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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 11, 2013

The Value of Studying Politics in Context

Several years ago, the student conservative publication on the campus of a friend published a screed against newfangled history, decrying the rise of courses that focused on race, class, and gender, and bemoaning the lack of courses on serious subjects such as politics and economics. The publication singled out for praise a course taught by that friend on American business history. I chuckled when I read the article because the course in question focused heavily on—you guessed it—issues of race, gender, and class in American business. There’s only so much one can learn by reading course titles.

That story came to mind today as I read from a Facebook friend that the National Association of Scholars (and its affiliate group, the Texas Association of scholars), were releasing a report on Texas public universities that claims that the American history taught at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University contains too much social and cultural history (with “race, class, and gender,” or “RCG” as their stand-ins) and not enough political, economic, or diplomatic history.

Several people, including me, posted the report and discussed it on Twitter yesterday afternoon with a fair bit of derision and snark, pointing out, for instance, that the report flagged as objectionable The Minutemen and Their World, Robert A. Gross’s classic study of Concord in 1775, and Liberty and Power, a book whose subtitle is The Politics of Jacksonian America. Using syllabi, as many have argued, is an imperfect measure of what happens in a classroom; I offered as an example that my students listen to the Gettysburg Address in class rather than reading it at home.

That’s all well and good, and self-satisfying to boot. But for a moment indulge me in taking the report seriously to see whether those of us who practice political history in a way that attends carefully to society and culture can learn anything about how we pitch our work.

First, take a look at the report’s ten recommendations (pp. 47-49 of the report). At the topline, they are completely and utterly unobjectionable (in part because they are so vague):

  1. Review the Curriculum.
  2. If Necessary, Convene an External Review.
  3. Hire Faculty Members with a Broader Range of Research Interests.
  4. Keep Broad Courses Broad.
  5. Identify Essential Reading.
  6. Design Better Courses.
  7. Diversify Graduate Programs.
  8. Evaluate Conformity with Laws.
  9. Publish Better Books.
  10. Depoliticize History.

See? Nothing objectionable, except insofar as faculty around the United States are already doing nearly all of those things. We all worked to improve our courses, to “identify essential reading,” to address broad questions in survey courses, and so on. Nearly all of us try to publish better books, and our departments conduct frequent curricular reviews (my own department is in the midst of one this year). The problem, of course, is that a conservative organization such as NAS sees the outcomes of those efforts as fundamentally different from many academics.

To understand how, I want to talk more about the tenth recommendation. Here’s the full text after the brief nugget:

The root of the problem is that colleges and universities have drifted from their main mission. They and particular programs within them, increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry. When universities and university programs consider it necessary to atone for, and help erase, oppressions of the past; one way in which they do so is by depicting history as primarily a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice. This pedagogical conception may be well-intended, but it is also a limited and partisan one, and history teaching should not allow itself to become imprisoned within a narrow interpretation. A depoliticized history would provide a comprehensive interpretation of American history that does not shortchange students by denying them exposure to intellectual, political, religious, diplomatic, military, and economic historical themes.

The dominance of race, class, and gender themes in history curricula came about through disciplinary mission creep. Historians and professors of United States history should return to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.

The last sentence is the crucial one. The conservative impulse, as Jeremi Suri noted, is to teach “a simple and one-sided history of just a few people.” I attended a seminar this summer in which someone argued that you simply needed to “give students the documents” and they would be able to understand their meaning, and another person argued with me that I should be teaching the “enduring meaning” of the Constitution. (My response was that the Constitution hadn’t endured in 1787 when it was written, its drafters were in fact incredibly nervous about whether it would endure, and that the Civil War poked a rather gaping hole in the suggestion that that 1787 Constitution was fine as is.)

