Publick Occurrences 2.0

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 The declared purpose of the compact of the Union from which we have withdrawn was to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to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.


November 30, 2012

The Brevity Thing

Filed under: Common-Place,Jeff Pasley's Writings — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 4:47 pm

As my students and editors and listeners and readers and future readers inevitably discover, I possess no tendency toward concise, economical expression — I am much more of an El Duderino guy. That said, I have surprised myself by finding Twitter a much more comfortable venue in which to snark of late. There is something considerably less daunting, and less competitive with other responsibilities, about sitting down or standing up to write 140 characters than the potentially limitless space of a blog post, along with the links and images they seem to demand. I still have stubborn hopes of getting this space more active sson, but for now, I would urge interested readers to follow @jlpasley over on Twitter.  The last few tweets in my account appear in the right-hand column of the blog, of course, but they are a bit more intelligible on the Twitter site itself, where you can see their context. Of course, Joe Adelman and Ben Carp are on Twitter as well — indeed it is only through @jmadelman that I ever learned to tweet — along with a surprisingly large and growing number of historians, especially graduate students and younger scholars. What H-Net email lists were to many of us back in the 1990s, Twitter seems to be to the currently rising generation. I do not like to proselytize about such things, but anyone capable of commenting on a blog or using Facebook certainly has no need to march under the banner of General Ludd as regards Twitter.


November 25, 2012

Peter Onuf: World’s Greatest Mentor

Filed under: Academia,Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Teaching — Benjamin Carp @ 9:17 am

Based on the last couple of posts, this blog is rapidly becoming an elegiac tribute page, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add one more acknowledgment. Professor Peter S. Onuf, recently retired from the University of Virginia, will be receiving the Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award at the upcoming American Historical Association conference in New Orleans. The award, established in 1991, “honors teachers of history who taught, guided, and inspired their students in a way that changed their lives.” Previous winners include Elizabeth Blackmar, Lynn Hunt, and Nell Irvin Painter. It rotates among high school teachers, undergraduate teachers, and graduate-level teachers, so we can think of Onuf’s award as being more akin to a Fields Medal for the mentoring of history graduate students than to an annual prize.

Today, incidentally, is the anniversary of the first time I ever met Peter, on a trip I made to prospective graduate schools just before Thanksgiving. He is indeed a fantastic mentor, as plenty of other former students, friends, and co-authors can attest (and have attested). Unless you’ve met him (or heard him on Backstory), it’s hard to picture someone so laid-back that he’s known as the “dude,” yet also a tough and insightful “big picture” critic of scholarly work. He devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to his graduate students. One of his greatest achievements was in sustaining a vibrant early American seminar for his graduate students and other area scholars–something that requires a rare blend of charismatic leadership, cutting-edge work, collegiality, constructive criticism, and beer. It’s great to see a historian of early America earn this award, and it’s especially great to see this particular historian receive this recognition.


November 13, 2012

As Often as a Blue Moon: Retirements at AAS

Filed under: Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts,Printing History,Publishing — Joseph M. Adelman @ 9:57 am

Many of our readers here likely follow the American Antiquarian Society’s blog, Past is Present, and many more have likely visited AAS at one point or another in their research careers. With that in mind, it’s worth noting some of the recent posts there to honor the retirements of three longtime AAS staff members: Georgia Barnhill, John Keenum, and Caroline Sloat.

Yesterday, AAS Preseident Ellen Dunlap posted some reflections on Keenum, the Vice President for Development, and Caroline Sloat, Director of Publications, and longtime head of the AAS fellowships program, in which capacity she served as the captain of a frequently unwieldy and ever-changing band of scholars who made their way to Salisbury Street.

Dunlap praises in particular Caroline’s work in shepherding projects through the publishing process, both those sanctioned by AAS and those of fellows:

The work that Caroline has always excelled at is the hardest kind of editing – one that must consider what the author was trying to say, whether or not it should be said or is worth saying, and then figure out – often with great diplomacy – how to help the author make their arguments more cogent, their language more clear, their writing more functional.  And Caroline is legendary for offering this kind of substantive editorial assistance, not just on projects where she was assigned the task – such as AAS Proceedings, the History of the Book in America series, and the Gura book, she has offered the same sort of assistance to fellows working on their dissertations, journal articles, and books, just out of the goodness of her editorial heart. Caroline has devoted herself to making friends at the AAS and for the AAS, and the goodwill that she has engendered – evident in so many fellows reports over the years – is a debt that we could not easily repay except with our thanks for her years of service and devotion.

