Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

June 3, 2013

Historians and Ethics on the Web

Filed under: Academia,Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 10:56 am
Last week the AHA Today blog hosted a roundtable on Web Ethics to continue an ongoing conversation about civility among historians online. Respondents included:

If you haven’t had a chance to read their thoughts, you should. They provide a nice cross-section of experiences, from those with personal blogs (Fea and Little), to one affiliated with a historians’ association (Alpers), and one with The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s network of blogs (Potter). As far as one can generalize, I agree fully that we need to be clear and careful about how we interact with one another online.

For the most part, the respondents focused their thoughts on blog comments sections. Both Fea and Little, as proprietors of their own web spaces, try to articulate clearly their standards for commenting and police the comments section regularly, to some effect. (The comments sections at Historiann are some of the most active I’ve seen in the history blogosphere, and Fea’s blog, though the comments are often somewhat quiet, has a lively discussion space on Facebook and numerous links on Twitter.) The USIH blog also has an incredibly lively comments section, though it occasionally involves sharp elbows, and Potter has had several famous (infamous?) showdowns in the comments, both in her own blogs (both before and during the Chronicle era) and elsewhere around the web.

What I would add to the conversation is that I try not to think of blogs and social media as new in the sense of uncharted or complicated. Yes, there is a greater possibility of transgressing acceptable norms because commenters can remain anonymous (for more on that, see the comment thread about “jerks in academia” in Historiann’s post on her own blog). Yes, not everyone is comfortable writing for blogs (I don’t discuss my research, for example, a possible topic for a future post), and many are uncomfortable with Twitter—including Historiann herself. There are issues with the online public sphere that don’t exist in print journals or the face-to-face proceedings of conferences and meetings.

But online spaces are public, and treating them that way as participants goes a long way to answering the concerns raised in the roundtable. Participating online can be enormously beneficial to our profession, and is all the more so if more historians join in that conversation. But one should always assume that one is speaking in public, the same way one would be at a conference, in print, or through any other medium of communication. I don’t want to open myself up the critique that I’m being naive, but at the same time, on a certain level online public spaces are no different from any other, and demand the same professional decorum. That won’t stop every troll, to be sure. But as Little notes in her piece, some effort by bloggers and others to police the boundaries of acceptability (much as senior scholars might take aside an overly aggressive or rambunctious grad student at a conference) can do wonders.

Finally, I would second Potter’s suggestion that the AHA can (and perhaps should) play a central role in serving as a clearinghouse for and perhaps a publisher of best practices for web interactions, including guidelines for expectations for professionally oriented blogs, Twitter feeds, comments sections, and so on. I don’t think that AHA should be prescriptive—that would defeat one of the main benefits of online conversations, which is that they can aspire to be, as Alpers puts it, “open, public scholarly space[s].”

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April 12, 2013

Remembering Jack Larkin

Filed under: Historians,Historic sites,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 6:31 am

Some sad news to pass along for the early American history community, which many of you may already know. Jack Larkin, the retired Chief Historian at Old Sturbridge Village, passed away on March 29 after a battle with cancer. His obituary attests to his enormously productive career:

Jack was born in Chicago Illinois on June 26, 1943 to his parents, Irene and Jack Larkin. He graduated as valedictorian of Mount Carmel High School in 1961, received his AB from Harvard College in 1965 and his MA in American Studies from Brandeis University. He was a VISTA worker in the Missouri Ozarks, where he enrolled many people during the initial implementation of Medicare; He was also a Head Start Teacher in Brockton, Ma. In 1971 he began working at Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts, first as Assistant Director of Museum Education, and continued for 38 years in many roles — Acting Director of Museum Education, Researcher, Director of Research, Director of Research, Collections and Library, Chief Historian, and Museum Scholar. He retired in 2009 as Chief Historian and Museum Scholar Emeritus. He was also Affiliate Professor of History at Clark University from 2004 to the present. He was a Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Ma. from 2011-2012. From 1971 to his death, he was active in the education of middle and high school history teachers. From 2009-2013 he was principal faculty member for “Teaching American History” projects for the Polk county Schools in Lakeland, Florida and the Worcester Public Schools in collaboration with the American Antiquarian Society. He received numerous awards, including the Kidger Award for Outstanding Scholarship from the New England History Teachers Association in 1999, the President’s Award from Old Sturbridge Village in 1996. His book, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840, was a distinguished finalist for the P.E.N/Martha Albrand Award for nonfiction in 1988. His publications are extensive and include the following books: The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840; Where We Lived, Discovering the Places we Once Called Home; Where we Worked: a Celebration of America’s Workers and the Nation they Built; and with Caroline Sloat, A Place in My Chronicle: A New edition of the Diary of Christopher Columbus Baldwin, 1829-1835.

