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Publick Occurrences 2.0

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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October 24, 2012

The “Wisdom” of the Founders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 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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July 11, 2012

Reading and Revolutions, or, What’s the Matter with Google Books?

Michael Witmore and Robin Valenza have a fascinating post up this morning  at Wine Dark Sea asking, “What Do People Read During a Revolution?” They ran a visualization based on Google Books’ massive database (as of 2010) categorized through Library of Congress subject headings and found that there were massive spikes in the publication of histories during the 1640s/1650s and the last quarter of the eighteenth century — or, as you might otherwise know those periods, during the English Civil War and the American and French Revolutions.  Smaller spikes occur during the years around the European upheavals of 1848 and 1914. Based on that, they posit a suggestion:

What are people reading during a revolution? Poetry? Books on military technology? Theology? No. If we take the first spike, the years leading up to the English Revolution, the answer in the years leading up to the 1642 regicide seems to be “Old World History.” The second chronological peak—in the decades around the American (1776) and French (1789) Revolutions—shows the same pattern. In periods that historians would link to major political upheaval, the world of print shows similar disruptions: publishers are offering more history for readers who, perhaps, think of themselves as living through important historical changes.

As a scholar of publishing and (the American) Revolution, I found such a conclusion troublesome, for reasons I’ll elucidate below. Having read the post over again after my initial concerns, I want to emphasize that Witmore and Valenza were careful to add several contextualizing questions that need further exploration:

We should be precise: these data don’t indicate that more people are reading history, but that a higher proportion of books published by presses can be classed by cataloguers as history. There are many follow up questions one might ask here. Does publication tie strongly to actual reading, or are these only loosely connected? Are publishers reducing the number of books in other subject areas because of scarcity of resources or some other factor, which would again lead to the proportional spikes seen above? Are the cataloguing definitions of what counts as Old World History or history in general themselves modeled on the books published during the spike years?

Even allowing for those additional questions, however, I have two sets of concerns with the correlations that the graphs imply, and thus want to argue that the graphs are not nearly as illustrative or helpful as they at first seem.

First, I’ll simply repeat the hesitation that others have discussed more eloquently (most notably Ben Schmidt at Sapping Attention) about the limitations of the Google Books database as a representative set of literature. In this particular case, the most pressing limitation is that I’m not sure of the national origins of the set used in the graph, which is labeled as “all books published.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but does it include publications in English as well as other languages? If only English, both British and American? How about Ireland? Without knowing even the language of the corpus, it’s difficult to project, for example, the significance of the spike around the French Revolution, the 1848 European revolutions, or the outbreak of World War I (and subsequent Russian Revolution).

Second, I’m concerned at the use of book publication by itself as the unit of measurement. For one thing, giving each publication equal weight elides the importance of popularity. It’s all well and good if there were ten unique titles published in runs of 200 each that discussed the natural history of the South Seas, for example, but it’s less significant if in the same year (say in the 1760s) one publisher put out an edition of several thousand copies of Pamela. While this is a hypothetical (I don’t have British numbers handy), the example is certainly plausible given the appeal of history and fiction as genres for sale, and the ways in which they were frequently published in terms of size and quality of editions. Furthermore, as William St. Clair has argued [PDF], readers didn’t read in order of publication. So even as new histories were published in the 1770s and 1780s, more distantly published works remained popular. (One presumes that this last would be accounted for by unique entries for each edition, but I’m not sure whether each is entered separately.)

Third, one more comment about the books themselves. The graph appears very suggestive of the correlation between history publishing and revolution, but there’s another possible interpretation. That’s because the historical periods that the graphs identify (the mid-seventeenth century and the late eighteenth century in particular) also coincide with periods when the publication of travel and exploration narratives flourished. So did the publication of books about history spike in the 1770s because of the American Revolution, or because Captain Cook was in the midst of his voyages to the Pacific? The granular approach offered in the graphs doesn’t allow for that kind of analysis.

