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July 7, 2008
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Geography as important to history as history is to the Supreme Court

Worcester, MA— The important role geography plays in the study of history is a unifying thread in the current issue of Common-place, the online history journal, that also explores the importance of history to a recent, pivotal decision of the Supreme Court.

The historic decision in Boumediene v. Bush, concerns habeas corpus, writes H. Robert Baker in his article, “The Supreme Court Confronts History” in Talk of the Past. The question at issue was whether the government could strip federal courts of jurisdiction to entertain prisoners’ applications for habeas corpus.

Baker writes that Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion stakes out special ground for habeas corpus, “one of the few safeguards of liberty specified in a Constitution that, Kennedy notes, at the outset, had no Bill of Rights. “Which is why history matters so,” he notes. “Both Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion and Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent turn to the past to justify their interpretations of habeas corpus.

“That the Supreme Court has deployed Kennedy’s narrative to check congressional expansion of executive power in the midst of the Bush Administration’s ‘War on Terror’ is no small matter,” Baker concludes. “And a reminder of how much history matters.”

“If anything defines early American history today, it is its relentless geographical focus,” writes Trevor Burnard in his feature, “A Passion for Place.”

Burnard notes that “it is time to look at what other disciplines might have to offer us as we widen our historical horizons.

In “Monticello,” Jack Sexton, an Australian writer and historian, writes of his boyhood memories of the Jefferson memorial, although he has never been there. For Sexton and so many others, Monticello “has survived its clash with the real history of the place as I’ve come to know it. It is one of those vague and powerful notions that survive any contact with reality.”

James Kessenides’ “The Tropical Turn” uses a photographic exhibit of Southern California at the nation’s Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia to demonstrate the mythology and iconography that dominated impressions of the area. A tropical paradise of cactus, palm trees and orange groves was highlighted against the historical backdrop of the expropriation of land owned by the Spanish-speaking people born in California prior to its U.S. annexation and the subsequent subdivision of that land for commercial purposes.

In The Common Reading, Caroline Winterer’s “The Big Picture” notes that while the so-called East-West polarity dominates political discussions today, in the eighteenth century Europeans and Americans “discussed nonclassical Mediterranean civilizations without necessarily labeling them as strange, hostile, or exotic.”

Carthage, for example, fascinated eighteenth-century Americans, Winterer writes. “The popularity of Carthage had a lot to do with eighteenth-century Americans’ concerns about empire building and nation building.”

Writing in Tales from the Vault, Roger D. Abrahams’ “Mohawks, Mohocks, Hawkubites, Whatever” explains the reason that members of the Boston Tea Party disguised themselves as Indians and called themselves Mohawks hearkens to the legendary night scare figures called the Mohocks, who, in gangs, were purported to roam the streets of London early in the eighteenth century.

In Object Lessons, Stephanie Volmer’s “Seed Packets and Their Stories,” describes how the history of botanical collection is inseparable from the history of travel and exploration.

Botanical objects like seed packets “collapse the distance between the past and the present,” Volmer writes. “They illustrate the ways that the classificatory impulse was not only… to abstract and categorize the natural world in order to understand and dominate it, but was also connected to living objects and to curious, engaged individuals…”

In The Common School, Ted and Nancy Sizer’s article, “Beyond the Bubble” tackles the problem of adapting history to the confines of standardized testing. The Sizers, both educators who helped found The Francis W. Parker School in Devens, MA, note, “The subject of history is particularly harmed by the tests’ emphasis on endless individualized memory work…. an inherently fascinating enterprise, full of stories about heroes and villains, challenges met and squandered, is made dull by concentrating on the trees instead of the forest—let alone the ways in which the forest is changing over time.”

History teachers at the Parker School, the Sizers write, use role-playing to allow students to tackle “complex, factually diffuse topics.” The approach, they offer, “is a low-stakes way to build into the students their own ability to assess themselves. As the students grow comfortable with these new kinds of assignments, standardized tests can be devised from this more organic model of assessment.”

The current issue of Common-place also contains the following book reviews: Patricia Crain’s review of: A History of the Book in America: Volume 3: The Industrial Book, 1840-1880, by Scott E. Casper, Jeffrey D. Groves, Stephen W. Nissenbaum, and Michael Winship, Kathleen DuVal’s review of Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America, by Peter Silver; Elizabeth A. Fenn’s review of Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715, by Paul Kelton; Benjamin H. Irvin’s review of The King's Three Faces: The Rise & Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776, by Brendan McConville; Lloyd Pratt’s review of The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early New England, by Matthew P. Brown; and R. Daniel Wadhwani’s review of Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia, by Andrew M. Schocket.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Florida State University Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world. The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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