John Keenum’s efforts, as Dunlap notes, have often been out of public view, appearing to us in the coming to fruition of projects for which he secured funding:

A consummate professional, John took every challenge we faced in his stride… and there HAVE been challenges.  When he came we were still wrapping up the Mellon challenge for core operations, then we got an NEH challenge for acquisitions endowment.  Next was the Kresge challenge for the building addition, then we needed to raise endowment to maintain things like the artists’ and writers’ fellowships that the Wallace grant once paid for, then there was the Mellon challenge for academic fellowships, and then yet another NEH challenge, this one for CHAViC.  And thanks to his steadfast commitment to this institution, his dogged perseverance, his ability to finagle a budget (always on the up-and-up), and his ability to write beautifully cogent prose, under his leadership, AAS has met every one of those challenge propositions, securing the full amount offered as a challenge, often long before the deadline.  John did all this, plus running the annual fund and being our federal grants officer, with precious little assistance. But John has done more than merely raise money for AAS.  He has invested himself in the life of this institution, making friends with staff, fellows, and members alike, buying books for the collection, participating in volunteer projects, just to help out.  He has been a simply wonderful colleague, greatly admired by all.  He will also be greatly missed, but he leaves us a much richer organization for his having been here.

This morning, Paul Erickson honors Gigi Barnhill, the recently retired Curator of Graphic Arts who, as Paul notes, has been an AAS staff member for more than 40% of its existence. AAS recently held a colloquium in Gigi’s honor, identifying four keep characteristics to her curatorial work:

  • “Advance scholarship through publication and research.”
  • “Acquire materials for their collections and build collections of secondary and reference resources at AAS”
  • “Serving as an advocate for her own collections, advising on collection development, preservation, and access, while considering the needs of the rest of the Society’s collections”
  • “Serve as ambassadors of the Society to the communities of Americana collectors and dealers, and maintain active communication and visitation with these important constituencies”

All three will be missed, even as they are succeeded ably by new staff. If you have the time, be sure to click over to Past is Present and read the full tributes.


November 8, 2012

Alfred F. Young, 1925-2012

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 3:13 pm

Mere hours after Pope’s Night celebrations were winding down, Alfred F. Young died at the age of 87 in Durham, North Carolina, on November 6.  A leading scholar of the Revolutionary Era, he was also a great convener of scholars as the editor of several influential volumes.  He wrote about public history, and cared deeply about how the broader public came to understand the history of early America.

You can read blog tributes by  J. L. Bell, Josh Brown, and Ann Little, and H-OIEAHC posts by David WaldstreicherMike McDonnell, and Kenneth Lockridge; also make sure to read Alan Taylor’s review of Masquerade in The New Republic, which has essential biographical material.

When I was an undergraduate taking John Demos’s research seminar on the American Revolution, I read his award-winning 1981 article in the William and Mary Quarterly on the Boston shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes (which was later expanded and incorporated into his widely assigned book, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party), in conjunction with two 19th-century biographies of Hewes.  It was an eye-opening assignment in many ways, but I was hooked by a particular quartet of sentences:

“He [Hewes] does not seem to have belonged to any associations. [Ebenezer] McIntosh was in a fire company. So was Hewes’s brother Shubael. Hewes was not” (584).

…which led me to ask, “what did it mean to be a firefighter during the Revolutionary era?”  I often tell this story to my undergraduates (some of whom suspect that there is nothing new to write about), to reassure them that sometimes just a few short lines from a master scholar can be the inspiration for a fruitful line of inquiry.

Not long after, I found that Professor Young was generous with his correspondence and exacting with his criticism.  I was deeply grateful for both.  He and I discussed the capacity of the Old South Meeting House, the new Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, and other issues related to Revolutionary Boston.  At one point I found out (from Alan Taylor’s review) that, like both my parents, he had graduated from CUNY Queens College.  He told me that Henry David (history) and Vera Shlakman (economics) had turned him on to the possibilities of history; he was “bitten by the history bug.”  Young struggled at various points in his early career; after his retirement, he produced a startling amount of great work at a rapid pace.  By then, his influence on the academic profession, and the broader community of history, had long ago become apparent.

