The OId World of the New Republic

Dept of Treasury notice

As someone who works on the late colonial period (1730s-1770s) in a field dominated by the “early republic,” it is easy to feel as though I am working on the margins of the field of early American history rather than what is actually the middle or center of what we usually define as early America (i.e., 1607 to somewhere between 1848 and 1861).[1] Yet, in this brief, speculative post, I will suggest that—in terms of my own subfield of political history and political culture—one of the things missing from much of the scholarship on the early republic is the colonial period itself. 

The impetus for writing this piece came about after finding the document pictured above. It is an official document from the Secretary of the Treasury signed by Alexander Hamilton in 1792. What struck me about it was the nature of the official wording of the date following the year: “. . . and of Independence the sixteenth.” It is quite reminiscent of the way in which official British and colonial documents were dated according to the current monarch’s accession, e.g., “In the ninth Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord Charles the Second.” Yet, it seems to me more than a mere dating convention. There seem to be correlations and connotations being suggested here between the status of independence and that of an accession. But independence was fundamentally new and accessions were just a change while retaining (the) continuity (of monarchy), right? Not necessarily (on both counts).

In a 2007 roundtable in The William and Mary Quarterly, Jack P. Greene called for using “postcolonial theory” to decentralize the nation-state and begin to pay back the “huge price” paid by “national as well as colonial histories” for the “subordination of the colonial to the national era.” By focusing on “settlers,” one could understand early national westward expansion and state creation within a continuous (British) imperial paradigm, thereby “rais[ing] state and provincial history to the same level as national history” and effecting a “massive reshaping of what scholars call American history.”[2] Among his fellow participants, David Armitage favored “uncoupl[ing] nationhood from statehood,” but remained skeptical of Greene’s brand of “postcolonialism” and his localist orientation. Kariann Yokota suggested extending the cultural aspects of postcolonial theory in the period by focusing on material culture. And, finally, Michael Zuckerman questioned whether Greene knew exactly what he meant by “postcolonial.”

In some sense, Greene was suggesting an understanding of the early republic as one in which the primary transformation was not from colonies to states but a change in the imperial metropol from London to Washington. And one cannot help but get a sense of “historiographical colonialism” here on Greene’s part, in which a colonial historian of the eighteenth-century British empire is telling early national historians of the nineteenth century that they should impose the paradigm of his period onto their own. My concern here is not nearly as all-encompassing or overarching as those of Jack Greene and neither is it my intention to claim more importance for the colonial period over the early republic.

However, it has seemed to me that within this explosion of scholarship over the last two and a half decades (particularly in political history and political culture) there has been a drive to see the early republic and things happening there as “new” or “first.”[3] It apparently remains a quite heady experience to work in a period where that is an almost a priori assumption. For historians seeking change, what could offer greater possibilities than the establishment of a new nation, fully appointed with all the trimmings (and trappings) of national histories? But our concern with state and party formation seems to have resulted in an almost academic form of American exceptionalism, a disconnect with the colonial period that has implicitly rendered an important part of our history moot. Neither 1776 nor 1787 (or even the 1790s, for that matter) were an absolute and complete break with the colonial period, especially in cultural but even social and political terms.

The political history of the early republic over the last twenty-five years has been built upon the two towers of the “public sphere” and “nationalism.”[4] A number of works of colonial history in that same period have—to my mind—shown striking similarities (and potential continuities) between the two periods in those topics that concern political historians of the early republic most, i.e., the public sphere, collective identity, print culture, and political parties and participation, as well as the structure of government.

Michael Warner’s Letters of the Republic charted out (with more theoretical fidelity than most early republic political historians) the rise of the public sphere in the colonial period, and that was supplemented by Charles Clark’s work on print in the first half of the eighteenth century, The Public Prints. The widespread establishment of newspapers, the emergence of social and public libraries (in towns large and small), the increased efficiency of the post, the boom in educational institution-building and voluntary associationism all contributed in their own ways to an increasing amount of sociopolitical opportunities (for primarily white males, of course), on top of those already commonly afforded by the relatively accessible structures of colonial governance mid-century. We now better understand the ways in which many of these developments, particularly print, helped create both intra- and inter-colonial collective identities (or, what early republic historians would call “imagined communities”) amongst colonists in the few decades before the imperial crisis.

Most recently, Benjamin Irvin’s Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty has reminded us of the continued use of monarchical symbolism in the theater of revolutionary and early national national politics.[5] Meanwhile, in more fundamental, structural terms, Alison LaCroix’s The Ideological Origins of American Federalism has built on the work of Jack Greene by tracing the origins and relationship between federalism and late colonial British imperial praxis.[6] And, when it comes to economic culture, I’m sure I am not the only colonial historian who has experienced déjà vu when reading Charles Sellers’ The Market Revolution.

