Publick Occurrences 2.0

February 25, 2015

Bastard out of Nevis: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”

Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull (after painting by Giuseppe Ceracchi, 1801); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Henry Cabot Lodge

Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull (after painting by Giuseppe Ceracchi, 1801); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Henry Cabot Lodge

“I want the historians to respect this.”  —Lin-Manuel Miranda, according to Ron Chernow

In the lobby of the Public Theater, two statues flanked the doorway—the likenesses of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr stretched out their arms and aimed their dueling pistols at one another, and it was hard not to feel as if I was standing in the middle.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, wrote the musical Hamilton and stars in the title role.  He portrays the first Secretary of the Treasury as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” and an immigrant striver made good; throughout his career, Hamilton is arrogant about his talents but perpetually insecure about his place.  As told by Miranda, Hamilton is both self-made and self-unmade, wry and seductive and yet constantly raging against anyone who might hold him back.

The show is currently the hottest ticket in New York City, with all performances at the Public sold out, and StubHub prices reaching four figures.  It is “inspired by” Ron Chernow’s biography and retains a bit of its Federalist Chic, but Miranda has read more widely, in both primary and secondary sources, about Hamilton’s life and the history surrounding it.  Indeed, the results are almost everything historians could want.  Actors playing Hercules Mulligan, the Marquis de Lafayette, and John Laurens (imagined as Hamilton’s drinking buddies) help embody the events of 1776–1804, with a broad range of music heavily influenced by hip-hop.  We get politics, war, nation-building, scandal, and death, all with energetic choreography.  Along the way, the show manages to explain both the code duello and the voting process prior to the 12th amendment. George Washington doesn’t seem cast in marble, as he does in HBO’s John Adams miniseries.  Instead Christopher Jackson plays him as a vigorous leader who has to work at managing his squabbling aides.  Cabinet debates—over the assumption of state debts or diplomatic relations with Revolutionary France—are imagined, thrillingly, as rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (played with glorious, demented abandon by Daveed Diggs).  Sure, Hamilton gets the last word and comes out on top, but at least we hear Jefferson’s contrary perspective as well.  The Founders were both high-minded and scurrilous, using eighteenth-century phrasing alongside an argot familiar to anyone with Spotify.  Many of the songs are still stuck in my head.

For over a decade now, historians have discussed the effort to humanize the Founders, and Hamilton serves as a worthy example of this trend.  Hamilton is not just a penman and statesman, which might have made for a rather dry show.  Instead we see him court his future wife and later betray her—we even see his courtship of Eliza Schuyler retold a second time from her sister Angelica’s wistful perspective.  Hamilton delights in his eldest son and then loses him (at nineteen) to a duelist’s bullet.  How a new father like Miranda can replay this anguish eight times a week is beyond my capacity to guess.  By the time Hamilton meets Burr and his fate at Weehawken, New Jersey, the character has been hollowed out by grief.

The historian’s craft is on full display here.  In “The Room Where It Happens,” James Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson hash out the famous 1790 compromise to locate the capital on the Potomac but have the federal government assume state debts.  Yet as Aaron Burr (in his role as sometime narrator) tells us, we don’t actually know what went down, because no one else was in the room.  Later, Eliza Hamilton burns her letters rather than leave for posterity her opinions about Hamilton’s adultery.  She even sings about leaving the narrative.  Books, letters, and printed pamphlets recur as props, and they are constantly in motion: the characters read news of Laurens’s death, Hamilton’s attack on Adams, and his sordid confessions about Maria Reynolds.  Families try to love one another across distances.  As a historian I’m used to flipping through archival materials, so this dynamism was something of a treat.  On the front of the Playbill, the tagline reads, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” and in a number toward the end, the actors confront the idea that history isn’t static—storytellers might vary, and the differences among them actually matter. Audiences will thrill to Miranda’s interpretation, but they are still offered the idea that different interpretations are possible, and that the historical record leaves gaps for the imagination to fill.  If you’re like David Brooks (who saw the same performance I did), you may fall in love with Hamilton all over again (and is it just me, or does “The Hamilton Experience” remind you of “The Girlfriend Experience”?), but the show leaves room for many other reactions.

Race plays an interesting role in the show.  Ben Brantley found it “appropriate that the ultimate dead white men of American history should be portrayed here by men who are not white.”  In an interview, Leslie Odom, Jr. (who plays Aaron Burr), said, “In the first two minutes of this show, Lin steps forward and introduces himself as Alexander Hamilton, and Chris [Jackson] steps forward and says he’s George Washington, and you never question it again.” And while it’s true that the performances are unquestionably fitting, they also raise interesting questions.  In the show, the only white cast members (as far as I could tell) were either ensemble players (one of whom played the Loyalist minister Samuel Seabury) or Bryan D’Arcy James, who plays King George III to hilarious effect.  (“When push comes to shove / I will kill your friends and family / To remind you of my love.”)  In other words, on stage the whites represent monarchical authority, while the revolutionaries (men and women) are played by people of African, Latino/a, and Asian descent.  This show is, then, about revolutions past and future (and Miranda did acknowledge in the New Yorker that Michael Brown and Eric Garner were on his mind when the cast sang, “Rise up!”).

