Publick Occurrences 2.0

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.


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.


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.


June 1, 2012

Droppin’ Hamiltons like Aaron Burr

Before I say anything, I want to make sure I’m not stepping on Jeff’s post about university presses and state and local history. I hesitate to even click “post” before everyone in this profession reads what he has to say.

And following that, I should say hello again. I haven’t posted since 2010, about a week after my wife and I learned we were expecting a child. What followed was a rush to “finish” a manuscript, a bathroom renovation, a semester of teaching, and a bunch of the usual things. Blogging fell by the wayside in this fanatical effort to manage time and maximize productivity before the bambino arrived, and the last 10 months have been an exercise in seeing what I still care about now that I feel like an adult. Suddenly, the ‘blog it’ bar got harder to clear, and the ‘do I have time to read this?’ question became far more urgent.

But here I am, thanks to David Brooks.

I know it’s a bit of a parlor game to bash Brooks, the New York Times in-house conservative columnist. In general, Brooks strikes me as a guy trying to do a good job in a tough situation: the cheese slid off the cracker in the conservative movement, to the point where we’ve got a birther-curious GOP nominee who will say anything and a House Republican caucus that looks like a circus (did you ever watch special orders speeches at night on CSPAN? Oh my.) The kinds of Republicans Brooks really wants to respect are dead, retired, or Democrats. And yet he has this grating habit of embracing false equivalency, following in the vapid tradition of David Broder of proposing superior ‘centrist’ policies that equate and dismiss the ideological commitments and organized constituencies of both major political parties.

If you read his May 28 column, “The Role of Uncle Sam,” you know exactly what I mean.

But what interested – and irked – me was that the centrism Brooks proposes for the country he’s rebranded as “Hamiltonian.” As in Alexander Hamilton. Yes, the bank guy.

Brooks thinks the U.S. government has gotten way too big. He doesn’t specify what that means exactly, but his opening line is that “Government promoted industrial development in the 18th century, transportation in the 19th, communications in the 20th and biotechnology today.” Within that frame, “the federal role has historically been sharply limited” and our guy Hamilton was “the man who initiated that role” He was “a nationalist” whose  “primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal.”

You should read the column yourself and not take my word for it, but in short, Brooks posits that:

  • *The Hamiltonian tradition has been followed by “Whigs, early Republicans, and early progressives”
  • *People in the Hamiltonian tradition “reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots”
  • *“generations of leaders [in this tradtion] assume that there is a rough harmony of interests between capital and labor”
  • *Everything was going great until progressives, the New Deal, and LBJ came along
  • *The so-called Tea Party was a culminating outcome of a decades-long festering revulsion among conservatives who were becoming anti-government

And finally Brooks’ conclusion asks:

 Does government encourage long-term innovation or leave behind long-term debt for short-term expenditure? Does government nurture an enterprising citizenry, or a secure but less energetic one?

Never mind the shoddy history of political parties in the 20th century, or the false choices and false equivalencies posed in those last two sentences.

(By the way, can someone explain why secure people aren’t enterprising? Would we all be more productive if we were being chased by lions or sleep better if we took the batteries out of smoke detectors?)

I’ve been reading Hamilton in a serious this-is-my-career way for the last 10 years, and what’s striking about the Brooksian verision of the “Hamiltonian tradition” is how utterly ahistorical these claims are. That’s not surprising from a pundit, but David Brooks is no ordinary pundit. He’s a Very Serious Person – a public intellectual. Yet he seems to be profoundly unfamiliar with the contours of Hamilton’s career in government and politics – one that was, need I remind you, very short and very learnable.

Look, I’m intrigued by Hamilton. I hope to make a career and sell literally dozens of books by writing about Hamilton and some of the institutions he guided. But once you know anything about Hamilton’s politics, you know that’s why he should not be looked to as a guide to anything you want to describe as centrist or moderating. Hamilton was not representative of majority opinions at the Convention in 1787, and by the time he was through Washington and Adams, he was – with complete sincerity – regarded as a monarchist by many of the Republicans of 1800.

I could spend 2000 words rebutting David Brooks’ claims one-by-one, but I find it utterly perplexing that in an age when you can find many of Hamilton’s papers on Google Books for free, that you would say that Hamilton’s goal wasn’t to make people “rich or equal, that he rejected a politics of “haves” vs. “have-nots,” and that Hamiltonians think of capital and labor as equally-weighted forces in political life.