I got to know him as part of the 2011-12 class of fellows at the American Antiquarian Society, where Jack spent a year researching the life of nineteenth-century artist David Claypoole Johnston for a planned biography. As those of you who’ve spent time at AAS know, time there is often as valuable for the conversations and community around the lunch table as for the archival treasures that await in the reading room. That was certainly true of our group, and Jack was central. Recently retired (and obviously loving it), he would regale us with stories about his time in graduate school, his career at Old Sturbridge (with the occasional hint at secrets unknown to the public …) and most often his family. To be honest, I feel like I know as much about his sons, his grandchildren, even his mother-in-law as I do about his work. He was a generous colleague, eagerly offering questions and advice at research presentations, and perfectly willing to drop what he was doing and chat about the work of others.

Several of the Jack’s colleagues at AAS, as part of a conversation thread remembering him, have offered thoughts to share in this space, which appear below. Others who knew Jack either personally or simply through his work are welcome to add their memories below in the comments.

John Demos

With the death of Jack Larkin, we—his fellow-historians—lose a key contributor to the workings of our discipline.  Jack was a careful researcher, shrewd analyzer, and gifted writer.  But most of all he was a master teacher.  His teaching spanned a uniquely broad range: he was at home in the classroom, in museums, in the larger arena of public history, and in both scholarly and general-audience publication.  His books on everyday life brought the fruits of modern scholarship to the attention of readers of many different ages, interests, and backgrounds.  His commitment to spreading and deepening historical knowledge was itself the outgrowth of an extraordinarily generous spirit; in him understanding and giving were inextricably joined.  We mourn his loss, we miss him, we are grateful for all he was and did.

Caroline Sloat

Rereading Children Everywhere (in 1987-88 one of the first books I edited at Old Sturbridge Village) this past week reminded me of Jack’s impressive ability to put himself into the story and then tell it with the right amount of historical detail and just the right pace to engage a reader, lay or academic. This voice permitted him to teach and write using objects as evidence with the same kind of authority as a text that could be footnoted.

Jack’s intellect and curiosity were prodigious: he could have taught anywhere in the land in either the sciences or the humanities. Coming from Harvard and Brandeis (via VISTA and with a strong sense of social justice), he joined the staff of an outdoor history museum that was reshaping itself into a center of scholarship of New England rural life. At OSV we used objects and visual sources before they became broadly employed in academic teaching and writing. But we weren’t doing much academic writing. We were about presenting an authentic experience for museum visitors, be they school groups or families. Jack also excelled at writing persuasive grant applications to the NEH, other foundations, and generous donors. Museum exhibits, interpretation plans, and school programs were the scholarly outcomes of this work. For Jack, books came into the mix much later.

As he developed projects at Sturbridge, he depended on Barbara’s insights. With an adjacent office in the village’s Research Department, I was also fortunate enough to be in on work as it emerged and read early drafts of the Reshaping of Everyday Life.  I remember sharing in the excitement of Harper and Row’s editing process, followed by book design and publication and such wonderful reception—a review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review and a trip to the Big Apple for the P.E.N/Martha Albrand Award ceremony when Reshaping was a nonfiction finalist. This recognition for Jack was richly deserved and helped bring attention to the historical work being done at Sturbridge.

After we both left the Village we kept in touch, discussing our work and our families that eventually included our grandchildren. Jack taught the undergraduate seminar at the Society twice; then as John Hench and I began thinking of historical publications to mark the Society’s bicentennial, we could not resist the prospect of creating a new edition of the diary of Christopher Columbus Baldwin. Jack and I had shared a long history with Baldwin, who was a key informant on many subjects for OSV interpretation and, let’s not mince words here, charming besides. Jack was intrigued when we proposed the project and his scholarship added significant value to the new transcription. For example, he and his brother-in-law hypothesized about the debilitating medical condition that prompted the Council to send Baldwin on a western tour for a rest while observing the mounds of Southern Ohio.