Some small inaccuracies remain: events are compressed in time and space (no doubt by necessity), and a character describes the outcome of the close election of 1800 as a “landslide.” Aaron Burr’s life both mirrors Hamilton’s life and intersects it.  Odom’s Burr is winning and sympathetic, and he sings some pretty numbers addressed to his daughter Theodosia, but we never meet her, which robs the songs of some of their power.  While Hamilton’s character is fully developed, at times Burr’s story is told more than shown.   As a result, by the time the two lawyers fall out over Dr. Charles Cooper’s letter, I couldn’t quite get a purchase on their relationship as foils for one another.

While Miranda is adapting a well-known slice of history, his interpretation is fresh and inspiring.  The level of originality will satisfy both theater crowds and history crowds.  In other words, the show works—as history, as imagination, and as theater.

On the subway ride home, I saw a group clutching a Playbill from the show and discussing excitedly whether certain events in it were accurate.  I smiled.  It’s a good thing Hamilton is moving to Broadway for a longer run.  More audiences for this show could well mean a broader audience for other good histories, too.


[Cross-posted at The Junto here]


November 15, 2013

How Jefferson Lives Now

Filed under: Founders,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:56 pm

The old blog rises temporarily from the grave. Occasionally, I dare to watch television, and I had to share this little dispatch from the land of popular historical perception. One of the current television season’s most successful new shows is Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. This is the one where Ichabod Crane is not a pathetic Yankee schoolmaster, but a time-travelling secret agent whose uses the mystic wisdom of the Founders to fight E-VIL in the present day. You know, George Washington’s magic Bible, John Adams’s secret code, Paul Revere’s silver-lined skull, completely authentic stuff like that. This week, Thomas Jefferson supplied some magic technology, but also comes in for the only non-hyper-reverence the show has yet shown toward any Founder. And there is historical fact-checking. It’s a clever scene, actually, but quite telling of Jefferson’s current highly dubious place in the culture. (This is the best quality video I was able to find. Those who dare can watch the entire show at

The video cannot be shown at the moment. Please try again later.

No mention of what Washington did for a living when he was not handing out secret missions. Magic Bible salesman, perhaps?


August 6, 2013

The Golden Age of Journalism (History)

Filed under: Joe Adelman's Posts,Journalism history,Media,Newspapers — Joseph M. Adelman @ 8:29 am

For all that American journalism seems to be careening at high speed away from its storied traditions and into the abyss—or the Wilds of the Web, take your pick—an awful lot of its innovations have a distinct historical flair.

Indeed, everything old is new again.

The purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is perhaps the more obvious parallel. Commenters around journalism have noted (in between fainting spells) that “Rich Capitalist Purchases Media Outlet” is a headline that harkens back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when wealthy families like the Ochs in New York, the McCormicks in Chicago, and yes, the Grahams in Washington owned major newspapers. At least everyone seems to hope that Bezos will act more like Adolph Ochs and less like Jay Gould, who in the 1870s and 1880s engineered a hostile takeover of the Western Union Telegraph Company, which also gave him an enormous comparative advantage through access to the New York Associated Press for his New York World newspaper.[1] But enough pixels have been spilled about Bezos and the Post in the past eighteen hours that the few I offer would not amount to much.

The second media innovation of the morning strikes me as equally if not more fascinating. Quartz, a business news website that is part of Atlantic Media, announced this morning that it has added paragraph-level commenting to its articles. These annotations (see below for a screen grab) allow a more finely tuned set of comments than traditional blogs and stories, like here at Publick Occurrences, where they all appear at the bottom. It’s a fascinating idea, whatever its originality, and I’ll be curious to see how it works for Quartz.[2]


When I saw the tweet, I immediately thought of Harbottle Dorr, the Boston shopkeeper who dutifully saved annotated his newspapers from 1765 to 1776, then bound and indexed them. Thankfully, so did the editors at Quartz, who included an image of an annotated issue of the Boston Gazette from 1770. There is, of course, one big difference between what Dorr did and what Quartz readers will now do: scale. Comments on an eighteenth-century newspaper could certainly be social as copies were passed around from reader to reader. In fact, by the early nineteenth century people used newspapers to send letters through the mail because of the favorable rates for periodicals over letters. So it’s not like the comments of Dorr and others were locked up from view. But Quartz can create conversations, tangents, etc. It’s a small innovation, to be sure.

Most of all, though, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the best “new” trends in journalism—from media ownership and aggregation to commenting policies—represent journalism coming full circle to its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century roots. Which makes it, for those of us who study media’s history, a fascinating time to watch and comment on present-day trends.


[1] On Gould and the Western Union takeover, see Richard John’s Network Nation (Harvard UP, 2010).

[2] I will also likely add this post as a comment to the history paragraph in the article, in order to maximize the feedback loop effect.


June 3, 2013

Historians and Ethics on the Web

Filed under: Academia,Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 10:56 am
Last week the AHA Today blog hosted a roundtable on Web Ethics to continue an ongoing conversation about civility among historians online. Respondents included:

If you haven’t had a chance to read their thoughts, you should. They provide a nice cross-section of experiences, from those with personal blogs (Fea and Little), to one affiliated with a historians’ association (Alpers), and one with The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s network of blogs (Potter). As far as one can generalize, I agree fully that we need to be clear and careful about how we interact with one another online.

