Few issues trouble historians of all stripes more than the disconnect between “popular” and “academic” history. Somewhere in the mists of the recent past the Age of Hofstadter gave way to, at best, the Age of McCulloch and, at worst, the Age of Barton. The waning influence of professional historians in the public sphere particularly troubles the historical blogosphere. The popular-academic history disconnect is something addressed a lot here at The Junto, including with a podcast.
I am, as I said on the JuntoCast episode, particular dour about the possibility of bridging this gap. Academic historians, public historians, and interested members of the public more often than not talk past each other. How each group defines “good” or “useful” history is often so at cross-purposes that it sounds like one side is speaking English, another French, and another Dothraki. My attention was recently drawn to a series of posts by Peter Feinman at New York History, which deeply entrenched my Eeyore-like-sullenness when it comes to these questions.The core of Feinman’s posts is useful and perceptive recap of the recent McNeil Center “The American Revolution Reborn” conference—a gathering which was covered by the Junto, at length. Feinman provides great summaries and analyses of the panels he attended, a very useful resource for anyone interested in the conference. Troubles arise, however, when he begins to lay out his problems with the conference. To Feinman there were two big issues with “The American Revolution Reborn”: a lack of coverage of military history and, more importantly, a failure of its participants to show proper respect for the impact and importance of the American Revolution.
To Feinman—as a public historian and New Yorker—the absence of military history marginalizes New York (as a historical subject) and misses one of the core realities of the Revolution. More discussion was needed, he argues, of the Battles of Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga, the experience of American POWs, military and political leadership, and other related topics and themes. By ignoring military history the conference and its academic participants marginalized public historians, such those who manage the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail. What discussion of military history there was at “The American Revolution Reborn,” argues Feinman, were microhistories and “at no point did these military-related microhistories coalesce into any sort of grand narrative on the military history which led to America winning the war.”
The problem with Feinman’s assessment of the place of military history at “The American Revolution Reborn” is that no conference, no matter how well organized or open-minded, can hope to cover every possible event or theme under its purview. Well-worn topics like famous battles or the decision making apparatus in the Continental Army are very unlikely to be addressed at an academic conference. Such conferences are fundamentally about presenting cutting edge research, not a comprehensive narrative of events, and “The American Revolution Reborn” conference, while open to the public, was fundamentally an academic conference. The fresher the research presented by a historian, the less likely its arguments and evidence will be easily synthesized into a comprehensive narrative of the broader sweep of events. Good synthesis takes time.
Military history was present at the conference, as Feinman acknowledges, but it wasn’t to his taste. As was noted in the JuntoCast one of the big themes of “The American Revolution Reborn” was role neutrals played in the Revolutionary War. There was a panel on the Revolution as a civil war. The historical memory of the violence of the Revolution was covered as well. None of these topics directly address the great battles of the Revolutionary War or the heroic leadership of Washington but they are military history none the less. It is a well-worn canard that military history is largely ignored by contemporary academic historians. This is only true if we think of such histories in the narrowest sense – of battles, logistics, and leadership. If we broaden the definition of military history to include studies analyizing the political, economic, social, and cultural impact of warfare than military history is well-addressed by academic historians.
Feinman’s concerns about the unrepresented nature of military history at “The American Revolution Reborn” are related to his larger concern that “the conference failed to express pride in the American Revolution.” The participating historians failed to stress the exceptionalism of the American Revolution and the nation born out of it. Such as perspective goes against the very purpose of American history, as Feinman sees it. In a good history of the American Revolution “[w]e should celebrate the martyred who sacrificed themselves for the good of the nation and create a national origin myth based on these ideas.”
The following anecdote of the conference gets to the core Feinman’s understanding of the purpose of the past, and thus deserves quoting at length:
“Non-academic J.F. Gearhart asked one group of commentators if they thought the American Revolution was a good thing. Is the world a better place because the American Revolution occurred? The pained look on their silent faces spoke volumes. The anguished mental gymnastics of the three visibly uncomfortable academics was reminiscent of an American President coming up with “What is ‘is.’” Finally Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University, managed to say (and I am paraphrasing), “There were some good things which came out of the American Revolution and some bad things.” Gearhart pressed her to provide a “net-net” rendering on the Revolution. She declined to do so and laughingly noted that her students want her to do the same. Her answer called to mind the motto from the 1980s: “some people are communist, some people are capitalist” meaning so why can’t we all live together. “Because it is a god-damned Evil Empire” replied the simple-minded American-exceptionalist president Ronald Reagan. Everyone knew that the Soviet Union would be around forever…which turned out to be about five years in real time. The post 9/11 actions of simple-minded American-exceptionalist president George Bush reinforced the negative attitudes towards traditional interpretations of the American Revolution by the Vietnam era and post-Vietnam generation scholars.”
It is interesting that Feinman evokes the vintage Cold Warrior language of early-1980s Ronald Reagan; for it was during the Cold War that “exceptionalist” discourse fully infected Americans’ understanding of this past. The need to draw sharp contrasts between the United States and the Soviet Union morphed Americans understanding their “differences” from other nations into an understanding of America as “exceptional” – above and beyond all else. History and historians, academic and other wise, played a key role in defining and defending this exceptionalist faith.
