In the past few weeks there have been two excellent reviews of John Lewis Gaddis’s George F. Kennan: An American Life, by Louis Menand and Frank Costigliola. Ta-Nehisi Coates does an interesting riff on these reviews, which gives him a chance to muse about the challenges of self-mastery in a democratic society. Kennan is most famous for his advocacy of a doctrine of containment in 1947.
By coincidence, I watched John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for the first time this weekend, itself a product of the Cold War years (and which previous critics have linked to the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.). It’s a movie that asks, “how do you respond to violence that can’t be contained?” and ponders the nature of the American conquest of the West.
A fun question to ask yourself: “who is the hero of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?” Is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery through education, representative democracy, modernity, and the rule of law, or is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery by proving himself as physically dominant, but denying himself the fruits of victory? And what does it say about America when the non-violent hero achieves worldly success, not wholly because of the values he’s espoused, but because the populace lionizes him for a violent deed?
The Library of Congress selected the movie (which stars John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin) for the National Film Registry because of its cultural, historic, or aesthetic significance, while Gaddis assesses Kennan’s “American Life.” It’s interesting to ponder both artifacts side by side when thinking about American power and American democracy.
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.
Historians are great fun at holiday gatherings. There is no hallowed, sentimental tradition we can’t contextualize the fun out of, and what better time than lingering over the gravy and cranberry sauce with people you only see once or twice a year? But I jest, at least for myself. The Pilgrims, Mayflower, et al have never ever come up at any of our family Thanksgivings, and indeed I strive to avoid history or politics as conversation topics on that occasion. Obviously the whole thing weighs on the minds of many of my colleagues, however, as well as the editors who commission essays from them. Below are a just a few I found over the weekend. I agree with almost all of them, by the way.
- As Randall Stephens pointed out in a 2009 Historical Society post, the Pilgrims/friendly Indians story is actually one of the most long-debunked in American history. Mark Twain sent it up. The head of the New England Emigrant Aid Society trashed it. Historians have been pointing out for years that the Plymouth colony turned to violence shortly after their turkey was digested, so Peter Mancall of USC uses that as just a starting point for a discussion of the maypole-dancing Merrymount colony led by Thomas Morton. Mancall argues that Morton’s settlement offered a more truly peaceful and less Christian alternative model of coexistence with the natives. (Some may remember Merrymount and the maypole from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story notable for its proto-hip theme of a groovy American Eden disrupted by angry, violent European bluenoses.) Morton also apparently wrote the very first Pilgrim-debunking book as well, earning him extra cred with historians. Next November confuse your grade-schooler’s teacher by requesting a maypole dance to go along with the Pilgrim hats.
- Yale University Press asks us to consider what the Pilgrims must have smelled like. Hint: not like the sage in their stuffing or delicious pumpkin pie.
- Raymond J. Haberski, Jr. at the US Intellectual History blog records destroying his daughter’s grade school dreams:
My first-grader asked me about the Pilgrims yesterday after having seen a movie in school about a mouse who stows away aboard the Mayflower. She liked the mouse, didn’t know what she thought about the Pilgrims, but was curious about the Compact made aboard the Mayflower. She said that she would like to see the original document (which made my heart leap) to check if the mouse’s prints were on it (my heart sank). So I told her that the mouse was fiction, the compact was not. I then wondered why we need to include mice in historical stories, why not just make either a movie about a mouse or a movie about the Mayflower.
The daughter then retaliates on behalf of the mouse by hammering the Pilgrims on gender.
- While not in so many words, Steven Cromack at the Historical Society Blog reminds us that Thanksgiving is an invented tradition, cooked up by women’s magazine editor (and actual cookbook author) Sara Josepha Hale as a way of bringing the whole Union together through a “new National Holiday” on the eve of the Civil War. Once the South was out of the Union, President Lincoln finally declared Hale’s new holiday for the last Thursday in November. So the togetherness thing clearly worked out really well. Thanksgiving and the Plymouth narrative that went with it were always about installing a soothing version of New England Puritanism as the national founding mythology, over and against other stories and lineages (like Virginia’s) that were both quite distinct and perhaps more truly foundational in terms of what the nation would become. It took decades of New England propaganda to really establish Thanksgiving as a non-sectional icon, and I wonder if football was not only thing that ever really reconciled southerners to it.
