The relationship between Christianity and the American founding is a topic of obvious contemporary political relevance in the United States. It is also a field in which historians during the last few years have labored with great energy. In Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America, Spencer McBride adds to that labor with a book that is—at first glance—less politically charged than some other contributions have been. Yet Pulpit and Nation advances what may be a subversive claim. Continue reading
In the past 10 years, we have seen an embarrassment of riches in scholarship that considers race in Early America (broadly understood). The list below is not exhaustive, but highlights some of the recent scholarship. Feel free to add your own favorite recent scholarship in the comments, and keep your eyes out next month, for our CFP for a roundtable on race in Early America.
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.
Right after I agreed to review Sam Haselby’s The Origins of American Religious Nationalism for the Journal of Religion, Gordon Wood’s review of it appeared in the New York Review of Books. When one of our number gets that kind of exposure with their first book, we should all applaud, but there I was, feeling out-classed before I even opened the book. Now that I’m done with my review, everything about Wood’s makes sense to me—it was big exposure on a big stage for a big book. And I learned something from Wood there, which was to have enough patience with a big book’s faults to appreciate what it’s trying to do. Wood called Origins an “unusual book” with a meandering argument, but nevertheless “a book to be reckoned with.” I have to agree, and (spoiler alert) said as much in my forthcoming JR review. In writing that, though, I realized that if I hadn’t been primed for indulgence by Wood’s review I would have judged Origins more harshly. I think Origins is a good book that’s in too much of a hurry. Without repeating what I’ve written in JR for a religious-studies audience, I want to use this space for something of an historian’s rant about the hurried use of sources in this book. Continue reading
As someone who works on the late colonial period (1730s-1770s) in a field dominated by the “early republic,” it is easy to feel as though I am working on the margins of the field of early American history rather than what is actually the middle or center of what we usually define as early America (i.e., 1607 to somewhere between 1848 and 1861). Yet, in this brief, speculative post, I will suggest that—in terms of my own subfield of political history and political culture—one of the things missing from much of the scholarship on the early republic is the colonial period itself. Continue reading
Thanks to the Comte de Buffon’s comprehensive Natural History, every European in the eighteenth century knew that the American environment was conducive only to degeneration. Still, Buffon admitted, “though Nature has reduced all the quadropeds of the new world, yet she has preferred the size of reptiles, and enlarged that of insects.” As his Dutch colleague Cornelis de Pauw put it, giant insects and venomous snakes “so unhappily distinguish this hemisphere” from the more hospitable side of the Atlantic. Leaving aside insects for the moment, reptiles—and especially serpents—have always had a powerful symbolic valence. In the American context, the ambivalent use of the reptile shows up some of the complex relationship between the colonists’ natural world and their political imagination.