Our worlds of shared scholarship and friendship converged again during the year leading up to my retirement when he won an AAS-NEH fellowship to tackle the life and artistic legacy of David Claypoole Johnston (family papers and publications containing his work that included Scraps, issued between1829 and 1841). When friends asked me recently how he came to choose this topic, I responded that it was the kind of knotty problem that Jack thrived on untangling. He came very close to doing so during his year at AAS. The timing of his pancreatic cancer could not have been worse, for although some of his work will be published (see, Common-place, April 2013), much remains to be done. His friends are committed to gathering up the scraps, and crafting a volume—if not just as he would have done it, certainly in the spirit of sharing Jack’s sympathy for and insights into the life of an observer on the ground in their shared time period, the first half of the nineteenth century.

Yvette Piggush

Jack contributed substantially to setting a collaborative and truly friendly atmosphere for the cohort of fellows who spent 2011-2012 with him at the AAS.  Every morning he lighted up our underground cubicles with his cheerful “hello!’  His enthusiasm about his fascinating research on D. C. Johnston was infectious.  But he was also so curious about what everyone else was doing and contributed generously to all of our projects.  Plus, he had the best camera, for which I was very grateful since he let me borrow it constantly to take photos for my work.  He loved his family more than anything in the world.  He shared pictures of his grandchildren and loved to hear about our own families.  During lunch time, Jack told us wonderful stories of his unlikely life journey from the Irish South Side of Chicago to Harvard and New England.  He was always optimistic and always forgetting his hat.

Carolyn Eastman

Long before I met Jack Larkin, I channeled his voice in my classes. Lifting liberally from his The Reshaping of Everyday Life, I used his information to give my lectures depth and texture—but I also used his phrasing, because it was so funny and felicitous. To be frank, I plagiarized Jack’s humor and the way he relished interesting historical detail long before I ever set eyes on the man.

When I use Jack’s chapter on early American homes in class, my students’ mouths fall open, appalled that an entire family might live in a single ten-by-fourteen-foot house and sleep within a few inches of one another. They are likewise fascinated by early Americans’ lack of underwear. But the very best is his description of personal hygiene, drying babies’ diapers by the fire, and “chamber lye.” I have Jack’s words on this topic memorized, because they’re so effective: “Early Americans lived in a world of dirt, insects, and pungent smells,” I say to my classes, lifting directly from Chapter 4. “Men’s and women’s working clothes were stiff with dirt and dried sweat, and men’s shirts were stained with yellow rivulets of tobacco juice.” And then I describe the potent smell of concentrated urine—the above-mentioned “chamber lye”—that early Americans used as a powerful cleaner. “Eeeuuww!” they respond, and we are all delighted.

I sometimes hear later that they have reported this news to their parents, or that these descriptions made for a memorable conversation at Thanksgiving dinner.

After years of pretending to my classes that his words were my own, I got the chance to meet Jack when we both arrived at the American Antiquarian Society in July 2011 to take up year-long fellowships, and to inhabit offices across the hall from one another deep in the bowels of the building. I confessed my plagiarism and told him how much my students love this material, only to have him very kindly assure me that this is precisely how one ought to use it.

For twelve months, those of us in residence got to know him—especially over our daily brown-bag lunches. We heard about his new research discoveries as he found more material on David Claypoole Johnston, the early nineteenth-century engraver and social satirist whose life and work Jack examined while at the AAS. We heard even more about his beloved family, about his childhood in working-class Chicago (indeed, he still had a good layer of Chicago and Midwestern tones in his accent, despite having left as that city as an eighteen-year-old to attend college), and how he fell in love with social history as a grad student at Brandeis. He loved to make fun of himself, so we heard about his klutziness, particularly after he came in one day with an alarmingly large bandage on his forehead.

In these conversations he was quintessentially Jack: always delighted by the world and interested in other people, always impossibly modest about himself, always eager to meet the AAS’s newest fellows and hear about their research. You can’t come away from those conversations without the impression that he found something to laugh about every single day.

In the past few days since his death as I’ve read about his life and career, I’ve spent a goodly amount of time at the Old Sturbridge Village website—particularly in its “Kids Zone” section, where they feature a column called “Ask Jack.” Decorated with an animated cartoon of Jack’s face, which sometimes moves a little bit to grin or wink at us, this column features questions from real children who want to know more about history.

“How often did people take baths in the 1830s?” one child asks.

“Almost never!” Jack replies.

“Did kids in the 1830s make snowmen like we do?” Another asks. In response, Jack confesses that he didn’t initially know the answer to this question—but retraces the steps he took through books in the research library to find out. “They did, but they called them ‘snow statues,’” he explains, and goes on to describe how different they looked all those years before the codification of the Frosty model of the corncob pipe and button nose.

“Ask Jack” is, in short, utterly delightful.

