Publick Occurrences 2.0

March 27, 2012

Molly Warsh, “What do we talk about when we talk about Political Arithmetic?”

Filed under: Business History,Conferences,Economy,Guest posts — Guest_bloggers @ 10:34 am

Diego Gutierrez map of Western Hemisphere, 1562 (Library of Congress)

If the recent Omohundro Institute conference on the topic is any indication, the answer appears to be: it depends on whom you ask.

The unfailingly elegant and insightful J.H. Elliott offered a sweeping survey of the period in his opening keynote address, in which he explored the growing understanding of the economy’s centrality to politics (and thus the origins of the term “political economy”) from the sixteenth-century writings of Giovanni Botero through the Age of Revolution. However, the papers that followed did not always heed Elliott’s call to consider the precise historical meanings of our broadest and most commonly invoked analytic and conceptual vocabularies. (Nor did they echo his emphasis on the global orientation of early modern imperial thought: the conference remained decidedly Western European—and particularly Anglo—in focus.)

In fact, the diversity of approaches and interests presented at the conference served primarily to underscore the capaciousness of the term “political arithmetic” and to highlight its shifting and wide-ranging significance from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Rich papers from intellectual historians on the influence of Samuel Hartlib and William Petty, to social and cultural historians of Caribbean islands and the slave trade shed light on the multitude of people and places contributing to and transformed by the evolving “political arithmetic” of the era.

But what about the meaning embedded in the term “political arithmetic” itself? It was commentator Phil Withington who perhaps offered the clearest articulation of the questions at the heart of the conference: how do we parse the phrases “political arithmetic” and “political economy” into meaningful parts? To what extent was the political arithmetic of the era a product of the encounter between Renaissance and Reformation culture? What was the impact of political arithmetic not only on enslaved humans, but also on those responsible for rendering the trade profitable? Are there “national” traits of political arithmetic? What about the influence of non-national sites of counting, such as trading companies and laities? What role did early modern warfare and urban growth play in the rise of numeracy across Europe? Although a variety of distinct papers on topics ranging from biblical scholarship to accounting practices, and from art to the slave trade, considered the impact of increased numeracy in distinct arenas, the conference in large part approached the era’s political arithmetic with a close lens.

The need to bring this type of precision to the broad terms employed in discussions of the era was raised by a number of comments over the course of the conference. Marcy Norton urged us to consider the complex composition of imperial political economies, rather than to address each sphere separately. What role did the environment play in the rise of industries that would transform the Atlantic world? How did domestic improvement projects relate to overseas imperial goals? How can we talk meaningfully about the relationship between labor and state power over multiple centuries, when the state itself is constantly changing?

Peter Thompson gently critiqued the “rather free-floating definitions of subjecthood” in circulation at the conference, and he urged us to consider the complex relationship between individuals and the emerging state with his reminder that citizenship was more tightly regulated by state apparatus than subjecthood. Holly Brewer echoed this point when she brought up the relationship between religious affiliation and subjecthood, and the importance of considering peoples’ access to the channels of power that allowed them to participate in debates over their relationship to the state.

In his comments, Steven Pincus echoed the call for specificity in thinking about the nature and construction of power on micro and macro levels. Two of his clearest points were his injunction to consider the role played by institutions in the construction of state power and his reminder that increased numeracy lent itself to abstraction as well as precision. His own interest in exploring the surprising connections in the political economy of eighteenth-century England were evident in his key note address, which addressed the sudden decline in anti-slavery legislation between 1710-1730 and Jonathan Swift’s denunciation of  “modern” colonies at the end of Gulliver’s Travels.

In general, I would say, this conference suffered somewhat from the blind-men-and-the-elephant syndrome: there was a great deal of insight into the political arithmetic of component parts of the early modern Atlantic World, but far less discussion of how these component parts fit together.

Molly Warsh is an NEH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, VA, and assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on the British and Spanish empires, trade, and the Atlantic world during the early modern period.


March 18, 2012

Making the News

Filed under: Joe Adelman's Posts,Newspapers — Joseph M. Adelman @ 12:55 pm

At the Early Modern News Networks blog, Noah Moxham asks, “What’s Newsworthy?”

The history of newsworthiness thus has at least four possible overlapping definitions to contend with:

  1. News that is of sufficient significance to bear repeating;
  2. News that meets the professional standards of the news-giver;
  3. News that is fit for public consumption;
  4. A public that is fit to consume the news.