Teaching history that way, however, does an enormous disservice to students. As a political historian, I agree that teaching political history is important, and I emphasize it in my own survey course (my analogy to Texas is a state law here requiring instruction in both the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions). I believe, as I’ve argued here before, that civic education is an important function of American history courses. Understanding the political history of the United States better, including comprehending just what documents such as the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation meant to various groups, can only help modern political discourse. But I don’t want to pass on a simple story to my students, in no small measure because there is no simple story. In fact, I would argue, college history is not about answers, as NAS wishes, but about asking useful questions. I want, and I think many of my colleagues, to empower students to engage with the fullness of the past, to understand how debates in Philadelphia in 1787, in Congress in January 1865, at Versailles in 1919—choose your example from the standard narrative of political, diplomatic, and economic history—shaped and were shaped by social and cultural forces out of doors.

To address NAS on its own terms, one of its benchmarks for proper reading assignments is the National Archives list of 100 Milestone Documents. Go take a look and figure out how many of those documents one can discuss without any reference to race, class, or gender, NAS’s menacing troika. Maybe the Lend-Lease Act? The Manhattan Project’s notebook? Of course I’m not a twentieth-century specialist so I could be wrong about those. My point is that the political history that NAS and like-minded organizations promote looks desiccated and inadequate without any consideration of the important knowledge we’ve gained and the questions it allows us to ask over the past few decades. For a sample of that, I would just offhand recommend Benjamin Irvin’s book, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty, which recasts the political symbols that Congress promoted to develop American nationalism through an analysis of gendered language, or class implications. It’s a good example of what I aspire to (still working on the book manuscript…) in terms of integrating new questions about culture into an older narrative about American politics.

A conversation about teaching and practicing political history is useful, but the solution is not to ignore the best contributions of social and cultural history by winding back the clock and pretending that those questions don’t exist and don’t matter. And it’s the responsibility of political historians who see value in that process to engage those interested in old-fashioned politics and convince them that those questions do matter.

 

For more coverage, see:

“UT, A&M shortchanging students on American history, report says” (Austin Statesman, Jan. 9, 2013)

NAS press release: “Colleges Twist U.S. History”

Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History? (PDF)

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December 14, 2012

Understanding the Uses of the Past

I haven’t yet mentioned the new early Americanist blog in town, The Junto, so I would encourage you to head over there and check it out. As Ben Park wrote in the opening post on Monday:

Staffed by a host of junior academics studying a broad range of topics—our brief bios are found at the end of the post, and more details are found on each individual author’s page—we aim to provide frequent content related to the academic study of America prior(ish) to the Civil War. But more than just serving as a sounding board for our authors and a clearinghouse for various news, events, and calls for papers, we hope that The Junto will become a vibrant community for the field of early American studies.

I am one of those signed on to write for the blog, and I look forward to being part of that conversation, but you will still be able to find me here.

In that spirit, I want to pick up on a conversation that Ken Owen began there yesterday with a post on Herman Husband and historical imagination. In that post, Ken suggested that using figures such as Husband as a counter to Founders Chic does a disservice to history by reinforcing the notion of history as the realm of “Great Men,” even as we try to find different (and, as Ken notes, less conservative) figures to describe.

Part of the discussion in the comments has led me to think more deeply about historical memory as the key to creating a better sense for students (and by extension the public) of how to make a useable past. To expand on that here, I’d like to ironically return to the Founding Father among the Founding Fathers, George Washington. As loyal readers may know, today (December 14) is the anniversary of Washington’s death in 1799, an event that precipitated broad mourning across the young nation and launched a cottage industry of merchandising. The most important of those efforts may have been Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, published in several editions in the early 1800s by the noted itinerant book salesman.

