Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

February 14, 2013

Postal Regulations and the Press in Franklin’s Day and Ours

I read this morning at Jim Romenesko’s blog about the travails of the New Hampshire Gazette, which styles itself The Nation’s Oldest Newspaper, after a change last month in postal regulations. The descendant of the newspaper of that name founded by Daniel Fowle in 1756 (and now run by a distant cousin), the Gazette is a free bi-weekly newspaper based in Portsmouth, and has long relied on the U.S. Postal Service to circulate copies to subscribers—I’ll let you click over to Romenesko to read the details.

In announcing its troubles, the New Hampshire Gazette wrote that its staff “can only imagine what Benjamin Franklin, the newspaperman who founded the Post Office, would think of this.” Fortunately, I can answer that question: their trouble is pretty much the same reason that Franklin ended up involved with the post office in the first place.

As a young newspaper printer trying to break into the Philadelphia market with his Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin posed a challenge to the leading printer in town, Andrew Bradford, who published the American Weekly Mercury. Bradford, who was also the Philadelphia postmaster, found a way to thwart Franklin’s ambitions by forbidding him from mailing newspapers to subscribers via the post. The ambitious Franklin seized the advantage as soon as it offered itself, as he related later in his Autobiography:

In 1737, Col. Spotswood, late Governor of Virginia, and then Post-master, General, being dissatisfied with the Conduct of his Deputy at Philadelphia, respecting some Negligence in rendering, and Inexactitude of his Accounts, took from him the Commision and offered it to me. I accepted it readily, and found it of great Advantage; for tho’ the Salary was small, it facilitated the Corespondence that improv’d my Newspaper, encreas’d the Number demanded, as well as the Advertisements to be inserted, so that it came to afford me a very considerable Income. My old Competitor’s Newspaper declin’d proportionably, and I was satisfy’d without retaliating his Refusal, while Postmaster, to permit my Papers being carried by the Riders.

The postmaster position helped make Franklin’s career by giving him access to news circulating the colonies and providing him with the ability to add patronage appointments for his growing network of printing associates. A decade and a half later, Franklin angled himself into position to become Deputy Postmaster General for North America, a position he held from 1753 to 1774, and then of course served briefly as the first Continental Postmaster General (he didn’t actually “found” the Post Office, but that’s not important).

In other words, New Hampshire Gazette, Franklin (and many other eighteenth-century printers) knew your pain.

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January 19, 2012

“By securing the copies”

I’ve been going in circles about copyright, intellectual property, and the role of history in debating them. I started a post yesterday about the protests against SOPA and PIPA, in which major Internet sites (including Wikipedia, Google, and Wired.com, among others) and countless personal sites have shut down or curtailed their operations to protest the two bills currently being considered by Congress. Each would grant new powers to the federal government to monitor and control information posted online, including the power to block domain names based on copyright infringement claims.

But before I could get very far on that post, I read of the Supreme Court’s 6-2 decision in Golan v. Holder that allows the federal government to take works that had moved into the public domain and place them back under copyright protection (Justice Kagan recused herself, presumably because the case was working its way through the courts while she was Solicitor General).  The logic of the majority, by the way, is to require the federal government to meet obligations it made to hew to international copyright treaties to which the United States is a signatory, but of course the decision’s impact goes far beyond foreign works.

If you haven’t yet read the Supreme Court’s decision in Golan v. Holder (available here in PDF), take a look. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Ginsburg, is, as Yoni Appelbaum (@Yappelbaum) noted on Twitter, a “narrowly legalistic opinion for the Court.” It used historical evidence, to be sure, going back to the original 1886 Berne international copyright convention. But it delved no further, and did not explore the deep background of copyright law in the United States. The Breyer dissent (concurred by Alito), by contrast, digs all the way back in Anglo-American jurisprudence to the earliest copyright statutes in Great Britain (in 1710). Breyer has a very good account of the development of copyright in the eighteenth century, both in Britain and America. Here’s a representative paragraph:

Yet, as the Founders recognized, monopoly is a two­ edged sword. On the one hand, it can encourage produc­tion of new works.  In the absence of copyright protection, anyone might freely copy the products of an author’s creative labor, appropriating the benefits without incur­ring the nonrepeatable costs of creation, thereby deterring authors from exerting themselves in the first place.  On the other hand, copyright tends to restrict the dissemina­tion (and use) of works once produced either because the absence of competition translates directly into higher consumer prices or because the need to secure copying permission sometimes imposes administrative costs that make it difficult for potential users of a copyrighted work to find its owner and strike a bargain.  See W. Landes & R. Posner, The Economic Structure of Intellectual Proper­ty Law 68–70, 213–214 (2003).  Consequently, the original British copyright statute, the Constitution’s Framers, and our case law all have recognized copyright’s resulting and necessary call for balance.

