policy.

Interpretations based on Habermasian notions of the public sphere took the debate over political history further – forcing any political historians working today to account for the different forms of political communication and the way in which the boundaries between republican government and civil society were substantially blurred. John Brooke’s legendary diagram of the early American public sphere was a formidable challenge to a graduate student, but one that demanded a broadening of the definition of the political and a much subtler appreciation of the operation of power. Even then, though, public sphere interpretations rely heavily on the notion of the success of rational discourse. And while historians have been publicly skeptical of the full implications of Habermas, the notion of the rationality of ideas does not quite account for distributions of power in the new republic. Nor does the notion of counterpublics fully overcome the reliance on rational discourse.

No sooner did the NNPH arrive, though, than historians began to move into these new channels suggested by my overview. And here, the attention called to the politics of exclusion has invited much closer consideration of the operation of the early American state; works such as Max Edling’s A Revolution In Favor of Government and Robin Einhorn’s American Taxation: American Slavery have demonstrated the winners and losers of the constitutional settlement. In this way, we have seen a convergence of the NNPH and developments in policy history. More recently, Douglas Bradburn’s The Citizenship Revolution (among others) have called greater attention to changes in legal practice. David Waldstreicher’s Slavery’s Constitution has approached the same question from a less statist viewpoint. The need to prove the close links between participation in political events and governmental (or quasi-governmental) action can be seen in Alfred Young’s essay on Ebenezer Mackintosh in Revolutionary Founders.

Of course, that turn back toward the channels of government suggests that a quest to move beyond the founders may never be possible. After all, a closer appreciation of the operation of governmental power – even as it accounts for hypocrisies and exclusions – is necessarily dependent upon the actions of some sort of elite, no matter how extensive their links with mechanisms of popular mobilization. What we can move closer toward, though, is that long sought after synthesis of the political and the social and cultural. I think the answer to that question lies in taking advantage of the NNPH’s broader definition of politics, to look at the ways in which non-governmental bodies attempted to exercise political authority. And that, ironically, suggests that to find synthesis, historians may need to use more explicitly political analysis.

19 responses

  1. Great post, Ken. I wonder, though, if I could pick up on your critique of Founders Chic and take it in a direction that many historians are loathe to consider as an answer to your question: marketing.

    That is to say, it seemed odd at first that you would critique a collection edited by Alfred Young, Gary Nash, and Ray Raphael — none of whom is a particular friend of the capital-F Founders — in which authors discuss Mackintosh (which you note), Phyllis Wheatley, Joseph Plumb Martin, William Findley, and Thomas Greenleaf, among others. But what’s striking is that title.

    Now, I didn’t check back in the introduction before I commented, so I don’t know whether they explain the title there. But I wonder how exactly that volume ended up with that title. And I’m certain that Knopf had marketing people involved in the decision. Because of popular demand, any book with “Founders” in the title is likely to sell better than a volume on the same topic without the word. Of course, it’s also possible that the editors hoped to lure in unsuspecting Jefferson fans with the title and then treat them to some real history, but not knowing any of them, I have no way to gauge their subversive intentions.

    In a way, then, I’m coming at the same question (where’s the high politics?) from the other end. If high politics or a focus on “Founders” is what a broad audience demands, how can we mobilize that public interest to get people to read the good social and cultural history of politics that we know is out there?

    • Well, I didn’t exactly mean it as a critique of Revolutionary Founders. I think it’s a great book and I really need to integrate some of the essays more closely into my revolutionary America syllabus. But at the same time, as I noted in a previous post, there’s a danger that it continues to structure the conversation about political history in terms of individual agency. Showing that individual agency doesn’t automatically lead to heroic outcomes is a valuable change in the conversation, but I’m not completely sure that it changes the structure enough. That said, it’s clearly a great step forward in many directions.

      In a self-serving answer to your question at the end, my solution is to show how ‘ordinary citizens’ attempted to constrain and control the actions of high politicians. And it seems to me there is a clear dialectic there that needs to be more closely explored.