For the most part, the respondents focused their thoughts on blog comments sections. Both Fea and Little, as proprietors of their own web spaces, try to articulate clearly their standards for commenting and police the comments section regularly, to some effect. (The comments sections at Historiann are some of the most active I’ve seen in the history blogosphere, and Fea’s blog, though the comments are often somewhat quiet, has a lively discussion space on Facebook and numerous links on Twitter.) The USIH blog also has an incredibly lively comments section, though it occasionally involves sharp elbows, and Potter has had several famous (infamous?) showdowns in the comments, both in her own blogs (both before and during the Chronicle era) and elsewhere around the web.

What I would add to the conversation is that I try not to think of blogs and social media as new in the sense of uncharted or complicated. Yes, there is a greater possibility of transgressing acceptable norms because commenters can remain anonymous (for more on that, see the comment thread about “jerks in academia” in Historiann’s post on her own blog). Yes, not everyone is comfortable writing for blogs (I don’t discuss my research, for example, a possible topic for a future post), and many are uncomfortable with Twitter—including Historiann herself. There are issues with the online public sphere that don’t exist in print journals or the face-to-face proceedings of conferences and meetings.

But online spaces are public, and treating them that way as participants goes a long way to answering the concerns raised in the roundtable. Participating online can be enormously beneficial to our profession, and is all the more so if more historians join in that conversation. But one should always assume that one is speaking in public, the same way one would be at a conference, in print, or through any other medium of communication. I don’t want to open myself up the critique that I’m being naive, but at the same time, on a certain level online public spaces are no different from any other, and demand the same professional decorum. That won’t stop every troll, to be sure. But as Little notes in her piece, some effort by bloggers and others to police the boundaries of acceptability (much as senior scholars might take aside an overly aggressive or rambunctious grad student at a conference) can do wonders.

Finally, I would second Potter’s suggestion that the AHA can (and perhaps should) play a central role in serving as a clearinghouse for and perhaps a publisher of best practices for web interactions, including guidelines for expectations for professionally oriented blogs, Twitter feeds, comments sections, and so on. I don’t think that AHA should be prescriptive—that would defeat one of the main benefits of online conversations, which is that they can aspire to be, as Alpers puts it, “open, public scholarly space[s].”


April 26, 2013

Congratulations, Dr. Philip Lampi

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 4:28 pm

Expanding slightly on my tweet from earlier this afternoon, I wanted to pass on the wonderful news that Phil Lampi, of AAS and “New Nation Votes” project fame, is going to receive an honorary degree from Tufts University next month. Phil has been saluted at length in this space before, so I will keep it brief this time. A true hero of archival scholarship and a real-life “King of New England,” Phil deserves recognition from the academic community more than most of us who are in it, so this honor is much more than just well deserved. Here is the citation from the Tufts press release:

Philip Lampi is a historian. Lampi’s work could change the way historians teach and write about the politics of early America. Without training, a college degree or funding beyond his own modest resources, Lampi traveled the country to gather the single most complete record of early American election results ever compiled. He is now the driving force behind the New Nation Votes Project, the most significant database of early American voting records in existence, sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society, Tufts University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lampi will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.


April 12, 2013

Remembering Jack Larkin

Filed under: Historians,Historic sites,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 6:31 am

Some sad news to pass along for the early American history community, which many of you may already know. Jack Larkin, the retired Chief Historian at Old Sturbridge Village, passed away on March 29 after a battle with cancer. His obituary attests to his enormously productive career:

Jack was born in Chicago Illinois on June 26, 1943 to his parents, Irene and Jack Larkin. He graduated as valedictorian of Mount Carmel High School in 1961, received his AB from Harvard College in 1965 and his MA in American Studies from Brandeis University. He was a VISTA worker in the Missouri Ozarks, where he enrolled many people during the initial implementation of Medicare; He was also a Head Start Teacher in Brockton, Ma. In 1971 he began working at Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts, first as Assistant Director of Museum Education, and continued for 38 years in many roles — Acting Director of Museum Education, Researcher, Director of Research, Director of Research, Collections and Library, Chief Historian, and Museum Scholar. He retired in 2009 as Chief Historian and Museum Scholar Emeritus. He was also Affiliate Professor of History at Clark University from 2004 to the present. He was a Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Ma. from 2011-2012. From 1971 to his death, he was active in the education of middle and high school history teachers. From 2009-2013 he was principal faculty member for “Teaching American History” projects for the Polk county Schools in Lakeland, Florida and the Worcester Public Schools in collaboration with the American Antiquarian Society. He received numerous awards, including the Kidger Award for Outstanding Scholarship from the New England History Teachers Association in 1999, the President’s Award from Old Sturbridge Village in 1996. His book, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840, was a distinguished finalist for the P.E.N/Martha Albrand Award for nonfiction in 1988. His publications are extensive and include the following books: The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840; Where We Lived, Discovering the Places we Once Called Home; Where we Worked: a Celebration of America’s Workers and the Nation they Built; and with Caroline Sloat, A Place in My Chronicle: A New edition of the Diary of Christopher Columbus Baldwin, 1829-1835.

