More Public than Spherical: The NNPH and the “Public Sphere”

Historians of early America often stereotype each other as being adverse to the use of theory. However, a closer look at the historiography of early America over the last century does not bear out that claim. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Progressives derived their materialist conception of history from Marx.[1] The Progressive interpretation held for decades until the 1960s when a group of historians based at Harvard University displaced it with an interpretation influenced by the sociological theories of anthropologist, Clifford Geertz.[2] Even though postmodernism and postcolonialism, as theories, never took a strong hold on the field, there have been early American historians who have sought to incorporate, in a general sense, their broader modes of inquiry.[3] The historiography of early America has hardly been devoid of theory over the last one hundred years.

Nevertheless, a deeper look into each of these examples shows us that early Americanists’ relationship with theory has been anything but obsequious. Perhaps, it is best defined as casual or, better yet, utilitarian. The Progressives appropriated the generalities of Marx’s historical materialism without embracing either his sociological analysis or his broader dialectic. Similarly, the ideological historians of the 1960s and 1970s used Geertz’s definition of ideology as the mediation of experience into the structure of consciousness without attempting to apply the rest of his intricately complex theory regarding cultural systems. Following in that tradition, early Americanists over the last twenty years, particularly those associated with the New New Political History, have loosely appropriated the Habermasian concepts of the “public sphere” and “civil society” while casting aside both small but fundamental details and the much larger particulars of Habermas’s argument.[4]

However, this charge of “theoretical infidelity” is not made to criticize. Rather, it is made to highlight how a group of early Americanists seized on the theoretical aspects of an argument made regarding a specific time and place, taking from it what they wanted (or needed), and, in the process, broadened the entire field’s notions of political history, political participation, the polity, and its relationship to national politics and the state.

The Habermasian “public sphere” was first applied to early America in 1990, shortly after the first English translation of Habermas’ 1962 dissertation. In his Letters of the Republic, Michael Warner essentially married the development of the public sphere and republicanism in the colonies.[5] More importantly, he tried to remain as faithful to the original Habermasian argument as the colonial setting would allow. The pretense to fidelity would end there.

Essentially beginning with David Waldstreicher and Simon Newman’s studies in the mid-1990s of the political meanings and processes underlying popular celebrations, a veritable explosion of literature on political topics ensued.[6] But this was not elite political history. It was something different. Waldstreicher and Newman showed how Americans in the early republic participated in the political process beyond voting or acting within the rigid party structures. Jeffrey L. Pasley’s The Tyranny of Printers showed how local printers played an important (even, decisive) role in defining Jeffersonian politics on the ground, which in turn shaped the national party.[7] The NNPH and the rise of “political culture” also offered opportunities for a broadening of race and gender studies that subsequently allowed us to see how minority and disenfranchised publics could nevertheless have profound influences on political culture and its direction.

These works, and others like it, re-defined early national politics as a two-way street rather than a one-way cul-de-sac. They did this not by applying Habermas’s argument regarding the public sphere to the early republic but simply by thinking in terms of the abstract notion of the existence of a public sphere. The “rational-critical debate” which defined the public sphere for Habermas? The notion that this was “a category of bourgeois society?” These two defining features of Habermas’s argument were largely discarded by the NNPH to great effect, allowing them the latitude to pursue much broader inquiries.

Where do we stand now? The NNPH has left us with an amorphous, shadowy public sphere. Something which can be whatever one wants or needs it to be at any moment. The lack of a consensus among NNPH historians around terms like “public sphere” and “civil society,” despite the best efforts of John L. Brooke, contribute to a broader problem of the conception of “political culture.” Exactly what is “political culture?” For some, it could be almost anything. That lack of definition can either continue to produce the kind of leaps in inclusion made by the NNPH or, perhaps more likely, its lack of a categorical frame will see it collapse in on itself.


[1] Indeed, Richard Hofstadter also wrote of the “Consensus School,” which followed the Progressives: “In its origins I believe it owed almost as much to Marx as to Tocqueville.” See Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 451.

[2] Clifford Geertz, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” in Ideology and Discontent, ed. David Apter (New York: Free Press, 1964), 47-76.

[3] For recent works that employ or discuss a postcolonial approach to early American history, see Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America, ed. Robert Blair St. George (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000); David Armitage, “From Colonial History to Postcolonial History: A Turn Too Far?,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 64, no. 2 (2007): 1–4; Jack P. Greene, “Colonial History and National History: Reflections on a Continuing Problem,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 64, no. 2 (2007): 235–250.

