Publick Occurrences 2.0

January 12, 2012

I Missed Alexander Hamilton’s Birthday

Filed under: Conservatives,Founders,Religion — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:27 am

This makes sad, given how he is the Founder of American Conservatism and all, with his boy Mitt Romney doing so well. Anyway, here is Hamilton explaining to fellow Federalists how they could better take advantage of Christianity to give their party a popular appeal and an emotional charge that it sorely lacked:


July 10, 2009

Things I learned from the Internet this week

Filed under: Colonial Period,Conservatives,GOP,Humor,Media,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:21 am

. . . when I probably should have been doing something else.

  • The Tea Party protesters do not even like the Republicans any more, if they ever did. They are also the number one source of “comment spam” on this blog, or at least of the stuff that gets through the filters. That is just how revolutionary they are. Teabaggers go where online slot machine and Canadian payday loan purveyors fear to tread. [Actually, I think the spammers must think the teabaggers are a little bit confused and thus a good target market for people who sell things by getting other people to click on links accidentally.]
  • Sarah Palin is in it for the money. Some conservative pundits do not approve, but Rush is all for it. Making money is the highest social good in their philosophy, right? So I guess they have to take the greedy with the bad.
  • People who comment on the American political scene for national publications should be forced to read a pile of several hundred student papers. Then they would not find Palin’s habit of speaking/writing “in half-expressed thoughts and internal contradictions” so singular. It’s more or less the norm as far as I can tell, here in the mid-ranges of higher education that Sarah could not quite hack. It’s also pretty common to just disappear from classes or change schools in mid-semester, with or without explanation. Of course, it takes a truly special person to take that approach to being governor of a state. That said, making fun of a populist leader’s syntax, as the MSM and liberal blogs like to do with Palin, just plays into their hands. Ask the Federalists how well the supercilious grammar criticism tactic worked against various upstart northern Democratic-Republicans.
  • Racist humor (and, one might add, racism) is fairly common, and often tolerated, in some conservative circles. Actually, I already knew that from personal experience, but it is quite revealing that some young white conservatives thought nothing of slapping that kind of thing up on Facebook.
  • You can learn colonial history on Hulu. I learned that  Captain John Smith worked out a lot and liked to hang around in Jamestown with his shirt off. It was surprisingly hot, dry, and dusty there in the Virginia Tidewater hills. Also, John Rolfe was his sidekick. And Pocahontas looked good in her miniskirt. Ahead of the curve fashion-wise, as well. To be honest, there’s something to be said for the 50s he-man version of John Smith over Colin Farrell’s big-eyed nature lover in Terence Malick’s The New World. Smith is a rather sensitive fellow for a globe-trotting mercenary in both versions, which probably says something about how Americans like to remember their conquering forebears: a little sentimental, with just a hint of tears as they regretfully wipe off the blood.

Now playing:
Beulah – Queen of the Populists
via FoxyTunes


November 27, 2008

A John Adams Thanksgiving

Filed under: Christianity,Early Republic,Holidays,Political culture,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:23 am

While there is nothing terribly controversial about it today, Thanksgivings were once highly politicized holidays, reviled by critics as what we would now call violations of the separation of church and state and shamelessly used by their supporters as opportunities to make pious but partisan pronouncements. (The plural was used on purpose because kings and presidents declared days of prayer and Thanksgiving whenever they felt like it, and there could be far more than one a year, not at any set time.) As a holiday observance, I offer one of John Adams’s Thanksgiving proclamations, from the spring of 1798. The Quasi-War with France was raging, and the Federalists were in the midst of creating their national security program, which would soon include the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Adams’s proclamation is taken from the New York Commercial Advertiser, 29 March 1798, and it is followed by a response from the Philadelphia Aurora of the same date. Clicking the image should bring up a readable version. (The images appear after the jump.)



November 18, 2008

Myths of the Lost Atlantis: Was the Federalist Press Staid and Apolitical? (Kaplan)

This is a guest post, the sixth in our series, running in honor of Philip Lampi and in conjunction with the Common-Place politics issue. See the introduction for an explanation. Click the logo below to see all of the posts in the series.

