Historians Who Love Just a Bit

I’ve never met anybody, living or dead, who fits their name quite as well as Peregrine Foster did. I encountered Peregrine in the papers of his brother, Dwight Foster, at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where I was looking for compilations of meaty correspondence that depicted land speculators at work. Peregrine was the youngest of three; his older brothers were Congressmen from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Peregrine, though, wasn’t destined for such prominence.

In 1780, at the age of twenty-one, he more or less flunked out of the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (now Brown University), complaining that his homework was eating him. “Though it is but only 23 Days since he began the 1st Vol of Blackstone’s Commentaries,” his oldest brother wrote, “he lost Flesh surprizingly and . . . is persuaded that it is not for his Interest to pursue his Books.”[1] Peregrine wanted to go to sea, but his brothers disapproved. So instead, after a few years of twenty-something idleness, he resolved to venture west in pursuit of a fortune through land speculation.

Peregrine never had the political clout or capital to really succeed in the land business, and he was unwilling to finance speculative purchases through debt. Nevertheless, he dabbled in several land companies and partnerships and flipped a few tracts on his own. His business pursuits took him first to Virginia (where he always felt out of place), and then to Ohio (where he made a home), and led him to traverse the Alleghenies many times in search of money, connections, appointments, opportunities, and success. A peregrine, indeed.

Peregrine’s name wasn’t the only thing I loved about him. As a historian, I’m terribly grateful to him for his unusually rich and candid contributions to the documentary record. His correspondence unfolds like a how-to manual (or, perhaps more accurately, a how-not­-to manual) for early republic land speculation. Peregrine almost always wrote in a hurry, while the postman or other conveyance waited impatiently in some corner of the room. (He scrawled an excuse to this effect at the end of most letters.) He also hated to let go of a sheet of paper that wasn’t positively smothered with writing. Both of these habits, combined with his close friendship with one brother in particular, seem to have made for a looser pen—and, thus, better fodder for the historian.

Peregrine was also disarmingly self-deprecating, and often very funny. His ambitions, his politics, and his handwriting seemed to change weekly. Because he refused to go into debt to speculate, he never became a tycoon on the order of an Oliver Phelps, a Robert Morris, or a James Wilson. He failed, quietly, almost wistfully, and I find that quite endearing. More than anything, though, Peregrine was a devoted family man. He was apologetic to a fault for the many business obligations he shunted upon his brothers, and he always took time to communicate his familial affection and gratitude in ways far more meaningful than the era’s standard formulaic recitations—his pen scurrying to outpace the postman’s tapping foot. “Would that you could take an areal Flight & visit Yours, who are as dear to you as mine can possibly be to me,” he once wrote to a brother who had been torn from home on public business. “That after all the Enjoyment the scene could yield that you might in the same easy mode pass to the western side of the Alleganys lofty Top & visit us on the pleasant Banks of Monongahela’s meandering Stream.”[2] Finally, Peregrine always explained his urge to speculate in lands as an attempt to advance the welfare and future prospects of his family, which—while of a piece with the rest of U.S. patriarchal settler colonialism—somehow seemed uncommonly heartfelt, and in any event was better than the unabashedly materialist motives of most of the other land speculators I studied that month. I found Peregrine so compelling that I read every word of his correspondence. I took eighty-one pages of notes on just a few dozen letters. He captured my attention for nearly a week.

And yet, despite all that, I remain uneasy about “friending” Peregrine Foster. For all the fondness I bear towards him as a source and a personality, I wearied of his jealousy and his ceaseless striving. More substantially, I rather deplore his place in American history, as a tooth—albeit a minor and inconsequential one—on the saw-blade edge of United States finance capitalism and imperialism. I study land speculators primarily because I’m interested in the intersection of money and politics, and that’s never a place you go to seek positive role models.

Twelve years ago, Jill Lepore published an essay, entitled “Historians Who Love Too Much,” about microhistorians’ relationships to their subjects. This was at the dawn of microhistory’s popularity and influence upon the profession, and Lepore—now the genre’s best practitioner—sought to help define this burgeoning body of work by distinguishing it from biography, a goal she pursued by asking the question: do “microhistorians have more or less sympathy for the subjects than do biographers”?[3]

Unlike Peregrine Foster, Lepore’s essay was somewhat inaptly named. Not only did she open and close the essay by considering a character (Noah Webster) whom she loved not at all, but she also ultimately concluded that microhistorians by definition do not love their subjects too much. The biographer’s imperative, she argued, is to chronicle his subject’s contributions to History, which often requires condemnation or acquittal. A microhistorian, though, doesn’t even take her protagonist as the true subject. Instead, microhistorians excavate lives in the service of questions that arise from social and cultural history. “The life story . . . is merely the means to an end,” Lepore wrote, “and that end is always explaining the culture.”[4] Still, Lepore implied, microhistorians do have to self-consciously evaluate how they connect to and deploy their characters. Adoration and enmity are the enemies of analysis.