[4] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Boston: The MIT Press, 1989).

[5] Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990). The first use of Habermas’s “public sphere” by an Americanist occurred in Thomas Bender, “Whole and Parts: Continuing the Conversation,” in “A Round Table: Synthesis in American History,” Journal of American History 74 (1987), 125. However, this does not imply that “public opinion” in early America had been ignored before the 1990s. One could cite dozens of examples. For one older example, see Richard L. Merritt, “Public Opinion in Colonial America: Content-Analyzing the Colonial Press,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 27, no. 3 (1963): 356-71.

[6] David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Simon P. Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).

[7] Jeffrey L. Pasley, “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002).

13 responses

  1. This reminds me of Waldstreicher’s great opening line in his 2005 WMQ piece on Habermas: “Historians treat theory the way that rattlesnakes treat small mammals. They either strike to kill or swallow whole.”

    Of course Waldstreicher then goes on to make a similar argument about the problems of historians’ “vague descriptive usage” of the public sphere — a superficial swallowing that, like Benedict Anderson’s theory of nationalism, reduces a difficult and specific historical idea to a kind of generalized buzzword. I agree that we have reached a similar point with “political culture,” although for better or worse, there is no great European theorist we can conveniently associate with that term.

    Where do we go from here? One way to think about the evolution of historical thinking about politics, from Marx through to Geertz, Anderson, and Habermas is, as Dan Rodgers has recently argued in a broader vein, to think about the fragmentation and diffusion of our understandings of power. Some reckoning with power, obviously, must be at the heart of all political history. So what is power, where does it reside, and how does it manifest itself? In The Age of Fracture Rodgers argues that in history, as in other disciplines, the ‘language of power’ has grown less direct and material, at once split into a thousand different pieces and yet also constituted in every sphere of life. (Here the relevant names include not just Habermas but Gramsci, Thompson, and Foucault).

    It seems to me that the NNPH is very much our own local early American division of this larger transformation. I’m inclined to agree with Rodgers that it has delivered plenty of useful micro-optimisms about the political significance of neglected actors and actions, while also contributing to a general and overarching pessimism about the possibility of genuine confrontations with power. Here’s his final and appropriately melancholy verdict: “…if power relations were everywhere and saturated everything, not only investing individual subjects but producing them, if power were indistinguishable from resistance, incapable of being held by any identifiable group or institution, unlinked in any sense to ‘agency,’ had not the long, complex search for power’s ever more subtle faces succeeded, at last, in finding nothing at all?”

    Food for thought.

  2. Nice post, Michael. There have been a series of “public sphere”-influenced studies in literary and historical studies since Habermas’s study was translated into English in 1989. These books and articles varied in terms of their engagement with the full context of JH’s argument, which is influenced more heavily by the Frankfurt school or the mid-century’s “sociology of knowledge” than disciplinary historical or literary studies per se (that is why its evidence is so selective).

    The problem, as I see it, is that without an explicit engagement with the specific terms and argument and originating contexts of Habermas, subsequent critics can expand the term past any usefulness and talk past each other, often reiterating points that Habermas himself critiques (this is how I’d critique Terry Eagleton’s work, for example). And many people who feel that they are extending Habemas may end up travestying his work. I understand the need to strike out beyond someone else’s theoretical framework, but I still think a book like this deserves accurate synthesis in subsequent work that focuses on one of his key concepts.

    Having said that, I wonder whether the “public sphere” may have become one of the 20th century’s “essentially contested concepts,” and therefore too embedded within a variety of existing ideologies and purposes to allow a consensual definition. Even if that’s the case, I think it better for scholars to make explicit their allegiance to particular interpretations and lines of development of the concept rather than leave their readers to guess. In my view, this is what Warner does, especially in work like Publics and Counter-Publics.

    • As always, thanks for reading and commenting, Dave. I agree about Warner. He has by far been the most theoretically engaged person to deal with early American history, though that may be because he is not a historian but a literature professor. Brooke, in Beyond the Founders, aimed at conceptual consensus but, unfortunately, his fellow early Americanists have seemed less than interested. So many have benefited from the “public sphere” even just from a conceptual standpoint that it should not be surprising that American historians are less than interested in circumscribing the idea by codifying it.