I got to know him as part of the 2011-12 class of fellows at the American Antiquarian Society, where Jack spent a year researching the life of nineteenth-century artist David Claypoole Johnston for a planned biography. As those of you who’ve spent time at AAS know, time there is often as valuable for the conversations and community around the lunch table as for the archival treasures that await in the reading room. That was certainly true of our group, and Jack was central. Recently retired (and obviously loving it), he would regale us with stories about his time in graduate school, his career at Old Sturbridge (with the occasional hint at secrets unknown to the public …) and most often his family. To be honest, I feel like I know as much about his sons, his grandchildren, even his mother-in-law as I do about his work. He was a generous colleague, eagerly offering questions and advice at research presentations, and perfectly willing to drop what he was doing and chat about the work of others.

Several of the Jack’s colleagues at AAS, as part of a conversation thread remembering him, have offered thoughts to share in this space, which appear below. Others who knew Jack either personally or simply through his work are welcome to add their memories below in the comments.

John Demos

With the death of Jack Larkin, we—his fellow-historians—lose a key contributor to the workings of our discipline.  Jack was a careful researcher, shrewd analyzer, and gifted writer.  But most of all he was a master teacher.  His teaching spanned a uniquely broad range: he was at home in the classroom, in museums, in the larger arena of public history, and in both scholarly and general-audience publication.  His books on everyday life brought the fruits of modern scholarship to the attention of readers of many different ages, interests, and backgrounds.  His commitment to spreading and deepening historical knowledge was itself the outgrowth of an extraordinarily generous spirit; in him understanding and giving were inextricably joined.  We mourn his loss, we miss him, we are grateful for all he was and did.

Caroline Sloat

Rereading Children Everywhere (in 1987-88 one of the first books I edited at Old Sturbridge Village) this past week reminded me of Jack’s impressive ability to put himself into the story and then tell it with the right amount of historical detail and just the right pace to engage a reader, lay or academic. This voice permitted him to teach and write using objects as evidence with the same kind of authority as a text that could be footnoted.

Jack’s intellect and curiosity were prodigious: he could have taught anywhere in the land in either the sciences or the humanities. Coming from Harvard and Brandeis (via VISTA and with a strong sense of social justice), he joined the staff of an outdoor history museum that was reshaping itself into a center of scholarship of New England rural life. At OSV we used objects and visual sources before they became broadly employed in academic teaching and writing. But we weren’t doing much academic writing. We were about presenting an authentic experience for museum visitors, be they school groups or families. Jack also excelled at writing persuasive grant applications to the NEH, other foundations, and generous donors. Museum exhibits, interpretation plans, and school programs were the scholarly outcomes of this work. For Jack, books came into the mix much later.

As he developed projects at Sturbridge, he depended on Barbara’s insights. With an adjacent office in the village’s Research Department, I was also fortunate enough to be in on work as it emerged and read early drafts of the Reshaping of Everyday Life.  I remember sharing in the excitement of Harper and Row’s editing process, followed by book design and publication and such wonderful reception—a review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review and a trip to the Big Apple for the P.E.N/Martha Albrand Award ceremony when Reshaping was a nonfiction finalist. This recognition for Jack was richly deserved and helped bring attention to the historical work being done at Sturbridge.

After we both left the Village we kept in touch, discussing our work and our families that eventually included our grandchildren. Jack taught the undergraduate seminar at the Society twice; then as John Hench and I began thinking of historical publications to mark the Society’s bicentennial, we could not resist the prospect of creating a new edition of the diary of Christopher Columbus Baldwin. Jack and I had shared a long history with Baldwin, who was a key informant on many subjects for OSV interpretation and, let’s not mince words here, charming besides. Jack was intrigued when we proposed the project and his scholarship added significant value to the new transcription. For example, he and his brother-in-law hypothesized about the debilitating medical condition that prompted the Council to send Baldwin on a western tour for a rest while observing the mounds of Southern Ohio.

Our worlds of shared scholarship and friendship converged again during the year leading up to my retirement when he won an AAS-NEH fellowship to tackle the life and artistic legacy of David Claypoole Johnston (family papers and publications containing his work that included Scraps, issued between1829 and 1841). When friends asked me recently how he came to choose this topic, I responded that it was the kind of knotty problem that Jack thrived on untangling. He came very close to doing so during his year at AAS. The timing of his pancreatic cancer could not have been worse, for although some of his work will be published (see, Common-place, April 2013), much remains to be done. His friends are committed to gathering up the scraps, and crafting a volume—if not just as he would have done it, certainly in the spirit of sharing Jack’s sympathy for and insights into the life of an observer on the ground in their shared time period, the first half of the nineteenth century.

Yvette Piggush

Jack contributed substantially to setting a collaborative and truly friendly atmosphere for the cohort of fellows who spent 2011-2012 with him at the AAS.  Every morning he lighted up our underground cubicles with his cheerful “hello!’  His enthusiasm about his fascinating research on D. C. Johnston was infectious.  But he was also so curious about what everyone else was doing and contributed generously to all of our projects.  Plus, he had the best camera, for which I was very grateful since he let me borrow it constantly to take photos for my work.  He loved his family more than anything in the world.  He shared pictures of his grandchildren and loved to hear about our own families.  During lunch time, Jack told us wonderful stories of his unlikely life journey from the Irish South Side of Chicago to Harvard and New England.  He was always optimistic and always forgetting his hat.

