The Week in Early American History

TWEAHThis week, we’re bringing in a bumper crop of cultural opportunities and political teachable moments.

For starters, Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, is back on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, in a yearlong exhibition called “Once There Were Billions.”

On July 8, the Library of Congress will hold the first in its series of lectures on the Magna Carta. “Trial by Jury—Magna Carta’s Influence in Criminal Law and Legal Representation” will feature a discussion by professors Angela J. Davis, Monroe Freedman, Paul Butler, Vida Johnson, and Abbe Smith.

On July 24-26, the Association for Documentary Editing will hold its thirty-sixth annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

October 11 will see the first Cape May Mitten Festival, a celebration of Cape May Mitts, “America’s first brand-name designer clothing.” The festival is an outgrowth of research by Jamie Hand.

This weekend, the holy month of Ramadan has begun. Ramadan in the United States, says Khaled A. Beydoun, is a multicultural event—but also one with deep roots in America.

In the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, says Jeff Shesol, “what we have is the Justices as junior-faculty historians.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, as part of his ongoing “deep dive into the Civil War,” has produced an introductory narrative bibliography on slavery’s expansion and importance to American nationality, and one for the creation of the North’s urban crisis as a result of deliberate policy choices.

Having already visited the colonial Caribbean and revolutionary America, the Assassin’s Creed video game series will visit revolutionary Paris when Assassin’s Creed Unity releases in October.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has announced its receipt of a $5.4 million donation from David M. Rubenstein, which will go toward its two-year renovation project.

“When I looked at the painting” of Dido Elizabeth Belle, says the director Amma Asante, “I saw politics, art, history and race all tied in a big bow but set in an Austen-esque world and that, for a storyteller, is a gift.”

Instructors may find an online tool called Hemingway useful for teaching students to write clearly and concisely.  The rest of us may find it useful too.

Metadata, says Molly Hardy, represents labor and marks an institution’s stake in the collections it preserves. Open-access proponents, and digital humanists generally, should bear this in mind.

The current edition of The Appendix features an interactive story by Rachel Ponce, who guides readers through Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic. It would be like the Choose Your Own Adventure novels, if they “ended in a haze of black vomit, a back-alley stabbing by a pimp, or the irretrievable loss of a child.”

Finally, everybody seems to be in favor of “public engagement” by faculty members, says David M. Perry—“But does it count?” You know. Toward you-know-what.

One response

  1. I think Shesol’s commentary is interesting, but I’m sure the academy can agree that, practically speaking, the Court engaging in the historical debate is beneficial as a whole – it takes the subjects of academics and applies them to practical considerations.

    I also think Shesol is oversimplifying the conflict between the concurrence and the majority. If historians cringe when they hear originalists proclaim what the monolithic “Founders” intended, I would certainly hope they likewise cringe when they hear pragmatists basing how the Constitution should be interpreted solely on the Federalist Papers – an equally pernicious brand of counter-originalism, using the Founders’ statements in favor of a “living constitution” interpretation. There were certainly founders who wanted the Constitution to grow in the manner of common law and the British constitution, and there were founders who wanted it to remain static.

    What’s been shown to be true, as we all know, is that the founders weren’t monolithic. What the majority and concurrence show, as well, is that there was as much of a disagreement among the founding generation on the subject as there is now. Edmund Randolph favored a strict reading of the clause, while James Madison and Charles Lee (marginally of the founding generation) favored a broader one. Both Randolph and Madison were at the Convention, and both played a substantial role; Madison’s was greater by quantity and quality, but that doesn’t devalue Randolph’s. It’s likely that the ambiguity was either unintended, or that the Convention knew the ambiguity would be resolved through practice.

    So, what it comes down to is what historians have been arguing since Charles Beard, right through Forrest McDonald, Bernard Bailyn, and Max Edling. What the Court was sorting through were individual opinions, not monolithic interpretations. Scalia may have been cherry-picking, but no more so than Breyer; Scalia was choosing “exceptions” only to the extent his opinion is less well-represented in the historical record.

    I wrote about this around the same time over at my blog. Thanks for highlighting this subject! As a lawyer, it’s always nice to see my profession rely on the academy, regardless of the controversy it may generate.


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