Bernard Bailyn’s Last Act?: An Interview with the Harvard Historian on His New Book

Bernard Bailyn’s contribution to our understanding of early American history is so vast that it’s easy to forget he’s still publishing books. His writings on the American Revolution, begun in the 1960s, remain required reading for any doctoral student studying for orals. And even since retiring from Harvard a quarter century ago, he’s continued to influence the field, perhaps nowhere more than through his promotion of Atlantic history.

Yet even at 92, Bailyn isn’t finished. His new book, Sometimes An Art: Nine Essays on History (Knopf), can be read in a number of ways: as an introduction to his vast corpus of work; a chance to respond to his critics; a reflection on the meaning of history; and, perhaps, a summing up of sorts. “It reflects some of my own work over the years,” Bailyn told me during an interview from Boston. The essays he’s chosen to include, dating from 1954 to 2007, have only appeared in either obscure publications or dated back issues of prominent journals. But in one way or another, he said, they “concentrate on certain major themes” in all his work. Continue reading

The Details Matter: On Ta-Nehisi Coates and Reparations

The attention Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations has received is remarkable and welcome. But like most of the folks he’s directly appealing to—educated, mainstream liberals who read The Atlantic—I approached his essay skeptically, assuming reparations was an impractical, even irresponsible way to redress the crimes of slavery and the way its legacy, racism, continues to disadvantage all African Americans today. But by the end of it, I was convinced. A major reason why is because by reparations Coates, or at least the leading advocates for reparations he quotes in approval, aren’t arguing for simple payouts to African Americans. Coates knows too well that, lacking a more rigorous understanding of our nation’s history with slavery, and the continuing problems of institutionalized racism, cash payouts risk becoming little more than “hush-money.” Continue reading

American Enlightenment! Which American Enlightenment?

James MacGregor Burns, Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our WorldNew York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

Earlier this year, the Journal of American History published an essay bemoaning the lack of attention Americanists give to the idea of an American Enlightenment. The authors suggested some provocative reasons, like a latent exceptionalism that has made American scholars reluctant to pick up a topic still seen as rooted in Europe. Equally problematic was America’s religious character, which has left Americanists wary of a movement still viewed as secular. Despite noteworthy scholarship on an American Enlightenment being produced “at the margins of university research” (though I hesitate to call scholars like James Delbourgo, one such scholar, “marginal”), I sympathize with the authors’ case.  There just isn’t that much good recent scholarship that American historians can readily incorporate into their work. Continue reading

Revolution Not Dead

If “The American Revolution Reborn” conference proved anything, it’s that the Revolution is in no danger of getting old. So much is still left to be told. Topics that few Revolutionary narratives have fully considered—ambivalence, religious dissent, hindsight connections to Scotland’s union with England in 1707, and future links to the Latin Americas—beg for further research. And those are only the issues that were discussed on the first day.

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Science, Meet Slavery: “River of Dark Dreams” and the Future of Slavery Scholarship

04b0c-johnsonI bet few graduate students these days haven’t read, or at least seen referenced, Walter Johnson’s essay “On Agency.” Published a decade ago, the essay was prompted by what had become hackneyed trope in slavery scholarship. Everyone seemed to ascribe slaves a role in shaping their lives—“agency”—despite the power asymmetries inherent in the slave-master relationship. Johnson famously called for an end to this kind of writing. But one of his subtler points may have been lost amid his overarching argument. It wasn’t that slave agency was unimportant, but that it had lost its contemporary relevance. Finding agency mattered in the Civil Rights Era, the years in which the scholarship flourished, because it bolstered African Americans’ claims on the nation’s past, and thus its future. Continue reading

Enough Already! Or, Do We Really Need More Haitian Scholarship?

My apologies for my first Junto post being a bit of shameless self-promotion.  But here it is: a piece I just wrote for The New York Times on Haiti’s role in the Civil War.  In short, it’s about how a small but significant portion of black Americans saw Haiti as a better option than the United States during the conflict.  As Matt Karp wrote on his Junto post today, the most groundbreaking Haiti-related scholarship today deals with what happened after the Haitian Revolution, that is, post-1804. Continue reading