What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?—Part II

Yale College, 1807Last week, in the first part of this post, I argued that we tend to justify the liberal arts in two potentially contradictory ways. First, we assert that the liberal arts offer tools for citizenship. Second, we claim they point our way to human values that transcend any community. I argued that both of these justifications or approaches are necessary. I also suggested that early Americanists have not found it easy to explain what we contribute to the second approach.

Today, therefore, I am taking up the question I posed last week. Does early American scholarship offer anything distinctive to the liberal arts as a way of understanding humanity at large? Continue reading

What Happened to the “Democratic” in the “Age of Democratic Revolutions”?

PalmerThis past semester I taught a course on “18th Century Atlantic Revolutions: America, France, and Haiti,” which included both undergraduate and graduate students. (I wrote about the assigned readings at my personal blog.) I’d like to highlight a central theme that I emphasized throughout the course as a way to discuss historiographical and pedagogical questions.

To give my grad students a sense of the field’s starting point, I had them read R. R. Palmer’s classic 2-volume The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (1959, 1964; 2014), recently combined and re-published by Princeton University Press. Advancing through the semester and reading much more recent books, the dated nature of Palmer’s book is readily apparent. Most obvious is its avoidance of Haiti. (At an AHA panel on the Age of Revolutions last January, Nathaniel Perl-Rosenthal mention that it’s basically an academic ritual to mention this whenever discussing Age of Democratic Revolution.) Palmer also focuses on high-end (and male-centric) intellectual history, ignores economic interests and intersections, and only engages the nations whose revolutions “succeeded.” This last point is obviously problematic, of course, given what happens in France after their Revolution. But as Janet Polasky’s recent book shows, a more comprehensive view can be gleaned through looking at revolutionary moments that did not have successful outcomes. Like any book published over a half-century ago, even a classic book like Palmer’s, there are plenty of holes to acknowledge. Continue reading

What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?

Course of Study, Amherst College, 1824

Perhaps because the traditional academic year has ended, and probably in part because of the tides and undertows of the current election, we seem to be awash just now in excellent essays about the purposes and state of the humanities.

To do my part to put a stop to that, I am here to ask what the liberal arts have to do with early American studies.

I suspect we tend to take the relationship too much for granted.

Continue reading

The Sacred and the Secular in Early National Virginia

Is revolutionary Virginia the birthplace of American secularism?

My attention was returned to this critical question by a recent twitter exchange between Annette Gordon-Reed and Sam Haselby (and others) along side a recent piece by Haselby in Aeon.[1] The scuffle between Gordon-Reed and Haselby focuses on the time-is-a-flat-circle question of Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs. Was he a secularist? Some variant of Christian? A Unitarian? An atheist? Haselby’s Aeon piece takes a different tack, arguing that the American founding represented a “rogue wave of rationality in a centuries-long sea of Protestant evangelising, sectarianism and God-talk.” Haselby marks out the Founders—particularly Jefferson and James Madison—as “visionary secularists” who created a secular republic, which was eventually co-opt by decidedly non-secular political and cultural forces. He singles out late eighteenth-century Virginia as the primary canvas upon which the great artists of American secularism worked.[2] Continue reading

Regional Remembering and Joseph Warren—America’s First President?

84d0ce12a90e35ce54a3240f904a426a-micdrop09Since moving to Massachusetts, in September 2015, I’ve taken great pleasure in visiting some of Boston’s historic sites. I’ve walked (part of) the Freedom Trail and visited the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, the Granary Burying Ground, the Old South Church, and the Adams crypt in Quincy. A few weeks ago, I took it a step further: I went on a duck boat tour. While on the tour, the on-board historian told passengers that Joseph Warren would have been America’s first president if he was not killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. *MIC DROP* Continue reading

Historians in an Age of Revolution

Nuit_Debout_-_Paris_-_41_mars_01Do we live in revolutionary times? It’s tempting to imagine so. Bernie Sanders’ promise of “a political revolution” resonated with surprising numbers of Americans, especially the young. The Nuit Debout has captured some of the same spirit in France. Dramatic moments like the Oxi vote in Greece and the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong have followed the so-called Arab Spring and global Occupy movement. In spite of their failures and betrayals, those movements seemed to reveal revolutionary sentiment in east and west.

Yet in a recent interview for Dissent, David A. Bell, a historian of the French Revolution, put something of a counterpoint. “If we look at the broad sweep of modern history from the eighteenth century to the present,” he said, “we see that revolution has lost its salience as a political concept.” 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