Copyright has always been meant to protect the rights of producers — though crucially in the eighteenth century, copyright usually resided with publishers rather than authors. The Statute of Anne, in fact, was part of a regime that protected the monopoly of the Stationers’ Company of London. As Sarah Arndt points out, the monopoly was limited to England; Ireland (and Dublin in particular) became the publishing piracy capital of the British Atlantic. The colonies also lacked firm copyright law, but almost no printers (which is to say, Benjamin Franklin and nobody else) had the capacity to publish books; they imported from Britain and Ireland (see Richard Sher’s Enlightenment and the Book and volume 1 of A History of the Book in America, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World for full details).

As it happens, the eighteenth century history of copyright and censorship provides two good case studies for efforts to protect artistic productions and government limitations of publications.

First, there are unintended consequences even to well-meaning legislation in the realm of publications. For a moment, take the British view of the Stamp Act, what would have been the largest effective restriction on print publication ever in British colonial America. Coming out of the Seven Years’ War, Britain was saddled with unprecedented debt, a new and very young king, and an unstable domestic political environment. To pay down the debt, Parliamentary ministers explored all sorts of options; asking colonists to pay a little more in taxes seemed unproblematic to them (for obvious reasons). England’s printing trade had operated with a Stamp Act since 1712, and several of the colonies (notably New York and Massachusetts) had passed temporary stamp taxes to fund the war effort in the 1750s. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, printers (as I argue in my research) saw it as a massive threat to their businesses and many colonists saw it as a threat to free and open political communication. Printers turned their publications into forums for protest, publishing essays against the Act, following protests, and organizing to lobby for its repeal and nullification. When November 1, the planned effective date of the Act, rolled around, presses across the colonies went silent in protest. Some printers, like William Bradford, publisher of the Pennsylvania Journal, melodramatically eulogized their newspapers. Merchants organized boycotts of British goods. And in thirteen of Britain’s colonies, the law was nullified (it took effect in Canada and the West Indies). By spring, Parliament repealed the law (with an assertion of its power to boot). I’m not predicting that there will be a second American Revolution, of course, but if Congress passes a tax on china, glass, and painters’ colors in a few years, all bets are off.

The second lesson is that copyright law in the United States originated in an environment that envisioned a free market for foreign works. Congress passed a copyright law in 1790 to cover new works in the United States—and as Breyer and Alito note, it did not cover foreign works. Noah Webster pushed hard for the law because of the massive success of his speller. He had spent years  traveling through the states trying to sew up copyright in each to protect his publication from piracy. For foreign works, the standard remained that whoever got there first stood to make a profit. For the most popular author of the early republic, Walter Scott, Mathew Carey made a deal with Scott’s London publisher to get access to the text first. Was there a better solution to solving the question of works copyrighted abroad? Almost certainly.

Putting modern debates into context is important. Laws restricting the circulation of information and publications have not been warmly received. Copyright has been an instrument to limit that circulation. And lastly, it was never intended to be permanent or retroactive. (Though, like many others, I doubt I will live to see the day when Mickey Mouse (first copyrighted in 1928) enters the public domain.) Understanding the background of copyright law and censorship helps us to understand both the law and the protests against it.

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November 27, 2011

Holiday Historian Buzzkills: Thanksgiving Edition

Filed under: American Indians,Colonial Period,Historians,Holidays,Regionalism — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:42 am

Historians are great fun at holiday gatherings. There is no hallowed, sentimental tradition we can’t contextualize the fun out of, and what better time than lingering over the gravy and cranberry sauce with people you only see once or twice a year? But I jest, at least for myself. The Pilgrims, Mayflower, et al have never ever come up at any of our family Thanksgivings, and indeed I strive to avoid history or politics as conversation topics on that occasion. Obviously the whole thing weighs on the minds of many of my colleagues, however, as well as the editors who commission essays from them. Below are a  just a few I found over the weekend. I agree with almost all of them, by the way.