I have one set of memories of Jack’s voice, beyond my long reliance on his writing, all our lunchtime conversations, and the delightful kid-oriented Q&A of “Ask Jack.” These come from our many hours back in the quiet corner where our offices stood next to each other—an area so quiet, in fact, that I often failed to hear Jack come up to my open door and pop his head in. And he was just enough hard of hearing to misjudge the sound level of his voice.

“Hi, Carolyn!” he would bellow, and I would jump out of my seat at the sudden noise.

And then we would both laugh at our own foolishness. Oh, how I miss Jack already, with that laugh, that love of life and the people in it, and that voracious appetite for learning new things. My sole consolation is that now, when I plagiarize his voice from his writings to get that visceral reaction from my students, I’ll do so with a vivid memory of his real voice and the charisma of the man. He’s gone too soon.

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December 2, 2012

What People Don’t Get About Historical Context

In the past day or so, a post from the Volokh Conspiracy blog has been circulating around my Twitter feed in which David Post suggests—no, actually, he comes right out and says—that anyone who tries to bring Jefferson’s slaveholding into the picture as part of his history is unduly tarnishing his ideas about freedom and liberty. In part, Post relies on his research on Lincoln’s uses of Jeffersonian liberty. William Hogeland had perhaps the best rejoinder:

Absolutely right, and as I noted myself on Twitter, Post made a categorical error in missing the historical context. Making the claim that “all men are created equal” meant something rather different in 1776 than it did by 1860, and even then it does today. For that matter, the Declaration has rarely had a settled meaning. Another President inaugurated in 1861 also used the Declaration’s preamble as justification for his nation’s actions:

Our present political position has been achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations. It illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them at will whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established. The declared purpose of the compact of the Union from which we have withdrawn was to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity;” and when, in the judgment of the sovereign States composing this Confederacy, it has been perverted from the purposes for which it was ordained, and ceased to answer the ends for which it was established, a peaceful appeal to the ballot box declared that, so far as they are concerned, the Government created by that compact should cease to exist. In this they merely asserted the right which the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, defined to be “inalienable.” Of the time and occasion of its exercise they as sovereigns were the final judges, each for itself. The impartial and enlightened verdict of mankind will vindicate the rectitude of our conduct; and He who knows the hearts of men will judge of the sincerity with which we have labored to preserve the Government of our fathers in its spirit.

But what did Jefferson Davis know, really?

Want another example? Here’s one that David Armitage included in his appendix to The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. Guess the author!

“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow­citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

If you had Ho Chi Minh, you win a free subscription to Publick Occurrences 2.0!

All snark aside, it is indeed a mistake—far more so than pointing out, as Samuel Johnson did, the irony of slave owners proclaiming the vital importance of liberty—to extract the political ideas from the context.

It’s something I try to address in teaching the Declaration of Independence. When we discuss the preamble, I point out that few paid attention to the preamble (the portion that we now consider sacrosanct as part of our national mythos). That language was frankly not particularly controversial to a gentleman well educated in the ideas of the Enlightenment. What was controversial, and new, and distinct, was to take those ideas, attach them to a lengthy list of grievances, and then declare the severance of bonds with another country (the second and third sections of the Declaration). Have the ideas of the Declaration inspired millions? Indeed, and Armitage’s book is a good source both for the history and for the collection of primary sources he has amassed. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a discussion about the context in which the ideas developed; in fact I would argue quite the opposite. It’s imperative to understand ideas as products of their time. As Lynn Hunt has argued, human rights had to be invented, and claims to their self-evidence (previously not evident) were part of the process.

We’ll keep having this discussion, but it’s worth repeating one more time: historical context matters. A lot.

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November 25, 2012

Peter Onuf: World’s Greatest Mentor

Filed under: Academia,Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Teaching — Benjamin Carp @ 9:17 am

Based on the last couple of posts, this blog is rapidly becoming an elegiac tribute page, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add one more acknowledgment. Professor Peter S. Onuf, recently retired from the University of Virginia, will be receiving the Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award at the upcoming American Historical Association conference in New Orleans. The award, established in 1991, “honors teachers of history who taught, guided, and inspired their students in a way that changed their lives.” Previous winners include Elizabeth Blackmar, Lynn Hunt, and Nell Irvin Painter. It rotates among high school teachers, undergraduate teachers, and graduate-level teachers, so we can think of Onuf’s award as being more akin to a Fields Medal for the mentoring of history graduate students than to an annual prize.