That fourth category problematises the historical status of newsworthiness.  Newsworthy is a term with a legal meaning; in many US states it’s one of the criteria used to determine whether the publication of a given story is invasive of a person’s privacy and thus actionable.  In that instance it’s taken to mean the question of whether the facts reported are of legitimate public concern.  Early modern authorities, in Britain and elsewhere, found this a troublesome question, and in practice the concept was fluid; Charles I, for example, banned altogether the printing of foreign corantos in England in 1632 after twelve years during which they were broadly tolerated in response to complaints from the Spanish ambassador about the proliferation of anti-Spanish sentiment in them. The history of newsworthiness may well run aground on the question of censorship; if it isn’t taken for granted that the general public constitutes a fit readership for news then neither public taste nor newswriter’s discrimination have free exercise.

As Moxham points out, it’s often difficult to pick out exactly how contemporaries felt about different classifications of news even when they clearly had principles by which to classify, such as in eighteenth-century Paris, about which Robert Darnton has written extensively.

The project focuses on European news from the period 1500-1700, and I think an examination of eighteenth-century North American newspapers would complicate the question of newsworthiness even further. In large part what I think these papers could add to the discussion is the lack of standards, which were not yet clearly established, and the diffuse readership, which in many ways could not yet be differentiated. Thus you might have, within the same four-page newspaper, an essay on  a concept of political theory, reports on imperial legislation, accounts of the personal life of the royal family (the American obsession, as many probably know, predates Princess Di), local political goings-on, and the occasional local gossip (my somewhat morbid favorite is the tale of a local lad run over by his own wagon, which happened more than you’d think). Prior to the Revolution, numerous printers attempted to publish magazines along a belletristic model, and all met their demise within months—even that of the normally astute businessman Benjamin Franklin. By the early nineteenth century, niche audiences and niche newspapers were emerging in the rapidly growing print culture, encouraging the publication of more focused newspapers and periodicals.

The “fluidity” that Moxham highlights is, at least for me, one of the attractions of trying to study the news media of the Revolutionary era, but it does make the effort difficult at times. More voices are always appreciated.


March 15, 2012

Social Media, Early American Style

Filed under: Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 8:22 am

I’m sure many readers of this blog are familiar with or members of SHEAR (and if you aren’t, it’s the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic).

SHEAR seems to be moving into the sphere of social media, having just established a Facebook page and a Twitter feed (@SHEARites), and of course continues to operate H-SHEAR. As many of you know, these spaces provide more opportunities to interact with both the organization and other members, and hopefully will prove as fruitful for SHEAR as they have for other organizations in curating events and discussions. It will be particularly interesting to see how SHEAR’s social media gambit plays out during the annual conference in Baltimore this July.

And if you happen to be interested in the Society of Early Americanists, it also recently started a page on Facebook and opened a Twitter account (@TheRealSEA). Unfortunately, its next conference isn’t until February 2013 (in Savannah), but the call for papers and panels is up and open for submissions.

It’s exciting to see so many historical organizations engaging with not only scholars but the broader historically-interested public. So go ahead and “like” them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and join the conversation.


March 14, 2012

Grounded into Dust

George Inness, "The Lackawanna Valley," 1855, National Gallery of Art

Phillip Longman and Lina Khan have a fascinating article in the Washington Monthly about how airline deregulation has not only made flying miserable for all of us, but is having an absolutely devastating impact on some of America’s inland cities.

The authors find a parallel story in the development of railroads during the nineteenth century.

Dealing with high fixed costs is a challenge common to virtually all networked industries, and in one way or another, America has grappled with the problem throughout the country’s history. The Founders understood that private enterprise could not by itself provide broadly distributed postal service because of the high cost of delivering mail to smaller towns and far-flung cities, and so they wrote into the Constitution that a government monopoly would take on the challenge, providing the necessary cross-subsidization.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, generations of Americans similarly struggled with how to maintain an equitable and efficient railroad network, and for much the same reason. During various railroad bubbles, exuberant investors would build lines to the farthest corners of continent, much like start-up airlines in the 1980s. But over time, the high fixed cost of railroading and the basic economics of any networked industry left all but the core of the emerging system unprofitable before it received the benefits of government regulation.

The authors then quote Charles Francis Adams’s Railroads: Their Origin and Problems (1878), in which he observed that Americans came to the conclusion that railroads weren’t like other industries, and government regulation was necessary to smooth out price discrimination and “local inequalities.”  The authors continue,

The response was the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887—a move that most Americans viewed as essential to preserving free enterprise and their way of life. The ICC took on the task of moderating the price discrimination that railroads practiced, evening out the burden among different regions and classes of passengers and shippers in a way that allowed railroads to earn enough money to cover their fixed costs, improve their infrastructure, and give their investors a fair reward. In effect, the profits railroads earned on some highly trafficked long-haul routes came to be rechanneled by government policy to cover the cost of providing balanced and affordable service throughout the country. Railroads were regulated much as telephones and power companies came to be—as natural monopolies that would be allowed to remain in private hands and earn a profit, but not at the cost of skewing the overall efficiency, balance, and fairness of American economy.