I bring up Weems because I’ve been using his chapter on Washington’s death in my survey course to have precisely the kind of discussion about the uses of history that Ken points to. If you’ve never read it, it’s near comical in its maudlin description of the deathbed scene:

Sons and daughters of Columbia, gather yourselves together around the bed of your expiring father– around the last bed of him to whom under God you and your children owe many of the best blessings of this life. When Joseph the prime minister of Egypt heard that his shepherd father was sick, he hastened up, to see him; and fell on his face, and kissed him, and wept a long while. But Joseph had never received such services from Jacob as you have received from Washington. But we call you not to weep for Washington. We ask you not to view those eyes, now sunk hollow, which formerly darted their lightning flashes against your enemies–nor to feel that heart, now faintly laboring, which so often throbbed with more than mortal joys when he saw his young country- men charging like lions, upon the foes of liberty. No! we call you not to weep, but to rejoice. Washington, who so often conquered himself, is now about to conquer the last enemy.

Much of the discussion in the class period centered around how to use a document such as this to learn anything about Washington (it’s useful as biography for the things we can trust that he got from other sources, as the newspaper accounts of Congress’s mourning would have been broad public knowledge) and to learn about Weems and his goals (the deathbed scene with not a soul present, and surely no one who gave an exclusive interview to Weems). Through the discussion, I want to help my students understand not just the past but also how people attempt to use the past. In other words, as I mentioned in my comments to Ken, Al Young may have had the right approach to helping students understand the past as a process of historical memory. (Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy thwarted the class days devoted to Shoemaker and the Tea Party – so I can’t discuss the pairing of Hewes and Weems until April).

The important part, therefore, is not just to engage in mythbusting, which can be useful even if it’s not a complete process. As important, to my mind, is to encourage students not just to engage in historical thinking, but also to engage in thinking about the uses of history through an engagement with historical memory.

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December 6, 2012

Student Reactions to Lincoln

As part of my U.S. History survey course, I offered students the opportunity to write a brief reflection of Lincoln. I was curious how they would respond, both because of the contours of the online debate about the movie’s portrayal of African-Americans, their role in emancipation, the process in Congress, and the depiction of Lincoln himself, and more importantly because my students are likely not as deeply engaged in the historians’ debates as many of us are. After seeing the responses, I thought it might be useful to share some of them (I asked each student’s permission and promised anonymity).

In general, the students who responded enjoyed the film and expressed an interest in learning more about the period (which is useful since we’re about to discuss the Civil War and Reconstruction in class). One went into the movie skeptical but found Spielberg’s framing alluring, noting that “I went into the movie figuring it would be quite boring, but I came out of the movie so interested I couldn’t help but recommend it to everyone.”

Everyone thought Daniel Day-Lewis did a fantastic job at portraying Lincoln (down to the voice), and unlike many historians, most of the students enjoyed the close focus on Lincoln himself. One, in fact, noted that she went in “afraid the movie was going to try to cover too many aspects of his presidency,” and was pleasantly surprised since she thought “the passing of this amendment was the most interesting part of his presidency.” Another offered a detailed analysis of Day-Lewis’s Lincoln:

I think what Spielberg really wanted to focus on was the character of Lincoln and I think Daniel Day Lewis delivered a very accurate portrayal of Lincoln. From what I saw in the movie, Lincoln seemed to be an optimist, as well as humorous and melancholy. You could see how much pressure and anxiety Lincoln suffered from; the pressure the be a father, a president and an all around good man. Something that really surprised me was Lincoln’s voice or what Lewis believed his voice would sound like. I figured that since Lincoln had so much weight on his shoulders he would carry those burdens in his voice and have a really deep, low, droned out kind of voice. But in the first line he delivered, he had a high pitched, soft voice. I think his voice was one of the many reasons he was such a loved president. When I was watching the scenes while he was giving speeches, his voice was kind of sweet and vulnerable which complimented his nature.

The same student had a strong reaction to previously conceived notions of “Honest Abe,” a trope that haunts studies of Lincoln. For this student, the film and Day-Lewis’s approach altered the meaning of the nickname:

One of the very few things I was taught about Lincoln was that he was given the nickname “Honest Abe” and I realize now that he didn’t have that nickname because he never lied, it was because he was so genuine. In an interview Daniel Day-Lewis described Abe as extremely “accessible” which was a dangerous quality to have as president during these times. Abe was the kind of man that wasn’t a puzzle to figure out, he carried his emotions on his face and in his words and had the courage not to wear a mask.

