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

Why the Exeter Chiefs Should Rebrand Themselves

This blog post originally appeared at the Imperial and Global Forum in June. It’s reposted with slight edits here for reasons I’ll go into below.

Exeter chiefs3On any given weekend, you might find yourself on a train platform, surrounded by sports fans wearing “Native American” headdresses and “war paint,” and waving inflatable tomahawks. They’ll be wearing apparel purchased from the team’s online store (the “Trading Post”), where you can also buy a “Little Big Chief” mascot. During the event, supporters will chant the Tomahawk Chop to get into the spirit of things, and afterward, perhaps they’ll rehash the game on the team’s message boards (“the tribe”). But this isn’t the Atlanta Braves. It’s not the Washington Redskins. This is a rugby match for Great Britain’s Exeter Chiefs, and it’s a problem that evokes Britain’s imperial American past.

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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 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.

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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

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Murphy Swing

The greatest baseball players fail to get on base the vast majority of their at-bats. In fact, Daniel Murphy—second baseman for the Washington Nationals—currently holds the title for the highest batting average this season at .411. To many, that batting average justifies the $37.5 million, three-year contract the Nationals just signed with Murphy. That’s $37.5 million for failing six out of ten at-bats. To be fair, when he does make contact with a pitch, he usually scores runs and contributes to the Nationals top standing in the National League East. 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