  3. I think another problem with the interpretation of the public sphere is that Habermas’s key concern is with the 20th century and present-day implications for power and democracy, and that not all works that have used the public sphere as a category of analysis have fully appreciated that. After all, the ‘public sphere’ was something that had a structure and transformed itself!

    Another question I had was your citing of Newman’s work as part of the works based on the public sphere. The reason I tend toward the phrase ‘political culture’ or (in Newman’s words) ‘participatory political culture’ is that Parades and the Politics of the Street focuses more on cultural displays, and takes Rudé (and the British historians who used him) as his theoretical model. That in turn leads to some of the breadth of reviews that have talked about uses of the public sphere in early American historiography – at times it’s been a term that’s been applied to works that don’t really use the concept.

    What I think all this highlights is – to pick up on the common ground between your post and mine – the incredible breadth of the NNPH. But that’s come at a cost; there’s no obvious methodical framework to use for it to filter elsewhere. Or maybe it isn’t a cost at all – and allows room for contests and conflicts in a much more productive manner.

    • Exactly, Ken. I was going to say that Habermas’s story is primarily concerned with the transformation or decline of the public sphere, which is something Americanists haven’t dealt with. Then again, as far as Habermas is concerned, there was no public sphere in the early U.S., having explicitly said that it arose out of the specific social, political, and economic conditions native to eighteenth-century Western Europe. Or at least there was no bourgeois public sphere in the U.S. Perhaps early Americanists could get more mileage by explicitly re-defining the class aspect of Habermas’s public sphere. As for Newman, if you look back, that paragraph is about political culture more than the public sphere specifically. Also, regardless of whether Newman used the term, what he is describing is considered (I think) by many to be a part of the public sphere, because of the very looseness which I described.

      In terms of political culture, the real question is probably not “where do we stand” but “where do we go from here?” Should we as historians of political culture consciously seek to put it on firmer ground as an analytical category? Or do we continue in the NNPH mode and just allow it to lead us wherever we want or wherever it may? Is there some kind of medium between the two?

  4. Provocative post, and part of an interesting project here at this great blog (so compliments to all). Part of the problem here, I think, is the way in which early americanists read, which Waldstreicher hinted at in his piece, cited above. Frankly, I just don’t think we are a very self-reflective bunch, and so external invitations and provocations to think more broadly or deeply about particular questions that come up in our work are never allowed to hit home.

    A couple of examples come up from the post and the comments. Republicanism, for example. I have never seen a major work on the subject from back in the day that treats the category of republicanism or republicanisms the way it is dismissed today as a monolithic category. To take my favorite example, Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment, which suggested that a good deal of political thought in the early modern Atlantic world could be shown to be using a particular vocabulary in an astonishing variety of different contexts, and that this is an important point about how use changes over time and space as well as about some of the tensions and contradictions in the languages of liberty, states, and rights that we go on using today. The reaction, summed up by Daniel Rodger’s article on the subject, and repeated in comments above, was basically this: well, you know, republicanism meant different things in different contexts, so we need to abandon it as a category of our historical analysis. In other words, the whole point about language, about vocabularies and their uses in different contexts, was entirely lost on us. I get the feeling from talking to people at conferences and the like that most of us never read the first 400 pages if we read it at all. We ourselves repeatedly turn arguments about and evidence of plurality into arguments for totalities, as if we can’t bear the uncertainty that has been opened up. Maybe we just don’t have the equipment. We inhabit a foundationalist and even fundamentalist political culture, to reference later Pocock, and our historical practice has often proven to be no exception.

    That is not to say one has to agree with Pocock, or anyone else, about the particulars, and Pocock’s later work has benefited a great deal from the criticisms he got from scholars of medieval legal theory and nineteenth century America and everything in between, but we do this with everyone. To take up the issues of the post above, we all jumped on board with Habermas’ Public Sphere book, which had only been translated recently, as is pointed about above, and felt free to ignore the fact that the book was decades old and that Habermas had moved on to work that wold be probably more relevant to us if we bothered to read and think about it. Michael Warner’s Letters was not an attempt to faithfully transcribe Habermas for us, as is suggested in the post, if I don’t misunderstand, as his far more provocative and interesting use of Derrida on the Declaration and the fundamental problem of writing, of text, and its authority, shows. But if anyone has taken him up on that, it has been literary scholars and political theorists, but beyond studies of the epistolary, very few historians. Benedict Anderson is another example- his work, even in Imagined Communities, hardly reduces the category of nationalism to a “generalized buzzword”- although that might very well be what we have done with it, if anything at all. There are insights in that book about print, about time, and elite anxieties, just to name a few, that again, have been of great use in several other fields, but to us can be nicely labeled over-schematized and passed safely over. Either we are uniquely intellectually rigorous among all other fields of humanistic and sociological inquiry, or we might have some problems with being open to rethinking ourselves.