Let’s be clear.

Banking politics was contentious precisely because it was about winners and losers, the exclusivity of membership in networks of credit, and the privileging of capital over labor. The aggregation of political power within banks was what Hamilton’s opponents understood to be their most powerful argument against the multiplication of banks in general and the existence of the Bank of the United States in particular.

Yes, “nationalists” cared about roads, bridges, and schools. But so did Hamilton’s opponents, who we also have to call “nationalists,” too. And contrary to Brooks’ claim, Hamilton and his successors cared a great deal about jobs, employment, and security – it was why the U.S. had a tariff. In fact, the early American tariff is often cited in modern macroeconomic textbooks as a case where a tariff is justified – you’re protecting infant industries in your domestic economy that would wither under the pressure of competitive disadvantages if left unprotected.

And those long-term infrastructure projects that the “Hamiltonians” loved? At some point, they had to have been the near-term projects that Brooks detests. Glaciers and laser cannons didn’t carve out the Erie Canal – it was a debt-financed state project that paid workers for their hard labor over many years. Wizards didn’t lay train tracks or build bridges and maintain roads. You only get to do long-term projects by engaging in near-term planning, execution, and financing. At some point, the question is called, votes are cast, and the nasty business of politicking begins to become public policy.

I guess what’s surprising about Brooks’ columns – this one and others preceding it – is that the man seems so insistent on dismissing 21st century liberalism as little more than a basket of blind demands for spending and regulation that he has to carve out this absurd definition of Hamilton’s politics. It’s why he can write a column about Hamilton without mentioning the word “bank” (yes, really).

I’m not sure how useful Hamilton is to 21st century political thought. He was only in power for 12 years (unofficially) and killed in 1804. He never saw the Erie Canal. Never saw the steamboat Clermont, or the telegraph, or the steam locomotive, or had time to contemplate the effects of the cotton gin, or Louisiana land, California gold, and the industrial revolution. He never even got to savor Aaron Burr’s downfall, let alone think about the needs of modern powers.

My guess, though, is that Brooks might not be so keen on Hamilton if he knew that he hated speculators, was in favor of highly-regulated banks, state-supported industry, a tariff, and a sweeping definition of the Commerce Clause. The real Hamilton would have laughed someone out of the room who claimed a corporation was entitled to free speech rights as a “person.”

And the real Hamilton, I suspect, would find David Brooks’ “Hamiltonian” politics utterly unrecognizable.


March 7, 2012

Early Americanist Interviews Live Subject (Film at Eleven)

Filed under: American History,Ben Carp's Posts,Generations,Historians,Military,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 10:40 pm

This past weekend in Queens, New York, I interviewed my grandfather on camera about his World War II experiences.   A librarian at Tufts had put a packet from the Veterans History Project in my hands, and ever since then, I have felt a gnawing obligation as a historian to record my grandfather’s story, both for my family and for posterity.

When I finally got around to setting this up, it all came together very quickly. It was a daunting experience for a number of reasons: first, I study the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! My subjects tend not to talk back. Nor am I an expert on the European theater and the experiences of World War II veterans. Furthermore, I have come to appreciate that oral history is its own fully developed methodology, and I felt somewhat guilty about being such a novice interviewer–though the VHP, to its credit, seems to encourage this. Finally, I had to scale a bit of a learning curve with the video equipment, much of which I borrowed from the Tisch Media Center at Tufts University. Thankfully I also had my brother’s help–he oversaw the camera and digital memory while I concentrated on the interview.

So how did it go? My grandfather told his tale (though he tells it better in his own words): as a young man from Brooklyn (just like Captain America!), he enlisted at age 18 in 1942 and wanted to work on airplanes. Caught up in the romance of the Air Force, he ignored the advice of the friendly officer who urged him to request a posting as a clerk/typist, and he bounced around several training camps before becoming certified to work on the P-47 ThunderboltHis unit, the 395th Fighter Squadron (the “Panzer Dusters”), was activated in June 1943 in Westover, Massachusetts, and was subsequently relocated to Farmingdale, Long Island. Six months later, he was in England. Two weeks after D-Day, he was in France with the First and Third Army. His unit reached Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. He was slated to board a ship for the South Pacific and Okinawa when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So instead he was discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he boarded a bus to Manhattan and (later) a subway back to Brooklyn.