As many have noted, the film did not deal directly with the deep involvement of African-Americans in the emancipation movement. We’re covering that material this week and next in class, so for my students (who had already seen the film), it highlighted some of the racist aspects of the debate:

I didn’t realize how prejudiced the country actually was during this time in history. Of course I have sat through countless history classes learning about slavery, but seeing the lack of support Americans were willing to give to the idea of African Americans being free in their own country shocked me. Lincoln never gave up which is what makes him such a respected president even to this very day. His hard work paid off when the Thirteenth Amendment passed, but his bitter assassination shortly after proved that not all Americans approved.

And another:

As awful as it seems in the context of today, the blatant racism seems like it was portrayed accurately. Some whites truly felt superior to African-Americans. The constant use of biblical references claiming that God made whites superior showed how deeply engrained this belief was. However, there were some people who disagreed with such a belief who stood up for African-Americans when they really could not stand up for themselves and passed the thirteenth amendment.

The exclusion of African-Americans has spawned many a blog post, but I personally found the depiction of Thaddeus Stevens fascinating, as did a student, who seems inspired to go out and learn more (I may have a few reading recommendations…):

Thaddeus Stevens (as played by Tommy Lee Jones) was a great character as well in this movie and he enlightened me to the role of the 19th century Republican party in the abolitionist movement.  I had known very little about Thaddeus Stevens beforehand but I was most surprised to find out how vehemently opposed he was to slavery and that Lincoln actually had to ask him to “tone it down” as it were.

On the other hand, the film’s focus on Congressional debates left the climactic scene flat for one student.

The only time I was happy to be staring straight up at the screen in the second row of the theatre was during this scene because it felt like I was sitting in the court room. But I wasn’t as moved and riveted by this scene as I had anticipated. (Maybe because my dad leaned over and whispered, “Oh boy, I wonder what’s going to happen.”) I wish that they made that moment more captivating because it was a defining moment in history and it was a completely unexpected outcome.

In one small way, perhaps this is a residual effect of the decision to make the movie about Congress with the broader emancipation movement deep in the shadows.

Aside from the core of the film’s discussion of the Thirteenth Amendment, students picked up on scenes and moments with meaning for them that historians have not focused on particularly. One student, a veteran, was particularly struck by the reaction of the audience to the few scenes of fighting:

One thing that really stuck in my mind was the scene where Lincoln was touring the aftermath of the Battle of Petersburg. President Lincoln was riding on horseback through the battlefield looking at all the fallen soldiers. But the thing I can’t get out of my mind is the reaction from the audience. There were gasps as if this was something new to these people. I couldn’t help but thinking that this all still goes on everyday and these people don’t even care that the the month this movie came out 13 members of the armed services were killed in Afghanistan.

I may share my own thoughts on the film in the days to come. In the meantime, I’ve at a minimum found the film a good opportunity for students to think about and discuss presentations of the past in popular culture, and I hope having some students voices out in the blogosphere can help enlighten the discussion about the film’s historical arguments.

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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 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 14, 2012

A Re-Election Campaign for the Ages

A little humor for your Sunday: Lincoln1864.com, a website devoted to re-electing President Lincoln and electing Senator Andrew Johnson as Vice-President, discovered via blogger Matt Yglesias.

It’s unclear who’s behind it; the only live links go to pages devoted to campaign finance reform. But the site contains quite a bit of detail, and is clearly offered with malice toward none (save perhaps George McClellan) and with charity to all (of us).

