Love Letters and the Digital Turn

IMG_3738There should be no need to mention in a blog about early American history that the digital turn is, perhaps, a fait accompli. However, over the past couple of years more and more articles have called into question the ways in which access to digital archives and digitized sources has changed both the questions historians ask and the kinds of research we do. Of this surge in publications, Lara Putnam’s recent AHR article stands out as a kind of canary-in-the-coal-mine warning to both graduate students and established professionals. Putnam, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, calls on all of us to have an “extensive discussion of digitization,” thereby pulling our research approaches out of, “the realm of invisible methods, the black box where by consensus we leave so much of our discipline’s heavy lifting.”[1] For Putnam and others, the digital turn remains full of pitfalls that deserve our serious consideration. Continue reading

Hidden Bureaucratic Forget-me-nots and What to Make of Ubiquity

2015-01-07 15.49.56When wading through account books, muster rolls, and other dry military records, I don’t usually get a sense of the author—there might be a name jotted down, or maybe some distinctive handwriting, but hardly any evidence of personality. Reading through a 1758 orderly book from the Oneida Carry was much the same: a recounting of paroles, provisions, parades, and troop preparations. And then, curiously, tucked between the routine orders and work details, on the bottom of the 51st page:

When This You See Remember me.[1]

An—abruptly elegant—personal appeal hidden in the middle of a bureaucratic record, a record covering the various minutiae of one regiment of the vast British military apparatus but containing no information (other than a name) about the man who had chronicled them all. What on earth was it doing here?

This post began as a simple question about the meaning of private voices in the state record and quickly became something a little more meandering—tracing a phrase, finding its ubiquity in the British Atlantic, and then, in that broader context, pondering how and why it came to be on the page of an official military document. Continue reading

The Mormon National Convention, 1844

Given that we just witnessed the Democrat and Republican national conventions a few weeks ago, I thought I’d draw from a current research project and take a look back at an earlier moment in the development of presidential politics. And if you think Donald Trump’s convention was quixotic, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

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Sutcliffe Maudsley, “Lt. General Joseph Smith In Nauvoo Legion Uniform,” gouache on paper.

Whatever your feelings concerning Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder, you have to admit the guy was confident. The first decade of his church’s existence was mired in societal and political problems, and the final year of his life was spent trying to find novel and, to some, outlandish solutions. One of his most audacious proposals was his own candidacy for the United States presidency in 1844.

Smith’s presidential run mostly strikes modern readers as amusing. Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had already drawn around thirty thousand converts since its founding in 1830, a majority of them were located on the banks of the Mississippi River in an Illinois town called Nauvoo. They could hardly manipulate the politics within their own state, let alone those of the nation. How then could the controversial leader of this marginalized sect have such delusions of grandeur? 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

Women and the History of Capitalism

Cartoon or Sketch of Mill Woman_0One of the best questions a historian can ask is, “what am I missing?” Whatever you’re investigating, and whatever stage you’re at, it’s always worth your while to step back and look around. If you’ve been focusing on something, using a particular lens, it can be pretty hard to pan out. That’s where setting aside time for more eclectic reading really helps—journals and blogs are convenient ways to keep your field of vision broad. Sometimes, they can give you a kick. That’s how I felt about the forum on women’s history in this summer’s issue of the Journal of the Early Republic.[1] Continue reading

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