After he went through the basic chronology, we took a break for lunch, and then I asked him to flesh out some of the details. We heard about ruined towns, seasickness, frenzied days at the airfield, pup-tent habitats, wiser comrades, bureaucratic fumbling, a tragic loss, a court-martial, and a day of drinking and reminiscence before the discharged soldiers were ready to re-enter civilian life.

As I said before, I thought I’d be stymied by the differences between World War II and the periods of history I know best. On the contrary, though, I was struck by the way in which certain refrains from the life of the soldier resonate across time. This semester I am teaching a course on “American Military History to 1900.” So I was primed to hear broader truths in my grandfather’s story about the difficulties of military logisticswartime devastationunit cohesion, the soldier’s desire for self-governance, the mixture of motivations that lead a young person into military service, and the reliability of an older person’s memory about events from his younger years.

I am already thinking of more questions I wish I’d asked on the recording, but I suppose that’s typical. In any case, it’s been interesting to share this experience with relatives, colleagues, librarians, and students. Many of them have stories of their own about veterans in their families and the veterans’ willingness to discuss their military service (or not). Others express regret that they didn’t record their relatives’ stories before it was too late. Everyone seems really glad that I did this: it was a great opportunity to both connect with a family member and link his life to a major shared experience in American history. It certainly helped me to understand a bit better why genealogists do what they do, which was apropos of Karin Wulf’s paper this week at the Boston Area Early American History Seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

At least one student has asked where to find out more about the Veterans History Project. And my grandfather is thinking of connecting with the Facebook page for the 368th Fighter Group Association. Once my brother and I have prepared a transcript of the interview, we’ll be sending it, the digital video, and the forms to the Library of Congress.


March 5, 2012

The “Boston Spring” That Wasn’t

Filed under: American History,Joe Adelman's Posts,Political culture,Revolution — Joseph M. Adelman @ 3:23 pm

Historians sometimes frown on counterfactuals and questions posed in the negative, but they can be a useful way to examine an event or enhance our understanding of the past. One of the things that has always struck me is why the Boston Massacre did not become a flashpoint for the Revolution. Today, as you may know, is the anniversary of “that horrid massacre.” On the evening of March 5, 1770, a group of Boston men skirmished with British troops garrisoned in Boston, throwing ice and stones at the soldiers. In the confusion, some of the troops opened fire, killing five. (For more on the contours of the crisis and its remembrance, see the great work of J.L. Bell over at Boston 1775.)

The news circulated widely through the channels of the printing trade over the next few weeks, appearing in numerous newspapers, as did accounts of the trials of the soldiers and their commander, Captain Thomas Preston, later that summer. Printers published several different pamphlet accounts of the massacre and the trial. And of course Paul Revere published the print seen above. But the Massacre was not nearly the same impetus for collective protest as the Stamp Act in 1765, the Townshend Acts in 1767-68, or the Tea Act in 1773. In collective memory, it is usually seen as part of the Pantheon of Revolutionary Events, a crystallizing moment that revealed the righteousness of the American cause and the tyrannical aggression of the British.

Outside of Boston, which commemorated the event annually for years afterward, it had much less resonance. In fact, the Massacre preceded a period of relative calm that lasted several years. I think there are a few reasons why:

  1. Boston was the only city in the colonies under unwelcome British occupation. There were troops in many towns, to be sure, but most colonists did not feel the everyday presence of the British military in the same way that Bostonians did. One of the keys to each of the other protests, as nearly every Revolutionary historian has argued in one way or another, was that they produced a sense of common feeling with fellow colonists, a sense of “we’re all in this together.” That couldn’t be replicated here because the presence elsewhere was metaphorical rather than physical.
  2. The facts on the ground were messy. As many know from watching the John Adams miniseries, the soldiers had a strong legal defense that defused some of the ideological ramifications of the killings. Once the initial uproar had passed, newspapers published Captain Preston’s report to his superiors, complicating accounts of the evening.
  3. “Opinion leaders” did not support crowd action uncritically. In several cases, most notably the second of two Stamp riots in Boston in August 1765, Boston’s elite Patriots moved to squelch popular dissent because it had gone too far. The young Boston men who sparred with the British that night were from groups that did not pass social muster: apprentices and journeymen, dock workers, sailors. Crispus Attucks, who was of African descent, was possibly a runaway slave. The narrative, in other words, wasn’t particularly clean as far as demonstrating British oppression.

