On Sunday, the United States Postal Service introduced a stamp commemorating the 250th anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act. Today we are pleased to present an interview with Zachary Hutchins, editor of a new collection of essays from Dartmouth College Press that challenges traditional understandings of the Stamp Act Crisis as (in the words of the USPS) “setting [the colonists] on a path toward revolution and independence.” Zach is an Assistant Professor of English at Colorado State University. In 2014 he published his first book, Inventing Eden: Primitivism, Millennialism, and the Making of New England. A 2016 Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Hutchins is currently completing his second monograph, Before Equiano: A Prehistory of the North American Slave Narrative.
JUNTO: Community without Consent was published on the heels of the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act and its subsequent repeal. Can you tell us more about the background and origins of this collection of essays?
ZACHARY HUTCHINS: As I was working on an early draft of my own essay in this collection, I realized that very little had been written about the Stamp Act since the 1970s and that the foundational account by Edmund Morgan and Helen Morgan from 1953 is still our definitive treatment. The relative dearth of scholarship on this inflammatory moment in the transatlantic power struggle between Britain and its various colonies was tremendously surprising. I think it’s the magnetic draw of the American Revolution that’s to blame—the Stamp Act inevitably gets subsumed in a larger narrative of incipient nationalism and is rarely thought of on its own terms.
My consciousness of the upcoming anniversary was actually spurred by the sesquicentennial celebrations for the Civil War; announcements of that anniversary were all over the news starting in 2011, and it occurred to me that this anniversary of an event which happened a hundred years before the Civil War offered a compelling reason to reassess the Stamp Act and its complicated legacy. I circulated the CFP somewhat blindly but was tremendously impressed by the submissions that came in—it was immediately clear to me that there was a critical mass of people thinking about the Stamp Act from new perspectives and that I had the makings of a wonderful book.
JUNTO: Collectively, the essays in your book expand the geographical, linguistic, cultural, and racial boundaries of scholarship on the Stamp Act Crisis. You note in the afterword that it was “a moment in which individuals from disparate backgrounds regularly banded together” but not in the ways traditionally assumed. It “fractured more than fomented national identity” (223). How do you see your work building on, responding to, and revising previous scholarship on the Stamp Act?
HUTCHINS: Because the Morgans’ work continues to be so influential, the Stamp Act is almost always regarded as a “Prologue to Revolution” and treated as an episode in the history of the nascent United States. But Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy reminded us fifteen years ago that the Stamp Act applied to British colonies that never joined the American Revolution; thinking about the Stamp Act through the lens of American nationalism limits the range of stories you can tell about its impact. In some cases, the essays in Community without Consent challenge the causal thrust of nationalist readings directly. For example, the first chapter in the volume, by Patrick Mullins, questions the wisdom of drawing throughlines from Stamp Act riots in Massachusetts to the violence at Lexington and Concord in 1775. Other essays take on the nationalist thrust of scholarship more obliquely. Alexander Jablonski’s chapter reminds us that debates over the Stamp Act often centered on the rights and responsibilities of British subjects—a legal identity sometimes forgotten in our eagerness to discuss the duties and privileges of citizens in the new nation. Two other chapters, by Molly Perry and Gil Gigliotti, remind us that the static categories we often use to identify individuals or groups of people were fluid—affiliation with the anti-Stamp movement could be temporary, conditional, and deeply conflicted. Sailors who participated in mob violence did not affirm a permanent opposition to parliamentary taxation in the manner of those who signed the Declaration of Independence. The anonymous poet whose Latin verse is the subject of Gigliotti’s essay was effectively paralyzed, sympathetic to both pro- and anti-Stamp arguments and thus unable to commit to either movement.
JUNTO: The volume features an interdisciplinary roster of contributors, including both historians (Alexander Jablonski, Patrick Mullins, and Molly Perry) and literary scholars (Gilbert Gigliotti, Todd Thompson, Caroline Wigginton, Clay Zuba, and yourself). Was that intentional? What and how does that interdisciplinary/ multidisciplinary approach add to our understanding of the Stamp Act Crisis and its significance?
HUTCHINS: My vision for this book was always interdisciplinary, and the CFP invited contributors from a number of different fields—religious studies, art history, and African American studies, among others—to submit proposals. One of my great regrets with this volume is that a musicologist who had proposed an essay on the 1766 theater season in Charleston, South Carolina was ultimately forced to withdraw his submission for personal reasons. That piece would have been a wonderful addition to the volume.