By Catherine O’Donnell Kaplan
Arizona State University

[BLOGITORIAL NOTE: Just to model the true spirit of democratic pluralism, we wanted readers to know up front that today’s “myth” is one that the proprietor of this blog had more than a hand in promoting. My book “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 2001) focused heavily on Democratic-Republican political journalism in making the argument that partisan newspapers played a crucial binding and embodying role in the development of American political parties, and democratization more generally. My rather dismissive chapter-and-a-half on the Federalist press sold it decidedly short. Though like most authors I continue to believe I got the story basically right — there were some key differences in the degree and manner that Republican and Federalist newspapers connected themselves to electoral politics — in retrospect it would have taken little away from my argument to grant the Federalists a larger and more creative role in the political press of the Early Republic than I did.  Looking back, the only good reason to short-shrift the Federalists to the extent that I did was the excessive length of my manuscript, though at the time that was a REALLY good reason. In this post, Catherine Kaplan redresses some of the interpretive imbalance left by writers like myself, and graciously does not even attack me for it. — JLP]

The belief that Federalists sat grim-faced and hapless as their nimble Jeffersonian opponents developed ways to shape public opinion runs deep in American historical thought. The Federalist press has been portrayed as entirely lacking the agility and ambition of its Republican counterpart; Federalist politicians have been accused of failing to realize they needed to create a network of believers; and the party as a whole often appears in historical accounts as the horseshoe crab of the early republic: a living fossil that played no role in the nation’s ongoing evolution.Joseph Dennie I’ll leave it to others, including Andrew W. Robertson and Philip Lampi in this very space, to show that Federalists competed electorally — and fiercely — until the War of 1812. What I’d like to discuss is the Federalist press, and I’ll posit something that I hope honors the spirit of this contrarian blog, if not every historical interpretation ever advanced by its management: Federalist literati precociously developed politics as culture, politics as personal expression, politics as a community built through media, and politics as performance. These men and women of letters rejoiced over partisan divisions while other Americans (including more than a few Federalists) still lamented them. And they understood political media to be the art of getting read, discussed, and perhaps even paid, as much as the art of getting things done. Arianna Huffington? Meet Joseph Dennie.

Dennie was a 1790 Harvard graduate who had desultorily set up shop as a lawyer in New Hampshire, all the while trying to establish himself as an essayist and wit, a kind of American Addison. In the mid-1790s, Dennie learned to yoke together the goals and skills of literature and politics, and when he did so, he not only found his voice and livelihood, but also profoundly influenced the Federalist press. Dennie’s two widely read and extracted periodicals were New Hampshire’s Farmer’s Weekly Museum newspaper, which he edited throughout the second half of the 1790s, and Philadelphia’s Port Folio magazine, which he founded and edited from 1801 until his death in 1812.

Politics and Literature: Two Great Enterprises That Went Great Together

Here’s another myth-buster: literature was not a retreat from politics for alienated intellectuals. Literary techniques helped to build the human infrastructure party politics required, and politics offered intellectuals a way to be heard in a country sorely lacking in aristocratic patronage and metropolitan density. Over the course of the eighteenth century, a tradition of witty clubbing — lubricated sometimes by coffee, sometimes by alcohol — had become increasingly entwined with print culture. The educated men and women in England and the colonies who gathered to critique literature, society, and life began to seek publication of their manuscripts in newspapers and magazines. In both their face-to-face gatherings and in print, participants were driven by three desires. They delighted in the sense that their superior judgment and wit differentiated them from the world outside. They wanted to be known to that world outside even as they were convinced of its dull incomprehension. And they wanted to believe that their associations and writings could make that world a better place. These goals — and the tensions between them — readily merged with the intense partisanship of the 1790s. The political parties did indeed have competing understandings of the role of government and competing agendas. But they each also needed to become virtual communities of emotion as well as reason, communities that were simultaneously evangelical and exclusive. Literati, it turns out, were well suited to creating these communities through print. Thomas Jefferson turned to a poet, Philip Freneau, to edit the National Gazette. But it was a Federalist man of letters, Joseph Dennie, who truly excelled.

The literary marketplace in the early Republic had no metropolis, no London to which the aspiring could go and from which power, sales, and influence emerged. In the United States, to convince printers to bring works to press, and to make newspapers achieve anything like a national influence, small but interconnected networks of people worked together to drum up subscriptions. Many of those same people also wished to see their own writing pass through those networks, so they supplied manuscripts to printers and newspapers. Creating a national political party, even a loosely-knit one, required something similar: uniting the work of far-flung networks of amateurs with that of a few professionals, in order to create and circulate ideas and emotions, and to build a community — real as well as imagined — without direct contact.

A page from Joseph Dennie's "Port Folio," 28 May 1803


In both the Farmer’s Weekly Museum and the Port Folio, Dennie larded national and international news with brief, mordant commentary, and he also penned longer essays, such as the “Lay Preacher” series, which combined Benjamin Franklin-style moral pronouncements, acerbic critiques of American politics, and an almost campy display of Dennie’s own melancholic unease. Dennie also printed poems, letters, and essays by readers both famous and obscure, many of whom used metaphors and pursued themes the editor himself had introduced.