American historians, since at least the early 1990s, have been moving away from “exceptionalism” as the defining framework of American history – with early Americanists at the forefront of this shift. Contemporary historians understand that British North America and the United States are “different” but certainly not “unique.” America is, rather, bound up in a variety of international processes and transformations. Sometimes the United States is at the periphery of these developments and other times at the center. We’ve gained much from this shift to a more internationalist perspective of American history. Historians have developed a better understanding of America’s role in the international slave trade; the ways in which ideas of “liberty” and “equality” moved back and forth between North American, Europe, the Caribbean, and South America; the dislocations of early capitalism; the transformative power of evangelical conversion; along with many more vital historical questions. Abandoning an “exceptionalist” narrative has broadened, not confined, our understanding of American history.
The question Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was asked in Feinman’s anecdote is a trap. The answer Gearhart, the questioner, and, Feinman wanted from Ulrich is an obvious “Yes, of course!” Such a reply, however, gets us nowhere. Ulrich was correct. The American Revolution had some good consequences and some bad consequences; it was good for some folks and bad for others. Why should historians, academic or otherwise, mask the complex legacy of an event as important as the American Revolution? What do people interested in history, not to mention the American public more broadly, gain from such a foreshortened and simplistic narrative? Gearhart pushing Ulrich for a “‘net-net’ rending on the Revolution” is even worse, for it reduces history to a two-column table.
I would argue that the best history, be it for academics or the public, requires complexity. To highlight this let us return to the Age of Hofstadter. The classic The American Political Tradition hits most of the notes that Feinman demands of good history—ideology and leadership are front and center. On the other hand, as Eric Foner notes, Hofstadter “never devolved into the uncritical celebration of the American experience.” His account of the Founding goes as far as to ending on a very melancholy note: “Modern humanist thinkers who seek for a means by which society may transcend eternal conflict and rigid adherence to property rights as its integrating principles can expect no answer in the philosophy of balanced government as it was set down by the Constitution-makers of 1787.” Not exactly a paean to the greatest of the ideas of the American Revolution, yet the book continues to sell decades after its publication and Hofstadter remains influential among both historians and the historically minded public.
If the disconnect between public and academic history is to ever be repaired it will be by opening up the dialogue between both sides and our expanding analytic options. Requiring that historians pass some sort of pro-America litmus test achieves exactly the opposite. The reason these posts by Peter Feinman bring out my Eeyore-like-sullenness is that Feinman is clearly a passionate, smart, and committed public historian. Feinman, by taking concrete steps to improve the access of teachers and the general public to New York’s historic sites, is clearly doing good work. His argument that historians must conform to his reading of America’s exceptionalist past, however, casts into sharp relief the gap that exists between the sort of historical vision embraced by some public historians and embraced by some academics. That is enough to really bother this fledging academic historian.
 The debate over who is to blame for this shift is largely useless and boils down to one side saying “F— you” with their opponents replying with a resounding “No, f— you!”
 I will leave it up to the reader to parse out which language represents each side of this debate.
 The closest academic historians came, suggests Feinman, was a nod to the French contribution.
 It is, of course, not just public historians who like to complain that their favorite topic or theme was left out of a conference/book/made-for-TV-movie. Such complaints are the steady diet of graduate students and other academics. My personal hobbyhorse is the underrepresentation of the Revolutionary South.
 I have combined two paragraphs here.
 My understanding of the development of “exceptionalism” in American historical writing is drawn from following essay: Daniel T. Rodgers, “Exceptionalism,” in Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past, ed. Gordon Wood and Anthony Molho (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 21–40. As Rodgers argues “[t]he term ‘exceptionalism’ was a latecomer to American historical and political analysis, a Stalinist coinage of the 1920s which unexpectedly found its way after the Second World War into the core vocabulary of American historical writing.” (23)
 In the context of the history of early America (through to, roughly, the early nineteenth century) this interpretation is called “Atlantic history” and stresses the movement of people, goods, and ideas back and forth across that ocean. The development of this interpretative school see: Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 4-56.
 I say this as someone whose dissertation project will suggest the key importance of local factors in the development of religious practice.
 What would such a table look like? Perhaps a bit like this:
|The American Revolution was good for…||The American Revolution was bad for…|
 Eric Foner, “The Education of Richard Hofstadter,” in Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York,: Hill and Wang, 2002), 41.
 Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition & the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage, 1973), 21.
 A completely unscientific way to show that The American Political Tradition continues to sell is its rankings on Amazon. The current Vintage edition is #6,734 in “Books” and #40 in “History & Theory.” Pretty damn good for a book that is 65 years old.
Spot on, Roy! I responded to Feinman on one of the other half-dozen posts on his blog that addressed this. On one of them he responded to one of my comments by saying: “If you had been at the conference the deer-in-the-headlight look by the three panelists was literally breath-taking – it took the breath away from the panelists and the audience. The weight of the silence was palpable.”
I copy my reply in full here: “Peter, I read Zuckerman’s response and I was indeed at the conference for all four days including the panel in which the question was asked of Prof. Ulrich. I think you misjudged her reaction, which was less that of a “deer caught in the headlights” than of mild bemusement. I also think that you have totally misinterpreted the audience’s reaction, as well. The vast majority of the audience, who were academics, did not have their breath taken away by Ulrich’s pause or her response. Rather, they were stunned that such a simplistic and impertinent question would even be asked at a conference like that and they were silent because they were waiting to see how Ulrich would address it. To her credit, she addressed it quite diplomatically and respectfully (more so than I suspect some in the room would have done). As she said, it was the kind of question that is asked by undergraduates with little to no experience with academic history as a discipline. The first thing an undergraduate learns in a college-level history class is to avoid such generalizations because they can never convey the actual complexity of history. Think of how simplistic and unfair the perception is that anyone who won’t come right and make such a generalized statement as “The American Revolution was good” as being “apologetic anti-American” or having an apologetically “anti-American” view of American history. Now you didn’t make that claim but you described the public perception and I would hope you could see why historians would react in that way to such an anti-historical and anachronistic perspective. I think many academic historians (especially of early America) acknowledge the need for historians to expand their audience among the general public but not by prostrating ourselves at the altar of American exceptionalism or nationalism.