- Cromack mentions that the modern Thanksgiving was not finally legislated until 1941. Researching that for 10 minutes leads to the conclusion that Tea Party types should totally boycott the holiday and report to work next Thanksgiving in protest. Not only was the Thanksgiving holiday a worker-coddling Big Government mandate, it was also necessitated by FDR’s earlier attempt to change the date of Thankgiving. The FDR Library has the hate mail to prove it.
- Probably the ultimate buzzkill here is that, far from Black Friday’s being a perversion of Thanksgiving tradition, it turns out that the holiday qua holiday (a time officially set aide for family gatherings and not going to work) was always about shopping. Moving the date around the calendar was motivated by requests from businessmen who wondered how they were going to sell their way out of the Great Depression with only 24 shopping days until Christmas. It seems that business had lobbied to move the former informal Thanksgiving to an earlier date during FDR’s first year in office, because the last Thursday fell on November 30 in 1933 — the idea was that since no one would start Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving, move it up and they would shop more. It must say something about the depth of denial that much of the business world was in at the time that it could be believed that switching some dates on the calendar could fool the public into overlooking the little matter of world-wide economic collapse. Roosevelt ignored the calls the first time, but when Thanksgiving landed on November 30 again in 1939, he caved in and moved the annual Thanksgiving proclamation a week earlier. The New Deal was in retreat at the time and FDR wanted to seem friendlier to business. This experiment in more sensitive governance resulted in the avalanche of anti-government, pro-tradition outrage documented on the FDR Library’s page. The missive on the dire threat to the calendar industry must have inspired some Bolshevistic thoughts in the White House.
- For my own contribution, watch this space for evidence that the holiday celebrations of the Pilgrims got started in New England as conservative politics. Federalists held the first of a series of “Feasts of the Sons of the Pilgrims” in 1799, when the Alien and Sedition Acts were in full swing, to urge the loyal children of “the Fathers of New England” to hold the line against immigrants, liberals, and Frenchmen. Unlike the sanitized Sara Josepha Hale version, the Plymouth story of 1799 included a fairly accurate and unapologetic account of what the Pilgrims did to unfriendly Indians and the limits of their acceptance of even the friendly ones: ”The memory of our Ancestors—May their ardour inspire and their success encourage their descendants to maintain their birthrights and may all their enemies be converted like Massasoit, or suffer like Phillip” (i.e. “King” Philip, the Wampanoag chief whose head ended on a post in Plymouth).
- To include the equally fun anthropologists, check out Magnus Fiskesjö’s deconstruction — or more properly, construction — of the odious modern tradition of the Presidential Turkey Pardon: “The reluctant sovereign: New adventures of the US presidential Thanksgiving turkey.” If anything, Fiskesjö is far too respectful. The power of life and death is sooo cute.
- Finally, moving away from the Thanksgiving story to typical Thanksgiving activities, the redoubtable Jesse Lemisch gave me permission to quote his Facebook post about trying to watch television this weekend: “It disgusts me that I turn the TV on to watch what passes for news, and instead what’s on is huge lunks in uniforms trying to kill each other. The mindset of football is the mindset of the pepper-spraying cop.” I (almost) wish I had said that while watching the annual Thanksgiving Day Lions game before dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house on Thursday. Alas, I am not as tough as Jesse!
One Federalist Founder’s growing fanbase may find it impossible to imagine a universe in which this other Federalist’s opinion could possibly be right:
There is an active Spirit, in the Union, who will fill it with his Politicks wherever he is. He must be attended to and not Suffered to do too much.
Double points if you know wrote this about whom, without checking the link. Actually, the link will only get you half points.
My little Twitter debate with William Hogeland over who the modern Jeffersonians are inspired me to check up a little bit on just who had been invoking Jefferson recently. (I look forward to his promised +140 character comment continuing our discussion.) My interlocutor seems to have been set off by some recent misuse of TJ on the left side of the spectrum.
Googling “Jefferson and Occupy Wall Street” does indeed produce some evidence that the protesters and their allies might not be the closest Jefferson scholars out there. But clearly they need him. Jefferson has always been the Left’s only possible source of Founder cred besides Tom Paine, whose sad lack of monuments or coinage renders him much less eligible for the job radicals need done: proving the American-ness of their critique of capitalist institutions to a public that has long associated economic radicalism with foreign cultures and subversive enemies. Whoever picked Jefferson and Trostky as intersecting “street names” in the recently destroyed OWS encampment was drawing on a somewhat grand tradition that stretches back further than World War II, when the New Masses did a Jefferson Bicentennial issue, or even the Popular Front period of the mid-1930s, when “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism” was a CPUSA slogan. Older and even more striking is the Socialist alliance of “Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus” that apparently guided Oklahoma farmers back before World War I. I need to read that book! Did I miss the part in the musical where Jud turned out be a Red?
