Review: Steven Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration

Steve Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

At a time when political events seem to place the very meaning of American democracy under the microscope, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many recent works have looked to re-evaluate the American Founding. Books focusing on the mid-1770s in general have included Kevin Philips’s 1775, Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes, & Our Sacred Honor, and Joseph Ellis’s American Quartet. Recent books that have looked more specifically at the Declaration of Independence itself include Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration. Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause, too, has called for a re-evaluation of what motivated those who fought for Independence, though his work calls for a much less celebratory conclusion. Such a list demonstrates the importance of the mid-1770s to America’s national identity. With The Heart of the Declaration, Steven Pincus throws his hat into the ring, too.

Continue reading

Gawker, Gossip, and the General Advertiser

I can’t say that I was ever the most avid reader, or the biggest fan, of Gawker. But as the trenchant news website was forced to shut down this week as the result of the combined forces of Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan, I realized that I was being more than a little hypocritical.

After all, as a historian of 1790s culture, I rely heavily on the work of Benjamin Franklin Bache. And if anything embodied the no-holds-barred, gossipy style of Gawker in the 18th century – not to mention the attempted backlash from powerful forces – it was the Aurora General Advertiser. Continue reading

The 1904 Olympics: The American Future and the American Past

International pageants such as World’s Fairs or Olympic Games are strange beasts of their very nature. While trying to project an image of a modern, vibrant place, they must necessarily also draw on the familiar in order to reach a wide audience. Sometimes this can be done in eye-catching and engaging fashion—think of the 2012 London Olympics, and their juxtaposition of Horse Guard’s Parade with beach volleyball. Thus these international pageants provide a curious mix of looking to the future at the same time as looking at the past. Continue reading

Historians and Hamilton: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality

How does a crony capitalist son of a whore, and a militarist pumped up by delusional aspirations of honor, grow up to be feted by liberal scholars? [*]

Since the turn of the millennium, historians have lambasted the phenomenon of Founders Chic as a fundamental distortion of history. Placing the roles of specific, prominent individuals at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era meant that popular histories exaggerated the importance of individuals, at the expense of understanding the contribution of less-celebrated Americans or the role of broader societal and historical processes. Yet much of the reception of Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway, seems to suggest that hagiography is acceptable, so long as it’s done to a catchy song-and-dance routine. It’s as if the only problem with Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Ron Chernow is that they didn’t write to a hip-hop soundtrack. Continue reading

Roundtable: Academic Book Week: Alternative Entries To Familiar Topics

When I consider the non-early-American history books that have had the greatest impact on the way I think, two stand out in particular. One is Ross McKibbin’s The Evolution of the Labour Party, 1910-1924; the other, CLR James’s Beyond A Boundary. The former is the most obviously “academic” of the two; the opportunity to write a Junto post primarily concerned with cricket, however, means that today I’ll focus on the latter.[1]

Both books influenced me for their creativity in approaching politics and society. McKibbin’s insight that “political action is the result of social and cultural attitudes which are not primarily political” has remained with me ever since; a useful reminder that in writing political history, we have to try and find ways of recovering political mindsets not only by looking at what political actors say, but also the many and varied ways they actually do things. James, too, calls for an approach to studying the past that looks beyond a narrow scope of inquiry, in his famous question ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’ Continue reading

The Origins of the American Revolution: Politics and Politicized Societies

This is the fifth post in a weeklong roundtable about “The Origins of the American Revolution.” On Monday, Tom Cutterham kicked things off by exhorting historians to stop “separat[ing] economic from constitutional, imperial, political, or even intellectual causes of the revolution.” On Tuesday Jessica Parr raised questions about the convergence of religious and political rhetoric during the Revolution. Mark Boonshoft considered the importance of civil society and associationism, and yesterday Michael Hattem called for sharper attention to the periodization of the Revolution. In today’s post, Ken Owen argues for using politics as the lens with which to sharpen our focus on the disjunctures of the 1760s and 1770s. Tomorrow, the roundtable will conclude with a guest post from Jackie Reynoso.

7080030Revolutionary America was a politicized society. All of the most important conflicts of the American Revolution, from the Stamp Act through Independence to the ratification of the Constitution, were sharply divisive events which demanded citizens take sides. Even neutrals were compelled to give outward displays of support to either patriots or loyalists (often both!). There were very little chances to avoid conflict over such weighty issues—they would reshape and redefine friendships, families, and communities. Continue reading

Digital Pedagogy Roundtable, Part 4: Funeral Trains and Social Media

This week, The Junto features a roundtable on digital pedagogy, in which we discuss our different approaches to using digital sources in the classroom. Today, Ken Owen shares his experience of an MA class’s project using social media for public history uses. You can also read Part 1 by Rachel Herrmann on source accesibility, Part 2 by Jessica Parr on teaching digital history to non-majors, and Part 3 by Joseph Adelman about working with students on technical knowledge.

Back in April, I had a rather surreal teaching experience. A class project, focusing on tweeting the assassination and funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, attracted a good deal of media attention in central Illinois. My class ended up appearancing in local newspapers, radio, and even with a featured spot on the local news channel. I even had a waiter in a local restaurant recognize me as the ‘Lincoln and twitter professor’. Continue reading