Today, incidentally, is the anniversary of the first time I ever met Peter, on a trip I made to prospective graduate schools just before Thanksgiving. He is indeed a fantastic mentor, as plenty of other former students, friends, and co-authors can attest (and have attested). Unless you’ve met him (or heard him on Backstory), it’s hard to picture someone so laid-back that he’s known as the “dude,” yet also a tough and insightful “big picture” critic of scholarly work. He devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to his graduate students. One of his greatest achievements was in sustaining a vibrant early American seminar for his graduate students and other area scholars–something that requires a rare blend of charismatic leadership, cutting-edge work, collegiality, constructive criticism, and beer. It’s great to see a historian of early America earn this award, and it’s especially great to see this particular historian receive this recognition.

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November 13, 2012

As Often as a Blue Moon: Retirements at AAS

Filed under: Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts,Printing History,Publishing — Joseph M. Adelman @ 9:57 am

Many of our readers here likely follow the American Antiquarian Society’s blog, Past is Present, and many more have likely visited AAS at one point or another in their research careers. With that in mind, it’s worth noting some of the recent posts there to honor the retirements of three longtime AAS staff members: Georgia Barnhill, John Keenum, and Caroline Sloat.

Yesterday, AAS Preseident Ellen Dunlap posted some reflections on Keenum, the Vice President for Development, and Caroline Sloat, Director of Publications, and longtime head of the AAS fellowships program, in which capacity she served as the captain of a frequently unwieldy and ever-changing band of scholars who made their way to Salisbury Street.

Dunlap praises in particular Caroline’s work in shepherding projects through the publishing process, both those sanctioned by AAS and those of fellows:

The work that Caroline has always excelled at is the hardest kind of editing – one that must consider what the author was trying to say, whether or not it should be said or is worth saying, and then figure out – often with great diplomacy – how to help the author make their arguments more cogent, their language more clear, their writing more functional.  And Caroline is legendary for offering this kind of substantive editorial assistance, not just on projects where she was assigned the task – such as AAS Proceedings, the History of the Book in America series, and the Gura book, she has offered the same sort of assistance to fellows working on their dissertations, journal articles, and books, just out of the goodness of her editorial heart. Caroline has devoted herself to making friends at the AAS and for the AAS, and the goodwill that she has engendered – evident in so many fellows reports over the years – is a debt that we could not easily repay except with our thanks for her years of service and devotion.

John Keenum’s efforts, as Dunlap notes, have often been out of public view, appearing to us in the coming to fruition of projects for which he secured funding:

A consummate professional, John took every challenge we faced in his stride… and there HAVE been challenges.  When he came we were still wrapping up the Mellon challenge for core operations, then we got an NEH challenge for acquisitions endowment.  Next was the Kresge challenge for the building addition, then we needed to raise endowment to maintain things like the artists’ and writers’ fellowships that the Wallace grant once paid for, then there was the Mellon challenge for academic fellowships, and then yet another NEH challenge, this one for CHAViC.  And thanks to his steadfast commitment to this institution, his dogged perseverance, his ability to finagle a budget (always on the up-and-up), and his ability to write beautifully cogent prose, under his leadership, AAS has met every one of those challenge propositions, securing the full amount offered as a challenge, often long before the deadline.  John did all this, plus running the annual fund and being our federal grants officer, with precious little assistance. But John has done more than merely raise money for AAS.  He has invested himself in the life of this institution, making friends with staff, fellows, and members alike, buying books for the collection, participating in volunteer projects, just to help out.  He has been a simply wonderful colleague, greatly admired by all.  He will also be greatly missed, but he leaves us a much richer organization for his having been here.

This morning, Paul Erickson honors Gigi Barnhill, the recently retired Curator of Graphic Arts who, as Paul notes, has been an AAS staff member for more than 40% of its existence. AAS recently held a colloquium in Gigi’s honor, identifying four keep characteristics to her curatorial work:

  • “Advance scholarship through publication and research.”
  • “Acquire materials for their collections and build collections of secondary and reference resources at AAS”
  • “Serving as an advocate for her own collections, advising on collection development, preservation, and access, while considering the needs of the rest of the Society’s collections”
  • “Serve as ambassadors of the Society to the communities of Americana collectors and dealers, and maintain active communication and visitation with these important constituencies”

All three will be missed, even as they are succeeded ably by new staff. If you have the time, be sure to click over to Past is Present and read the full tributes.