    I think this has a lot to do with anti-intellectualism, and in particular, with the infrequency of our attention to the history of thought, and especially the history of legal and political thought (here I am being nakedly self-promotional). Work that drags early american history into wider conversations, work that bears on these questions discussed above, I would want to single out Caroll Smith-Rosenberg’s This Violent Empire and Christopher Tomlins’ Freedom Bound, maybe reach back a bit farther and pick up Holly Brewer’s By Birth or Consent, all of these seem to have generated a great deal of interest and engagement, and rightfully so, but largely, not among us. Political thought, intellectual history, and legal history, widely divergent attentions to subjectivity and governmentality vis-a-vis the late Foucualt, the list could go on, don’t even bear mention among the topics this series of posts will cover. Now, it can rightly be said, most early americanists aren’t doing any of that, and its the task here to talk about what most early americanists are doing. Fair enough, but I think that is a problem.

    • I agree (mostly) with your critique of early Americanist insularity, although for me it’s not primarily about a specifically anti-intellectual disdain for legal/political thought as much as a very scattershot sense of history and historical work produced outside the USA. But that’s a topic for another day. I’ll just clarify here that in my reference to Benedict Anderson I meant to endorse Waldstreicher’s point that a great many US historians (not all, of course) grabbed at the idea — the image, really — of “imagined communities,” cited it in their Introductions, and then simply moved on, without really engaging his ideas about creole nationalism.

    • I’ve spent the last three or four hours trying to figure out how to reply to this comment. I’ve deleted a my response a couple of times, trying to figure out exactly how to engage your very interesting and provocative response to Michael. You’ve given me a lot to think about, Matthew.

      Anyway, I’m not exactly sure if the fact that our little chronological sub-field is any more or less resistant to “self-reflection” than another other chronological field in US history. Perhaps our 20th century historian friends and colleagues engage theory better than your average early Americanist?

      Off the top of my head it seems to me that historians of early America have been as theoretically engaged as anyone since the cultural turn. Theoretically engaged works like those by Kathleen Brown (“Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs”) and Susan Juster (“Disorderly Women”) have had wide influence. Ann Little engages with a lot of theoretical work on family, masculinity, and race in her excellent “Abraham in Arms.” For the Revolutionary era and the early republic the works I discussed in my entry on Tuesday all engaged the relevant literature on gender theory and the Habermasian “public sphere,” which Michael ably discusses above. Foucault’s influence has been felt in the growing body of work in early American history of sexuality – excellent works like those by Thomas Foster (“Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man”) and Clare Lyons (“Sex Among the Rabble”) gained a lot from the work of theorist like Foucault (and his successors). Jill Lepore, the most prominent public intellectual among academic early Americanists, is as theoretically engaged as anyone – particularly in books like “The Name of War” & “A is For American.” One need only look at the list of fellows at the McNeil Center to see the wide cache of theoretically engaged works.

      That brief historiographical laundry list (I am sure you’re much more familiar with the relevant work that I am) argues (as much as a blog comment can) that there is a strong engagement with theory by historians working in early America. Whether or not this engagement is handled well is another question. To me early Americanists are no better or worse than other sub-field of historians – we bastardize the great theorist of the moment for better (usually) and worse (sometimes).

      I can’t say I agree with you, either, about the lack of influence of the history of thought on early Americanists. “Cambridge school” history of political thought has been as bastardized by early Americanists as much as any other theoretician (or group of theoreticians) of the 20th century – i.e. Anderson, Habermas, and the other folks mentioned in this thread. Pocock’s work is cited over and over again in the intellectual and political history of the Revolution and early American republic. I should know because I still have fresh intellectual scars from making sense of the literature on “republicanism” and “liberalism” for my oral examination.

