As my students and editors and listeners and readers and future readers inevitably discover, I possess no tendency toward concise, economical expression — I am much more of an El Duderino guy. That said, I have surprised myself by finding Twitter a much more comfortable venue in which to snark of late. There is something considerably less daunting, and less competitive with other responsibilities, about sitting down or standing up to write 140 characters than the potentially limitless space of a blog post, along with the links and images they seem to demand. I still have stubborn hopes of getting this space more active sson, but for now, I would urge interested readers to follow @jlpasley over on Twitter. The last few tweets in my account appear in the right-hand column of the blog, of course, but they are a bit more intelligible on the Twitter site itself, where you can see their context. Of course, Joe Adelman and Ben Carp are on Twitter as well — indeed it is only through @jmadelman that I ever learned to tweet — along with a surprisingly large and growing number of historians, especially graduate students and younger scholars. What H-Net email lists were to many of us back in the 1990s, Twitter seems to be to the currently rising generation. I do not like to proselytize about such things, but anyone capable of commenting on a blog or using Facebook certainly has no need to march under the banner of General Ludd as regards Twitter.
November 30, 2012
January 27, 2012
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.
Thanks so much to Joe Adelman for increasing the activity level around this place while the proprietor works out a few of his issues. I can’t say enough about what a great job Joe has done. From Joe, I have learned the value of Twitter and also that it actually IS possible to get a conversation going here that does not involve robots trying to spam Tea Partiers. (I dare not link to the post from 2009 that the spambots love so much.) I also hope everyone saw that the Atlantic website picked up one of Joe’s posts. Congratulations, Joe, and Common-Place.
In other news, my long-awaited (by the publisher) manuscript on the election of 1796 – a.k.a. The Epic Showdown That Created America! – is finally out of my hands for a while, though there are probably a few trees to go before I find the exit to the woods. Currently I am wandering the Forest of College Financial Aid, which is entered through the Valley of Early Taxation. However, we have big plans for the future here, so keep reading. John Fea, your plea has been heard, and appreciated!
One of my plans, and hopes, is continue bringing in guest posters and permanent guest posters to push Publick Occurrences toward being the sort of group blog that was always intended. (The old guest posters are welcome back any time as well.) Next up, look for a guest post from Yale graduate student Michael Hattem.
November 28, 2011
At a conference last spring, Jeff mentioned that he was hoping to find some additional bloggers for Publick Occurrences, with more than a small hint that I’d be welcome if interested. I’d been thinking at the time about writing more in public, but for several reasons decided not to take him up on the offer. When he e-mailed again a few weeks ago, however, I was ready to get started and didn’t want to miss my second chance. And so here I am.
A brief intro: I’m a historian of early American political communication and the American Revolution, currently on what I like to call a “postdoc tour:” I’m a fellow this fall at the Library Company of Philadelphia, and then in the spring will be a fellow at the American Antiquarian Society. [I will stipulate at the outset that any and all opinions expressed here are mine alone and not representative of the official positions of either institution.] As a scholar of eighteenth-century media, I’ve read many an introductory essay by a newspaper editor promising that his (and occasionally her) publication would be informative and entertaining. Joining a longstanding blog relieves me of the obligation to bear that burden by myself, but in that spirit I will promise to do my best to enhance the offerings here.
Given my interests, you should expect posts on the history of journalism and the media, the politics of the the Revolution and Early Republic, and their legacies in modern political culture. In the next few weeks, for instance, I’m planning posts on Mathew Carey (an early American publisher and political economist), the plight of the post office, and Internet news aggregation. And of course I will respond to anything that strikes my interest as time progresses.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about me you can visit my personal website or my Twitter feed (@jmadelman). I’m looking forward to getting started and engaging with the community at Publick Occurrences, and am glad to be part of the team.
November 15, 2011
Officially I still don’t quite approve of Twitter, but when I posted here for the first time in let’s not say how long, comments came in almost immediately via that channel. So, Twitter is trending here at Common-Place. I am experimenting with various widgets and plug-ins to get such tweet comments into this space for the many of you out there, especially historians of a certain age, with no plans to tweet in the near future. You should be able to see the initial results in the box at the right of the main page. I have been having a little tweet-debate with William Hogeland over whether liberals should see anything in Thomas Jefferson, following up on the post last week. Seems like there should be some way to post a link with both sides of the back-and-forth, but my twitucation is still pretty thin. “Follow us,” I suppose is one way.