Carolyn Eastman

Long before I met Jack Larkin, I channeled his voice in my classes. Lifting liberally from his The Reshaping of Everyday Life, I used his information to give my lectures depth and texture—but I also used his phrasing, because it was so funny and felicitous. To be frank, I plagiarized Jack’s humor and the way he relished interesting historical detail long before I ever set eyes on the man.

When I use Jack’s chapter on early American homes in class, my students’ mouths fall open, appalled that an entire family might live in a single ten-by-fourteen-foot house and sleep within a few inches of one another. They are likewise fascinated by early Americans’ lack of underwear. But the very best is his description of personal hygiene, drying babies’ diapers by the fire, and “chamber lye.” I have Jack’s words on this topic memorized, because they’re so effective: “Early Americans lived in a world of dirt, insects, and pungent smells,” I say to my classes, lifting directly from Chapter 4. “Men’s and women’s working clothes were stiff with dirt and dried sweat, and men’s shirts were stained with yellow rivulets of tobacco juice.” And then I describe the potent smell of concentrated urine—the above-mentioned “chamber lye”—that early Americans used as a powerful cleaner. “Eeeuuww!” they respond, and we are all delighted.

I sometimes hear later that they have reported this news to their parents, or that these descriptions made for a memorable conversation at Thanksgiving dinner.

After years of pretending to my classes that his words were my own, I got the chance to meet Jack when we both arrived at the American Antiquarian Society in July 2011 to take up year-long fellowships, and to inhabit offices across the hall from one another deep in the bowels of the building. I confessed my plagiarism and told him how much my students love this material, only to have him very kindly assure me that this is precisely how one ought to use it.

For twelve months, those of us in residence got to know him—especially over our daily brown-bag lunches. We heard about his new research discoveries as he found more material on David Claypoole Johnston, the early nineteenth-century engraver and social satirist whose life and work Jack examined while at the AAS. We heard even more about his beloved family, about his childhood in working-class Chicago (indeed, he still had a good layer of Chicago and Midwestern tones in his accent, despite having left as that city as an eighteen-year-old to attend college), and how he fell in love with social history as a grad student at Brandeis. He loved to make fun of himself, so we heard about his klutziness, particularly after he came in one day with an alarmingly large bandage on his forehead.

In these conversations he was quintessentially Jack: always delighted by the world and interested in other people, always impossibly modest about himself, always eager to meet the AAS’s newest fellows and hear about their research. You can’t come away from those conversations without the impression that he found something to laugh about every single day.

In the past few days since his death as I’ve read about his life and career, I’ve spent a goodly amount of time at the Old Sturbridge Village website—particularly in its “Kids Zone” section, where they feature a column called “Ask Jack.” Decorated with an animated cartoon of Jack’s face, which sometimes moves a little bit to grin or wink at us, this column features questions from real children who want to know more about history.

“How often did people take baths in the 1830s?” one child asks.

“Almost never!” Jack replies.

“Did kids in the 1830s make snowmen like we do?” Another asks. In response, Jack confesses that he didn’t initially know the answer to this question—but retraces the steps he took through books in the research library to find out. “They did, but they called them ‘snow statues,’” he explains, and goes on to describe how different they looked all those years before the codification of the Frosty model of the corncob pipe and button nose.

“Ask Jack” is, in short, utterly delightful.

I have one set of memories of Jack’s voice, beyond my long reliance on his writing, all our lunchtime conversations, and the delightful kid-oriented Q&A of “Ask Jack.” These come from our many hours back in the quiet corner where our offices stood next to each other—an area so quiet, in fact, that I often failed to hear Jack come up to my open door and pop his head in. And he was just enough hard of hearing to misjudge the sound level of his voice.

“Hi, Carolyn!” he would bellow, and I would jump out of my seat at the sudden noise.

And then we would both laugh at our own foolishness. Oh, how I miss Jack already, with that laugh, that love of life and the people in it, and that voracious appetite for learning new things. My sole consolation is that now, when I plagiarize his voice from his writings to get that visceral reaction from my students, I’ll do so with a vivid memory of his real voice and the charisma of the man. He’s gone too soon.


February 14, 2013

Postal Regulations and the Press in Franklin’s Day and Ours

I read this morning at Jim Romenesko’s blog about the travails of the New Hampshire Gazette, which styles itself The Nation’s Oldest Newspaper, after a change last month in postal regulations. The descendant of the newspaper of that name founded by Daniel Fowle in 1756 (and now run by a distant cousin), the Gazette is a free bi-weekly newspaper based in Portsmouth, and has long relied on the U.S. Postal Service to circulate copies to subscribers—I’ll let you click over to Romenesko to read the details.

In announcing its troubles, the New Hampshire Gazette wrote that its staff “can only imagine what Benjamin Franklin, the newspaperman who founded the Post Office, would think of this.” Fortunately, I can answer that question: their trouble is pretty much the same reason that Franklin ended up involved with the post office in the first place.

