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October 10, 2008
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Common-place special political issue: current events and history collide

Worcester, MA— With a backdrop of the federal government’s bail-out of Wall Street and recent memories of contested elections, Common-place, the online history journal has created a special issue on politics which gives historical context to current events.

The emphasis of the special issue entitled Beyond the Valley of the Founders: Democracy in Early America, and After is two-fold: scholarly perspectives on political phenomena that connect the Early American Republic with the present, and articles that aim to expand readers’ definition of what counts as “political history” on the other, explains Jeffrey L. Pasley in his introductory essay.

Among the articles in Commonplace’s politics issue is “Great Questions of National Morality,” by Jonathan D. Sassi, a look at how one influential evangelical minister learned that Christianity could be even more powerful in a secularly governed nation.

Jim Cullen’s “The Wright Stuff” and Amy S. Greenberg’s, “The Politics of Martial Manhood,” describe the way racism and manhood worked in the presidential politics of the 1850s, and how distressingly little has changed in 150 years.

Reeve Huston’s article, “What We Talk About When We talk About Democracy,” considers the fundamentally different models of democracy that operated in different quarters of 19th-century American politics, differences as stark between the Obama and McCain campaigns as they were between the Workingmen’s parties and their antagonists during the 1830s.

Several groups of articles delve into areas of public life typically overlooked by a traditional political history dominated by election campaigns and presidencies.

Black churches are known as a political force in modern American politics but generally do not figure in political narratives of the slavery era. Richard Newman’s “Faith in the Ballot: Black Shadow Politics in the Antebellum North” shows how the political culture of electoral democracy filtered into African-American communities barred from formal participation in it, as free blacks voted within their churches.

Likewise, though we are all familiar with modern political battles over Supreme Court nominations, constitutionalism itself rarely registers as a political problem. Ray Raphael’s article, “Instructions: The People’s Voice in Revolutionary America,” delves back into one of the many other, more active forms of constitutionalism that existed earlier: local constituents who formally instructed their legislators.

In an article hosted at the Common-Place political blog, Publick Occurrences 2.0, legal historian Christian Fritz takes an even broader look at the almost-lost constitutional world of early America.

At the time this introduction was written, Pasley notes in his introduction, “the federal government had just bought 79.9 % of the world’s largest insurance company (not to mention its purchase of 100% of two of the largest secondary mortgage lenders in the world, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), as part of series of transactions that will effectively nationalize much of the U.S. financial industry in an effort to save the country from economic collapse.

Thus it seems more obvious than ever that historians and history readers ignore the role of government institutions at their peril,” Pasley concludes. “No matter how privatized basic public functions like shielding citizens from risk appears to be, it is government that has to take responsibility when the chips are down and basic stability is at stake.”

Richard R. John’s introduction to the section of articles on the history of the state, “Why Institutions Matter: Rewriting the History of the Early Republic,” explains the new institutionalism in historical writing on the early American republic.

The new institutionalists, John writes, “are more interested in how things worked than in what people believed and are skeptical of historical writing that ignores huge swatches of social reality in a quixotic quest for the authentic and the pure.”

The growing convergence between the new institutionalism and the large body of distinguished historical writing on social and cultural themes is underscored by Sean Adam’s essay, “The Tao of John Quincy Adams, or: The New Institutionalism and the Early American Republic.” Once derided as a hidebound elitist hopelessly out-of-step with the rising currents of a democratic age, John Quincy Adams has been lionized in recent years as a visionary statesman who, following a failed attempt as president to mobilize the federal government to promote the public good, harnessed the media to reframe the slavery issue as a struggle over civil liberties.

Sean Adams notes that key to John Quincy Adams’s success lay in his resolute mobilization of an institution—in this instance, the constitutionally mandated right to petition—to forge new links between the government and the governed.

Max Edling’s essay, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to the Bank We Go,” explains the enormous significance of nineteenth century public finance through the example of the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848. The two nations had relatively equal tax revenues, although Mexico’s large deficits weakened its ability to repel the American invasion over the Rio del Norte. Edling notes that the ability of the United States to double its territory at Mexico’s expense was a result of the nation’s success in creating a strong government based on strong public finances.

Gautham Rao’s essay, “Sailors’ Health and National Wealth: Marine Hospitals in the Early Republic” strikes a similar note in his case study of the establishment in the early republic of marine hospitals in ports large and small. Tangible reminders of the reach of the newly established federal government, the hospitals were funded not from general revenue, but rather from a tax on the mariners’ salaries. By providing thousands of Americans with high quality medical service, these institutions highlighted the vital role that the federal government had come to play in the provisioning of heath care.