      • Well I have my own self-serving interest in promoting the study of structures and institutions, and I think it may be a direction that the field (both political history specifically and history more broadly) may be pursuing on its own. It was an enormously valuable contribution to break the hegemony of the state (pun intended) and to move away from an over-reliance on statistical data and bring people into the story more fully. The move towards the Atlantic, for example, showed how fractured and limited the power of the state was. Yet once we began to look more closely, we have slowly rebuilt structures in new and different ways (as in the turn toward examining networks — Nathan Perl-Rosenthal discussed some of this in an AHR forum on historiographic turns last year). That is, I think you and I (and others) as political historians are already thinking about ways to make structures and institutions a central part of the story without granting too much power either to individual actors or to the institutions. Perhaps we could call it “Restructuralism.”

        All of which is to say that we may well be nearing the day when we see an essay published titled, “Bringing the State Back In … Again.”

  2. Absolutely great post, Ken. Very thoughtful & timely. Should spark a great discussion.

    Your post got me thinking about some issues that I (obliquely) raised in my post yesterday. Namely, are we ready to move on from the framework of the “newest political history”?

    I think Jeff Pasley might be correct that some folks in his generation of political historians may have been part of the “political branch of cultural history.” This fact, I think, was one of the great strengths of the “newest political history.” From the beginnings of the cultural turn in the late 70s/80s through the 90s political and cultural historians had engaged in a type of historiographical war – some times with scorched earth tactics (salting the scholarly earth behind the movement of their armies). What the “newest political history” sought to do, I think, was build a bridge between these two perspectives/methodologies. The intellectual and historiographical possibilities of this bridge were great – which is what gives the introduction to “Beyond the Founders” and some of the works of the turn of the century a heady quality.

    But has that bridge actually been built?

    I am becoming increasingly skeptical that it has. Talking with some members of the new “newest political historians” (myself included) I feel that a wall between cultural history and political history has been built, not a bridge. This wall has created historiographical peace but not necessarily exchange.

    Indeed, many subjects still haven’t had their “newest political history.” Thinking about my field of interest (politics & religion and church/state relations) there is still much work to be done. What would the history of disestablishment, for example, look like if we get outside of the legislative halls and petition campaigns? What were the cultural politics of church-state relations in the early republic? I don’t think we have clear answers (or even the beginnings of answers) to these questions.

    Or, maybe, I’m wrong. Either way, I’m looking forward to our discussion!

    • That’s a really insightful comment, Roy, and you’ve given me an awful lot to think about here. In response to your specific points in the last paragraph – surely the problem of a ‘new history’ of church/state relations is that it’s awfully difficult to get the state out of the picture there? IE The practices of disestablishment are awfully difficult to separate from the state, and (to butcher an analogy) if we’re moving outside of the legislative halls, we can’t go much further than the corridor.

      (I accept, though, that those are the comments of someone who tends to view almost any interaction between people as inherently political).

      More broadly, I wonder what exactly you see as the wall between political and cultural history. Is this a rehashing of the theory/empiricism divide? Or is there something deeper to it?

      • Thanks for responding to my response, Ken.

        Two things:

        On church/state relations – I’m with you there, in a way. I’m not arguing that we should get politics (or law) out of the picture. Obviously we can’t (and shouldn’t!). Rather, we might be able to bring it in a different way. Most treatments of religious politics tend to be rather traditional – focusing on legislative debates, court cases, perhaps petition campaigns (see for example David Sehat’s over argued but excellent “The Myth of American Religious Freedom”). What would happen if we go about this different way? What if, for example, we looked at the way in which law interacted with denomination building and religious competition right after disestablishment. We might see the ways in which law (and thus politics) was embedded in the very nature of religious practice itself and the reverse, the way in which emerging religious practices were reshaping law.

        I’m not sure if that makes any sense – to you or to me – but these are some of the issues I want to examine in my (prospective) dissertation.

        On the wall between cultural/political history – What I am talking about is perhaps born out best in the historiography of the question of how slavery came in die its political death in the United States. Cultural historians would point the development of an anti-slavery culture and, especially, anti-slavery reform. A political historian like Jim Oakes would say the central actors are the politicians – reform movements were a secondary concern. There is a lot of flattening in my discussion there but I’ve heard these two broad perspectives on hammered out again and again in various seminars, books, and private discussions. Neither camp is particularly interested in the other (I think the real interesting question is how anti-slavery culture and reform interacted with anti-slavery politics).