Fourth (and here I’m finally getting to my real area of expertise), using books as the unit of measurement seriously underestimates the importance of all other kinds of publishing and reading from these periods. For each of the historical upheavals that see a spike, it was in non-book publications—pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, broadsides, ephemera—that much of the intellectual and political work occurred. As it happens, it appears that at least a few editions of, for example, Common Sense and Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania appear in the Google Books database, but again, there’s no allowance for popularity. Furthermore, because of the way in which GB assigns a publication date, both of those publications appear as frequently as twentieth and twenty-first century editions as they do during the period they initially appeared. More importantly, there’s no way to account for newspaper publication of the Farmer’s Letters or excerpts of Common Sense, or of the hundreds of other essays working out political questions during the American Revolution. Both during and after the Revolution, magazines were also important sites for the publication of politics, science, and yes, history, but they aren’t catalogued that way by the Library of Congress. Other scholars have done great work examining the impact of such publications in England during the Civil War (see here and here) and France (see here and here) during its Revolution, just to start.

Last, it’s important to remember that the American colonies during the era of the American Revolution were not saturated with books, by a long stretch. It’s a bit of a simplification, but few books were published in North America because of the expense, and not that many were imported, again because of the expense. So even histories published in Britain that circulated to North America did not do so in great numbers—except, perhaps, in excerpted form in British magazines or American newspapers.

These are some initial thoughts, but I make them to suggest that I find the graphs, attractive as they are, far more problematic than suggestive in what they can show us about reading, publishing, and revolutions.

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June 11, 2012

Thurlow Weed and William Randolph Hearst were Unavailable for Comment

Yesterday the New York Times ran a piece about the U-T San Diego (formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune), the southern California daily owned by hotel magnate Douglas Manchester.* The paper, according to media reporter David Carr, may be part of a “future” in which “moneyed interests buy papers and use them to prosecute a political and commercial agenda. ” The piece led me to two thoughts, one  on the history and one on the future.

The history is easy: Manchester’s move to simply take over a journalistic enterprise to promote his commercial and political interests is classic nineteenth-century journalism. In fact, as most journalism historians would argue (I think, anyway), the ideal of “objectivity” has a much shorter lived history in journalism than does the partisan nature of the press. It’s how Weed and Hearst made their money, how Andrew Jackson controlled the narrative of his Presidency, and the reason why there are two sets of “official” transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

That’s not to say that during this period no one claimed to be impartial. On the contrary. In my own work [ed.: shameless plug alert!] I’m trying to show that paeans to impartiality were a self-negating means of producing politically pointed news. Or to put it another way, and to paraphrase the movie musical 1776 (itself ripping off Franklin): impartiality is only visible in the first person: I’m impartial!, and partiality only in the third: he’s biased!

That media analysts like Carr fail to acknowledge this history in writing the narrative of the changes in journalism over the past few years is disappointing. Instead we get treated to Golden Age pablum:

Many of us grew up in towns where the daily paper was in bed with civic leaders, but the shared interest was generally expressed on the editorial page. Occasionally, appropriate lines of inquiry would be suspiciously ignored in coverage, but the news pages were just that, news.

I’ll take my bias the old-fashioned way, thank you very much.

As for the future, I must admit that I’m still trying to sort out how to interpret this through a historical lens. In many regards, I want to be cautious. The nineteenth century was a Golden Age for partisan journalism (whether party- or business-based), but an awful lot has happened since then. We live now in a cultural milieu that seeks unbiased news, whatever that means, and a move towards more partisan-oriented journalism has consequences.

On the other hand, as media critic Jay Rosen has argued for several years, the “View from Nowhere” no longer serves even the function it once purported to serve. Saying where one stands as a journalist may eventually prove far more effective at communicating information and the contours of a debate than the weak-kneed “he said, she said” journalism we’re frequently presented today. But doing so means that Manchester gets to own a newspaper that proclaims a viewpoint, and if he’s going to do those things, it’s to the good that he say so, as Rosen noted on Twitter.