Through his astute use of bylines, introductions, and even inside jokes, Dennie made visible the relationships and networks that produced and circulated literary and political content. Both the content and this revealing of the networks were important. The periodicals drew people into a partisan community in which they spread Federalist-inflected anecdotes and rumors, sent in their own political information, and, significantly, learned to see with Federalist eyes and speak in a Federalist tongue. Politicians such as Jeremiah Smith, Lewis Richard Morris, and Robert Goodloe Harper eagerly participated. More generally, Federalist newspapers — like Republican ones — reprinted each other’s work, “linking” to each other in a way that increased awareness of publications and editors and sped circulation of ideas, animosities, and tropes. Successful editors offered their distinctive worldviews and voices, but also offered a forum in which nonprofessionals — in either literature or politics — could find their comments posted, their battles joined, and their turns of phrase admired and emulated.

Federalist Dittoheads

This was participatory print culture, one that openly tried to create an impassioned, hostile interdependence with Republican newspapers, so that passions and readerships might rise. “Since the Editor has been splashed with the mud of Chronicle obloquy,” Dennie wrote gleefully in the midst of one newspaper war, “he has gained upwards of seven hundred subscribers. He therefore requests…the honour and the profit of their future abuse.” Such a print culture is reminiscent not of a hidebound aristocratic past but instead of today’s political/social/cultural websites such as DailyKos and Redstate. Federalists who participated in these newspapers, moreover, realized that jokes, caricatures, and a heightening of the divide between “us and them,” of the sort that flowed naturally from literary club culture, would gain both readers and political adherents. The point was to make participants feel part of an enclave, even as one justified that gated community by insisting one’s goal was to tear down the wall and reform the nation. Thus in Federalist newspapers, broad insults and scabrous doggerel (even John Quincy Adams indulged) drew laughs, while the creation of a private language of allusions, characters, and metaphors gave readers the thrill of being political participants and members, not simply consumers.



October 31, 2008

“Seems Like Old Times”: Democracy = No God

Roughly 208 years ago this month you could open many a Federalist newspaper — the mainstream commercial press of the time – and find the following notice regarding that year’s hotly contested presidential election:

This was the first case of a U.S. party in power trying to save itself by juicing up the atavistic fears of Christian voters. In 1800, it was the supporters of John Adams who tried to paint challenger Thomas Jefferson as an alien infidel out to destroy traditional values and shut down the churches, even though there were almost no federal policy issues related to religion or the sanctity of the family being debated.  (Jefferson was also accused of palling around with terrorists, in the Reign of Terror sense anyway.)

These 1800 attacks on Jefferson were what Joe Biden was referring to the other day in a comparison that made headlines a few places, “Biden compares Obama attacks to past presidents“:

Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden on Monday cast White House hopeful Barack Obama with presidential giants, likening attacks against his running mate to criticisms lobbed against Thomas Jefferson’s Christianity, Abraham Lincoln’s commitment to individual rights and John F. Kennedy, for being a “dangerous choice in difficult times.”

“Sound familiar?” Biden asked the crowd. “The defenders of the status quo have always tried to tear down those who would change our nation for the better.”

That comparison seemed a trifle strained (only a trifle) when Biden uttered it, but apparently the Elizabeth Dole campaign down in North Carolina looked up the 1800 race and decided that the Federalists’ “No God” line needed to be echoed even more literally:

The Trail –
North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race erupted this week after Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) launched an ad accusing her Democratic challenger of supporting the agenda of a political committee devoted to atheists.

State Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who polls show is narrowly leading Dole, filed suit in a North Carolina court Thursday accusing the incumbent of defaming her in the advertisement, which ends with an image of Hagan on the screen and a female voice saying, “There is no God.”

Here’s the commercial itself, for the comparative record:


October 6, 2008

Myths of the Lost Atlantis: An introduction

What we have here is the introduction to the series. The first post, by Phil Lampi’s chief New Nation Votes accomplice Andrew W. Robertson, is here. Click the logo below to see all of the posts in the series.

A blog series dedicated to Philip Lampi

Exploring early American politics one reality at a time.

Phlip Lampi

We sail out
on orders from him
but we find,
the maps he sent to us
don’t mention lost coastlines,
where nothing we’ve actually seen
has been mapped or outlined
and we don’t recognize the names upon these signs.

Okkervil River, “Lost Coastlines

by Jeffrey L. Pasley

University of Missouri

When you first approach early American political history with the idea of seriously studying it, it can be hard to avoid the feeling that there is no

thing you could possibly add. Everything that can be known about the Jay Treaty negotiations or the election of 1828 or the Webster-Hayne debates is already exhaustively covered in numerous books and articles and digested for public edification in textbooks and Wikipedia. If you’re lucky, this feeling dissipates once you get to know the details and nuances and realize that not everything really has been adequately covered. Even then, there are paths you just avoid as overly beaten or simply unmarked.

