I’m speechless. Because nothing says “Founding Fathers” chic like fabric depicting them in A & F skin-revealing poses.
And according to Urban Dictionary, the blog title might actually be appropriate.
I’m speechless. Because nothing says “Founding Fathers” chic like fabric depicting them in A & F skin-revealing poses.
And according to Urban Dictionary, the blog title might actually be appropriate.
As someone who was influenced significantly by the republicanism school, it was useful to see younger scholars identify where its successor (the New Political History) and even newer scholarship (NNPH) have been successful and where there is still work remaining.
Members of The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History plan to begin posting on December 10 (Updated: The blog’s first post). Their focus appears to be appealing both to general and academic audiences on early American history topics, although the definition of “early America” seems vague, perhaps purposely.
Contributors, many of whom are twitterstorians and bloggers, include:
I think this blog is a great idea, and I wish them all the best.
There are times when academic conversations surprise me. The ongoing one on H-SHEAR about the reliability of the Early Republic census is one of those pleasant surprises. SHEARites have offered numerous examples of census inaccuracies and suggested several scholarly sources that discuss this issue. Whether you are interested in political history or community history, this conversation will be useful. After you read the original query by Shelby Balik, go to Nicholas Cox’s post and move forward through the thread of replies.
I think Michael Gagnon summed up the best approach to take to the census:
The census is a best guess, not a scientific study. Don’t expect a
scientific outcome from using data that is collected without systematic
controls. Census data is useful and instructive, but not “true” in the
way social scientists want to use it. As others have noted, it cannot be
reproduced nor systematically verified. Verifications efforts always
demonstrate irregular collection and collation. It is untrustworthy if
you want to crunch numbers and claim either predictive abilities or
accuracy. As a general guideline, the census is not a bad source as long
as you understand the limits under which it was collected.
My students will probably think I’m lying, but I actually didn’t like or even follow outlines until I was in grad school. I thought they stifled my creativity and the organic development of my writing. In actuality, I set myself up for failure as a writer, something I learned the hard way in my master’s program. Now, I am a firm believer that tackling longer projects, such as a thesis or a dissertation, requires an outline of some sort.
For the Jackson biography, I sketched a chapter-by-chapter outline identifying the main subjects of each chapter. I also broke down each chapter into smaller components.
This first outline is the one that I submitted as part of my book proposal to LSU Press:
This second outline is the one that I used for the first two chapters:
I. Chapter 1: “Gentleman”
A. Jackson’s childhood
1. Encounters with Native Americans
3. Influence of mother
4. Loss of family
5. Hatred of British
B. Jackson’s teenage years
1. Urban setting
2. Social interactions
3. Social network
C. Jackson’s early adulthood
1. Study of law
2. Purchase of slave
II. Chapter 2: “Speculator”
A. Move to East Tennessee
1. Feud with Sevier
B. Move to Nashville
1. Land speculation
2. Business interests
3. Romance with RJ
C. Public life
1. Militia membership
2. Social network
3. Judicial appointment
4. Political appointment
As I’ll show in a future post, the submitted book manuscript looks similar to these outlines, but there were substantial differences by the time I finished. More changes are likely to occur before the book is published.
Part 4 of the series is here.
One day, when I have the time and the money to do the research, I would like to write a biography of Paul Morphy (1837-1884), the greatest American chess player of the nineteenth century. He was the Bobby Fischer of his era, a natural talent without the extreme paranoia and anti-Semitic rants.
Born in New Orleans, Morphy was a prodigy. He learned by watching members of his family play and was able to defeat a world-class player, Hungarian Johann Löwenthal, at the age of twelve.
Morphy’s career lasted only a few years, with the peak of his play concentrated between 1855-1859. During that time, he traveled to New York, defeating German master Louis Paulsen, then on to Europe, where he defeated another German master, Adolf Anderssen, recognized as the best player in the world at that time.
Morphy eventually abandoned serious chess competition, believing that it was a frivolous activity given the circumstances facing the nation.
So, why would writing his biography interest me? I learned to play chess in the sixth grade and have sporadically played it competitively since my teens. While my chess rating* is unimpressive, I love the history of the game, especially in the United States. Morphy’s life offers an interesting way to examine sectionalism, southern masculinity, and popular culture in the mid-19th century U.S.
For more information about Morphy, consult back issues of Chess Life, the official magazine of the United States Chess Federation, and David Lawson’s Paul Morphy: Pride and Sorrow of Chess, recently revised and updated by historian Thomas Aiello. Normally, I wouldn’t suggest an online source such as this Yahoo Groups thread, but one of the users appears to know quite a bit about Morphy’s non-chess background, so it’s worth a look. Also, Jay Whitehead is doing exhaustive research on the nineteenth century history of the game.