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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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September 11, 2012

Watching History Unfold in Real Time

Filed under: 2012 Elections,American History,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 2:19 pm

I wrote about the anniversary of the September 11th attacks on my Facebook page this morning, but I’d like to share my thoughts in a more public forum, in large part because I’ve been thinking about September 11 more and more through the years from the vantage point of a professional historian observing the development of public memory and history in real time.

What has struck me this week and today especially is that we seem to be moving into a second phase of public memory, one in which the event has become a bit more distant and is beginning to shift away from the visceral and universal commemorations of the first ten years. Marking a decade since the attacks last year seemed like we’d come to some sort of round number that could allow most of us to exhale (in a way). That doesn’t hold for everyone, of course, as each experiences it in his or her own way, not to mention that I was blessed not to know anyone personally who died. But as a collective and public matter, we are starting to transition from remembering the event as something that happened to us to recalling it as something that happened to us in a slightly different time.

This year when the names of victims were read at the World Trade Center site, no politicians were present, only family members. While many newspapers covered the anniversary, the New York Times notably excluded it from its front page this morning. The President and First Lady observed a moment of silence from the lawn of the White House, but unlike four years ago, when Senators Obama and McCain appeared together at the New York ceremony, President Obama and Governor Romney will not meet today, though each participated in remembrances.

At the same time, debates have continued about what to do at the site of the World Trade Center. The “Freedom Tower” has been downsized in name if not in height to simply “One World Trade Center.” And until today there was still a dispute between the city and the state of New York over funding for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

For those of us old enough to remember, we always will – I know that I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the planes, when I first saw that the towers had fallen, the weather that day (which is true for many, it seems). But after eleven years, many Americans simply don’t remember. Of my students, about half are freshmen, and they were only in the second grade in 2001. What will they remember first-hand about that day? My guess for many (based on my memories of being seven years old) is not a whole lot. And their numbers will only grow over time. For my son, 9/11 will always be history.

The process is necessary and inevitable. Our collective memory of Pearl Harbor, for instance, or the Kennedy assassination, has changed dramatically over time as those events have receded in time, as new people with no direct connection have grown up and as those who had one have departed the scene.

As a historian (though not of public memory, to be honest), what I find fascinating is watching this process happen in real time. I’ve read and taught Alfred Young’s work on George Robert Twelves Hewes and the memory of the American Revolution, followed Kevin Levin’s blog Civil War Memory, and read and discussed countless other works about memory and events in American history, but this is a story unfolding before my eyes, and in which I am a participant. And while the process is inevitable, it must in many ways be organic. Did you know, for example, that today is Patriot Day? I didn’t remember that, and only recalled because someone saw it on a calendar and asked me the difference between it and Patriot’s Day (the commemoration in Massachusetts of Lexington and Concord that occurs each April). Despite Congress’s efforts to retitle the day, everyone remembers it simply as September 11 or 9/11. And even that may shift over time, as it becomes necessary to explain what the date means to people for whom it never had the significance which we attach to it.

In total, it’s a reminder to me to think carefully about how we approach both the past and the present, to be sensitive to historical processes, and to put arguments today into a rich context that recognizes a shifting field of memory.

It may also prompt me to ask my students about their memories when I see them tomorrow morning.

NOTE: Kevin Levin was interviewed this morning for an NPR segment on remembrance and healing. It’s a fascinating listen if you have a few minutes.

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July 2, 2012

Picking America’s Most Influential Books

Last week, the Library of Congress posted a list of eighty-eight “Books That Shaped America” as part of an exhibition of the same name at the Library. The list includes a disclaimer from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington:

“This list is a starting point,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

As an early Americanist, the first thing I did was to sort the list by date published, just to see how many early American books made the cut. The verdict: nine from before 1800 (none earlier than 1751) and sixteen from 1850 and earlier (which cuts off the list just before the publication of Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin). On a certain level, that’s fair enough: considerably more books have been published since 1850 than before. In addition, the Library has insisted that the list is a starting point, not the definitive list, and has invited comments and suggestions from the public. (The press release also notes that some books were cut because of limits on the exhibition space.)