      Is there more that early Americanists can do to be more theoretically engaged? Of course! Michael and Ken’s posts have suggested some ways that could happen, along with the commentators on each of their threads. There is always more that historians can do to work in interdisciplinary ways – some of the most productive discussions of my graduate career have been with my friends in cultural studies, gender studies, etc. etc.

      Despite my disagreement with you, it should be clear that I’ve thought a lot about your perspective & found your ideas really engaging. Thank you so much for the comment and engaging us here! 🙂

  5. Well thank you for response. I would only say that while I know and admire many of the works you mention (and come to think of it, their blogs), I would not want to take use of or engagement with “theory” to mean the same thing as critically self-reflective. My own desire would be for a push in the direction of work that not only has the ambition to contribute to broader conversations, or at least use them, but is able to see itself in context, maybe in many contexts, and so would be work that can help us cultivate an openness to different types of questions and to new thinking, especially about historical practice itself, and its relationship to its others. I would want to go on to argue that the history of thought is uniquely but not exceptionally important here (Foucault’s recently translated lectures, for me, are exemplary here, as are Tully’s writings on public philosophy and imperialism).

    I don’t fit very nicely in it, but all the same I am not quite as sanguine about the field as you are, and I include myself in that judgment. I think we are so afraid of not being David McCullough, or perish the thought, Joseph Ellis, and are so obsessed with trends, that we have lost the ability to ask some valuable and important questions, about law and sovereignty and constitutionalism and empire and power, sure, but also about history and historiography, to say nothing of the public or civic status of the work we do, again, not only about our subjects but about ourselves, and by and large we have been content to outsource those questions to others (and I actually do think this is somewhat more true about early americanist work). To touch on the other recent posts, I have learned a lot from NNPH or NNNPH (Furstenberg is great) and the new neo-Progressive work if we can call it that (Michael McDonnell’s book on Virginia is spectacular), but I detect a tone of self-congratulation in the manifesto volumes discussed above that might not be wrong per se, but I guess isn’t very helpful. We’ve traded in whig and neo-whig narratives, and that’s good, but we’ve replaced them with a whiggish and unquestioning historiographical narrative that could be met with more skepticism than it usually is. Perhaps we are as intellectually adventurous as you suggest and I am very wrong, but if that is the case I don’t know how many people outside our field we could find to agree. It doesn’t seem to me that we are generating a great deal of ability to fundamentally question from within, the way the work of Daniel Rodgers or Kerwin Klein might for 20th cent. US.

    To close with the Pocock example again, of course it is cited, as you note, but rare is the work, like Smith-Rosenberg’s or Jason Frank’s, that gets us somewhere with the full character of the project, even while they are doing their own in many ways equally ambitious work. I would like to be able to remain open to reformulation of the categories and concepts we are working with, and the questions we are asking, and the rules we are following, without having to whittle sources of provocation down to make sure that they are safe.

  6. Thanks for your second comment. I really want to reiterate how much you’ve given me to think about. I’ve taken a lot away from our brief exchange.

    It does seem that I am more sanguine than you about the state of our sub-field. Surveying the scholarly landscape I actually think we’re living in the halcyon days for works asking “valuable and important questions, about law and sovereignty and constitutionalism and empire and power.” The list of such works as long and varied – many of them have been mentioned above but I want add Doug Bradburn’s “Citizenship Revolution” to the list along with Jim Oakes’ very new book on emancipation. One of the great pleasures of my life has been that I’ve gotten to know A LOT of fellow graduate students (and recently minted Phds.) from a variety of different programs. Most folks seem, to me at least, to be asking the sort of questions you’re looking for with a great deal of self-reflection. My fellow contributors here are (above) par for the course.

    Does all of this excellent work have problems? Of course. I agree with you that we may have slain Neo-Whiggism (which like Lord Voldemort could in the queue for a dark rebirth) but replaced it with an equally problematic “whiggish and unquestioning historiographical narrative.” With my dissertation I hope to explore some of these problems with my field of early national religion and politics – in particular the sometimes breezy conflation between democracy, evangelicalism, and religious freedom. The great thing, I think, about scholarship is that there is always more work to be done – more questions than answers.

    Anyway, this has been a great discussion so far!

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

  8. Pingback: The NNPH: Odds, Ends, and Some Concluding Statements « The Junto


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