If you want a sanitized, nationalist view of the Revolution and an endless stream of hagiographies of the founders, you can read McCullough, Ellis, Brookhiser and the dozens of others who have cashed in on the reading public’s desire for this Whiggish view. However, if you want to understand the Revolution more deeply outside of a small handful of elites and high politics and to understand how it affected groups of people differently, and how people on the ground actually experienced the Revolution, then you need the academics that were in that room at the APS, because they don’t choose topics or write books based on potential sales. Your instrumentalist and utilitarian view of history is completely at odds with the modern profession, the notion of which is reinforced by your expectations of the conference, which, like most academic conferences, wasn’t meant to provide a thorough narrative of the topic but specialized analyses of important themes. Historians are more concerned with what the Revolution meant to the people who lived through it and its immediate aftermath than what it means to people today. The former is history, the latter is politics. Either knowing or consciously shaping contemporary meanings of the Revolution is beyond the purview of historical inquiry for early American historians.”
I was there, too. I agree with Hattem’s interpretation of the Audience’s tone & Ulrich’s response.
Thanks for the comment and sharing your response to Feinberg.
Largely on the nose reply Michael. I think of the core of it is this bit: “I think many academic historians (especially of early America) acknowledge the need for historians to expand their audience among the general public but not by prostrating ourselves at the altar of American exceptionalism or nationalism.”
Anyway, great job!
I find the whole discussion kind of confusing.
People styling themselves critics of academic history usually seem to be saying, one way or another, that academic history doesn’t engage “the public” because it’s fundamentally boring. They may not put it quite that way, but that’s the impression I get. I sympathize with that perspective, but I think the problem is less that academic historians don’t try to write exciting and accessible histories—practically everybody wants to, and we can all name a few fantastic models of rigorous but accessible history—and more that graduate programs don’t focus enough on the actual skills required for that, and our professional requirements usually force scholars to defer that kind of work for years. Writing good history for a wide audience is hard and time-consuming in ways that writing good history for a narrow audience isn’t, and sometimes academic training doesn’t prepare us for it at all. (How many historians have never had any formal training, at either the undergraduate or the graduate level, in writing stories? And how many people don’t advance professionally because they published one gem of a text instead of several pointless ones?)
That’s rarely the way the complaint works. The complaint doesn’t attack the tenure clock; it attacks complexity and doubt, implying that these things are boring. Yet the most exciting stories are not necessarily the ones that end happily. The most provocative claims are not necessarily the ones everybody is used to hearing. Why would the public find history more engaging the more predictable and tidy it is? Yet this seems to be the unspoken assumption guiding a lot of these attacks on academia: Our writing is boring because it’s ambiguous.
When you think about it, furthermore, a history that says “Certain people experienced certain things during and after the American Revolution, and some of these things were bad and some of them were good” is far more concrete, far more comprehensible (all else being equal), and far more useful than a history that operates on the level of abstractions: “revolution,” “liberty,” “leadership.” What on earth is leadership, anyway? Other than a term everybody’s employers use to avoid actually learning what their own workers do? What is liberty, other than the second-most vacuous term in American English? People don’t trust their managers or their politicians; why would historians try to sound like them?
Jonathan, thanks for the comment. I really don’t have much of a reply other than “right on.”
Well done, Roy. Your footnote 9 is a superb rejoinder to the gendered and racial assumptions undergirding Feinman and others’ calls for historians to declare their unequivocal adoration for the Revolution and to reduce its history and significance to a series of battles fought primarily between white men and other white men.
I often find myself wondering who this undefined and monolithic “public” is that academic historians need to do a better job of writing for and connecting with. I certainly agree that academic history can and should be well-written and accessible to interested non-academics, but it strikes me as naïve to believe that the general public at large is going to be interested in what I, or anyone else, writes about. And that includes “America f— yeah!” military histories of the Revolution.
Thanks for the comment, Chris. The praise is much appreciated.
I think you are right on the gendered/racialized elements. I cut from the final piece a discussion of how most calls to “broaden the historical audience” (particular through military history & leadership studies) means appealing to older white dudes. It is an issue I’d like to return to. I might even make a good JuntoCast episode!
Again, thanks for the comment!
I’m torn on this. I, too, was in the room when Gearhart asked that question to the panel, and I would characterize the audience reaction as discomfort—there was a great deal of nervous giggling, uncertain looks at friends, etc. Part of that discomfort certainly stems from the idea that “they were stunned that such a simplistic and impertinent question would even be asked at a conference like that,” and most were certainly reacting to the question, not the silence. That said, I also think the discomfort stemmed from the fact that many people expected this kind of a question to drop eventually. It’s a classic trap question we’ve all come to fear from friends, students, and family, and one that very few academics have anything like a satisfactory answer to. It is asked not with an open mind, but because people do not expect academics to be able to answer it, and they are often right.