The massacre thus held little for others to work with rhetorically because it was too much a Boston story and because those in positions to encourage its use, whether Boston’s political leaders or printers around the colonies, chose not to do so. That’s certainly no reason not to commemorate the event, but it’s important to remember that it was not nearly the catalyst it might otherwise seem.


January 27, 2012

Michael Hattem, “Instructions vs. Pledges”

Filed under: Common-Place,Constitutional history,Guest posts,Revolution — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:13 pm

While recently reading about the proliferation of right-wing interest group pledges, I was reminded of an article by Ray Raphael from the October 2008 edition of Common-Place entitled, “Instructions.” In that piece, he described how pre-revolutionary Massachusetts townships gave specific instructions to the delegates they sent to the Assembly, General Court, and later revolutionary Conventions. Though I generally am not very sympathetic to “neo-progressive” interpretations of early America, I nevertheless found myself agreeing with Raphael’s characterization of colonial instructions as a strong example of “popular government.” At the same time, I was increasingly frustrated by the Congressional obstruction perpetuated by the right-wing pledges.

I began to wonder: “Are those right-wing pledge requests fundamentally the same as the townships’ instructions?” That is, are the pledges a similarly popular, democratic exercise? If indeed they were, it seemed my agreement with Raphael was effectively forcing me into a position from which I could not criticize the right-wing use of pledges without being a blatant hypocrite. After all, if there really was no fundamental difference between the instructions and the pledges, I could hardly think the former praiseworthy and the latter deserving of condemnation without being intellectually disingenuous.

Following the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, right-wing interest groups have increasingly sought to bind candidates to their agenda through the signing of pledges. The most well known pledge is Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform’s, “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” in which candidates and politicians promise not to vote for “any” tax increase.  Other interest groups saw how successful the tactic has been for Norquist and his lobby and over the last twelve months have begun doing the same thing. There is the “Marriage Vow” from an Iowa group called The Family Leader. Its pledge begins, “Faithful monogamy is at the very heart of a designed and purposeful order—as conveyed by Jewish and Christian Scripture, by Classical Philosophers, by Natural Law, and by the American Founders….” There is also the Cut, Cap, and Balance Coalition and The Susan B. Anthony List’s 2012 Pro-life Presidential Leadership Pledge, which “asks declared presidential candidates to commit to key pro-life goals if elected to the presidency in 2012.”

Both left-leaning and mainstream media outlets have voiced criticisms of these pledges. Alex Altman, in Time Magazine, called them “gimmicks.” He argued that the effect of signing a pledge is “the equivalent of voluntarily slipping on a straitjacket” because “it denies politicians the flexibility needed to meet unforeseen challenges.” Similarly, an editorial in The New York Times, entitled, “Signing Away the Right to Govern,” declared “each pledge [Republicans] sign undermines the basic principle of democratic government built on compromise and negotiation.” Indeed, even some Republicans have begun to quietly show some reservations.

A subsequent reading complicated matters further by suggesting a possible eighteenth-century parallel. In Eric Nelson’s recent William and Mary Quarterly article, “Patriot Royalism: The Stuart Monarchy in American Political Thought, 1769-1775,” the author argues that the patriots’ assertion that the colonies fell under the jurisdiction of the Crown rather than the Parliament was actually a shift to a far-right Tory position concurrent with the previously hated Stuarts’ colonial policy of the previous century. He asserts that the circumstances and the failures of their own previous ideological argument forced Americans into adopting a position completely alien to their own longstanding political culture. In the process, he creates a strange, new ideological arc for colonists during the imperial crisis from Whig to radical Tory to republican.

With that article in mind, I re-read a quote in Raphael’s piece from Thomas Hutchinson, the deeply despised royal governor of Massachusetts and arch-loyalist, who, in response to the townships’ practice of instructing delegates, said:

“To hold each representative to vote according to the opinion of his town . . . contradicts the very idea of a parliament the members whereof are supposed to debate and argue in order to convince and be convinced.”
When I compared that quote to the criticisms above and thought about the ideological dynamic of Nelson’s article, I began to wonder whether a similar dynamic was occurring regarding criticism of the pledges. Was my desire to criticize the pledges forcing me into temporarily adopting a far-right position far like the colonists’ critique of the sovereignty of parliament?