I was also curious about the inclusion of Common Sense, for two reasons. First of all, it’s rarely classified as a “book,” but rather a pamphlet. Now, I consider my work to have implications on the field of the “history of the book,” and most of my material comes from newspapers, so I’m certainly open to a broad definition of the book. As I’ll discuss below, opening up the field that way leaves room for some other possible inclusions. Second, Billington notes in the comment above that these were books “written by Americans.” That makes it somewhat odd for Thomas Paine to be on the list. He arrived in Philadelphia from his native England barely eighteen months before the first publication of Common Sense. While the text was written and published first in North America, making it a decidedly American creation, it seems a rather loose definition to call Paine an “American.” The same goes, it was pointed out, for Jacob Riis, native of Denmark. That complication—what to do with immigrants?—bears particular resonance for asking the question of what early American books should be included on the list.

Via Library of Congress Exhibit on American Treasures

Which brings me to the question: what else should be included in the list from the early period? My answer comes from two places. One is simply my research and reading in the field. The other is that I’m thinking about what texts to assign as I put together a U.S. survey syllabus for the fall (though please note that not everything I discuss below would necessarily make sense in toto for an introductory course). To start with, there are a number of ways to judge whether a book “shaped” America. Is it based on readership? Long-term popularity? Sales? Editions? We can discuss those, but since this is a blog post, I’m going with the Potter Stewart approach and justifying choices however necessary.

[NB: I also want to refer everyone to the special issue of Common-place on “Who Reads an Early American Book?”]

First off, if we eliminate the restriction on books written by Americans, by far and away the most important book in early American was the Bible. It was the most widely owned and most widely read book in British North America; it was certainly (and remains to this day, in many respects) a “Book That Shaped America.” Actually, I’m sort of curious what the Library would do with that suggestion, and how to visually display it: the first American Bible in English wasn’t printed until the 1790s, so examples would have to be of European extraction.

Religion is one area that the Library’s list seems to underemphasize. Based simply on reading the list, one would never know about the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. I’m less of an expert in religious history, but I would suggest as at least representative of that era the collected sermons of George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. For the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it would make sense to include Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), on the divine history of the Puritans in New England.

We also ought to consider works that discuss the massive influence of the cultural encounters between Europeans and natives. Perhaps we could include John Eliot’s Bible translated into Algonquian (and already profiled as an American Treasure by the Library of Congress). Or Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, which was first published in 1682 and went through dozens of editions right up to the Revolution. (It also, of course, is a deeply religious text.)

See Lisa M. Gordis, “None Need Think Their Sympathy Wasted,” Common-place, v. 9, no. 3

I would be remiss if I didn’t add at least one title in the political realm. Common Sense was by far the most important publication of the revolutionary period (on which I refer you to Pauline Maier’s fantastic book, American Scripture). Other authors (and publishers) did significant work elsewhere, such as in the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. The letters, penned by John Dickinson, were first circulated in newspapers in 1767 and 1768 during the protests over the Townshend Acts and later repackaged as pamphlets in eleven editions from 1768 to 1774. Benjamin Franklin found Dickinson’s arguments against British taxation so well distilled that he arranged for a London edition (to which he could not resist adding his own preface).

Last, it seems important to more closely reflect the urgent importance of the novel in early Republic reading culture. For example, consider Charlotte Temple, written and first published in Britain by Susannah Rowson (another immigrant: she later moved to the United States). The book was the most popular novel of the 1790s, so much so, in fact, that people visited the “grave” of Charlotte Temple in the Trinity Church yard in lower Manhattan. To a lesser extent, the same is true for The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster, which was also popular at the time and has become a popular text in English and history courses.

These are just some first thoughts, of course, and I would never claim that my suggestions are the only ones possible or even that they are the last word. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the comments, and by all means please do respond to the Library’s call if you feel so inclined.

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