I’ll be traveling to Durham this winter for research, and Al had been looking forward to welcoming me.  We had never spent much time together in person, instead enjoying a correspondence of several years.  Now I’m sorry I won’t get the chance to make up for lost time.


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.


October 19, 2012

Update on Georgia Archives

Filed under: Government,Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 6:57 am

Via Mark Cheathem at Jacksonian America, and for those keeping score at home, the Governor and Secretary of State have announced that they’ve scraped together enough pennies ($125,000 worth) to keep the State Archives open through the end of the fiscal year. According to the press release issued by the Governor’s office, the funding will be the first step in a transition process for the Archives:

The extra funding provides for Georgia State Archives to be open to the public through June 30 of next year. On July 1,  the Georgia Archives will be transferred to University System of Georgia, pending approval of the move by the General Assembly. This transfer will include appropriations required for operation and assets of the Georgia Archives. Additional staff will be provided by USG at that time. Deal and Kemp intend to find efficiencies by consolidating the Archives under the University System of Georgia, just as the state has sought to do with the library system.

It is a good thing that the archives will remain open (that is, back to its schedule of public access on Fridays and Saturdays). It is a logical move to place the archives under the purview of the state university system, which has its own extensive library system.

But given the funding cuts that have hit higher education in the past decade, I’m not holding my breath that this puts the State Archives on a permanent sure footing.


October 14, 2012

A Re-Election Campaign for the Ages

A little humor for your Sunday:, 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).


September 14, 2012

Georgia: Closing for Study

Filed under: American History,Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 11:39 am

By now, many of our readers have probably seen the announcement from Georgia that the State Archives will largely close effective November 1 as part of a round of state budget cuts. Some number of the staff (as yet unspecified) will be laid off, and the archives will only be available on a by-appointment basis, also on a yet-to-be-determined basis once the Archives figures out its eventual staffing levels. This is disastrous news on many levels, and the reaction in the social media world (at least the small part that I inhabit) has been swift and fierce in lambasting the decision. There is already an online petition to the Governor to keep the archives open.

To be clear, Georgia is not going from forty hours per week to zero, but rather from seventeen hours to none—the archive’s public reading room is currently open only on Friday and Saturdays. As Rob Townsend of the AHA pointed out on Twitter, Georgia is already getting an F for public access to information. But the end of public access except in very limited cases is still disappointing, and it’s heartening to see that so many are already taking action.

From my perspective, it seems important (without being too alarmist) to catalog exactly how damaging the prospect of losing access to a state’s archives is and just how many constituencies will be affected.

  • Historians will lose even more access to the public records of Georgia – the papers of the governors and executive offices, records of the legislatures, the courts, and a range of other records.
  • Genealogists will lose access to records to trace family lineage, whether through court records or local county, city, and town records held by the state.
  • Lawyers will have more difficulty accessing public records for their casework.
  • Government agencies in Georgia will have more difficulty getting access to records.
  • Journalists, non-governmental organizations, and others interested in learning more about the operations of the state will have a harder time getting to the documents they need.

This decision, therefore, is not just about historians, though we will feel the pain. It damages a wide swath of people interested in finding out more about Georgia.

What that means from a historian’s perspective is that the decision will also hurt Georgia itself. Politicians may not be thrilled about journalists checking up on them, but it makes it harder to talk about Georgia in history, political science, and so on. Georgia’s public colleges and universities have a Georgia history requirement—how is that history to be written and studied without access to the documents?

In colonial American history, Georgia often seems marginalized – it was founded late in the colonizing game, it was small relative to most of the other colonies, and it doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. I can’t speak for other periods (the Civil Rights movement would be one issue on which I assume Georgia gets more significant coverage), but that lack of coverage will only be exacerbated if it’s difficult to get the documents. In other words, if nothing else, this decision—if it holds and remains the case—could have a long-term impact on how Georgia demonstrates civic pride.