  • As Randall Stephens pointed out in a 2009 Historical Society post, the Pilgrims/friendly Indians story is actually one of the most long-debunked in American history. Mark Twain sent it up. The head of the New England Emigrant Aid Society trashed it. Historians have been pointing out for years that the Plymouth colony turned to violence shortly after their turkey was digested, so Peter Mancall of USC uses that as just a starting point for a discussion of the maypole-dancing Merrymount colony led by Thomas Morton. Mancall argues that Morton’s settlement offered a more truly peaceful and less Christian alternative model of coexistence with the natives. (Some may remember Merrymount and the maypole from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story notable for its proto-hip theme of a groovy American Eden disrupted by angry, violent European bluenoses.) Morton also apparently wrote the very first Pilgrim-debunking book as well, earning him extra cred with historians. Next November confuse your grade-schooler’s teacher by requesting a maypole dance to go along with the Pilgrim hats.
  • Yale University Press asks us to consider what the Pilgrims must have smelled like. Hint: not like the sage in their stuffing or delicious pumpkin pie.
  • Raymond J. Haberski, Jr. at the US Intellectual History blog records destroying his daughter’s grade school dreams:

My first-grader asked me about the Pilgrims yesterday after having seen a movie in school about a mouse who stows away aboard the Mayflower. She liked the mouse, didn’t know what she thought about the Pilgrims, but was curious about the Compact made aboard the Mayflower. She said that she would like to see the original document (which made my heart leap) to check if the mouse’s prints were on it (my heart sank). So I told her that the mouse was fiction, the compact was not. I then wondered why we need to include mice in historical stories, why not just make either a movie about a mouse or a movie about the Mayflower.

The daughter then retaliates on behalf of the mouse by hammering the Pilgrims on gender.

  • While not in so many words, Steven Cromack at the Historical Society Blog reminds us that Thanksgiving is an invented tradition, cooked up by women’s magazine editor (and actual cookbook author) Sara Josepha Hale as a way of bringing the whole Union together through a “new National Holiday” on the eve of the Civil War. Once the South was out of the Union, President Lincoln finally declared Hale’s new holiday for the last Thursday in November. So the togetherness thing clearly worked out really well. Thanksgiving and the Plymouth narrative that went with it were always about installing a soothing version of New England Puritanism as the national founding mythology, over and against other stories and lineages (like Virginia’s) that were both quite distinct and perhaps more truly foundational in terms of what the nation would become. It took decades of New England propaganda to really establish Thanksgiving as a non-sectional icon, and I wonder if football was not only thing that ever really reconciled southerners to it.
  • Cromack mentions that the modern Thanksgiving was not finally legislated until 1941. Researching that for 10 minutes leads to the conclusion that Tea Party types should totally boycott the holiday and report to work next Thanksgiving in protest. Not only was the Thanksgiving holiday a worker-coddling Big Government mandate, it was also necessitated by FDR’s earlier attempt to change the date of Thankgiving. The FDR Library has the hate mail to prove it.
  • Probably the ultimate buzzkill here is that, far from Black Friday’s being a perversion of  Thanksgiving tradition, it turns out that the holiday qua holiday (a time officially set aide for family gatherings and not going to work) was always about shopping. Moving the date around the calendar was motivated by requests from businessmen who wondered how they were going to sell their way out of the Great Depression with only 24 shopping days until Christmas. It seems that business had lobbied to move the former informal Thanksgiving to an earlier date during FDR’s first year in office, because the last Thursday fell on November 30 in 1933 — the idea was that since no one would start Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving, move it up and they would shop more. It must say something about the depth of denial that much of the business world was in at the time that it could be believed that switching some dates on the calendar could fool the public into overlooking the little matter of world-wide economic collapse. Roosevelt ignored the calls the first time, but when Thanksgiving landed on November 30 again in 1939, he caved in and moved the annual Thanksgiving proclamation a week earlier. The New Deal was in retreat at the time and FDR wanted to seem friendlier to business. This experiment in more sensitive governance resulted in the avalanche of anti-government, pro-tradition outrage documented on the FDR Library’s page. The missive on the dire threat to the calendar industry must have inspired some Bolshevistic thoughts in the White House.
  • For my own contribution, watch this space for evidence that the holiday celebrations of the Pilgrims got started in New England as conservative politics. Federalists held the first of a series of “Feasts of the Sons of the Pilgrims” in 1799, when the Alien and Sedition Acts were in full swing, to urge the loyal children of “the Fathers of New England” to hold the line against immigrants, liberals, and Frenchmen. Unlike the sanitized Sara Josepha Hale version, the Plymouth story of 1799 included a fairly accurate and unapologetic account of what the Pilgrims did to unfriendly Indians and the limits of their acceptance of even the friendly ones: ”The memory of our Ancestors—May their ardour inspire and their success encourage their descendants to maintain their birthrights and may all their enemies be converted like Massasoit, or suffer like Phillip” (i.e. “King” Philip, the Wampanoag chief whose head ended on a post in Plymouth).
  • To include the equally fun anthropologists, check out Magnus Fiskesjö’s deconstruction — or more properly, construction — of the odious modern tradition of the Presidential Turkey Pardon: “The reluctant sovereign: New adventures of the US presidential Thanksgiving turkey.” If anything, Fiskesjö is far too respectful. The power of life and death is sooo cute.
  • Finally, moving away from the Thanksgiving story to typical Thanksgiving activities, the redoubtable Jesse Lemisch gave me permission to quote his Facebook post about trying to watch television this weekend: “It disgusts me that I turn the TV on to watch what passes for news, and instead what’s on is huge lunks in uniforms trying to kill each other. The mindset of football is the mindset of the pepper-spraying cop.” I (almost) wish I had said that while watching the annual Thanksgiving Day Lions game before dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house on Thursday. Alas, I am not as tough as Jesse!
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September 30, 2009