As Merrill Peterson’s The Jefferson Image in the American Mind showed, Jefferson truly did and does have the ability to be projected as an avatar of almost any cause. Here are a few guises in which he appears to Occupy people on the Internet:
- Gold-Hoarding Libertarian Jefferson (Ron Swanson Jefferson?): The Deist Review offers a fake Jefferson quote against banking, to the effect that banks and corporations would “deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.” Snopes suggests this fake dates back to a congressional committee report from 1937, so we are lucky it did not end up on the Jefferson Memorial. The quote pops up all over the OWS sites. This makes one realize that only cultural attitudes and styles sometimes separate the far left and far right.
- The Jefferson Tree: an Occupy Wall Street affiliate that comes off like a left-wing Tea Party site, naming itself after Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote but also making some kind of strange anarchist use of Jefferson’s remarks against parties, the kind that all the Founders made. That would make John Adams an anarchist, too. Yea?
- The Awesome Jefferson, or “Tommy”: @Occupy US History (see below)
Other examples gratefully accepted.
As a side note, If Occupy is the Tea Party of the Left, then I wish it could develop the kind of gravitational pull on the political world that the Tea Party has, pulling things back left in other words. Are the Democrats smart enough to work with that? The crackdown while Obama is off planting new military bases in Asia would seem to say not.
Since I first read Richard White’s great western history textbook years ago, an innocent cattle-herding song become a sinister lullaby to irresponsible economic power. Today’s news coincided with hearing a version of the song that did that aspect some justice, by Holly Golightly & the Brokeoffs. We are all little dogies at this point. (If you don’t see a video below, click here.)
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.
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.
Please tell me I did not read a great historian whose work I love dropping aggressive ignoramus Rick Perry on Thomas Jefferson’s head. Excessive exposure to hair-care products or animal waste seems like a better explanation of the ideological origins of this guy.
Here is what Edward Countryman has to say in an interview with History News Network:
In the larger context of American political history, what is most noteworthy to you about Governor Perry’s candidacy?
One way to see the whole current impasse is as a rerun of the city and country opposition that runs right back to the respective visions of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson for America’s future. Hamilton’s vision turned on the presumption that the power established by the Constitution was there to use and presumed an active government, and it continued through Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Lyndon Johnson and, now, Barack Obama. Jefferson regarded that power as something to fear . . . . It’s no accident that Ronald Reagan had Jefferson prominently on display in his Oval Office.
And yet, Jefferson did not promote dumb-ass generalized fear of government activities he can’t even name. His unfortunate fling with the idea of state “nullification,” the Kentucky Resolution of 1798, was aimed at blocking a flagrantly unconstitutional federal effort to suppress an opposition party — not a bad shot to pick. 1798 was a time when some fear of government was not unjustified, just like the fears many of us had when George W. Bush was in power and John Yoo was writing his memos developing a “unitary executive” that could do whatever it wanted to anybody anywhere in the world.
My plea to all historians who feel the easy Alexander-Hamilton-as-Modern-Liberal meme coming on: check Mike Wallace’s “Business-Class Hero” first, a brilliant early take-down of the ongoing Hamilton revival. It is an artifact of the financialization of our whole political culture that liberals can so easily conflate the use of government power to protect and enrich investors and banks with the sort of public regulations and government-led social improvements they value. Hamilton never dealt with any of the latter, and his idea of social improvement was kind that trickled down from the wealthy in the wake of economic development, maybe. Perhaps Reagan had the wrong guy on display. Vindicating or fearing of government in general is not the only dimension in these long-term debates in American politics. Another one — it makes me so sad that historians cannot seem to remember — is the question of whether or not to deed over the government to moneyed interests. No one with any feeling for Occupy Wall Street should be celebrating Hamilton, who would have cleaned those parks out with mounted troops long ago.
Really there is no need to ancestor-worship any Founder, or demonize them either. At some point, academic Jefferson-bashing just becomes a snarky form of reverse culture warfare. It seems obvious to me that different aspects of both modern liberalism and conservatism can be traced back to both Hamilton and Jefferson, and other aspects to neither. What modern liberals actually support is deploying government power (Hamilton) in the name of democracy (Jefferson). The social aspects of democracy that tend to concern us most now were of little concern to any of the Founders, so nothing to see there in any case.
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?
There follow some notices of things I found to disagree with on the Internet. First up:
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!