But what do we do about it? Is the right reaction to throw up our hands and assume that the general public (whatever that is) and public historians are too simple minded and jingoistic to bother with?
I think we should have a stronger answer for the question of “was the revolution good or bad”—and questions like it that ask for value judgements and assume certain things about the politics of academics—than “some of both,” one that brings out the excitement of ambiguity that Jonathan Wilson mentioned in his comment and the importance of complexity mentioned in the article. Despite the way we may sometimes characterize non-Academics, people like complicated stories and ambiguous characters—just look at popular entertainment like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, hell, even Game of Thrones. There is nothing shocking or necessarily disheartening about the fact that the public wants a narrative that makes them feel ok about who and where they are, but we would do best not to assume that the narrative everyone wants is wrapped in an American flag guarded by a crying eagle, or that we have nothing to offer that kind of conversation.
Obviously most academics are going to disagree with Feinman. But he, like many other public historians, is an engaged and interested person and I think responding to this by circling the wagons is a mistake. We don’t have to agree. We don’t have to produce works of blind patriotism. We have every right to press our multiple advantages. But it would be nice if we could find a way to talk to each other that builds on the fact that everyone here is intelligent, loves history, and just wants to know more.
Alexandra, thank you very much for the thoughtful comment.
This post was spawned by the fact that Feinman’s series of posts are kind of my nightmares incarnate. It is a series of posts by someone who is clearly a committed public historian (I googled around, he puts his money where his money where his mouth is) criticizing an excellent academic conference for not being pro-America enough. Feinman has other complaints, to be sure, but the “anti-American” canard is the one he comes back to again and again. The idea of historians having to pass a litmus test of that sort, in order to engage with the public, repulses me to my core and brings out the snark.
I agree that “it would be nice if we could find a way to talk to each other that builds on the fact that everyone here is intelligent, loves history, and just wants to know more” but, as my English/French/Dothraki joke was meant to highlight I think there is a serious communication issue. We need have a discussion about what different groups (and who these groups consist of) *want* from history before I believe that this gap can be bridged. The wants and needs of academics, history buffs, reenactors, school teachers, etc. are all different. We need to find a way to service the needs of (some?) these groups w/o violating want makes them unique.
Again, great comment!
I find myself in the “public history” sphere. Military history is what drew me to the discipline like a moth to the flame. I think perhaps the big “F-you” fights tend to spring up when passionate people leap to defend beliefs and favorite authors. I also have a feeling that those of us on the public history side of things believe that the academics tend to look down upon us (hence Feinman’s use of the term “Ivory Tower” and the “elite”) but this does nothing but further drive a wedge between us.
It also does not help me, who received his MA in US History from American Military University (an online campus) when I am thinking about pursuing a PhD. I worry that my CV will not be looked highly upon by any institution that I would apply too. I look at the AHA posts on how there are more PhDs out there than there are positions-I am told by PhD candidates “do not go for a PhD-go teach high school or stay and adjunct”.
I, however, am in awe of what the academic historian does. I read as many academic histories as I do popular ones and try to stay abreast in current themes as I do teach a US History survey course at my local community college. I highly doubt many of my students will go on with history, but I do try to keep them engaged, as for some, even the popular histories are “boring” to them as well.
Excellent piece and the comments are great, as well. I agree, as well, that the audience’s “gasp” was more in response to the loaded, out of context, and semi-accusatory nature of the question about the sum “good.” There also was a sense, as mentioned above, that something of this ilk would pop up at some point.
Perhaps part of the guarded response from the audience (as well as Thatcher’s bemusement) was experiential in the sense that most of us would attest to the simple fact that students are far more engaged and interested in the more muddled reality rather than the hagiographic narratives of the past (and, urm, in many circles the present). I do have to say that my public history experiences are only reinforcing this sense in my mind, and that often public history institutions underestimate or misjudge the interests of visitors and the willingness of the public to engage critically.
One last thought. As inappropriate as the question was at the time, I do also think it pointed to one of the great strengths of the conference, namely that it brought together these diverse interests under the banner of a more traditionally academic setting. And such opportunities do allow for these types of exchanges to occur. In the end, I think that Thatcher’s response was as good an answer as any to the question, and that the “good and bad” perspective is one that is important to be interjected within the public’s mind.
I was also at the conference when the Revolution=good/bad question got asked and had a lot of the same reactions people have expressed here. People who were there might remember that Gearhart identified himself as a public speaker on “leadership,” which led me to say in my head, “historians teach us how to think, not to determine the goodness or badness of events–that’s a job for ‘leaders.'”
But then I had another thought. Imagine attending a conference of libertarian scholars of the Civil Rights Movement. That kind of even would have to be full of ambivalent value judgments. On the one hand, the CRM opposed de jure segregation, which a libertarian would regard as good (assuming s/he is not a closet racist); on the other hand, it led to all kinds of new government regulations and bureaucratic enforcement mechanisms, which a libertarian would definitely regard as bad. So it’s easy to imagine libertarians having a mixed view of the CRM’s legacy.
Personally, I would find that totally unacceptable. Sure, I recognize a great deal of complexity in the CRM: internal disputes among activists, a disheartening sexism and homophobia, and some possibly counterproductive outcomes. Yet I have no doubt that it was good–damned good–and I would be outraged by anyone who suggested otherwise. I can easily see myself, after sitting in a room for three days listening to libertarians drone on and on about the consequences of affirmative action, the EEOC, etc., standing up to demand a simple good/bad verdict.