Thinking Like an Early American Historian

Filed under: Colonial Period,Social History — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:38 pm

. . . about college students having sex. Got your attention? It’s not what you think. My attention was called on Facebook to a piece on the NYT site: “At Tufts, an Attempt to Prohibit Sex When a Roommate Is in the Room.” Kids having sex in public naturally did not turn the incisive historical minds on FB to our own college experiences — speaking for myself, we ate a lots of  pizza, drank a lot of beer, and studied a lot, without nearly as many opportunities to test our sexual ethics as they seem to have at Tufts these days. Instead, we early American historians thought of bundling, the scandalous youth sexual practice of colonial New England.

For civilians who happen on this post, bundling was a courtship custom where unmarried young men and women slept together, bundled up in blankets on a bed. Lest it seem too sexy,  a board was put in-between the two and the girl could be encased in a stout bag to protect her the virtue. Mom and Dad (and presumably others) often stayed in the room, just like a Tufts roommate.

From a decent-seeming scholarly article on bundling that happens to be available online:

Bundling is probably the best known courtship practice of colonial America, even though very little research on the topic has ever been published. It appears to contradict the otherwise sexually strict mores of the Puritans. It meant that a courting couple would be in bed together, but with their clothes on. With fuel at a premium, it was often difficult to keep a house warm in the evenings. Since this is when a man would be visiting his betrothed in her home, they would bundle in her bed together in order to keep warm. A board might be placed in the middle to keep them separate, or the young lady could be put in a bundling bag or duffel-like chastity bag. The best protection against sin were the parents, who were usually in the same room with them. It may not have been good enough, however, as records indicate that up to one-third of couples engaged in premarital relations in spite of the public penalties, such as being fined and whipped, that often resulted (Ingoldsby 1995).

While bundling scandalized or amused outsiders who witnessed or heard about the practice, rural New Englanders did not regard it as risqué at all. In fact, as recounted in Rev. Samuel Peters’  General History of Connecticut, Yankees placed bundling a good deal higher on the moral scale than the new-fangled, citified courtship practice of sitting on a French sofa. (Also, bundling was a lot cheaper, because while everyone had beds and blankets, you had to buy a sofa and have room in the house for it that was properly heated.)
From Peters on Google Books:
Apologies to any social historians who may have more bundling expertise than me if I am spreading any common myths here. Please enlighten us!

