Inspiration Roundtable: The Origins of My Origins Story

This is the fourth post in our weeklong roundtable, “Inspiration in Research.” Previous contributors to the roundtable include Whitney Robles, Rachel Herrmann, and Lindsay O’Neill with Ken Owen’s final post of the roundtable coming tomorrow. 

I am very happy to be able to participate in this fascinating roundtable on the inspiration behind research projects and to share my what I suspect are fairly common experiences among our readership. My dissertation, completed back in May, is now a manuscript entitled, Past and Prologue: The Politics of Memory in the American Revolution, that is under contract to Yale University Press. Past and Prologue explores the role of “history culture” and changing historical memories of the colonial and British pasts in the coming of the American Revolution and early efforts to forge a shared national identity in the revolutionary era. It traces that role in shaping the transition from British subject to American citizen through three developments: the deconstruction of colonists’ relationship to the British past before independence; the creation of a newly shared colonial past for the first time during the imperial crisis and the revision of that colonial past after the war; and, the cultural construction of a “deep national past” or American antiquity in the decades following the war. Rather than having “liberated Americans from the past,” I argue, the Revolution actually made the past matter more than ever before. Continue reading

Historical Charts and David Ramsay’s Narrative of Progress

A while back Slate’s “The Vault” blog ran a piece on John Sparks’s “Histomap” from 1931. I was recently reminded of that post as I came across a number of eighteenth-century historical charts during my dissertation research on eighteenth-century American history culture.[1] In the eighteenth century, there were conflicting understandings of historical time. Some understood time to be cyclical, as evidenced by the rise and (inevitable) fall of empires throughout history. Increasingly, however, historical time was coming to be understood as linear (in a mechanical, Newtonian sense). With the linear conception came the idea of historical time as being fundamentally progressive. This conception was further distinguished by those who understood it in terms of a narrative of social and political progress and those who understood it in millennialist terms, i.e., time progressing toward the end-of-days. These ideas shaped the ways in which one thought about history, and, in a time when historical distance was far more truncated than today, they had a profound effect on how one viewed their contemporary world. Historical understanding and, hence, historical writing were undergoing significant shifts in the eighteenth century. One of the by-products of these developments was the historical chart.

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Set in Stone

Stone LibraryEvery president has a past, and to his regret, John Adams did not save all of it for history’s sake. “Whatever you write preserve,” he directed his grandsons in 1815. “I have burned, Bushells of my Silly notes, in fitts of Impatience and humiliation, which I would now give anything to recover.” Continue reading

The King’s Arms?

IMG_1862Paper soldiers on the march, and tin men tilting at swordpoint: these were the first battle ranks that Grenville Howland Norcross, aged 11 in Civil War Boston, led to glory. Between phantom invasions and replays of Antietam with “relics” received as gifts, Norcross gobbled up the military heroics popularized by the era’s dime novels. In a childhood diary that illustrates how “lowbrow” literature grabbed the imagination of a warsick homefront, Norcross chronicled his progress through the antics of Kate Sharp, Old Hal Williams, and Crazy Dan. By 1875, Norcross had outgrown his toy battalions, graduated Harvard, and stepped into a law career. An avid autograph collector, from his Commonwealth Avenue perch Norcross nurtured the city’s flourishing history culture, taking a leading role at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Bostonian Society. He rose to serve as Cabinet-Keeper for the Massachusetts Historical Society, supervising the intake and cataloguing of major collections including, by April 1920, the library of historian Henry Adams. At the Society’s next meeting, held in the midafternoon of 10 June, Grenville Norcross reported on the Cabinet’s newest curiosity, which has proven a royal mystery ever since:

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