I am not writing a microhistory of Peregrine Foster. He will appear as one member of an extensive dramatis personae in my dissertation on land speculation after the American Revolution. Nevertheless, Lepore’s questions seem pertinent. In the years since Lepore authored her essay, microhistory has migrated towards the center of the discipline. In the aftermath of social history, as narrative writing springs its regenerated roots ever deeper into the historiographical soil, we increasingly pepper even analytical monographs with handfuls of mini-microhistories. We are getting better at using stories and personalities to convey arguments, and doing it with purpose and restraint, such that our main contentions are no long quite so “difficult to fish out of the oceans of story.”[5] What I’m trying to say is that we are all microhistorians now. And thus we all have to deal, every day we research and write, with Lepore’s questions about “love and betrayal,” “disclosure and doubt,” “devices and desires.”[6]

Which leads me back to Peregrine, who forces me to ask a question that differs slightly from Lepore’s. The enemies of analysis: enmity and adoration. What to do when you feel both? That’s really the question I’m trying to raise in this post, and which I hope blog readers will weigh in on, if it resonates with them. Peregrine may only end up claiming a few pages of my dissertation. Should he come off as lovable chronicler? Pitiable failure? B-list villain? What’s the best way for a writer and an historian to handle a person about whom he or she feels deeply conflicted? Which books might you suggest as fine examples of a delicate balance between argument, characterization, and objectivity?

As I turned over letter after letter in the Dwight Foster Papers, and transcribed my way towards 1804, when I knew Peregrine died, I started to see his end approaching. He began to complain of intensely painful gallstones. He traveled and wrote less frequently, and his letters were increasingly concerned with squaring accounts, both financial and emotional. When the letters finally stopped, I felt surprisingly bereft. And yet I was also strangely relieved. Peregrine never flew high enough or dove low enough to be complicit in some extortionist Indian treaty, or to build some fantastical financial edifice that buried hundreds of sorry investors in a pile of paper and promises.[7] He died before he had the chance to make me despise him. I returned the manuscript box, sauntered home, moped a bit, and wondered.


Many thanks to the NERFC for funding my own summertime peregrinations, which brought Foster to my attention.

[1] Theodore Foster to Dwight Foster, 24 April 1780, box 1, Dwight Foster Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS).

[2] Peregrine Foster to Dwight Foster, 21 January 1795, box 2, Dwight Foster Papers, MHS.

[3] Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88:1 (June 2001), 129-144 (quotation on 133).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. I glanced at my bookshelf after writing those last two sentences. The titles that immediately caught my eye and seemed representative include Gregory Downs, Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Knopf, 2011); Stephen Mihm, Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). The list could go on and on. Naturally, this narrative tactic far predates Lepore’s essay (though I’d maintain that the art form has progressed by leaps and bounds since the late 1990s), and the question of whether any given book is really built upon such “mini-microhistories” has been and will continue to be hotly and unprofitably debated over many a pint.

[6] Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much,” passim.

[7] For those kinds of stories, see Jane Kamensky, The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse (New York: Viking, 2008); Bruce Mann, Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); Scott Reynolds Nelson, A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters (New York: Knopf, 2012).

7 responses

  1. Fantastic post, Michael. It brings to mind Leo Ribuffo’s tribute to Genovese: “Our worldviews and approach to history shared at least one important feature, a willingness to write with understanding about bigots and weirdos.”

    I wonder how many great histories wouldn’t have happened if the historian hadn’t taken a chance on compelling characters despite their ambiguous—or ambivalent—historical significance. Could a book like The Cheese and the Worms, or A Midwife’s Tale, or The Shoemaker and the Tea Party have been written without a leap of faith somewhere early in the research? Or even William Cooper’s Town, which at first glance looks like a reasonable sort of frontier community study but on closer inspection turns out to be a brilliantly weird way to make an argument about the early republic using a character whom I, at least, find highly unlikable?

  2. I think that one of the things going on here is the turn to narrative, which inevitably focuses questions and problems on the individual actors of historical events. It is difficult to write narrative with at least some sense of moral desert, even if that is getting violated. I hadn’t thought of it before, but microhistories served a role like the New Historicism did in lit studies, to make narratives acceptable again in scholarly discourse.

    In keeping with the microhistorical frame, I also believe there is tremendous usefulness in the “small character” for both fiction and history-writing, because such figures are able to supply a sense of the undramatic, “everydayness” that surrounds even dramatic events and their actors. They can supply a sense of the contradictions underlying dominant ideologies (Peregrine’s family commitments, his casual attitude to his investments), and also their limits as prescriptions for behavior. These are important, I think, for anyone trying to understand the complexity of past ideologies and habits of mind.

    Since I work in British 18c literary studies, my suggestions may seem far afield, but I think if you’re looking for the ability to synthesize “argument, characterization, and objectivity” in a single treatment, Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson seem to have tremendous gifts of characterization in their treatments of the past. There is an economy and vividness in the way they treat their subjects that I find compelling. And lit studies has a long tradition of worrying over the relation of literary biography to literary criticism, proper, which we could take back to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, if we wished. Good luck.

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