Publick Occurrences 2.0

February 23, 2012

War and a Free Press

A student’s paper reminded me of the following quote by Union general William T. Sherman: “It is impossible to carry on a war with a free press.”  This famous utterance struck me in light of this week’s Supreme Court deliberations on U.S. v. Alvarez, which Dahlia Lithwick chronicles here.  Sherman (who knew how to use politics, publicity, and the press to military advantage) is observing that military values and democratic values are not always in perfect alignment.

While most of us would find a false claim to military honors to be pretty despicable, it seems fuzzier whether we ought to punish an offender with jail time (rather than good old-fashioned shame and ostracism).  Indeed, a number of journalistic organizations, in particular, have filed amicus briefs on Alvarez’s behalf, reminding us that while soldiers may not always find it convenient to wage war in a democratic republic, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are among the values those soldiers are fighting to defend–even when fellow citizens are spouting lies and blabbing military secrets.


February 17, 2012

Honoring Philip Lampi and A New Nation Votes


Yesterday afternoon, NEH Chairman James Leach came to Worcester for a special ceremony to honor the work of Philip Lampi, a longtime staff member at the American Antiquarian Society and the compiler of the data in the A New Nation Votes database.

Lampi has spent the last forty years, as he described at the ceremony, collecting election results for every election held in the United States between 1787 and 1825, from presidential elections to state and local contests in the twenty-four states in the Union during that period. Lampi collected the data by hand, mostly on visits to hundreds of archives around the eastern United States, combing through newspapers and official state records (in the days before much of this material was digitized). The material, Lampi said, was a “gold mine” that no one had ever examined closely. The event honored Lampi’s tenacity in collecting the data—speaker and sometime collaborator Andrew Robertson described him as a “hero of history” and Leach said he was an “alchemist” for what he made from the “gold” that he found. (For more info on the ceremony, see this profile in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.)

In the last eight years, AAS has received several grants from NEH to digitize the records in coordination with Tufts, making that data publicly available for historians to use. I have a hunch that Jeff will have more to say about using the database for research purposes, but I will just say for now that it’s an amazing resource and opens a range of previously unanswerable research questions. You could see, for example, county-level results for the hotly contested 1799 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election. Or, as project coordinator Erik Beck noted, you can gather additional information about characters we already know something about. He highlighted Sean Wilentz’s Rise of American Democracy, in which Wilentz briefly profiles Edmund Ruffin, who, as a 67-year-old private in the Palmetto Guards, was given the honor of firing the first shot on Fort Sumter. Check the database, and there he is as a young man winning a seat in the Virginia state senate. I’m sure a number of readers have used the database and worked with Phil—please feel free to share your stories in the comments section.

Data is currently available for a number of states, and being rapidly updated for others. No word on when the project will be completely finished; everyone seems to have learned that lesson.

Lampi is the first recipient of the Chairman’s Commendation, which is more than appropriate. From all of us here at Publick Occurrences, congratulations Phil, and thank you.


UPDATE: For more on the impact of Lampi’s work, see “Myths of the Lost Atlantis,” a series run in this space in 2008.

Photo credit: Abigail Hutchinson, AAS


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