On the other hand, because I’m not particularly invested in American nationality, I don’t require a definitive answer about the American Revolution. But probably most Americans are invested in American nationality. We live in a world structured by nation-states. In fact, Feinmen explicitly called for a “national origins myth.” If early Americanists want to respond more effectively, or at least more to the point, they might have to be clearer about where exactly their loyalties lie. That doesn’t mean staking out an explicitly anti-American position. It means highlighting a “people”-oriented position. It means being more populist, not less so. And maybe it means beginning to redefine the Revolution as “unfinished.” Yes, that implies a teleology. But when someone asks you whether the Revolution was good or bad, they are not really asking you about history, are they?
Ariel, thanks for the comment!
I actually think getting away from teaching the CRM movement as a “good thing” is a great development for the history of the 20th century’s greatest social and political force. By moving away from simplistic measurements (MLJ Jr.: a great man? or the greatest man EVER?) we can really begin to assess the complex legacy of the movement. While legal discrimination was largely conquered by the CRM, it failed to achieve economic justice for African-Americans and other racial minorities, helped spawn “color-blinded conservativism”, etc. etc. There is a lot of scholarship out there is that is deeply critical of the CRM (without being racist or even politically conservative) that gets overshadowed – for the worse for our political culture, I think.
There is clearly something political here. I am not opposed to politicalized scholarship – as long as it follows disciplinary rules of evidence & argument. I am opposed to rejecting scholarship or demanding that scholarship meet some political litmus test. That is my central issue with Feinman that brought out my snarky side.
Put another way: I’d be willing to listen to this conference of libertarian scholars of the Civil Rights Movement but they’d have to convince they’re correct using the tools of the historical discipline.
Anyway, thanks again for the great comment!
Roy, I agree with everything you said (MLK worship obscures important stuff about the CRM; politicized scholarship must retain rigorous standards). I think I just want to point out that it’s possible, and sometimes necessary, both to grasp complexity and ultimately to choose a side. Probably the most interesting remark from the ARR conference came when Michael McDonnell basically said that the Revolution was bad for Americans because it prevented the emergence of social democracy as occurred elsewhere in the Anglo world.
Ariel, I think we are pretty much in agreement. It is possible to pick a political side in this binary questions while maintaining a commitment to nuance and complexity. Indeed, I hope that’s what my scholarship does! 🙂
Eeyore, I salute you!! As a participant in this much-discussed conference, I’ve followed the blogs, tweets, and conversations about it during and since with a mixture of interest, appreciation, trepidation (when my own paper was mentioned), amusement, and, I must admit, a modicum of Eeyore-like annoyance. I’m someone with neither the pithiness nor the patience to tweet (the character limit raises PTSD about online grant applications). So I particularly had my hat off to all those intrepid tweeters recapping it in real time. And the bloggers (and their respondents) since have raised some critical issues and truly insightful questions, Feinman in particular. All due praise given: what has bothered me–and this was at the conference itself as well as in the responses to it–is the tendency to focus on what the conference did *not* discuss, rather than to hash out what it did. The discussion around the Ulrich response (or lack thereof, depending on one’s point of view–I for one thought she was gracious and thoughtfully bemused rather than anguished and befuddled) is the perfect example of this.
To speak from my own perspective: I am not writing a history of Sullivan’s Campaign, nor of violence during the Revolution, nor of grisly artifacts made of human skin. My larger project is bigger (undoubtedly probably too much so) in scope that that. I presented on these things alone at the conference, however, because, to begin with, I had only 10 pages and worse, only 8 minutes. And I was writing about a grisly artifact made of human skin during Sullivan’s Campaign. And I was on a panel themed “Violence” so I chose to address, well, violence.
The complaint has been made that we tended to talk about the Revolution itself rather than the long lead up to it. I’m working right now on an essay that discusses the dissolution of the British Empire/coming of the Revolution, and I begin it in the 1720s. The fact that my conference paper focused on 1779 did not, actually, reflect my sense that the 1760s, or the 1750s, or even, as I just alluded, the 1720s and further back, aren’t paramount when discussing the Revolution. My paper focused on 1779 because it was about events that happened in…1779. I suspect many of my co-presenters focused on the discrete topics and chronologies they did for much the same reasons. It would be puzzling if not rude, for example, for me to have shown up with a paper on Abigail Adams’ wartime correspondence about child education with female friends when I was slated to speak about violence. This does not mean I do not think issues of gender are important (I do); it simply means I was not tapped to present on them. And so I did not. In short, I’ve found the focus on what we presenters did *not* discuss, rather than discussion of what we did, to be both counterproductive and a bit frustrating. And, of course, this is meant to be the first of three (I think?) conferences rebirthing the American Revolution, so I suspect things like gender that were largely absent from this one will make a future appearance.
To end by going back to the Ulrich question: I think she was not only gracious, but absolutely spot on. The American Revolution, like America itself, was/is both a good and a bad thing. History, like the people who make it, is messy and complicated. That my own paper took a negative view of Patriot military campaigns was not because I dislike military history or don’t heart Washington (I shouldn’t admit this, probably, but I actually heart them both). It was because when I come across artifacts made of human skin, and read journal entries about Patriot soldiers casually skinning dead Indians to make leggings to wear as trophies on a campaign that destroyed much of Iroquoia and ended in a whole lot of innocent people dying the following winter, I can’t really find it in me to celebrate these soldiers as “martyrs” to freedom.