November 9, 2011
Inquiries have been made as to this space. I may well be the worst candidate in the world for any avocation that one is supposed to do on a regular basis in public. I should have done the grown-up thing a while ago and announced a hiatus until very serious, final-type progress was made on my long-delayed book project. That situation is getting better, I am happy to say, so I hope to be reappearing here a bit more often than every
six nine months, but who’s counting?
Historians of colonial America really seem to have issues with the nation-state, as a phenomenon of historical importance that one might deal with when writing or teaching. But, honestly, without the United States, would there even be people employed as historians of colonial America? I thought not.
I also found it puzzling that Historiann and her commenters act as though American historians taking the British side of the American Revolution is a new and radical thing. Imperial School? Native American history? Explaining that the British and their American defenders were right was more or less what Bernard Bailyn did, in some rather widely read tomes and a course or two taken by thousands of Harvard students. By all means, if you don’t want to talk about constitutions or battles in your survey course, don’t do it. But methinks nationalism as a historical force, and the United States as an analytical category, are going to be of continuing relevance for some time, even if they do suck.
I will save the next one for another post. That will be two days in a row!
November 19, 2010
Well, hello there.
I’ve been meaning to start doing some light blogging at Common-place since Jeff invited me many moons ago, but work and life intervened to make time a scarce resource.
I’m not sure how much traffic my posts will draw, since I’ll be thinking out loud about page-turning subjects like political economy while trying to bridge the gap between my life as a professional historian and the world I inhabit as an observant citizen and newshound.
I think historians’ appreciation for deep context is what sets us apart from other disciplines, and it sometimes frustrates me (but doesn’t surprise me) that our work so often seems cloistered from a public sphere that’s decided context is irrelevant, or biased. Jeff’s posts at this blog have tried to bridge this divide and reach out colleagues and the public alike, and I hope to add to that effort.
For the most part, I’ll try to stick to what I know. However, I’ll surely be tempted to post some half-baked notions. But, hey, this is a blog after all.
And because it’s a blog, and not my full-time job, I have decided to keep myself anonymous, dear reader. Why? I think the reasons are fairly obvious. Our colleagues are often competitors, our promotion and hiring processes are opaque, and our so-called job ‘market’ is oversupplied, all of which amplify unequal distributions of power in the academy. This discourages junior faculty and adjuncts from doing and saying all kinds of things their senior colleagues can take for granted. So, if my pseudonymity bugs you, I’m sorry, but you should be far more upset with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for claiming the mantle of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay than an amateur blogger.
But enough of this palaver… let’s get this show on the road!
June 29, 2009
Summer is the slow time around here, mostly because summer “vacation” is when I get to work through my pile of history-writing projects that are supposed to lead to the production and consumption of paper products. You know the ones. As with most subjects, I wax hot and cold as to whether light blogging complements or interferes with other types of writing. Clearly the dial this June has been set to “interferes.” While we are on the subject of waxing hot, I can definitely report that our faltering HVAC system’s efforts to recreate the productivity of the summer of 1993, when I wrote 400 pages of dissertation in a stifling hot 4th-floor Boston apartment, did not work.
I have also found the public occurrences of recent weeks to be more of the wait-and-see Obama type than the call-forth-the-thunder Bush-era kind. Mostly this is a good thing. The two most recent foreign political crises, in Iran and Honduras, are the sorts of situations that might or might not strongly affect the U.S. but that our government cannot really Do Something About without obvious interference that would amount to taking ownership of another country’s fate without being able to fully predict or control what that fate would be. Washington chin-waggers always suggest Something should be done — it’s easier and safer to maunder about Freedom somewhere else than take a constructive position on this country’s problems — and presidents have tended to fall into the trap of following the chinwaggers’ advice, often with the Something being “send in the military.” Barack Obama may yet take that fall, but it has been refreshing so far to have a president whose characteristic response to a foreign crisis is to say some decent things about another people’s struggles, but otherwise stick to his job of managing the United States without trying to be World Emperor on top of it.
February 27, 2009
This the 200th post on this blog, begun a little over a year ago. In celebration, I present the only “Bicentennial Minute” I could find on YouTube. I suspect these are a fond childhood memory for many of us budding early Americanists. Back in 1975-76, the young television viewer waiting for Kojak or Hawaii 5-0 to come on could learn a quite lot of history, probably more than any given hour of basic cable history programming today. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Miss Jessica Tandy:
January 23, 2009
Common-place publishes the occasional “Object Lessons” column with good reason: knowing your material culture is important. For instance, when cataloging the office furniture purchases of ex-Merrill-Lynch CEO John Thain, The Consumerist‘s Ben Popken makes a horrible mistake, and then corrects himself with the help of a little eighteenth-century know-how.
(hat tip, BPM)