I wanted to include essays from contributors in multiple fields because I think that scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds tend to choose different objects of study and that exposure to new texts, artifacts, and approaches always enriches our perspective on events like the Stamp Act crisis. For instance, most discussions of women’s participation in the anti-Stamp cause has focused on their role in a domestic economy of production and consumption, but Caroline Wigginton’s essay introduces a poem written by Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson in response to John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. Fergusson read that poem to Dickinson and other members of her literary salon; her verse makes visible the participation of women in public discussions of philosophy, governance, and economy. Chapters by Todd Thompson and Clay Zuba discuss the visual culture of the Stamp Act, and their inclusion helps to illustrate the ways in which illiterate individuals learned about and participated in these debates over taxation and representation. You don’t often hear about Native Americans in discussions of the Stamp Act, but the discussion and visual representations of Indian bodies in both chapters are reminders that the entire affair was prompted by debts from the French and Indian War.
JUNTO: In your framing of the book, you connect the Stamp Act Crisis to contemporary legal debates in the United States today, including the Supreme Court’s rulings regarding the individual mandate provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (2012) and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014). Can you briefly explain the connections for readers?
HUTCHINS: The book begins by noting that four Supreme Court justices (Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) who characterized the individual mandate provision of the ACA as an illegal tax called on the Stamp Act in support of their arguments. Since Supreme Court justices are not elected, they argued, the Court’s decision that the individual mandate “may for constitutional purposes be considered a tax, not a penalty” amounted to taxation without representation. I wanted to open with this anecdote because it demonstrates one of the ways in which the Stamp Act’s meaning and legacy is still being written in contemporary debates about taxation.
I close the book with a discussion of two other Supreme Court decisions issued in support of corporate rights—the Hobby Lobby and Citizens United cases. Much of the uproar over these two decisions is related to the legal fiction whereby a group of people is regarded as an individual and invested with rights (speech, religious expression) typically reserved for individuals. Our reverence for liberalism sometimes leads us to forget that Americans have often, in times past, embraced the notion of corporately-held rights—protests of the Stamp Act emphasized the collective right of colonists to representation and affordably-priced consumer goods. Corporatism is an American tradition just as venerable as liberalism, and this collection is a reminder that the Stamp Act and our understanding of it will continue to shape American law and culture.
JUNTO: This is your first time editing a book. How was the experience? Do you have any advice for other scholars interested in editing a collected set of essays?
HUTCHINS: I loved editing this book for two reasons. First, it was a wonderful opportunity to meet new colleagues—I loved getting to know each of the contributors and learning about their fascinating projects. And I was also grateful to learn more about the work and careers of those who sent in proposals I could not, ultimately, include in the collection. Second, it was an opportunity to build something larger than myself. While I recognized that it was long past time for a new book on the Stamp Act, I didn’t have the time or interest in producing a monograph, and I’m not sure that any of my contributors would have been interested in writing a monograph on the Stamp Act. But we could, collectively, produce this book—and I think it’s far better (because of its interdisciplinary character and the wide range of subjects) than the book any one of us would have written on our own.
For those interested in editing a collection of essays, I have three pieces of advice. First, before circulating a CFP, have a preliminary discussion with editors at one or more press. This doesn’t have to be a formal proposal; it could be a casual conversation at a conference. The key here is that you can tell potential contributors with confidence that there will be a market for their work. You want to make sure that your hard work (and theirs) won’t go to waste for lack of a publisher. Second, try to select and shape proposals in a way that emphasizes the unity of your collection and the continuities between individual essays. I tried to think of my collection as a multigraph rather than a compilation of tangentially related chapters, and each of the anonymous reviewers who read Community without Consent cited the inter-referentiality of the essays as a compelling reason for supporting its publication. Third, pay more attention to the proposals of your contributors than their CVs. Better to back the exciting, fresh, and urgent ideas of an as-yet-unpublished scholar than to cajole and beg a senior researcher into backing a project that doesn’t have his or her full attention.
JUNTO: In addition to Community without Consent, you’ve published an intellectual and literary history of the idea of the Biblical Eden in colonial New England (Inventing Eden: Primitivism, Millennialism, and the Making of New England (Oxford University Press, 2014)) and you are the author of several articles on a range of subjects (from Moby Dick to the theology of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative to Euripedes’ Medea in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice). What are you working on now?
HUTCHINS: I was fortunate enough to receive a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016, and I’m currently using that grant to complete my second monograph on the origins and evolutions of African American auto/biography titled, Before Equiano: A Prehistory of the Slave Narrative. In the book I focus on the micro-narratives that were regularly published in colonial American newspapers (describing runaway slaves, the plight of wrongfully enslaved nobles, slaves who discovered cures for venereal disease and other ailments) as precursors to the fuller auto/biographical accounts that began to appear in the late eighteenth century.
I’m also working to expand a database I launched last year, of transcribed early American manuscript sermons. We’ve published sermons by Samson Occom and Lemuel Haynes, by Catholic priests considering the millennial implications of the American Revolution, and by other Presbyterian, Anglican, and Congregational preachers. The next collection of essay I edit will, I hope, draw on these and other manuscript sermons to ask how the archive’s still-unread riches might challenge prevailing conceptions of early American religious culture.