As a young newspaper printer trying to break into the Philadelphia market with his Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin posed a challenge to the leading printer in town, Andrew Bradford, who published the American Weekly Mercury. Bradford, who was also the Philadelphia postmaster, found a way to thwart Franklin’s ambitions by forbidding him from mailing newspapers to subscribers via the post. The ambitious Franklin seized the advantage as soon as it offered itself, as he related later in his Autobiography:

In 1737, Col. Spotswood, late Governor of Virginia, and then Post-master, General, being dissatisfied with the Conduct of his Deputy at Philadelphia, respecting some Negligence in rendering, and Inexactitude of his Accounts, took from him the Commision and offered it to me. I accepted it readily, and found it of great Advantage; for tho’ the Salary was small, it facilitated the Corespondence that improv’d my Newspaper, encreas’d the Number demanded, as well as the Advertisements to be inserted, so that it came to afford me a very considerable Income. My old Competitor’s Newspaper declin’d proportionably, and I was satisfy’d without retaliating his Refusal, while Postmaster, to permit my Papers being carried by the Riders.

The postmaster position helped make Franklin’s career by giving him access to news circulating the colonies and providing him with the ability to add patronage appointments for his growing network of printing associates. A decade and a half later, Franklin angled himself into position to become Deputy Postmaster General for North America, a position he held from 1753 to 1774, and then of course served briefly as the first Continental Postmaster General (he didn’t actually “found” the Post Office, but that’s not important).

In other words, New Hampshire Gazette, Franklin (and many other eighteenth-century printers) knew your pain.


January 11, 2013

The Value of Studying Politics in Context

Several years ago, the student conservative publication on the campus of a friend published a screed against newfangled history, decrying the rise of courses that focused on race, class, and gender, and bemoaning the lack of courses on serious subjects such as politics and economics. The publication singled out for praise a course taught by that friend on American business history. I chuckled when I read the article because the course in question focused heavily on—you guessed it—issues of race, gender, and class in American business. There’s only so much one can learn by reading course titles.

That story came to mind today as I read from a Facebook friend that the National Association of Scholars (and its affiliate group, the Texas Association of scholars), were releasing a report on Texas public universities that claims that the American history taught at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University contains too much social and cultural history (with “race, class, and gender,” or “RCG” as their stand-ins) and not enough political, economic, or diplomatic history.

Several people, including me, posted the report and discussed it on Twitter yesterday afternoon with a fair bit of derision and snark, pointing out, for instance, that the report flagged as objectionable The Minutemen and Their World, Robert A. Gross’s classic study of Concord in 1775, and Liberty and Power, a book whose subtitle is The Politics of Jacksonian America. Using syllabi, as many have argued, is an imperfect measure of what happens in a classroom; I offered as an example that my students listen to the Gettysburg Address in class rather than reading it at home.

That’s all well and good, and self-satisfying to boot. But for a moment indulge me in taking the report seriously to see whether those of us who practice political history in a way that attends carefully to society and culture can learn anything about how we pitch our work.

First, take a look at the report’s ten recommendations (pp. 47-49 of the report). At the topline, they are completely and utterly unobjectionable (in part because they are so vague):

  1. Review the Curriculum.
  2. If Necessary, Convene an External Review.
  3. Hire Faculty Members with a Broader Range of Research Interests.
  4. Keep Broad Courses Broad.
  5. Identify Essential Reading.
  6. Design Better Courses.
  7. Diversify Graduate Programs.
  8. Evaluate Conformity with Laws.
  9. Publish Better Books.
  10. Depoliticize History.

See? Nothing objectionable, except insofar as faculty around the United States are already doing nearly all of those things. We all worked to improve our courses, to “identify essential reading,” to address broad questions in survey courses, and so on. Nearly all of us try to publish better books, and our departments conduct frequent curricular reviews (my own department is in the midst of one this year). The problem, of course, is that a conservative organization such as NAS sees the outcomes of those efforts as fundamentally different from many academics.

To understand how, I want to talk more about the tenth recommendation. Here’s the full text after the brief nugget:

The root of the problem is that colleges and universities have drifted from their main mission. They and particular programs within them, increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry. When universities and university programs consider it necessary to atone for, and help erase, oppressions of the past; one way in which they do so is by depicting history as primarily a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice. This pedagogical conception may be well-intended, but it is also a limited and partisan one, and history teaching should not allow itself to become imprisoned within a narrow interpretation. A depoliticized history would provide a comprehensive interpretation of American history that does not shortchange students by denying them exposure to intellectual, political, religious, diplomatic, military, and economic historical themes.

The dominance of race, class, and gender themes in history curricula came about through disciplinary mission creep. Historians and professors of United States history should return to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.

The last sentence is the crucial one. The conservative impulse, as Jeremi Suri noted, is to teach “a simple and one-sided history of just a few people.” I attended a seminar this summer in which someone argued that you simply needed to “give students the documents” and they would be able to understand their meaning, and another person argued with me that I should be teaching the “enduring meaning” of the Constitution. (My response was that the Constitution hadn’t endured in 1787 when it was written, its drafters were in fact incredibly nervous about whether it would endure, and that the Civil War poked a rather gaping hole in the suggestion that that 1787 Constitution was fine as is.)

Teaching history that way, however, does an enormous disservice to students. As a political historian, I agree that teaching political history is important, and I emphasize it in my own survey course (my analogy to Texas is a state law here requiring instruction in both the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions). I believe, as I’ve argued here before, that civic education is an important function of American history courses. Understanding the political history of the United States better, including comprehending just what documents such as the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation meant to various groups, can only help modern political discourse. But I don’t want to pass on a simple story to my students, in no small measure because there is no simple story. In fact, I would argue, college history is not about answers, as NAS wishes, but about asking useful questions. I want, and I think many of my colleagues, to empower students to engage with the fullness of the past, to understand how debates in Philadelphia in 1787, in Congress in January 1865, at Versailles in 1919—choose your example from the standard narrative of political, diplomatic, and economic history—shaped and were shaped by social and cultural forces out of doors.