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Now playing: The Decemberists – O New England

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August 14, 2009

Jim Downs: ‘The Interesting Narrative’ of President Obama’s Trip to Ghana

Filed under: Black history,Civil War Era,Colonial Period,Guest posts,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:44 am
“Does President Obama need a history lesson?,” asks Prof. Jim Downs of Connecticut College. Quite possibly, I would have to agree, especially on matters besides the Lincoln Administration. Obama has got the hiring your rivals and frustrating moderation parts down, anyway, but there is no doubt about his penchant for bland, comforting, conventional history designed not to upset the suburban voter. (Unfortunately, the president’s recent experience commenting too honestly on the Gates arrest probably is not going to push him in more daring directions anytime soon.) Downs sent in the following comment, which I am happy to publish here as a guest post:

During his recent trip to Ghana, President Obama did not discuss the brutal history of the Atlantic slave trade that began in Ghana, and only mentioned the word slavery once during his speech. Instead, the President spoke in general terms about “oppression” and “evil.” In fact, in the opening sentence that he delivered standing outside the haunting Elmina Castle, Obama likened his trip to Ghana to his visit to a concentration camp in Germany.  For decades, historians have been trying to dissuade the American public from comparing the slave trade to the Holocaust, which often leads to explosive debates on which group suffered more, and to the imminent question: would the President standing on the grounds of a former concentration camp evoke the history of slavery?

By discussing the history of the slave trade in Ghana as part of larger history of “evil” and “cruelty,” the President missed the opportunity to educate the American public (and the world for that matter) about the actual history of the slave trade: the 2 million slaves who died en route to the Americas and the millions more who suffered in the crowded, disease-ridden, dark bowels of the slave ships. He also gave up the chance to discuss the effects of the international slave trade: the destruction of African cultural traditions, languages, and religious practices by New World slaveholders; the pain felt by African families torn apart by the hands of Dutch, Spanish, and English traders and merchants; the greedy profits gained by European nations and the burgeoning colonies in the Americas; and even the transformation of West African economies; political structures; and military strategies.

Throughout his speech in front the 15th century slave castle, Obama only mentioned the word slavery once and when he did invoke it, he made enormous historical leaps. He reflected on the 19th century abolitionist movement when whites and blacks fought together to end slavery. While white and black people did eventually work together in the early to mid-nineteenth century to terminate slavery, one cannot ignore that on the ground where the President made such a comment, whites and blacks worked together during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to send Africans into chattel slavery in the New World. While Obama more than likely made this remark in order to illuminate a moment of interracial solidarity with the hope of improving race relations, he forfeited the opportunity for Americans to actually reflect on the horrors of the slave trade—a cultural memory that most black people acknowledge but one that most non-black Americans know little about. A more informed reflection on the actual history of the slave trade could do more to improve race relations than cherry picking a moment in history that happened after the international slave trade ended and did not even lead to the abolition of slavery. President Obama ought to know that it was not just abolitionists who ended slavery, but enslaved people themselves. Southern blacks dismantled the institution of slavery by fleeing from plantations across the Confederacy and joining the Union Army, contributing mightily to the North’s victory in the Civil War and the collapse of the slaveocracy.

Jim Downs is a history professor at Connecticut College, focusing on African-American history and 19th century U.S. History. His books include Taking Back the Academy and Why We Write. His articles have appeared in History Today, the Chicago Tribune, The Southern Historian, Prologue, History News Network, and Reviews in American History, among other places.

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Now playing: Robyn Hitchcock And The Egyptians – The President
via FoxyTunes

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July 16, 2009

Don’t Mess with Us, Texas

Filed under: Christianity,Colonial Period,Conservatives,Education,Founders,Revolution — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:50 am

I am driving off to the Society for Historians of the Early Republic (SHEAR) annual meeting in beautiful downtown Springfield, Illinois, this morning. Worthwhile national history conferences in easy ground transportation range of mid-Missouri are something of a rarity, so I would not miss it. Perhaps I will “live blog” some of the proceedings. Also, perhaps I won’t.