This is not to say, however, that I do not love America, or the American Revolution. I began my presentation with a personal anecdote about going to my grandfather’s WWII Air Force reunions partly to make the point that we as Americans have tended to elide Patriot violence from our narratives of the Revolution. And partly because as my self-admitted fascination with going to said reunions probably indicates: one reason I’m writing about the Revolution is that I am, well, patriotic. This doesn’t mean I don’t see (and take issue with) the many terrible things we Americans have done (and continue to do). People don’t have to be perfect for us to love them; neither do countries. But as historians we would do our craft a serious disservice if we did not discuss early America’s faults as well as achievements. And this goes for public history as well–I’d argue perhaps even more so–as it does for the “Ivory Tower.” I committed the cardinal sin of chronological leap-frogging by ending my conference paper with discussion of the monuments NY State erected in 1929 to celebrate Sullivan’s Campaign to emphasize this. You can be quite certain those monuments don’t make any mention of leggings Patriot soldiers made from skinned Native American flesh. If we academic historians don’t bring these stories out, who will?
Zara, thank you so much for the great comment!
I don’t have much to add except to say that I think your final two paragraphs are largely spot on!
Obviously the issues discussed by Michael, Roy, Mike Zuckerman, Peter Feinman, and all the other commenters go well beyond the Rev. Reborn conference itself. That said, I do want to make a point about the nature of the conference that I think was somewhat misinterpreted by Feinman and has been an implicit point of debate throughout.
Michael Hattem thought the good/bad question was out of place at “a conference like that,” meaning an academic conference. But Feinman does not seem to think that it was an academic “conference like that.” It “wasn’t an OAH or AHA conference,” as he put it. Rather, he proceeds under the assumption that “the goal American Revolution Reborn conference” was to somehow “create a new master narrative of the American Revolution that resonates with the American people.” And so he thinks it would be pretty illogical for the participants to “look down on American people as simplistic and for being unfair for asking “Cut to chase.”
In essence, Feinman seemed to think this was the time and place to consider such grandiose questions. But as a presenter at the conference, I never got the impression that this was the goal at all. If anything, I thought I had been selected to take part in a hyper-specialized conference, one that was supposed to bring together not American historians or early American historians, but a small subset of both of those groups, specialists in the American Revolution. My greatest ambition for the conference was that my paper and presentation would make offer just a little bit of good fodder for discussion and might take the conversation in some interesting directions. I was daunted, somewhat excited, but most of all surprised, when about a week out from the conference I heard that registration was booming and the audience would include a wide range of people beyond academic specialists on the Revolution. I do not think I was the only one.
Even then, I certainly did not think I was helping to build some master narrative. Master narratives are a scary proposition. So when Laurel Ulrich received that question, I shared in the general reaction of “mild bemusement.” Then I freaked out for a second. What the hell would I have done had that question been directed at me? And what would I do if I got another one like it? That’s certainly not a question a 3rd year graduate student wants to answer in front of a few hundred colleagues, especially the large contingent of mid-career and senior leaders of the field. To put it mildly, assessing the entire legacy of the American Revolution in that room would not have been my idea of a good time. My moment of panic was fleeting, thankfully. I realized there was an entire program’s worth of people and dozens of audience members who would get asked that question before anyone would even think to ask me.
As I understood it, I had the really exciting opportunity to take part in a conference that aimed to “identify new directions and new trends in scholarship on the American Revolution.” I never doubted, as Mike Zuckerman suggested, that we would be “having conferences like The American Revolution Reborn forever.” In the end, if Peter Feinman does not believe Mike Zuckerman that “humility” best characterized the mood of the conference, and if he wants proof that the goal of this conference was far more modest than constructing a “master narrative of the American Revolution that resonates with the American people,” he need not look beyond the fact that my name was on the program.
Great comment, Mark.
One thing to add, though. I think you’re being far too self-deprecating here. I read your paper, it certainly deserved to be in such a conference.
Defining terms is important.
1. “public history” =/= “popular history”
2. Peter Feinman =/= “public historians”
Also, questions like “what is ‘the public’?” and “why aren’t they very interested in academic historians’ work?” and even (somewhat less charitable, though understandable) “why are they so simple minded and jingoistic?” have all been grappled with, many times over, since the renewal of academic interest in public history in the 1970s. Assuming many of the authors and readers here have access to JSTOR, I’d suggest–in earnest–poking around a few back issues of The Public Historian sometime.
Evan, thank you very much for your comment. Sorry it took me a bit to reply, I was going to fire off a response late last night but decided to sleep on it. I’m glad I did.
You’re right, of course, public history and popular history are not the same thing. I sloppily conflated them here and for that I apologize. Quite inexcusable and unfair to both ways of doing history.
I hope the above doesn’t suggest, however, that I believe Peter Feinman represents ALL public historians. I certainly don’t believe that. I was writing (really snarking) about a *particular* clash between a (self-described) public historian and an academic conference. I wouldn’t want this post to standing for the totality of my views on public history because it absolutely does not. Perhaps some future episode will give me the chance to write a positive account on my views on the relationship between academic and public history.
