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

James Rivington: Printer, Loyalist, Spy?

rivington

A fabulous but somewhat ominous engraving of Rivington hanging in effigy from a tree in New Brunswick, N.J.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the printer of the New-York Journal, John Holt. I focused on his newspaper’s mastheads, arguing that those mastheads were an effective medium through which he could shape political ideas and, subsequently, mobilize support. What I did not fully explain, however, was that he was not the only printer in New York City to change his masthead—James Rivington did it, too.[1] Continue reading

Guest Cross-Post: Benjamin Carp, “The Paradox of Paradox”

As all of you are aware, Edmund S. Morgan’s June 1972 Journal of American History article“Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox” was the victor of “March Madness” tournament for best journal article in American history. This victory shouldn’t have been a surprise, as such a thing is old hat for Morgan. His larger book, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), already won for best book in 2013. The timing was perfect: just a month ago, Benjamin Carp, the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College, published a fantastic review essay “In Retrospect: Edmund S. Morgan and the Urgency of Good Leadership,” in Reviews in American History (see his #edmorgan100 tweets storified by our own Michael D. Hattem’s here). The OAH’s blog Process History invited Dr. Carp to write his reflections on the article (see here), and they kindly invited us to cross-post it. 

Carp“Slavery and Freedom” is an article about Puritans, even though it doesn’t mention them at all; it’s about what happens when you try to colonize a place without them. Continue reading

Guest Post: Discovering Witches

Alexandra Montgomery is a PhD Candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies Indigenous and European boundary-setting and colonization schemes in the far northeast during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The following review contains some very mild thematic spoilers.

imagesAs both a horror nerd and an Early American historian, I have been excited about writer/direct Robert Eggers’ debut feature The Witch for quite some time. Excited might be a bit of an understatement: the first time I saw a poster in a theatre I shrieked, and I have been faithfully following the strangely endearing and decidedly bizarre Twitter of the film’s sometimes-antagonist goat, Black Philip, for several months. So, naturally, I was thrilled when my friend and fellow Early Americanist Lori Daggar offered to take me and Kelsey Salvesen to a press screening of the film (the film will be released officially on February 19). Continue reading

“Terrorism” in the Early Republic

Detail from Death of MaratLate last week, Americans learned about an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. It was initiated by a group of men who have an idiosyncratic understanding of constitutional law and a sense that they have been cheated and persecuted by the United States government. The occupation comes during a time of general unease about national security and fairness in policing. As a result, some critics have been calling the rebels “domestic terrorists,” mostly on hypothetical grounds. One of their leaders, on the other hand, told NBC News that they see themselves as resisting “the terrorism that the federal government is placing upon the people.”

I do not propose to address the Oregon occupation directly. However, since the topic keeps coming up lately, this seems like a good opportunity to examine the roles the word terrorism has played in other eras. As it turns out, Americans have been calling each other terrorists a long time.

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Alexander Hamilton and the Inconvenient 1780s

Miranda HamiltonWhy does Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fantastically successful Broadway musical about the founder, skip over most of the 1780s in just one song?

The time from the victory at Yorktown to the Constitutional Convention was almost as long as the war itself, yet in the musical it merits barely a verse. Perhaps that’s not so unusual when it comes to public understanding of the founding era. But it’s worth asking what it’s all about. Eliding the 1780s reflects the way the shorthand narrative of the American Revolution goes—straight from victory in the War of Independence on to the new constitution and federal government, “non-stop.” Missing out most of the 1780s is the only way to make the revolution look like a single, coherent event. It smooths over a history that was riven with conflict and alternative possibilities, and makes it look like a straightforward path towards the federal republic that we know emerged. Continue reading

History and the Seeds of Memory: Reflections on Ric Burns’ The Pilgrims

pilgrims_pbsamexperienceIn his now classic study of early nationalism, historian Benedict Anderson wrote “I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined….”[1] While Puritan society was not a “nation” in the sense that Anderson meant it, his reflections nonetheless are evident in Ric Burns’ documentary, The Pilgrims. Burns seeks not to merely retell the Thanksgiving story, but to understand why Plimouth Rock and the popular Thanksgiving story (much of which is inaccurate) is such a pervasive part of the American origins story.

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