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November 8, 2012

Alfred F. Young, 1925-2012

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 3:13 pm

Mere hours after Pope’s Night celebrations were winding down, Alfred F. Young died at the age of 87 in Durham, North Carolina, on November 6.  A leading scholar of the Revolutionary Era, he was also a great convener of scholars as the editor of several influential volumes.  He wrote about public history, and cared deeply about how the broader public came to understand the history of early America.

You can read blog tributes by  J. L. Bell, Josh Brown, and Ann Little, and H-OIEAHC posts by David WaldstreicherMike McDonnell, and Kenneth Lockridge; also make sure to read Alan Taylor’s review of Masquerade in The New Republic, which has essential biographical material.

When I was an undergraduate taking John Demos’s research seminar on the American Revolution, I read his award-winning 1981 article in the William and Mary Quarterly on the Boston shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes (which was later expanded and incorporated into his widely assigned book, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party), in conjunction with two 19th-century biographies of Hewes.  It was an eye-opening assignment in many ways, but I was hooked by a particular quartet of sentences:

“He [Hewes] does not seem to have belonged to any associations. [Ebenezer] McIntosh was in a fire company. So was Hewes’s brother Shubael. Hewes was not” (584).

…which led me to ask, “what did it mean to be a firefighter during the Revolutionary era?”  I often tell this story to my undergraduates (some of whom suspect that there is nothing new to write about), to reassure them that sometimes just a few short lines from a master scholar can be the inspiration for a fruitful line of inquiry.

Not long after, I found that Professor Young was generous with his correspondence and exacting with his criticism.  I was deeply grateful for both.  He and I discussed the capacity of the Old South Meeting House, the new Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, and other issues related to Revolutionary Boston.  At one point I found out (from Alan Taylor’s review) that, like both my parents, he had graduated from CUNY Queens College.  He told me that Henry David (history) and Vera Shlakman (economics) had turned him on to the possibilities of history; he was “bitten by the history bug.”  Young struggled at various points in his early career; after his retirement, he produced a startling amount of great work at a rapid pace.  By then, his influence on the academic profession, and the broader community of history, had long ago become apparent.

I’ll be traveling to Durham this winter for research, and Al had been looking forward to welcoming me.  We had never spent much time together in person, instead enjoying a correspondence of several years.  Now I’m sorry I won’t get the chance to make up for lost time.

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October 24, 2012

The “Wisdom” of the Founders

It’s October of a presidential election year, which means the political pundit class is alive with speculation of the likelihood of different results in the popular vote and the Electoral College or – and this one has really gotten people going, thanks to some speculation and number crunching by Five Thirty Eight blogger Nate Silver – if the Electoral College comes out in a 269-269 tie. (Two side points: first, take a look at the first scenario he games out; the scary part is it has the air of plausibility, that is, the electoral map theoretically could happen, even if the odds are extremely low. Second, as others have pointed out, you should know you’re being trolled when you read a sentence that states that the “probability [of a tie] has roughly doubled from a few weeks ago, when the chances had been hovering at about 0.3 percent instead.”)

The op-eds, editorials, blog posts, and tweets that game out these scenarios all operate under the premise that such an outcome would be a “constitutional crisis.” And that’s true to a point, but what I have not seen any discussion of in the mainstream media to this point is that such an Electoral College occurrence, however fluky it might be, would represent a failure not so much of the Constitution as of the political system built up around it. Such an election, in fact, does exactly what the Constitution of 1787 (as modified by the Twelfth Amendment) requires. The winner of the presidential election is the candidate with the most electoral votes; Art. II, § 1 is agnostic on the method by which each state determines its electors, and a popular majority was in no one’s imagination in 1787.

Why don’t commentators or politicians discuss the problem of an Electoral College tie (or a “split decision”) as a Constitutional matter rather than a political one? One answer comes from Sanford Levinson, whom I heard speak for the first time this week when he visited my campus. Levinson, who teaches at Harvard Law School and the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, argued simply that no one is willing to have the conversation. The discussion about the Constitution, he suggested, goes only so far for the two candidates as to express their devotion to the document of the Founders. (At this point Levinson expressed nostalgic longing for the campaign of 1912, which featured constitutional reformers Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt as well as the future Chief Justice William Howard Taft.)

Levinson is most famous in Constitutional studies circles for his advocacy of a new constitutional convention to remedy the problems he sees in the current document—and the greatest failure of 1787, he suggests, is the empty vessel of Article V, which provides for the Constitution’s amendment with absolutely no guidance as to how it might happen. He argued in his talk on Monday that the Constitution would “render the election (nearly) irrelevant,” a provocative claim that little would occur in the sphere of domestic policy no matter which candidate wins because of the likely split in Congress. In foreign affairs, he argued, the difference matters, but in that case he critiques Presidents (dating back to Truman) for ignoring Congress in matters of war, peace, and national security.

