This spring, early Americanists were abuzz about “a bit of real-life archival drama,” as Harvard scholars Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff announced that they had discovered something pretty amazing: an unknown, manuscript, parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence. As friend-of-the-field Jennifer Schuessler playfully reported in the New York Times, it was all a little National Treasure. The apparently random order of the signatures on this manuscript, compared to other versions, points towards some interesting implications, involving Philadelphia Federalist James Wilson and attempts to build a unified American nationhood in the new republic. But reactions to Allen and Sneff’s announcement also, I think, tell us something about how knowledge of the past is structured, presented, and consumed. Continue reading
Last week, the Arts & Sciences Graduate Center at William and Mary hosted a Digital Identity Roundtable to discuss the benefits, pitfalls, and protocols for graduate students who currently use social media for networking and scholarship, and for those who would like to start. As a contributing editor for The Junto, I was invited to participate in that discussion. Only after agreeing did I realize that mine would be the only graduate student voice among a group of highly accomplished professors from across the college. Being a typical graduate student, the thought of speaking with any “expertise” caused a brief panic and I turned to my fellow Junto editors for their tips and suggestions for graduate students and early career scholars about managing a digital identity. My query (really a plea for help), elicited such a big and generous response from my fellow editors that we decided to share that advice here. Hopefully, this can start a wider conversation about how graduate students should confront an increasingly vital part of our professional development. Continue reading
I feel like I’m writing more than a few pieces lately that start with “I love [X], BUT . . .” and apparently today is no different. I’ll just come out and say it: I love Harry Potter, but I have trouble with J. K. Rowling’s treatment of history. Harry Potter was immensely important to my young adulthood. I read the books as a teenager, went to more than one midnight movie release, bought and consumed Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Bean, and dressed as a character from the books for Halloween. I tend to re-read the novels once a year, when I’m looking for ways to improve my ability to tell a story. I wasn’t a historian when I first started reading the books, so I didn’t look too critically at Rowling’s characterizations of history and historians. Now that I am a historian, I’ve come to the conclusion that although Rowling’s portrayal of our discipline is wrong, her depiction of the wizarding world’s past—and how people interpret and at times attempt to change and revise it—is much more in keeping with the task that muggle historians daily confront. Continue reading
This weekend, Mark Lilla, a historian of ideas at Columbia University, published a New York Times op-ed on “identity liberalism.” Reacting to the outcome of the presidential election, Lilla argues that contemporary American liberalism’s celebration of diversity, however morally salutary in private life, has been politically suicidal at the national level. “National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,'” Lilla writes; “it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.”
Lilla’s argument is a response—one of several possible responses—to what I see as a real problem. In contemporary America, demands for inclusion, equality, and dignity often seem to be made in the name of particular groups rather than in the name of the common good. Whether this perception is accurate is another matter. I won’t address that complicated question here. But Lilla’s perspective on early American history warrants a critical response.
The Adams Family Papers, 1639–1889, at the Massachusetts Historical Society is a large collection. Its microfilm edition is made up of 608 reels which are available for research at the Society and various other libraries and archives in the United States and Europe. The Adams Papers Editorial Project has published over fifty volumes to date. (To read more about the process, see Sara Georgini’s 2014 post.) As I continue to work on volume 13 Adams Family Correspondence I am reminded of the breadth of the collection, so when I went looking for a Halloween-related letter, I wasn’t disappointed. Continue reading
“The heart of the English Empire in the seventeenth-century Americas was Barbados,” according to Justin Roberts in his recent William and Mary Quarterly article. That claim is perhaps not surprising—Richard Dunn established the social and economic importance of the island over thirty years ago in his seminal work, Sugar and Slaves. However, Roberts takes that point further by exploring the political ramifications of all of that Barbadian wealth in the West Indies. His article also speaks to a larger sea change in the historiography of the seventeenth-century Caribbean. Continue reading
Historians are back in the news, this time not as a scolds (“this bit of history in popular culture isn’t historical enough”) but as Cassandras. Recently Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, writing under the New York Times print edition headline “The End of Political History?,” bemoan the collapse political history as an area fit for study by professional historians. Jobs in political history have dried up, fewer courses in the subject are offered in universities, few people are entering graduate school to specialize in the subject and hence “the study of America’s political past is being marginalized.” To Logevall and Osgood this marginalization has two tragic effects. Firstly, it denies American citizens’ access to the intellectual tools necessary to historicize our contemporary politics and “serve as an antidote to the misuse of history by our leaders and save us from being bamboozled by analogies, by the easy ‘lessons of the past.’” It also denies historians access to political power, the ability to influence policy and policymakers in the mode of C. Vann Woodward and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Continue reading