Just one brief item before I go: Dan Mandell of Truman State called my attention to a Wall Street Journal article discussing the latest target for Texas shootin’ irons in the educational culture wars: our own field of U.S. history. This kind of history standards debate is not new, of course — we can say a little prayer of thanks that Lynne Cheney never got her own CIA hit squad, or whatever Dick’s most recently revealed scheme turns out to have been. Yet back in the day, it was usually conservatives complaining about what was left out of the National History Standards; in present-day Texas, they are looking to put a tendentiously right-wing Christian view of American history into the public schools. The agenda seems to go considerably beyond LCheney-like complaints about the insufficient love given to George Washington. I will supply some key passages for myself or others to take up in the comments or later. The whole thing is worth reading, if you are feeling calm:

The fight over school curriculum in Texas, recently focused on biology, has entered a new arena, with a brewing debate over how much faith belongs in American history classrooms.

The Texas Board of Education, which recently approved new science standards that made room for creationist critiques of evolution, is revising the state’s social studies curriculum. In early recommendations from outside experts appointed by the board, a divide has opened over how central religious theology should be to the teaching of history.

Three reviewers, appointed by social conservatives, have recommended revamping the K-12 curriculum to emphasize the roles of the Bible, the Christian faith, and the civic virtue of religion in the study of American history. Two of them want to remove or de-emphasize references to several historical figures who have become liberal icons, such as César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall.

“We’re in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it,” said Rev. Peter Marshall, a Christian minister and one of the reviewers appointed by the conservative camp. . . .

The three reviewers appointed by the moderate and liberal board members are all professors of history or education at Texas universities, including Mr. de la Teja, a former state historian. The reviewers appointed by conservatives include two who run conservative Christian organizations: David Barton, founder of WallBuilders, a group that promotes America’s Christian heritage; and Rev. Marshall, who preaches that Watergate, the Vietnam War, and Hurricane Katrina were God’s judgments on the nation’s sexual immorality. The third is Daniel Dreisbach, a professor of public affairs at American University.

The conservative reviewers say they believe that children must learn that America’s founding principles are biblical. For instance, they say the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution stems from a scriptural understanding of man’s fall and inherent sinfulness, or “radical depravity,” which means he can be governed only by an intricate system of checks and balances.

Colonial historians, would you like to take a guess about what figure some of the Texas reviewers wanted removed from the curriculum, apparently as part of this biblical program? From the specific suggestions listed at the end of the story:

  • Delete Anne Hutchinson from a list of colonial leaders

Students learn about colonial history in the fifth grade, and three reviewers suggested that the standards not include Anne Hutchinson, a 17th century figure, among a list of significant leaders. Ms. Hutchinson was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for teaching religious views at odds with the officially sanctioned faith.

So rebellious female Christians just don’t count when it comes to America’s biblical principles, and/or Puritan orthodoxy is alive and well deep in the heart of Texas. I don’t think that’s what Bob Wills intended, do you?

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Now playing: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys – Cotton Eyed Joe
via FoxyTunes

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July 10, 2009

Things I learned from the Internet this week

Filed under: Colonial Period,Conservatives,GOP,Humor,Media,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:21 am

. . . when I probably should have been doing something else.