The consequences of state building for the Indian tribes of North America are the theme of the essay by Jeffrey L. Pasley, “Midget on Horseback.”

From the Indians’ perspective, the early American state was a powerful institution indeed. Not only did the military force thousands of them to relocate, most notoriously during the administration of Andrew Jackson, it also built a vast network of roads through Indian territory that limited tribal autonomy while establishing a large and sprawling “welfare” state apparatus to educate Indians that devastated their culture.

“It is one of the many ironies of the social and cultural paradigm that its practitioners evinced great sympathy for the so-called victims of history,” Pasley writes, “without paying more than cursory attention to the very institutions that were responsible for their victimization.”

In his introduction, John concludes that, “Taken together, these essays show how historians are returning once again to the perennial questions of power, economics, and nationhood, questions that, with a few conspicuous exceptions, an earlier generation neglected…

It is a history in which the rise of the nation to world power is no longer foreordained, and in which its development becomes a chapter in a global history of modernity, rather than a unique event whose origins spring from a bewitching brew of social circumstances that in some mystical way set the United States apart from the rest of the world.”

Common-place’s Ask the Author discussion by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, authors of biographies of Aaron Burr and Washington Irving, demonstrates that you can’t understand the founders unless you understand state politics.

“The founders were not national figures who transcended state politics; rather they were attached to their states, and their rise to power came through the support they received in their states,” Isenberg notes. “Politics was never just about high-minded ideas but was also about newspapers, where harsh battles were waged on a daily basis.”

Isenberg adds, “Politics was the most alluring forum for literature in the post-Revolutionary era. Irving exemplifies the type who made his name by writing his way out of obscurity.”

Bridging the two missions of Common-place’s political issue are an innovative set of articles on the material culture of the American ballot. In her introduction to the section, “The Technology of Democracy: The Material History of the U.S. Ballot,” Caroline Sloat notes that each element of the ballot: paper, ink, mise-en-page (layout)—its authorship, publication, and reception—conveys a message about its origins, intentions, and meaning.

Patricia Crain’s “Potent Paper,” studies ballots for national, state, and local elections from across Massachusetts ranging from 1811 to 1888 when the party “ticket” was replaced by the secret ballot.

Lisa Gitelman’s “Voting Machines and the Voters They Represent,” moves the story forward into the era of the voting machine, in particular, the 1980s era VotoMatic, the patented alternative to the physical marking of a ballot with a pencil.

In “Black Work at the Polling Place: The Color Line in the County Election,” Laura Rigal reflects on a painting, George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election, created in response to an election lost by a narrow margin. Rigal’s reflections on the visual representation of the hot-button issues of a contested election and its subsequent recount collapse the distance between that election and those of our own day.

This was an issue that modern Americans rarely even considered before the epoch-making Florida chads and butterflies of the 2000 election, Sloat writes, “but it turns out to be one that cultural historians and literary scholars are uniquely suited to illuminate. The benefits of a broader political history were never more clear.”

Philip Lampi, a staff member at the American Antiquarian Society and a leading authority on early American elections, has been collecting early American election returns for more than four decades. Elections before 1828 were long considered the “Lost Atlantis” of American political history because there was no complete set of election returns to study. Lampi set out to map that lost continent, amassing his collection by hand, from old newspaper reports and local records.

AAS, the main sponsor of Common-place, also sponsors The New Nation Votes, a project that aims to make available to scholars and the public the life’s work of Lampi.

To honor Lampi’s work, further his larger project, and also take advantage of Common-Place’s online format, the Publick Occurrences 2.0 blog will run an open-ended series entitled “Myths of the Lost Atlantis.” The series will continue—with postings every few days—through late October at least.

Joining Pasley on the blog will be distinguished guest posters including Donald Ratcliffe, Rosemarie Zagarri, and Andrew Shankman, plus Robertson and Lampi themselves. Fellow Common-Place readers and historians are urged to join in by commenting on the blog or sending their own contributions to:

Finally, as Common-Place moves toward an upgrade of the site’s interactive features in 2009, each article in the special politics issue has a dedicated comments page on the blog, accessible through a link at the bottom of its page. Pasley will moderate these comments and facilitate dialogue between authors and readers. Screen names are allowed and all non-offensive, reasonably on-topic comments will be posted.

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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