Thank you for recommendation of “The Public Historian.” I have read a few articles from that journal back when I was working towards my MA (the program at GMU has strong public history bent). I certainly haven’t read it in any sort of systematic or earnest fashion. If I get the chance I will see of the CUNY Graduate Center’s always spotty JSTOR subscriptions (we didn’t have the W&MQ until like two years ago!) cover “The Public Historian.” Let’s hope so.
Anyway, thanks again for the comment! You gave me a lot to think about.
Hi Roy, thanks for the clarification. FWIW, I’ve greatly enjoyed the discussion here on the historiographical issues raised by Feinman’s critique, and am squarely in agreement with the insightful responses you and Michael have registered. Keep up the good work!
When writing the history of America, it is not revisionism to emphasize that the invention of the automobile was bad for the economy — from the perspective of horseshoers. 😉
Greetings from Roy’s Nightmare,
The editor of New York History has informed me of the discussion which was taking place about my posts so I decided to take a look. I did know that Mike Hattem who submitted two comments to New York History maintained this blog but did not know about Roy’s post.
If I may, I would like to share a few comments myself.
First, the blog I wrote for is New York History. That means I needed a New York angle and the military served it well. There are a plethora of American Revolution sites in the state and except for the passing reference to Sullivan’s campaign, they were not mentioned. If you read the my posts including my responses to various people who commented on the Missing New York post, you would know that I explained on several occasions that the conference was not designed to and could not accommodate every facet of the American Revolution. That being said, it would be interesting to know from those in the audience who do teach the American Revolution, what if any coverage they give to the military portion of the story.
Second as to Ulrich, I confess to having a lot of fun with the incident. The question asked to the panel, remember she was one of three people, was a bolt out of nowhere. That is precisely what makes it so important. Maybe in a graduate seminar all questions are safe and academics certainly are not politicians in a town hall or public meeting, still there is something to be said for the unexpected. As a non-member of your guild, I am having a blast watching you people scurrying around to defend her. It is truly striking to realize that all she had do was answer, “Yes, but….” and she could have listed all the shortcomings she wanted including from the very chart included in this post. I am not sure if those who defend her realize the impact to a civilian in the audience that such a response is so conspicuously absent from the suggested actions she might have taken.
3. Third, and this is something I commented on in my posts, I truly do not understand the connection between saying the American Revolution was a net good and American exceptionalism. There must be something I am missing here because so many people have taken the approach of a 100% correlation that to say the first is to accept the second. Perhaps someone can explain it.
4. Fourth, and this comes from an email to Mike Zuckerman (we have had a quite lively exchange and I think it is not out of line to say he has enjoyed this immensely) but which was edited from my post (editors do that sort of thing!): “Why let the Tea Party define exceptionalism? Why allow the Tea Party to declare a monopoly on patriotism?” I sense a lot of gun-shy people who seem to fear that if they say the American Revolution is good it means they support American Exceptionalism meaning they support the Tea Party. Here is the way I responded to Michael Hattem on New York History on this subject:
“I confess, however, to being puzzled by your reasoning. Somehow the focus of your first paragraph suddenly switched from a value judgement on the question of the American Revolution to American exceptionalism or nationalism. Are you suggesting that if one states on net the American Revolution was a good thing that is the equivalent of saying America is a city on a hill that can do no wrong? Are you suggesting that if one states on net the American Revolution was the good thing that is the equivalent of supporting every president and presidential act done in the name of exceptionalism or nationalism? Are you suggesting that if one states on net the American Revolution was a good thing that is the equivalent of supporting the Tea Party? To make such a leap which is not warranted by the evidence seems rather simplistic and unacademic to me so I know that is not what you meant to say, but it is implied whether you realize it or not. You are not the only one at the conference to make the leap from discussing the Ulrich question to exceptionalism. Perhaps your definition and mine differ on exceptionalism. Is George Bush or Martin Luther King a better example of American exceptionalism?”
5. Fifth, the comment “Your footnote 9 is a superb rejoinder to the gendered and racial assumptions undergirding Feinman and others’ calls for historians to declare their unequivocal adoration for the Revolution and to reduce its history and significance to a series of battles fought primarily between white men and other white men” is so removed from what I said I wonder if the writer even read my posts.
Finally, if I may, I end with some conclusions from New York History posts you may have missed:
Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln were agents of change with links to what had happened four-score and seven years or more ago. The American Revolution was reborn. Lincoln challenged us to be the last best hope of humanity; King challenged us to recognize the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” needed to be an opportunity extended to all America’s citizens. King like Lincoln is far from being a hero in many parts of the country.
The journey needs to continue.
Every time a “We the People” museum like the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society teaches that Buffalo’s history belongs to all its residents, the journey continues.
Every time a historical society of a community headquartered in a colonial home tells the community’s story beyond the 17th and 18th centuries up to the present, the journey continues.
Every time an historical organization seeks to renew the story of the American Revolution, the journey continues.
Every time a school curriculum teaches that America is not frozen in time but an ongoing adventure to live up to its ideals in a constantly changing world, the journey continues.
Yes, the American Revolution was a good thing, but we can’t rest on our laurels.
Yes the American Revolution was a good thing, but there is more that needs to be done.
Yes, the American Revolution was a good thing, and with your help the journey the Founding Fathers began can be renewed for the 21st century.
When will it be good for the Native Americans?