*A chess rating is a quantitative measurement of one’s playing strength. (Don’t ask me to explain the formula–you can see it yourself here.) My OTB (over the board) rating, which is for normal tournaments where players meet face-to-face, is in the 1400s, while my correspondence rating, which covers tournaments played via postal mail or e-mail, is around 2000. There’s a substantial difference between my two ratings, which comes down to not playing OTB frequently enough to get used to the physical nuances of sitting at a board for extended periods of time. Believe it or not, playing chess can be physically exhausting because of the need to concentrate deeply for so long; controlling one’s emotions and adrenaline is also tiring. Correspondence chess allows one to spend more time examining a move (usually an average of three days per move) and also has the advantage of letting a player use databases and print resources to find the best move.
UPDATE: Coincidentally, Andy Hall at Dead Confederates also posted about Clyde Wilson and the Abbeville Institute yesterday.
As I was writing the chapter on the 1832-33 nullification crisis recently, I came across a reminder that I had written to myself to read W. Kirk Wood’s article, “In Defense of the Republic: John C. Calhoun and State Interposition in South Carolina, 1776-1833.”  Wood is/was a professor of history at Alabama State University and the author of Nullification, A Constitutional History, 1776-1833, 3 vols. (University Press of America, 2008, 2009, forthcoming).  Wood’s work on nullification has been praised by Clyde Wilson, formerly a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and editor of the Papers of John C. Calhoun.
Wood locates nullification within classical republicanism in the Early Republic and argues that Calhoun saw nullification, or “state interposition,” as he preferred, as “a conservative principle aimed at preserving the sacred division of powers in the Constitution itself” (23). This viewpoint echoes that of historians Pauline Maier and J. William Harris, among others.
What struck me about this article was the next-to-last paragraph and two footnotes:
Why we believe otherwise, in Nullification’s unconstitutionality, . . . has to do with the emergence of a new national history that accompanied the transformation of the republic between 1815 and 1860. In effect, as the North became liberalized, democratized, and nationalized during the Middle Period, its spokespersons and writers literally reinterpreted the past to make the founders and framers of the republic more democratic, egalitarian, nationalistic, and anti-slavery then [sic] they really were (26).
In his footnote to this paragraph, Wood adds that
the twin myths of democracy (of America being born liberal, democratic, and modern) and a reactionary South . . . were developed before 1860 by Northern writers seeking to legitimize their own revolutionary beliefs while de-legitimizing Southern thought. To do this, historians and others reinterpreted the early national era to be more democratic, egalitarian, nationalistic, capitalistic, and anti-slavery that [sic] it really was (45).
In the next footnote, Wood mentions “[t]he mischaracterization of the South as a ‘slaveocracy’ (by Federalists during the Missouri Compromise) and a Slave Power before the Civil War,” citing works by Eric Foner, Michael Morrison, Ed Ayers, and Linda Kerber (48).
If I’m reading Wood right, he is arguing: 1) northern historians prior to the Civil War produced scholarship (and I use that term recognizing that it doesn’t mean the same as what came later with von Ranke) that deliberately misconstrued the nation’s and the South’s political development; and 2) modern historians continue that tradition by demonizing the South as “a ‘slaveocracy'” and “a Slave Power,” which he believes is inaccurate.
The evidence in support of the antebellum South being a slaveocracy is overwhelming, in my estimation. Certainly, the South wasn’t just comprised of slave owners; in fact, most white southerners didn’t own even one slave. To deny that slavery’s defenders weren’t controlling southern political institutions, however, denies the reality of the institution’s economic, social, and political importance to the region.
Some Internet research turned up a possible explanation for Wood’s view of southern history. He is affiliated with the Abbeville Institute, which describes itself as “an association of scholars in higher education devoted to a critical study of what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition.” Its website notes that it
is not a Southern heritage preservation society, nor is it concerned merely with the history of the region. Its work is more philosophic in nature, namely to explore the metaphysical image of things human and divine to which the Southern tradition bears witness.
Despite this claim, in explaining why the institute was founded, the website states,
American society today is in the grip of an ideological culture war. During the last thirty years, colleges and universities have come to be dominated by the ideologies of multiculturalism and political correctness. The result is that the distinctly Southern interpretation of American history and identity is simply not taught. If the Southern tradition is mentioned at all, it is usually vilified as little more than a mask for racism. In ignoring or eliminating the Southern tradition, much that is good and noble in American life is rendered inexplicable; but perhaps more importantly one erases from memory a valuable intellectual and spiritual resource for exposing and correcting the errors of American modernity.
I would be interested to see what this “Southern tradition,” which contains “much that is good and noble in American life,” constitutes. If it includes a defense of nullification, though, you can count me out.
(1) Southern Studies 10 (Spring/Summer 2003): 9-48.
(2) It’s unclear if Prof. Wood is still at Alabama State. He is not listed in the university directory, so he may be retired.
While I’m on break this week, I’m posting two of the blog posts that generated the most interest.
Today’s post is one of the first posts I wrote for the blog. It addresses the Early Republic individuals who still need a scholarly or an updated biography written about them.