In any case, combined with last week’s discussion of movie mash-ups involving Lincoln and vigilante freedmen and the news that gonorrhea is making an antibiotic-resistant comeback, the nineteenth century is having quite a run.

* If his name sounds familiar to the historians out there, Manchester was locked in a labor dispute with several unions at hotels that were used for the 2010 AHA convention.

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May 22, 2012

Stephanie Gamble, “What Does It Mean to be an Indian?”

Filed under: 2012 Elections,American Indians,Democrats,Guest posts,Political culture — Guest_bloggers @ 7:27 am

Today we have a guest post from Stephanie Gamble, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation is entitled, “Capital Negotiations: Native Diplomats in the American Capital from George Washington to Andrew Jackson.”

In the Massachusetts race for U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren’s (D) opponent, Scott Brown (R), recently brought attention to Warren having listing herself as a minority in professional directories from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, citing her claims to Native American ancestry. Other times, when provided the option, Warren has self-identified only as white. Recent investigations into her heritage suggest Warren may be 1/32 Cherokee through a great-great-great-grandmother.

Whatever her motive in asserting her native ancestry, Elizabeth Warren is certainly not alone. Americans have long been fascinated with tracing their rumored (and real) Indian heritage. In recent decades, an increasing number of non-tribal members have been asserting their Indian-ness.

Courtesy American Antiquarian Society

There is nothing especially new about American interest in native ancestry. Back in 1887, a genealogy of Pocahontas was published for all those looking for the iconic Indian princess on their family tree. In his 1969 book, Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, Vine Deloria, Jr. noted of his time as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, “it was a rare day when some white didn’t visit my office and proudly proclaim that he or she was of Indian descent. Cherokee was the most popular tribe of their choice … all but one person I met who claimed Indian blood claimed it on their grandmother’s side.” (2-3)

Recently however, more people are moved to claim their ancestry on official documents. Today, websites abound, telling interested searchers how to find Indian ancestors and enroll in tribes. Facilitated by such sites as Ancestry.com and the digitization of archives, Americans interested in their personal history can assemble the branches of their family trees from home. This has likely helped more people access and engage their ancestry in new ways.

On government documents such as the U.S. Census, race and ethnicity are self-identified. Beginning with the 2000 census, Americans could even check off multiple racial categories in order to more accurately capture their heritage.

Though Americans can self-identify in many situations, including selecting themselves as “American Indian or Alaska Native,” there are 566 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States that have their own rules for tribal citizenship. Citizens of federal tribes are legally Indian and their tribal citizenship is controlled by their individual nations.

Recent censuses reveal that the population of native people in the United States is growing dramatically. When Americans filling out their census decide to check the box labeled “American Indian or Alaska Native,” they may do so for several reasons: they are tribal citizens; they are members of state-recognized or unrecognized tribes; or they self-identify due to family lore, distant heritage, or possess some other form of emotional connection. Much of the recent growth in the “American Indian or Alaska Native” population derives from the third category: people self-identifying as Native American.

What seems to run through the possibilities that self-identifiers claim for themselves is an underlying assumption that Indians can be what you want them to be, a population out of space and time. That, perhaps, is the danger of self-identifiers. These legal and documentary markers of identity obscure or complicate the cultural processes of identification. Native people are more than their tribal enrollment cards. At local, tribal, or pan-American levels, native people possess and articulate shared cultures, histories, languages, lineages, experiences, living conditions, and relationships.

The proliferation of self-identifiers threatens to dilute the meanings of being Indian to tribal citizens. To return to Deloria: “At times I became quite defensive about being a Sioux when these white people had a pedigree that was so much more respectable than mine.” (3)  While self-identifiers like Warren may value their claim to Indian ancestry in a wide array of ways, there are around 2 million native people living in the U.S. today. Their identities as American Indians are important to them, too.

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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.

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