The discussion was intriguing, and I’m glad that a number of students got to see history in action, as Levinson touched on a number of areas that we had covered in the U.S. survey within the past week, not least the vagueness of Article II’s grant of executive power. Within the context of the talk, I asked Levinson how he proposed to get a constitutional convention enacted, given that it required the assistance of the very political structures that fail in other regards now and that the very vagueness that he critiqued was a feature of the Constitution that worked well for either party at various times. His answer was not particularly satisfying – either we have to go over the cliff and have a true crisis moment (which is hopefully unlikely) or people must decide they’re just fed up. I’m not sure I’d go as far as Levinson, though I do think the conversation would be helpful, and that historians can and should take part in it to explain the processes by which the Constitution came about in 1787 and those that have shaped the document since.

What I did not get to ask about, and which may take a few more blog posts to fully flesh out, is the importance of what Levinson alluded to at the beginning of his talk: reverence for the Constitution. Setting aside how to fix any problems with the Constitution, any conversation along those lines must start from the premise that the Constitution is changeable, and I’m not sure that’s an easy starting point for many people given the enduring popularity of originalism and “Founders’ Chic.” It’s difficult, in other words, to have a true conversation about the Electoral College that elides the fact that a 269-269 tie leading to the House electing Mitt Romney as President and the Senate re-electing Joe Biden as Vice President is precisely the system the Founders bestowed on the nation.

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October 19, 2012

Update on Georgia Archives

Filed under: Government,Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 6:57 am

Via Mark Cheathem at Jacksonian America, and for those keeping score at home, the Governor and Secretary of State have announced that they’ve scraped together enough pennies ($125,000 worth) to keep the State Archives open through the end of the fiscal year. According to the press release issued by the Governor’s office, the funding will be the first step in a transition process for the Archives:

The extra funding provides for Georgia State Archives to be open to the public through June 30 of next year. On July 1,  the Georgia Archives will be transferred to University System of Georgia, pending approval of the move by the General Assembly. This transfer will include appropriations required for operation and assets of the Georgia Archives. Additional staff will be provided by USG at that time. Deal and Kemp intend to find efficiencies by consolidating the Archives under the University System of Georgia, just as the state has sought to do with the library system.

It is a good thing that the archives will remain open (that is, back to its schedule of public access on Fridays and Saturdays). It is a logical move to place the archives under the purview of the state university system, which has its own extensive library system.

But given the funding cuts that have hit higher education in the past decade, I’m not holding my breath that this puts the State Archives on a permanent sure footing.

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September 14, 2012

Georgia: Closing for Study

Filed under: American History,Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 11:39 am

By now, many of our readers have probably seen the announcement from Georgia that the State Archives will largely close effective November 1 as part of a round of state budget cuts. Some number of the staff (as yet unspecified) will be laid off, and the archives will only be available on a by-appointment basis, also on a yet-to-be-determined basis once the Archives figures out its eventual staffing levels. This is disastrous news on many levels, and the reaction in the social media world (at least the small part that I inhabit) has been swift and fierce in lambasting the decision. There is already an online petition to the Governor to keep the archives open.

To be clear, Georgia is not going from forty hours per week to zero, but rather from seventeen hours to none—the archive’s public reading room is currently open only on Friday and Saturdays. As Rob Townsend of the AHA pointed out on Twitter, Georgia is already getting an F for public access to information. But the end of public access except in very limited cases is still disappointing, and it’s heartening to see that so many are already taking action.

From my perspective, it seems important (without being too alarmist) to catalog exactly how damaging the prospect of losing access to a state’s archives is and just how many constituencies will be affected.

  • Historians will lose even more access to the public records of Georgia – the papers of the governors and executive offices, records of the legislatures, the courts, and a range of other records.
  • Genealogists will lose access to records to trace family lineage, whether through court records or local county, city, and town records held by the state.
  • Lawyers will have more difficulty accessing public records for their casework.
  • Government agencies in Georgia will have more difficulty getting access to records.
  • Journalists, non-governmental organizations, and others interested in learning more about the operations of the state will have a harder time getting to the documents they need.

This decision, therefore, is not just about historians, though we will feel the pain. It damages a wide swath of people interested in finding out more about Georgia.