Voting in the Early Republic was one of those topics for me. Reading for comps, it seemed like vote-counting was just about all that a lot of political historians ever did, and you couldn’t even do that, I read, for the early period that most interested me. The data didn’t exist: few of the states voted in the same way or at the same time, especially for president, and almost none of them saved the appropriate records before the advent of what they used to call the Age of the Common Man in 1828. Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called early 19th-century elections the “lost Atlantis” of American politics, and the seeming lack of data licensed electoral scholars to treat the Federalist-Republican era as a prologue to the real democratic action at best.* Other political historians were increasingly explicit about conceiving early American politics as essentially coterminous with the post-Revolutionary elite better known as the Founders. The philosophical debates and personal relationships of various well-known gentlemen were all that was worth knowing about. In short, there was nothing to see there in terms of popular politics, so I moved on, at least as far as the election results are concerned.

A King of New England

Philip Lampi’s work shocked me out of that attitude. His story has been written up many times by now — the AAS web site has a page of Phil’s press clips — but it never ceases the boggle the mind. Common-Place co-founder Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, called it “one of the strangest and most heroic tales in the annals of American historical research”:

He began this work in 1960, when he was still in high school. Living in a home for boys, he wanted, most of all, to be left alone, so he settled on a hobby that nobody else would be interested in. He went to the library and, using old newspapers, started making tally sheets of every election in American history. His system was flawless. It occupied endless hours. Completeness became his obsession. For decades, at times supporting himself by working as a night watchman, Lampi made lists of election returns on notepads. He drove all over the country, scouring the archives by day, sleeping in his car by night. He eventually transcribed the returns of some sixty thousand elections.

Where professional historians and political scientists shrugged off a whole era because they could not send a graduate student to the library or call up a colleague in Michigan to get the proper data, Phil Lampi committed himself to filling in the blanks of the history books, as a hobby, to be pursued in the spare hours of a rather laborious, hardscrabble life.

In the process of his quest, Phil also made himself one of the country’s leading authorities on the early American press as well as its election returns. At some point, he got at a job at the American Antiquarian Society, the nation’s leading repository of early American newspapers, to be closer to his sources. After many years of photographing the old papers for microfilm and paging them for AAS patrons, making up his tally sheets and helping out interested scholars on the side, Andrew Robertson and John Hench secured National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities grants that finally allowed Phil to spend some of the work day focusing on his grand project. The grants also launched the process of organization and preservation that has eventually resulted in the immense New Nation Votes database.

Phil is very much a man of the pre-blogospheric era, but in many ways he is a precursor of those self-taught experts who created some of the Internet’s most iconic sites, and the weblog itself, strictly by pursuing their personal interests. New Nation Votes realizes the dream of pioneer Internet history sites like the University of Virginia’s Valley of the Shadow — American history presented with a depth, transparency, and flexibility that no other medium can match. Certainly no other data source can. New Nation Votes users can not only find the once-missing election data, but drill all the way down to Phil’s sources and handwritten notes if they so desire.

All that said, it is in some ways a disservice to overemphasize Phil’s biography. If you talk to Phil at any length, you realize that he did not choose his hobby solely for its boringness.He was also an explorer who sensed the gaps in the available political cartography. He once told me that he enjoyed looking at the voting charts he found in some of the reference books at the public library and wondered why they had so little information on the early part of American history. A true “King of New England,” in the Cider House Rules sense, Phil wondered especially about the political “home team,” as he saw it, the Federalists. Why did the Federalists seem to just disappear from the charts and tables in reference books after John Adams lost? Very early in his data collection, Phil realized that this was not remotely accurate. In New England and selected other localities, Federalists competed in elections and held offices all the way into the Jacksonian era, when party names shifted. Phil was far ahead of his time in rediscovering the Federalists, whom historians now see as a tremendous influence on early 19th-century developments in religion, culture, business, and social reform. The counter-Jacksonian America described in Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought?, for instance, has clear Federalist antecedents.

Explaining the Series

Time to move on to the series mentioned in the title of this post. Blogs being the somewhat confessional medium that they are, let me just admit that I decided to launch this series out of guilt. Here we have Common-Place throwing a special issue on politics, and no one invited electoral historians. Or at least that’s how it might seem. The truth is a bit more complicated, with the small number of people who actually work on early American elections and their lack of availability for the project being one set of reasons, and the greater speed with which other aspects of the issue came together being another. At a certain point, we just filled up, and the Common-Place staff screamed for mercy when I threatened to commission even more articles. The blogosphere seemed to be the answer to the question, how could we pay tribute to Phil — at a time when he is facing serious health issues — and also do some justice to his subject without doubling the size of our already very substantial special issue?



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