Peter, thank you so much for replying. I’m very glad that we’ve been able to continue this discussion and debate. I must apologize for being so lax in replying to your comment – I’ve had a very busy week or so (I had to travel to very rural PA for a wedding, for example) and I’ve not had the time to set down and give your reply to my post the fully thought out response it deserves.
I’m going to take your points numerically and offer a few general thoughts at the end. I just want to reiterate that what I argue here is just my opinion, not that of the rest of the Junto or, of course, my profession more broadly.
Here we go:
One – when I teach the American Revolution I do talk a lot about the military aspects of the War for Independence. My lecture on the actual revolution itself (1775 – 1783, not on the imperial crisis or the Revolution’s consequences) is dominated by the relatively traditional military story – Boston, New York, Trenton, Saratoga, Charleston, Yorktown, etc. etc. I teach it this way to stress to my students the contingency of the Revolutionary project. There was no guarantee that the Patriots would be able to win independence and at several moments they nearly lost everything. Only a contingent mixture of luck, perseverance, and French won the day for the Revolutionaries.
Two – We simply must agree to disagree over the “Was the American Revolution a Good Thing” question. I simply view this as an analytical version of the “When was the last time you beat your wife?” question. I too love the “unexpected” but the good/bad question is far from unexpected. It is nearly the definition of expected. I believe that an answer to the question of what was good or bad about the Revolution is entirely perspectival – good for whom? (See my response to your third point, below). In fact Ulrich’s response to Gearhart’s question hammers home the nature of that question. From the comments to this post, it is clear that not everyone saw her response as a dodging the question or blotched. How her comments are interpreted is relative.
Three – The problem with the “Yes” answer to the good/bad question and American Exceptionalism is that the whole framework of Exceptionalism requires that answer – especially in relation to the French, Russian, Chinese, and Latin American revolutions. That our Revolution was the “good” revolution is so at the heart of the American Exceptionalism that if you take it away the whole intellectual scaffolding of the position collapses. One would hope that nearly twenty-five years after the wall of the Berlin Wall that this sort of thinking would go away, but as the recent Exceptionalist-ado over Putin’s trolling op-ed suggests that we’ve escaped such a happy fate.
Here is as good a place as any to give you my answer to the “good/bad” question – it all depends on where you stand. The Revolution certainly further empowered male white landowners (particularly of the “middling” sort) but this came at the expense of the land and lives of Native Americans and the labor and lives of African-Americans. This does not even address the question of how the American Revolution impacted women (particularly white women). While educational opportunities for elite (white) women opened up, their legal and political position remained unchanged. White women actually lost political rights in some places after the Revolution. Let’s not forget the gendered experience of the post-Revolutionary frontier – which was far from a net-plus for many white women. Southern African-American women, by-and-large remained enslaved and the communities of Native American women were devastated by the wars that followed the Revolution (not mention the War of Independence itself). I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point clear enough.
How are we to provide a simple net-net account of this? We can only do so by privileging the success of some groups (usually white males) at the expense of others (usually slaves and the aboriginal peoples). This is the sort of logic that I believe we desperately need to escape if we really are going to build a more just and equal American society in the twenty-first century.
Now, this is just my opinion. Other Juntoists and historians disagree with me. You might want to take a look at Ken Owen’s recent post on this subject (https://earlyamericanists.com/2013/09/04/was-the-american-revolution-a-good-thing/), which was spawned by our exchange here.
Four – I am largely going leave the whole “Tea Party Exceptionalism” question to Michael Hattem – the history & the Tea Party beat is very much his (thinking too much about such questions threatens to give me an aneurysm & Michael has a stronger neural-cortex than I do). I will add one thing, however: India produced Gandhi and Prussia produced Immanuel Kant. Are India and Germany Exceptional too?
Five – Chris Jones’s comment (on my reading) wasn’t really about your post, specifically. He was instead drawing attention to the racialized aspects of many calls for academics to make their history more “popular.” Such calls usually mean appealing one segment of the public (usually older & white) over others. I don’t believe that this is what you were doing, but I do agree with Chris that this is often the Elephant in the room when we discuss the need for professional historians to make their writing more “accessible,” “popular,” and “interesting.”*
I want to stress, in the end, the point we were and I are in complete agreement. I believe that American history belongs to every American – white, black, young, old, man, woman, gay, straight. One of the great successes of the last two or three generations of academic and public historians is that our history has become more and more inclusive. 21st-century Americans of all stripes and tribes have more access to their history (and the history of other Americans) than ever before.
I really don’t see, however, how a steady refrain of reaffirming how awesome the American Revolution was accomplishes our shared goal of making our history belong to everyone. As I discussed above, I find a positive net-net reading of the Revolution deeply exclusive and reactionary. I believe it is much more useful to jettison such a simplistic view and really dig into the deep complexity of the causes and consequences of the Revolution which spawned the United States. As beginning teacher I have found this approach useful and successful with my students.
I want to thank you, again, Peter for commenting. This whole exchange has been extremely useful and caused me to (re)think a lot about the relationship between academic-public-popular history. I hope you keep reading the Junto and keep up your work as a public historian.
*Note: I am only here talking about the distinction between academic and popular history, not academic and *public* history. As my exchange with Evan Medley (see above) made clear, I was too sloppy in this post in conflating public and popular history. In my experience much public history has become more and more inclusive over the last twenty years.
As per our commenting policy, which states that “unnecessary insults and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in The Junto‘s Comments section” (the entirety of which can be read here: https://earlyamericanists.com/about/), a previous comment has been removed.
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