Or to put it another way: I learned a skit in elementary school (and I’m sure many others did too) that’s known as the “Lamppost Skit.” A man is looking for his wallet under a lamppost, and drags three, four, five other people under the light to help him look. Frustrated, one of them finally says, “Are you sure it’s here?” “Oh no,” he replies, pointing the distance. “It’s over there—but the light’s so much better here.” The Georgia Archive has posted an online exhibition called Vanishing Georgia to display historical photographs. With this decision, that exhibit’s title and message becomes more poignant and more prescient.

Note: I have not personally done work at the Georgia State Archives, but I would appreciate if those of you who have would share your experiences and what you accomplished there in the comments. We need to get the word out in whatever way possible about what access means.

UPDATE (Sept. 18, 2:30 p.m.): The AHA has issued its formal response to the Archives closure, a letter from Executive Director James Grossman to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal.


September 11, 2012

Watching History Unfold in Real Time

Filed under: 2012 Elections,American History,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 2:19 pm

I wrote about the anniversary of the September 11th attacks on my Facebook page this morning, but I’d like to share my thoughts in a more public forum, in large part because I’ve been thinking about September 11 more and more through the years from the vantage point of a professional historian observing the development of public memory and history in real time.

What has struck me this week and today especially is that we seem to be moving into a second phase of public memory, one in which the event has become a bit more distant and is beginning to shift away from the visceral and universal commemorations of the first ten years. Marking a decade since the attacks last year seemed like we’d come to some sort of round number that could allow most of us to exhale (in a way). That doesn’t hold for everyone, of course, as each experiences it in his or her own way, not to mention that I was blessed not to know anyone personally who died. But as a collective and public matter, we are starting to transition from remembering the event as something that happened to us to recalling it as something that happened to us in a slightly different time.

This year when the names of victims were read at the World Trade Center site, no politicians were present, only family members. While many newspapers covered the anniversary, the New York Times notably excluded it from its front page this morning. The President and First Lady observed a moment of silence from the lawn of the White House, but unlike four years ago, when Senators Obama and McCain appeared together at the New York ceremony, President Obama and Governor Romney will not meet today, though each participated in remembrances.

At the same time, debates have continued about what to do at the site of the World Trade Center. The “Freedom Tower” has been downsized in name if not in height to simply “One World Trade Center.” And until today there was still a dispute between the city and the state of New York over funding for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

For those of us old enough to remember, we always will – I know that I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the planes, when I first saw that the towers had fallen, the weather that day (which is true for many, it seems). But after eleven years, many Americans simply don’t remember. Of my students, about half are freshmen, and they were only in the second grade in 2001. What will they remember first-hand about that day? My guess for many (based on my memories of being seven years old) is not a whole lot. And their numbers will only grow over time. For my son, 9/11 will always be history.

The process is necessary and inevitable. Our collective memory of Pearl Harbor, for instance, or the Kennedy assassination, has changed dramatically over time as those events have receded in time, as new people with no direct connection have grown up and as those who had one have departed the scene.

As a historian (though not of public memory, to be honest), what I find fascinating is watching this process happen in real time. I’ve read and taught Alfred Young’s work on George Robert Twelves Hewes and the memory of the American Revolution, followed Kevin Levin’s blog Civil War Memory, and read and discussed countless other works about memory and events in American history, but this is a story unfolding before my eyes, and in which I am a participant. And while the process is inevitable, it must in many ways be organic. Did you know, for example, that today is Patriot Day? I didn’t remember that, and only recalled because someone saw it on a calendar and asked me the difference between it and Patriot’s Day (the commemoration in Massachusetts of Lexington and Concord that occurs each April). Despite Congress’s efforts to retitle the day, everyone remembers it simply as September 11 or 9/11. And even that may shift over time, as it becomes necessary to explain what the date means to people for whom it never had the significance which we attach to it.

In total, it’s a reminder to me to think carefully about how we approach both the past and the present, to be sensitive to historical processes, and to put arguments today into a rich context that recognizes a shifting field of memory.

It may also prompt me to ask my students about their memories when I see them tomorrow morning.

NOTE: Kevin Levin was interviewed this morning for an NPR segment on remembrance and healing. It’s a fascinating listen if you have a few minutes.

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