What that means from a historian’s perspective is that the decision will also hurt Georgia itself. Politicians may not be thrilled about journalists checking up on them, but it makes it harder to talk about Georgia in history, political science, and so on. Georgia’s public colleges and universities have a Georgia history requirement—how is that history to be written and studied without access to the documents?

In colonial American history, Georgia often seems marginalized – it was founded late in the colonizing game, it was small relative to most of the other colonies, and it doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. I can’t speak for other periods (the Civil Rights movement would be one issue on which I assume Georgia gets more significant coverage), but that lack of coverage will only be exacerbated if it’s difficult to get the documents. In other words, if nothing else, this decision—if it holds and remains the case—could have a long-term impact on how Georgia demonstrates civic pride.

Or to put it another way: I learned a skit in elementary school (and I’m sure many others did too) that’s known as the “Lamppost Skit.” A man is looking for his wallet under a lamppost, and drags three, four, five other people under the light to help him look. Frustrated, one of them finally says, “Are you sure it’s here?” “Oh no,” he replies, pointing the distance. “It’s over there—but the light’s so much better here.” The Georgia Archive has posted an online exhibition called Vanishing Georgia to display historical photographs. With this decision, that exhibit’s title and message becomes more poignant and more prescient.

Note: I have not personally done work at the Georgia State Archives, but I would appreciate if those of you who have would share your experiences and what you accomplished there in the comments. We need to get the word out in whatever way possible about what access means.

UPDATE (Sept. 18, 2:30 p.m.): The AHA has issued its formal response to the Archives closure, a letter from Executive Director James Grossman to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal.

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July 22, 2012

The Bonds of Scholarly Affection

Filed under: Academia,Ben Carp's Posts,Conferences,Historians — Benjamin Carp @ 4:49 pm

Conferences are places of love.

The 34th annual meeting (pdf) of SHEAR (the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic) was held this past weekend in Baltimore. The last time SHEAR met at Baltimore was 2001, which was the summer I attended (and presented at) my first two academic conferences.

The first was at the Institute for Historical Research in London. I remember thinking that if I was going to make mistakes, at least I’d be doing it thousands of miles away from anyone I knew. The conference (theme: “The Sea”) stuck all of the graduate student presenters onto one panel, even though none of our papers were related to one another. This struck me at the time as a pretty bad method, and I don’t think I got many questions from the audience. But what I really remember is that a senior scholar, who I’d first met earlier at the conference, made a point of staying for my paper and then discreetly slipping out. Later that day, we sat together on a stoop outside and he spent fifteen or twenty minutes giving me a full critique of my arguments. So my first introduction to an academic conference was a display of almost unbelievable generosity from a scholar I deeply respected.

My second conference was soon afterwards, when SHEAR last held its annual meeting in Baltimore. I wasn’t a great fit for SHEAR, since I was studying pre-revolutionary history, but the loose, friendly atmosphere hooked me, and it keeps drawing me back. My fondest memory from this conference was playing hooky with four youngish scholars (all more senior than me) to grab a delicious lunch and then check out the wondrous American Visionary Art Museum. Just as I was trying to learn the conventions of conference attendance, a few historians showed me that sometimes you had to break the rules to have an even more meaningful experience.

Now I can look around the room at a SHEAR conference and see former mentors and colleagues, co-bloggers, editors, friends I met at previous conferences and in the archives, graduate students I’ve encouraged, and dozens of people pursuing exciting projects of all kinds. So, as I said, conferences are places of love.

It’s true that too much love can be a bad thing: the bonds of scholarly affection can encourage logrolling, backscratching, insularity, and groupthink. Indeed, scholars are often encouraged to throw open their doors a bit more widely, to reach out to the general public and have a broader conversation. In an ideal world, these members of the public would find our shared enthusiasm for history irresistible, and go home to tell their state representatives to pour more money into higher education. On the other hand, some specialized discussion is inevitable (and essential) at a subfield conference like SHEAR, and this can quickly alienate nonprofessionals. (At the plenary session, I heard a lay audience member ask his companion, “What’s a maroon?” which instantly conjured up Bugs Bunny.)

Still, for professionals, a great conference is not just an opportunity for fantastic panels and enlightened discussion, for cutting-edge research and spirited debate–a conference is also an opportunity for sociability and socialization, for the formation of a community of scholars. It’s a cause for celebration, a working vacation from department committees, grade complaints, and hermetic writing sessions. For scholars who will never register for another class in their lives, it’s a great few days of offline learning.* Our universities should do all they can to support conference attendance, for professors as well as students.

*Meanwhile, for those who want to follow along online, here’s the archive of tweets from the conference.

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