  • The Tea Party protesters do not even like the Republicans any more, if they ever did. They are also the number one source of “comment spam” on this blog, or at least of the stuff that gets through the filters. That is just how revolutionary they are. Teabaggers go where online slot machine and Canadian payday loan purveyors fear to tread. [Actually, I think the spammers must think the teabaggers are a little bit confused and thus a good target market for people who sell things by getting other people to click on links accidentally.]
  • Sarah Palin is in it for the money. Some conservative pundits do not approve, but Rush is all for it. Making money is the highest social good in their philosophy, right? So I guess they have to take the greedy with the bad.
  • People who comment on the American political scene for national publications should be forced to read a pile of several hundred student papers. Then they would not find Palin’s habit of speaking/writing “in half-expressed thoughts and internal contradictions” so singular. It’s more or less the norm as far as I can tell, here in the mid-ranges of higher education that Sarah could not quite hack. It’s also pretty common to just disappear from classes or change schools in mid-semester, with or without explanation. Of course, it takes a truly special person to take that approach to being governor of a state. That said, making fun of a populist leader’s syntax, as the MSM and liberal blogs like to do with Palin, just plays into their hands. Ask the Federalists how well the supercilious grammar criticism tactic worked against various upstart northern Democratic-Republicans.
  • Racist humor (and, one might add, racism) is fairly common, and often tolerated, in some conservative circles. Actually, I already knew that from personal experience, but it is quite revealing that some young white conservatives thought nothing of slapping that kind of thing up on Facebook.
  • You can learn colonial history on Hulu. I learned that  Captain John Smith worked out a lot and liked to hang around in Jamestown with his shirt off. It was surprisingly hot, dry, and dusty there in the Virginia Tidewater hills. Also, John Rolfe was his sidekick. And Pocahontas looked good in her miniskirt. Ahead of the curve fashion-wise, as well. To be honest, there’s something to be said for the 50s he-man version of John Smith over Colin Farrell’s big-eyed nature lover in Terence Malick’s The New World. Smith is a rather sensitive fellow for a globe-trotting mercenary in both versions, which probably says something about how Americans like to remember their conquering forebears: a little sentimental, with just a hint of tears as they regretfully wipe off the blood.

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Now playing:
Beulah – Queen of the Populists
via FoxyTunes

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June 30, 2009

An Interstate Running Through His Front Lawn

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Colonial Period,Government,Historic sites,Urban history — Benjamin Carp @ 9:21 am

The blogger Atrios likes to highlight articles about the incongruities between urban life (with its walkability and density) and automobile culture (which demands curb cuts, parking spaces, fast-moving highways, and suburban developments). He’s especially giddy when drivers are driven mad by cities–because suburbanites perceive them to be unsuitable as places to live, yet they still want to visit urban attractions (or work their urban jobs).  So when they can’t find a place to park, their frustration is palpable (particularly on internet comment boards).  For an urban planner, the only solutions seem to be: a) destroy your city, or b) resist the suburbanites’ car-centric frustration, possibly by coming up with transportation alternatives.

Atrios highlighted an article on the parking shortage in Newport, RI, particularly this quote:

Though a modern streetcar system may seem out-of-place with the city’s colonial appeal, officials say it could actually be a throwback to the early 20th century, when trolleys operated in the city. Plus, Bronk said, there’s nothing quaint about the city’s traffic.

“Does four lanes of automobile congestion, is that in keeping with the colonial period? It’s not,” he said. “Is a highway downtown in keeping with the colonial era? It’s not.”

Of all the cities I discussed in Rebels Rising, Newport is the best place to discern a surviving colonial landscape and surviving colonial buildings.  After that, I’d rank them as follows, from best to worst: Charleston (SC), Philadelphia (where Atrios lives), Boston, and New York City.  (Obviously there were other cities at the time, but those are the five that got the most attention in my book.)  Of those five, Newport has grown the least, economically and demographically, over the years, so it’s not so surprising that more of its colonial landscape survives.  The other cities have also struggled with transportation access in a lot of ways, and I’m sure visitors to all these cities (and to all cities, really) can call to mind the highways that lead into these cities, the neighborhoods that have been blighted by modern highway construction, and the public transportation alternatives that exist (or don’t exist) in these places.

All this is making me very grateful that my fellow fellow at the John Carter Brown Library used to offer me a parking space at his father’s office whenever I was driving down to Newport for dissertation research.

UPDATE: Why preserve historic buildings?  Because sometimes the findings are really cool.

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March 17, 2009

Post-Shame America

Filed under: Christianity,Colonial Period,Economy,GOP,Jacksonian Era,Political culture — Benjamin Carp @ 11:53 am

Often amid the news stories of the day, we’re tempted to ask, “don’t these people have any shame?”  Matthew Yglesias quotes Senator Chuck Grassley today: the senator almost calls on the AIG executives to commit ritual hara-kiri, and then settles on expecting the executives to merely show some contrition.  Yglesias is doubtful that this is possible, though:

We’ve somehow managed to construct something of a post-shame society, in which elites have convinced themselves that the rational agent model of human behavior is not just a useful modeling tool, but an ethical guidebook. There’s something to be said for the idea of a sense of honor and personal responsibility.

in a healthy society, you see some consideration of issues of honor and duty and moral responsibility and certainly Americans of more humble means don’t strike me as being nearly as taken with the “greed is good” personal ethic.