To address NAS on its own terms, one of its benchmarks for proper reading assignments is the National Archives list of 100 Milestone Documents. Go take a look and figure out how many of those documents one can discuss without any reference to race, class, or gender, NAS’s menacing troika. Maybe the Lend-Lease Act? The Manhattan Project’s notebook? Of course I’m not a twentieth-century specialist so I could be wrong about those. My point is that the political history that NAS and like-minded organizations promote looks desiccated and inadequate without any consideration of the important knowledge we’ve gained and the questions it allows us to ask over the past few decades. For a sample of that, I would just offhand recommend Benjamin Irvin’s book, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty, which recasts the political symbols that Congress promoted to develop American nationalism through an analysis of gendered language, or class implications. It’s a good example of what I aspire to (still working on the book manuscript…) in terms of integrating new questions about culture into an older narrative about American politics.

A conversation about teaching and practicing political history is useful, but the solution is not to ignore the best contributions of social and cultural history by winding back the clock and pretending that those questions don’t exist and don’t matter. And it’s the responsibility of political historians who see value in that process to engage those interested in old-fashioned politics and convince them that those questions do matter.


For more coverage, see:

“UT, A&M shortchanging students on American history, report says” (Austin Statesman, Jan. 9, 2013)

NAS press release: “Colleges Twist U.S. History”

Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History? (PDF)


December 14, 2012

Understanding the Uses of the Past

I haven’t yet mentioned the new early Americanist blog in town, The Junto, so I would encourage you to head over there and check it out. As Ben Park wrote in the opening post on Monday:

Staffed by a host of junior academics studying a broad range of topics—our brief bios are found at the end of the post, and more details are found on each individual author’s page—we aim to provide frequent content related to the academic study of America prior(ish) to the Civil War. But more than just serving as a sounding board for our authors and a clearinghouse for various news, events, and calls for papers, we hope that The Junto will become a vibrant community for the field of early American studies.

I am one of those signed on to write for the blog, and I look forward to being part of that conversation, but you will still be able to find me here.

In that spirit, I want to pick up on a conversation that Ken Owen began there yesterday with a post on Herman Husband and historical imagination. In that post, Ken suggested that using figures such as Husband as a counter to Founders Chic does a disservice to history by reinforcing the notion of history as the realm of “Great Men,” even as we try to find different (and, as Ken notes, less conservative) figures to describe.

Part of the discussion in the comments has led me to think more deeply about historical memory as the key to creating a better sense for students (and by extension the public) of how to make a useable past. To expand on that here, I’d like to ironically return to the Founding Father among the Founding Fathers, George Washington. As loyal readers may know, today (December 14) is the anniversary of Washington’s death in 1799, an event that precipitated broad mourning across the young nation and launched a cottage industry of merchandising. The most important of those efforts may have been Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, published in several editions in the early 1800s by the noted itinerant book salesman.

I bring up Weems because I’ve been using his chapter on Washington’s death in my survey course to have precisely the kind of discussion about the uses of history that Ken points to. If you’ve never read it, it’s near comical in its maudlin description of the deathbed scene:

Sons and daughters of Columbia, gather yourselves together around the bed of your expiring father– around the last bed of him to whom under God you and your children owe many of the best blessings of this life. When Joseph the prime minister of Egypt heard that his shepherd father was sick, he hastened up, to see him; and fell on his face, and kissed him, and wept a long while. But Joseph had never received such services from Jacob as you have received from Washington. But we call you not to weep for Washington. We ask you not to view those eyes, now sunk hollow, which formerly darted their lightning flashes against your enemies–nor to feel that heart, now faintly laboring, which so often throbbed with more than mortal joys when he saw his young country- men charging like lions, upon the foes of liberty. No! we call you not to weep, but to rejoice. Washington, who so often conquered himself, is now about to conquer the last enemy.

Much of the discussion in the class period centered around how to use a document such as this to learn anything about Washington (it’s useful as biography for the things we can trust that he got from other sources, as the newspaper accounts of Congress’s mourning would have been broad public knowledge) and to learn about Weems and his goals (the deathbed scene with not a soul present, and surely no one who gave an exclusive interview to Weems). Through the discussion, I want to help my students understand not just the past but also how people attempt to use the past. In other words, as I mentioned in my comments to Ken, Al Young may have had the right approach to helping students understand the past as a process of historical memory. (Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy thwarted the class days devoted to Shoemaker and the Tea Party – so I can’t discuss the pairing of Hewes and Weems until April).

The important part, therefore, is not just to engage in mythbusting, which can be useful even if it’s not a complete process. As important, to my mind, is to encourage students not just to engage in historical thinking, but also to engage in thinking about the uses of history through an engagement with historical memory.


December 6, 2012

Student Reactions to Lincoln

As part of my U.S. History survey course, I offered students the opportunity to write a brief reflection of Lincoln. I was curious how they would respond, both because of the contours of the online debate about the movie’s portrayal of African-Americans, their role in emancipation, the process in Congress, and the depiction of Lincoln himself, and more importantly because my students are likely not as deeply engaged in the historians’ debates as many of us are. After seeing the responses, I thought it might be useful to share some of them (I asked each student’s permission and promised anonymity).