Longman and Khan argue that Americans may have to search for similar solutions when it comes to the airline industry.  Anyway, read the whole thing.



March 9, 2012

The Warthogs-and-All Approach to History

Filed under: Conservatives,Historic sites — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 4:35 pm
Hall of Famous Missourians, Class of 2012, from the sculptor's web site

ABOVE: Screen shot from sculptor's website

Now burning up Facebook and the local press where I live is the news that Rush Limbaugh is about to be installed, literally, in the Hall of Famous Missourians in our State Capitol. With the sort of Missouri luck that brought us the Ken Lay Chair of Economics just as Enron collapsed (Lay’s portrait is up by the men’s room in one of MU’s campus administration buildings), this news broke just at the moment when Rush finally stepped over the line and caused a mass exodus of advertisers from his program by calling a woman who had testified to Congress in favor of contraception coverage a “slut” and speculating in more than usually vulgar fashion about her sex life. Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley (R-near Rush’s hometown) defended his decision to commission the bust with the comment that “It’s not the Hall of Universally Loved Missourians . . . It’s the Hall of Famous Missourians.” Loath as I am to see a giant bronze Limbaugh head leering out of some corner in the state capitol some day, Tilley’s observation seems far from completely inaccurate to me.

Before going any further, let me say that I would prefer not to see taxpayer money spent on commemorative busts at all, especially not to honor sexist gasbags who embarrass our state and dishonor the vast majority of Missourians who are not angry, entitled white men. I salute the delegation of students from our campus who went down to Jefferson City and asked Tilley to reconsider his choice. However, one you thing can’t fault Tilley for is departure from past practice. The warthogs-and-all approach has definitely been the norm in the Hall of Famous Missourians. Some of the previous inductees include pro-slavery firebrand David Rice Atchison, a nationally influential senator who personally led the Border Ruffians from Missouri into Kansas to win the territory for slavery; sexually harassing game-show host Bob Barker; and former governor, senator, and attorney general John Ashcroft, one of the Christian Right’s earliest and most prominent officeholders, even if he is also known locally as the guy who lost his senate seat to a dead man.  (Ashcroft is doubtless glad his bust is fully clothed — so say we all — but sadly does not get credit in the testimonial for his talents as a songwriter.)

The thing is, there is actually no doubt that Atchison and Ashcroft and Limbaugh are figures of historical significance, icons and architects of reaction in their respective periods, each with a long record of statements and actions that embarrass and infuriate the liberal and thoughtful. The Hall of Famous Missourians also has a number of figures from popular culture: Walt Disney, J.C. Penney, jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker, actress Ginger Rogers, pin-up Betty Grable, the inventor of the Super Bowl, the founder of Hallmark Cards, self-help tycoon Dale Carnegie, zoological TV personality Marlin Perkins, anchorman Walter Cronkite, and even clown Emmett Kelly. As a clown and pioneer of a clownish industry that gained vast political influence (i.e., conservative talk radio), Rush Limbaugh encapsulates our sorry era of American politics (and media) all too well. Personally, I am a big believer in the principle that the evil and embarrassing need to be present in our public historical record, and there is a certain refreshment to be gained in seeing conservatives casting such a cold eye on history when they usually just want the past as a source of heroes to put on pedestals. Pressed by the MU students, Speaker Tilley averred that Rush was just an “entertainer,” if one who also happens to have become the lodestar of the conservative political world, which more or less says it all.

Bob Barker in Bronze

It also seems indicative of current mentalities that the state G.O.P. would balance an unrepentant racist with a famous resister of racial oppression and think that clears the slate. The 2012 entering class in the Hall of Famous Missourians includes Rush and Dred Scott (whose whole case, of course, was based on the fact that he once got to leave Missouri).  What are they are more or less admitting about Limbaugh? (Buck O’Neil, Negro Leagues baseball great, went in a little earlier: Rush may have required more than one counterweight.)

I do hope Speaker Tilley changes his mind, but there are benefits to a Hall of Not Universally Loved Missourians. We can finally get Jesse James and Boss Tom Pendergast in there, whatever their crimes. They can save money by commissioning a bust of Brad Pitt as Jesse James and kill two birds with one stone! Chuck Berry should be there already, even with a little bit of a rap sheet. The other consolation for us non-Dittoheads is that statuary versions of modern figures are so bizarre and inappropriate-looking that being thus commemorated is almost a punishment. (Check out Bob Barker at left.) What are the visiting schoolkids of the future possibly going to think except, “Who is that fat guy supposed to be?” Or maybe they will confuse him with fellow hefty bald man Reinhold Niebuhr, the Hall of Famous Missourians’ resident intellectual.


March 7, 2012

Early Americanist Interviews Live Subject (Film at Eleven)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March 5, 2012

The “Boston Spring” That Wasn’t

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright © Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved
Powered by WordPress