He continues by reminding us that Senator Grassley is, after all, a Republican, whose party platform suggests that he should lecture people on “personal responsibility” and promote trust that unfettered, deregulated business elites always have our best interests at heart.  Perhaps instead, Yglesias suggests, Grassley could show his outrage by supporting a budget that taxes the rich more heavily and give greater benefits (tax cuts, health care) to ordinary folks.

Meanwhile, all this discussion of personal responsibility puts me in mind of a fascinating article by Joseph Bottum that I saw in First Things last year, entitled, “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline.”  Since I’m on a Tocqueville kick this week, I’ll note that Bottum quotes Tocqueville as follows:

The oddity of American religion produced the oddity of American religious ­freedom.

The greatest oddity, however, may be the fact that the United States nonetheless ended up with something very similar to the establishment of religion in the public life of the nation. The effect often proved little more than an agreement about morals: The endlessly proliferating American churches, Tocqueville concluded, “all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.” The agreement was sometimes merely an establishment of manners: “The clergy of all the different sects hold the same language,” he added. “Their opinions are in agreement with the laws, and the human mind flows onward, so to speak, in one undivided current.”

Morals and manners, however, count for a great deal in the public square, and, beyond all their differences, the diverse Protestant churches merged to give a general form and a general tone to the culture. Protestantism helped define the nation, operating as simultaneously the happy enabler and the unhappy conscience of the American republic—a single source for both national comfort and national unease.

Think of the American experiment as a three-legged stool, its stability found in each leg’s relation to the other legs. Democracy grants some participation in national identity, an outlet for the anxious desire of citizens to take part in history, but it always leans toward vulgarity and short-sightedness. Capitalism gives us other freedoms and outlets for ambition, but it, too, always threatens to topple over, eroding the virtues it needed for its own flourishing. Meanwhile, religion provides meaning and narrative, a channel for the hunger of human beings to reach beyond the vanities of the world, but it tilts, in turn, toward hegemony and conformity.

Through most of American history, these three legs of democracy, capitalism, and religion accommodated one another and, at the same time, pushed hard against one another.

Bottum’s thesis is that now that mainline Protestantism has faded from American public life, and Catholicism, evangelicalism, and liberal religion probably can’t reconcile sufficiently to take its place, the stability of this “three-legged stool” is under threat.  The result may be that American elites don’t have the same unifying moral compass that they did when mainline Protestantism held greater sway, with dire consequences for capitalism and democracy.  The article is very long, very well-reasoned, and very well-written—so I’m not doing it justice.  But I wonder if Bottum today is ruefully congratulating himself on his predictive powers.  Meanwhile, if you’re looking for an interesting mix of early American history, American religion, and contemporary commentary (particularly on higher education), I’ve been enjoying this blog by Professor John Fea of Messiah College.

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March 3, 2009

Ill-Read Baiting

Filed under: Colonial Period,Conservatives,Historians,Humor,Obama Administration — Benjamin Carp @ 9:29 am

Perhaps over the weekend you saw this silly article in the New York Times about conservatives reviving the shibboleth of “socialism.” Now, there’s not much about the Obama Administration that’s remotely socialist, and indeed, the article even quotes Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (an actual socialist) as welcoming the fight: “I think this country could use a good debate on what goes on in places like Sweden, Norway, and Finland.”  But to me, this article was a reminder of just how bad politicians are at using historical analogies.  A good analogy, on the other hand, is something to treasure.  While doing some background reading for an encyclopedia article today, I came across a favorite passage.  Let Henry May show you how it’s done.

With boldness and considerable success, the Church [of England] carried its attack into the enemy stronghold, arch-Calvinist Connecticut.  In 1722 the new rector of Yale, one of the tutors, and five other promising young Puritans announced that they had come, through their reading, to doubt the validity of Presbyterian orders and were going to apply to the Bishop of London for ordination.  The effect in the colony was similar to that which might have been produced in 1925 if the Yale football team had suddenly joined the Communist Party.

–Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 77.

This is one of my favorite lines in all of early American history writing.  I’m a sucker for a scholar with a sense of mischief.

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