J. Franklin Jameson Superstar

It is not often that historiographical essays have a hero. But, in Al Young’s essay, “American Historians Confront ‘The Transforming Hand of Revolution’,” it’s hard not to see J. Franklin Jameson that way. Jameson was a New Englander by birth and character who helped found the American Historical Association in 1884. Never a prolific historian (or teacher, for that matter), Jameson’s greatest impact—beyond the important structural role he played in the emergence of History as a modern academic and professional discipline in the United States—came in the form of a small collection of four lectures originally written in 1895 but published largely in the form they were given at Princeton 30 years later. That small book, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement, is not just the starting point for Young’s assessment of the historiography of the American Revolution in the twentieth century, it is quite literally its genesis. Continue reading

The Week in Early American History


We have an abundance of links for your Sunday morning reading pleasure. Read on, fellow early Americanists:

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“Charles Beard at 100”: A Roundtable Recap

Charles Beard on the cover of Life Magazine (17 Jan 1944)On October 14, Columbia University’s Center for American Studies sponsored the “Charles Beard at 100” roundtable to commemorate the centennial of Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. The event, organized by Columbia Historian and Director of the American Studies program Casey Blake, featured Eric Foner (Columbia), Jan Lewis (Rutgers), and David Waldstreicher (Temple) as panelists, with Herb Sloan (Barnard) as moderator. The following blog post synthesizes some of the main themes of the roundtable. I hope that many of the excellent points raised by the panelists can serve as a basis for discussion here on The Junto.

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Charles Beard: A Conference Recap

In spite of the unrestful Beardian ghost recently invoked by Saul Cornell, with which I introduced the topic of the Charles Beard, Economic Interpretation and History Conference here a few months ago, not every participant was convinced, going in, that Beard was really worth the trouble of a two-day international conference. By the end, we were able to say that whatever we thought of Beard himself, his work could certainly provoke plenty of insight and discussion. It would be wrong to say the event was a celebration of Beard, or held in his honour. Instead, like his vision of history, it was characterised more by conflict than consensus–at least, if friendly scholarly disagreement really counts as conflict. Continue reading

Charles Beard, Economic Interpretation, and History

BookCoverImageIt’s been a century since Charles Beard published An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. That book has a central role in more or less every overview of the historiography of the constitution and the founding. Just what that role is, though, is still open to debate. That Pauline Maier’s Ratification (2010) has no listing for Charles Beard in the index might have been taken as a sign that scholars no longer have to deal directly with his towering legacy. But that Seth Cotlar called her out on it in a recent William & Mary Quarterly forum, and took her to task for the “absence of any direct engagement” with Beardian, “conflict-oriented” interpretations of the period, reminds us just the opposite. As Saul Cornell put it, in light of powerful and varied strands of contemporary neo-Beardian scholarship, from Robert McGuire to Woody Holton and Terry Bouton, “one wonders if we have fully laid the ghost of Charles Beard to rest.” Well, if you have to wonder… Continue reading

Sympathy for the Founders

One day soon, someone will write the history of the bankers, fund managers, lawyers and accountants who helped make our present financial crisis. When they do, they’ll need to be careful not to lose sight of the far larger group of people – really, everyone – who were also part of that process, the suffering they endured and the resistance they enacted. It would need to be a cultural, intellectual, legal, political, and social history that gave account not only of how the financial elite thought and acted, but how that thought and action was shaped by structures and events. It would see the world reflected in their eyes. In that moment, it might show a little sympathy.

That’s how I feel about my own project, a history of power and ideology among American elites in the 1780s. The first question that troubles me – why study elites? – tends to dissolve into a slightly different one – what does it mean to study elites? To be meaningful it has to be a way of studying how historical change happens and how the conditions of life are produced. Elites are both separate and inseparable from the rest of society, linked in a complex, ambivalent embrace that constitutes a kind of class struggle. And class struggle is history in action.

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