        I don’t necessarily consider this an theory/empiricism question but rather one about how political change comes about – is it through cultural politics or the concrete actions of those with institutional political power? Made contemporary: who is going to give progressives (or conservatives) the society they want? Obama or Occupy? Boehner or the Tea Party?

        To me, much of the discussion around these questions consists of people either talking within their own intellectual city’s walls or yelling epithets across the divide.

  3. Wonderful stuff, Ken.

    Recently I wrote a review for WMQ of Benjamin Irvin’s Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty, which revisits the history of the Continental and Confederation Congresses. I really enjoyed the book precisely because I saw it constructing the “bridge” that Roy believes is more often a wall. The problem was that I felt as if Irvin believed it to be a wall. Nonetheless, Irvin’s work is a really fine example of how it is possible to have feet in ‘old’ political history questions while employing new methodologies.

    • I totally agree about Irvin’s book, but I think it also points back to Ken’s original argument: what other recent books do that, and do it well? I’ve been using Clothed in Robes as an example so much recently that I worry there’s not anything else out there like it.

  4. Ken, I really enjoyed this post thanks! And of course it made me recall our conversation at the Omohundro gathering in New Orleans about governance and and about what a fascinating subject it is.

    One thing I would add to this discussion of the NNPH (I conceived of my dissertation in Andrew Robertson’s NNPH seminar at CUNY in 2004) and governance as a problematic in 18th c North American History, has to do with the nuts and bolts of actually doing a history that “bridges” as you say, commoners and elites in the public sphere. I am writing just such a book, and I admit that “proving” this connection can be quite a challenge. If, as I believe, elite leaders, charged with articulating the rules of governance not to mention actually governing, were responding to and learning from commoner expressions of cultural belief, economic desire, and political aspiration, then it behooves me, the historian (and others) to demonstrate and document that learning curve in evidence. That makes my work incredibly interdisciplinary from the get go. I need to be a socio-cultural historian of the everyday, as well as of the elite, and I need to show the expressions of culture on the ground, and then show how power learns and adapts to those expressions. I also then need to show the on-the-ground responses to this governance change-over time. Documenting the entirety of this “call and response” of a political culture can be a daunting task, making me tolerant and accepting of those who do try to do it. Much easier to see the public sphere as a one way imposition of will from the top (with all their readily available documentation) as in the past. I guess the question thus becomes for me — are we asking too much of ourselves (and our students) to create histories of such complexity and rigor?

    In essence this is the charge of the Cultural Turn in history — a more accurate, nuanced, and balanced view of the past. But it can sometimes feel as if the burden of creating these histories becomes a kind of disincentive.

    Looking forward to hearing what others think and for being a part of this community! Thanks again!

    • Taylor, thanks a lot for your comment. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with setting ambitious targets for synthesis or research. In just the same way as I’d want to push my students beyond their comfort zone, I think that histories need to be broadly defined and widely drawn if they’re really going to be of value. After all, we know from historiographical studies just how far any histories are ultimately compromised by the circumstances of their writing; being adventurous means there is more chance of getting to the sort of history that we actually want to write. Is it a disincentive? Personally, I don’t think so. But then I’m competitive and like a challenge. And, in any case, what it may well do is encourage more collaborative work or to foster a greater sense of community.

  5. It’s interesting to me that most of these comments do not refer to works about African Americans or women as part of the political history of the early republic. But those of us who try to do the political history of these topics necessarily also do social and cultural history. There’s no separation or division in methodological approaches.

    • An honor to have you stop by the blog, Dr. Zagarri. You bring up great points about works on African Americans and women, which has been a foundational aspect of the field during the past few decades. In case you missed it, make sure to see the roundtable’s post dedicated to gender, which draws heavily from your own bok. We originally had another contribution dedicated to race, but the author unfortunately had to pull out at the last minute. Hopefully we’ll have more discussion on these important points in the concluding posts.

  6. Pingback: The New New Political History « Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics

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