Of course, all of these colonial period developments did not exist fully formed (on an “early republic scale”), but that, after all, is the point. I am not arguing for the superiority or supremacy of the colonial period, merely its continuing relevance to the early republic. So when one reads of the emergence of the “public sphere” or “American nationalism” in the early republic, I think it is important not only to remember the foundation for it was laid in the late colonial period but to consider those connections more deeply.

Pauline Maier wrote about the disconnect in the way the two periods are taught almost ten years ago.[7] But that “disjunction” remains. Indeed, it now reaches beyond the classroom into the scholarship itself. Despite all of the work on similar developments by historians of both periods, there has been a stunning lack of crosstalk between them. In a very real sense, they seem to inhabit two different worlds. Perhaps it is time those two worlds collided.


[1] It wasn’t always like this (wistfulness intended). For decades in the first half of the twentieth century, the most important work in early American history focused on the colonial period, followed by decades of important work on the Revolution (i.e., the end of the colonial period). That all began to change in the late-1970s and early 1980s with the establishment of SHEAR in 1977 and the Journal of the Early Republic in 1981, culminating in the unprecedented explosion over the past two decades of work on the early republic.

[2] Jack P. Greene, “Colonial History and National History: Reflections on a Continuing Problem,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 64, no. 2 ( 2007): 235-50. Greene’s focus on the settlement of the states and the establishment of statehood suggests strong similarities with his perception of the nature of the British empire in the middle of the eighteenth century, i.e., not one of decentralization so much as diffusion, in terms of power.

[3] When the colonial period is incorporated into works on early republic political culture, it is usually in a set-the-stage type of introduction, but often it comes off as obligatory (to what’s become a kind of structural cliché) rather than integral. Origins, if they are to be found outside the immediate context of the early republic, tend to emerge from the Revolution itself. And yet, the social and cultural effects of the war remain largely under-explored topics.

[4] See The Junto‘s roundtable from last year on the legacy of the New New Political History.

[5] Benjamin H. irvin, Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 175.

[6] Alison L. LaCroix, The Ideological Origins of American Federalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[7] Pauline Maier, “Disjunctions in Early American History,” Historically Speaking 6, no. 4 (2005): 19-22.

7 responses

  1. This is a sin of historians of all periods, not just those who study the early republic. When historians don’t have have a good intellectual understanding of periods before their own, they often ignore the ideas/developments/trends that preceded the purportedly “new” phenomena they are discussing. Personally, I find 20th-century Americanists particularly guilty of this.

    On the dominance of the early republic in the historiography: As you suggest in footnote 1, this is only recently the case. When I was in grad school 30 years ago (yikes!!) the early republic as a field was moribund. It started to come to life in the 1980s with the liberalism/republicanism debate (which was tiresome in its own way). For much of the 1990s, SHEAR and the JER struggled for legitimacy among an older generation of historians who looked to the OIEAHC and the WMQ for their intellectual agenda. I think it’s only after SHEAR/JER joined forces with the McNeill center that the field really took off and gained the prominence it has today.

    But this is also a long way of saying that historiographical trends wax and wane and the colonial period is ripe for a comeback!

    • Thanks for commenting, Rosemarie. Your first point is spot on. I can only speak about it from my own perspective as a colonial/Revolutionary period historian but we would all be served well by more inter-field discourse. Of course, you are also right about the cyclical nature of these things and it differs from subfield to subfield. It can be very easy to come across in making an argument like this that one is valuing their own period above all others (as I suggested Greene’s prescription hinted at), and I hope that, at the very least, I did not do that. As I said, I think both groups would benefit from thinking about the long-term relationships of other periods to their own.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Michael D. Hattem has an interesting post at the Junto about how their is a disconnect between historians of the Early Republic and American colonial historians. Hattem states that scholars of the Early Republic have failed to recognize the continuity between colonial America and the Early Republic. Scholars of the Early Republic have a tendency to point to “new” things (especially in the political realm) in the Early Republic that were also observable in colonial times. Hattem’s post, like all of his posts, is worth checking out.

  3. I just have a quick thought in response to this engaging piece. Whither Atlantic History? It seems to me that sub-field has done a very good job at stressing continuity across chronological periods, and that it is increasingly embracing the Revolutionary and Early Republic periods as eras in which Atlantic connections remained paramount. Eliga Gould springs to mind as a scholar who has mined more colonially-focused Atlantic histories in order to tell a story about the Early Republic. David Hancock has done similar work, although to a lesser extent.

    Perhaps the issue, however, is that Atlantic History (however defined) has explicitly denied the exceptionalism of the American Revolution. In other words, self-identifying Atlantic historians subsume America’s founding conflict within a broader Age of Revolutions, that encompasses France, Haiti, and Latin America. They seem to me more interested in divining how the American founding conflict fits into a late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century Atlantic World still defined by colonialism for the most part, rather than rarefying the Revolution as something new.

  4. Pingback: The Week in Early American History « The Junto

  5. Pingback: Have Cultural Historians Lost the American Revolution? « The Junto

  6. Pingback: The Origins of the Revolution: Definition, Periodization, and Complexity « The Junto


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