On a purely tactical level, there seem to be parallelisms between the colonial instructions and republican pledges. Yet, their historical contexts vary so greatly that any sort of “fundamental” comparison is highly problematic. Following the upheavals of earlier imperial encroachments, the Coercive Acts of 1774, in part, ended popular election of the Executive Council and limited local town meetings to one per year. In such a revolutionary context, instructions became a mode of reasserting the local political role colonists had exercised for generations and translating it to the larger arenas of provincial and imperial politics. Despite the persecution complex and conspiratorial mode of thought that has come to define the far-right of the early twenty-first century, they do not find themselves in anything remotely like a revolutionary context. Despite the Tea Party rhetoric, their traditional role in government is not under any threat, though their influence may be.

In addition to the historical contexts, the motives of colonists and contemporary right-wing lobbies are equally different. Rather than defending their inherited political culture, right-wing interest groups, along with their strong anti-government message, are attempting to paralyze the legislative process in the hopes of undermining government working for others.

I’m interested to know how the readers of this blog would address these two questions. Are colonial instructions and right-wing pledges fundamentally similar democratic processes? In forming that judgment, should one give priority to the tactic itself or to the motivations behind the tactic? Finally, if there are fundamental similarities, are those who criticize it adopting a traditionally far-right position in order to do so? If so, is that just crass opportunism or is it refreshing, in our current political culture, to see commitment to larger goals outweigh commitment to a narrow ideology?

Michael Hattem is currently a graduate student at Yale University. He received his BA in History from the City University of New York. Hattem focuses on eighteenth-century American political culture, intellectual history, and print culture, and he is also interested in the history of the book and the Enlightenment in America. 


November 15, 2011

The Flight from Downtown Manhattan

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Media,Military,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 3:40 pm

From the US Army's American Military History, volume 1


Noreen Malone of New York magazine had the interesting idea to interview Early American historians to see if George Washington’s flight from the southern tip of Manhattan in 1776 might hold any lessons for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was evicted from Zuccotti Park this morning.


February 16, 2010

Tea Party on the Move

There has been a crush of interesting recent articles on the contemporary tea party movement, which I thought I’d highlight.

Today’s New York Times has a very long feature that tries to tie together the tangled strands of the movement.

These people are part of a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement, a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve.

Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.

The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure. Not everyone flocking to the Tea Party movement is worried about dictatorship. Some have a basic aversion to big government, or Mr. Obama, or progressives in general. What’s more, some Tea Party groups are essentially appendages of the local Republican Party.

But most are not. They are frequently led by political neophytes who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame.

That is often the point when Tea Party supporters say they began listening to Glenn Beck. With his guidance, they explored the Federalist Papers, exposés on the Federal Reserve, the work of Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Some went to constitutional seminars. Online, they discovered radical critiques of Washington on Web sites like (“Home of the Patriotic Resistance”) and (“Because there is a war on for your mind.”).

The Tea Party movement defies easy definition, largely because there is no single Tea Party.

Local Tea Party groups are often loosely affiliated with one of several competing national Tea Party organizations. In the background, offering advice and organizational muscle, are an array of conservative lobbying groups, most notably FreedomWorks. Further complicating matters, Tea Party events have become a magnet for other groups and causes — including gun rights activists, anti-tax crusaders, libertarians, militia organizers, the “birthers” who doubt President Obama’s citizenship, Lyndon LaRouche supporters and proponents of the sovereign states movement.

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny.

Other articles of interest:

In the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky observed the protests of September 12, 2009.

Earlier this month, Ben McGrath took stock of the tea party movement in a nice piece for the New Yorker.

On the Washington Post website, David Waters was skeptical that the Christian Right would join forces with the tea party movement (H/T John Fea).

In HNN, Jim Sleeper offers a cursory comparison of the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and today’s tea party movement, and (rather too optimistically) tries to link today’s tea party movement to anti-corporate sentiment.  While there were anti-corporate elements in the original Boston Tea Party, as  Thom Hartmann points out here, I think Sleeper goes too far in hoping that Sarah Palin’s Nashville audience will take up Hartmann’s cry.

Finally, at Jeff Pasley’s request, I’m linking to the videos of two lunchtime talks I gave at the Old South Meeting House in December 2009.  John Fea kindly mentioned the videos on his own blog (which all of you should be following), but in any case here is the first talk and here is the second.  The talks are called “Teapot in a Tempest: The Boston Tea Party of 1773,” in part because that’s what I thought the title of my upcoming book would be.  The title has now changed, but I am happy to say that the manuscript is currently off to the press and due out in fall 2010.


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?

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

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