Identity and the Founders: A Response to Mark Lilla

marymunrosampler-1788This 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.

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Do Ideas Have Roots?

Exposed_mango_tree_rootsContemporary culture loves origin stories. It’s not just that when we make our superhero movies, we always start with the origin—we even like to start the same franchises over and over again. For historians, the allure of the origin can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to see why. To borrow a phrase from David Marquand’s ecstatic review of Inventing the Individual, origin stories “persuade us to ask ourselves who we are and where we are going by showing us where we have come from.” The idea of finding in the past the hidden meaning of our present can be the very thing that captivates people about history in the first place. Continue reading

The Week in Early American History

Unearthing the Past - UVA MagazineThis week brings a rich harvest of material on slavery, memory, and public history.

First, we have two fascinating filmed conversations. At the Graduate Center at CUNY, James Oakes talks to  Sean Wilentz about his new book, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865. And at the New-York Historical Society,  Harold Holzer speaks with Tony Kushner on the subject of Lincoln (and, of course, Lincoln).

Next, we take a look into slavery at Jefferson’s university. In an article in University of Virginia Magazine and a blogpost for Encyclopedia Virginia, Brendan Wolfe contextualizes a recent archaeological discovery.

In the Washington Post, meanwhile, J. Freedom du Lac reports on Colonial Williamsburg’s difficulty recruiting slave interpreters. And how did 19th-century African American portray their own emancipations? Good interviews Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer about their photographic history.

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