How does an ordinary person win a place in history?
Such is the line that Alfred Young opened his classic The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). In a way, the phrase captures much of his overall scholarship. Other contributions to this roundtable have/will cover(ed) how he did this in his influential books, essays, and edited collection. In my post, I want to focus on how he translated his approach into a work that is probably read more than any of his other books. Indeed, Shoemaker and the Tea Party is a popular book in the classroom, both undergrad and graduate, since it tells a fascinating tale with an important message.
The main argument in the book is important and well-known enough: after giving an overview of George Robert Twelves Hewes, the second half of the book is on the history of the Tea Party’s history. Hewes represents the very type of figure Young liked to engage: a “common” person who participated in radical events but has been overlooked in favor of our nation’s famous “Founding Fathers.” Narrating his life, then, is an important project in its own right because it introduces students to a character they otherwise would not have experienced. But in researching Hewes’s life, Young also realized that the famous event that preceded the Revolution, in which radicals dumped tea into the Boston Harbor, was not really discussed until sixty years after it took place. In fact, the name “Tea Party” was not used until Hewes’s assisted memoirs, and was a political term to use in and of itself since it was birthed in a time of class revolt and contested memories.
Both of these topics are important enough to justify exposing them to our undergraduate students; we often need more “bottom-up” history. But in returning to the book, I was even more impressed with how much students would be introduced to the politics and process of history. In the first case, Young is one of those historians who wore their politics on their sleeves. As a proto-New Left Historian and neo-progressive, he wanted his scholarship to have a purpose in modern society and a lesson for contemporary audiences. In the introduction to Shoemaker, he talks about “the political values of the keepers of the past,” the social context of dissent that fueled radical historians during the 1960s, and the very politics of “what’s in a name?” These are important lessons to pass along to students who are often taught that history is objective and should be divorced from our current context. Whether they agree or disagree with Young’s political message, they are often energized to engage with his argument. Students are often eager to discuss politics, so a book like this that refuses to shy away from politics can prove to be a breath of fresh air.
In the second case, I love assigning The Schoemaker and the Tea Party because it teaches the complexity of the historical craft. Between the time that Young began to research Hewes in the early 1980s and the time he returned to him in the late 1990s, the subfield of memory studies had transformed the historical profession. Memoirs and recollections, previously either disregarded or superficially engaged, could now be examined with the tools provided by psychologists and social theorists. Young took advantage of these developments in skillfully dissecting Hewes’s reminiscences and telling us what they mean. Students are often amazed with this interdisciplinary exercise because it upends jejune approaches to the past and makes them grapple with the complex nature of the historical record. In short, this is a great book with which to expose students to new ways to look at the historical craft.
Colloquially, I can say that I believe Shoemaker and the Tea Party works so well at accomplishing these goals because it did so with me: this was one of the first books I read after adding history as a secondary major while an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University. I was fortunate to take a class on the American Revolution by Christopher Hodson, and this was one of the first books assigned in the course. I was transfixed with this new way to approach history–for the first time, the field seemed engaging and exciting. It also seemed much more relevant. We read the book only weeks prior to Barack Obama’s first election as president, so everything appeared political at the time; this context made Young’s lessons all the more significant. I look forward to passing on this lesson to other students in my classroom. And for a scholar who spent much of his life dislodging old and staid perspectives of the past, it is important that a decent summary of his approach and argument are found in a digestible text ready-made for undergraduates.
[Plus, I kinda have a thing for assigning undergraduates books on people with funny names.]
Pingback: The Masquerade « The Junto