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.