In general, the students who responded enjoyed the film and expressed an interest in learning more about the period (which is useful since we’re about to discuss the Civil War and Reconstruction in class). One went into the movie skeptical but found Spielberg’s framing alluring, noting that “I went into the movie figuring it would be quite boring, but I came out of the movie so interested I couldn’t help but recommend it to everyone.”

Everyone thought Daniel Day-Lewis did a fantastic job at portraying Lincoln (down to the voice), and unlike many historians, most of the students enjoyed the close focus on Lincoln himself. One, in fact, noted that she went in “afraid the movie was going to try to cover too many aspects of his presidency,” and was pleasantly surprised since she thought “the passing of this amendment was the most interesting part of his presidency.” Another offered a detailed analysis of Day-Lewis’s Lincoln:

I think what Spielberg really wanted to focus on was the character of Lincoln and I think Daniel Day Lewis delivered a very accurate portrayal of Lincoln. From what I saw in the movie, Lincoln seemed to be an optimist, as well as humorous and melancholy. You could see how much pressure and anxiety Lincoln suffered from; the pressure the be a father, a president and an all around good man. Something that really surprised me was Lincoln’s voice or what Lewis believed his voice would sound like. I figured that since Lincoln had so much weight on his shoulders he would carry those burdens in his voice and have a really deep, low, droned out kind of voice. But in the first line he delivered, he had a high pitched, soft voice. I think his voice was one of the many reasons he was such a loved president. When I was watching the scenes while he was giving speeches, his voice was kind of sweet and vulnerable which complimented his nature.

The same student had a strong reaction to previously conceived notions of “Honest Abe,” a trope that haunts studies of Lincoln. For this student, the film and Day-Lewis’s approach altered the meaning of the nickname:

One of the very few things I was taught about Lincoln was that he was given the nickname “Honest Abe” and I realize now that he didn’t have that nickname because he never lied, it was because he was so genuine. In an interview Daniel Day-Lewis described Abe as extremely “accessible” which was a dangerous quality to have as president during these times. Abe was the kind of man that wasn’t a puzzle to figure out, he carried his emotions on his face and in his words and had the courage not to wear a mask.

As many have noted, the film did not deal directly with the deep involvement of African-Americans in the emancipation movement. We’re covering that material this week and next in class, so for my students (who had already seen the film), it highlighted some of the racist aspects of the debate:

I didn’t realize how prejudiced the country actually was during this time in history. Of course I have sat through countless history classes learning about slavery, but seeing the lack of support Americans were willing to give to the idea of African Americans being free in their own country shocked me. Lincoln never gave up which is what makes him such a respected president even to this very day. His hard work paid off when the Thirteenth Amendment passed, but his bitter assassination shortly after proved that not all Americans approved.

And another:

As awful as it seems in the context of today, the blatant racism seems like it was portrayed accurately. Some whites truly felt superior to African-Americans. The constant use of biblical references claiming that God made whites superior showed how deeply engrained this belief was. However, there were some people who disagreed with such a belief who stood up for African-Americans when they really could not stand up for themselves and passed the thirteenth amendment.

The exclusion of African-Americans has spawned many a blog post, but I personally found the depiction of Thaddeus Stevens fascinating, as did a student, who seems inspired to go out and learn more (I may have a few reading recommendations…):

Thaddeus Stevens (as played by Tommy Lee Jones) was a great character as well in this movie and he enlightened me to the role of the 19th century Republican party in the abolitionist movement.  I had known very little about Thaddeus Stevens beforehand but I was most surprised to find out how vehemently opposed he was to slavery and that Lincoln actually had to ask him to “tone it down” as it were.

On the other hand, the film’s focus on Congressional debates left the climactic scene flat for one student.

The only time I was happy to be staring straight up at the screen in the second row of the theatre was during this scene because it felt like I was sitting in the court room. But I wasn’t as moved and riveted by this scene as I had anticipated. (Maybe because my dad leaned over and whispered, “Oh boy, I wonder what’s going to happen.”) I wish that they made that moment more captivating because it was a defining moment in history and it was a completely unexpected outcome.

In one small way, perhaps this is a residual effect of the decision to make the movie about Congress with the broader emancipation movement deep in the shadows.

Aside from the core of the film’s discussion of the Thirteenth Amendment, students picked up on scenes and moments with meaning for them that historians have not focused on particularly. One student, a veteran, was particularly struck by the reaction of the audience to the few scenes of fighting:

One thing that really stuck in my mind was the scene where Lincoln was touring the aftermath of the Battle of Petersburg. President Lincoln was riding on horseback through the battlefield looking at all the fallen soldiers. But the thing I can’t get out of my mind is the reaction from the audience. There were gasps as if this was something new to these people. I couldn’t help but thinking that this all still goes on everyday and these people don’t even care that the the month this movie came out 13 members of the armed services were killed in Afghanistan.

I may share my own thoughts on the film in the days to come. In the meantime, I’ve at a minimum found the film a good opportunity for students to think about and discuss presentations of the past in popular culture, and I hope having some students voices out in the blogosphere can help enlighten the discussion about the film’s historical arguments.

Next Page »

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