From 28 July 2010:
In a 1997 essay entitled “American Political Biography,” Robert V. Remini assessed the state of the field and found it wanting: “Old-fashioned political biographies of ‘dead white males’ that are ‘character-driven narratives’ seem to have little appeal for graduate students. . . . These biographies could be written by doctoral candidates and would add significantly to our understanding of the Jacksonian era” (150). Remini noted that there were several significant Jacksonian-era Tennessee politicians who still had not had book-length biographies written or whose biographies needed a modern treatment. The list included:
There are several other Jacksonian politicians who could be added to Remini’s list if it were expanded geographically and chronologically, including:
One politician who should have been on Remini’s list, but wasn’t, is Felix Grundy. J. Roderick Heller’s new biography of Grundy, Democracy’s Lawyer: Felix Grundy of the Old Southwest (2010), is an excellent overview of this important Tennessee and national politician. (My review of the biography will appear in the next issue of the Journal of East Tennessee History.)
Besides Grundy, other overlooked politicians who have received biographical treatment in recent years are:
Thirteen years later, Gordon Wood has echoed Remini’s criticism, if not explicitly, then implicitly. As he recently wrote,
[A]dvising academic historians that they have to write more stimulating prose if they want to enlarge their readership misses the point. It is not heavy and difficult prose that limits their readers; it is rather the subjects they choose to write about and their conception of their readership as fellow historians engaged in an accumulative science.
The problem at the present is that the monographs have become so numerous and so refined and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus the academics have generally left narrative history writing to the nonacademic historians who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists. If academic historians want popular narrative history that is solidly based on the monographic literature, then they will have to write it themselves.
I share Remini’s and Wood’s disappointment. There is still room for biography in the arena of Jacksonian politics, but very few historians seem interested. The biographies don’t have to focus solely on political and military events; in fact, they shouldn’t. Unfortunately, I suspect that many graduate students who might be interested in writing biographies as dissertations are discouraged by their advisors. I experienced this criticism from one of the department chairs who served while I was at Mississippi State; fortunately, my advisor was (and is) an excellent biographer and enthusiastically supported my work on Donelson. Hopefully, there are more advisors like my own who will be willing to train their graduate students in the art of writing biography.
Note: The Remini essay can be found in American Political History: Essays on the State of the Discipline, ed. John F. Marszalek and Wilson D. Miscamble (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1997), 143-152.
In a an editorial last month, Stanley Kutler criticized American political conservatives for misusing history for their own purposes:
Serious history, serious scholarship and serious discussion of facts and ideas are dismissed with tunnel vision. In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” Humpty Dumpty scornfully said “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.” When Alice protested, Humpty Dumpty replied that the issue was “which is to be master — that’s all.”
He took conservatives to task for a number of things. For example
[Dick] Armey now has given us a classic perversion of history. At a gathering to vent against President Barack Obama’s tax and health policies and alleged socialism, someone in the audience questioned how the movement could use the Federalist Papers, largely written by Alexander Hamilton, as any basis for its beliefs. After all, Hamilton, the questioner contended, was “widely regarded” as a strong nationalist, who advocated life terms for the president and senators, a strong national bank, protective tariffs, the assumption of state debts (to ensure their payment and thereby establish a creditable international standing), state governors appointed by the president, and the diminution of state authority to little more than an administrative role. That is History 101, of course, but a good question for those who insist on Hamilton as a patron saint of American “conservatism.”
Armey was incredulous, even contemptuous, and simply dismissed the questioner, as well as history. “Widely regarded by whom?” he asked suspiciously, and then answered his own question. “Today’s modern ill-informed political science professors … ? I just doubt that was the case, in fact, about Hamilton.”
Conservatives don’t have a stranglehold on misunderstanding history, but there’s a disturbing pattern developing. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) has been criticized for her recent take on slavery and the founders. [Comments begin at 9:00]. Her claim that the founders worked “tirelessly” to end slavery and her vision of a unified nation in which we were “all the same” regardless of skin color, class, etc., is simply wrong. (To her credit, she does get John Quincy Adams’ role in opposing slavery correct.)
In Tennessee, members of the Tea Party recently called on state legislators to make changes in the upcoming year. One of those changes focused on history: “Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.” What truth? you might ask. “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”
According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal,
Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.
“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at.”
I have to commend the Tennessee Tea Party for posting links to historical documents on its website and for encouraging members to read them. It needs a better spokesperson than Rounds, though, if it wants to make its case convincingly. Rounds claims to “teach the Constitution coast-to-coast for Tea Parties.” If so, then he needs to work on the presentation of his message, because it sounds like either he doesn’t believe that Washington, Madison, and Co. owned slaves (they did) or wanted to take Native American land (ditto) or that they shouldn’t be criticized for those things.
I’m used to having to interpret what my students wrote vs. what they actually meant to write, so let me take a stab at what Rounds was probably trying to say: Historians are determined to tear down the accomplishments of the founding fathers by emphasizing their negatives at the expense of celebrating their strengths. If my interpretation is correct, then it’s unfortunate that Rounds doesn’t understand what historians do.
These misrepresentations of history bother me as a scholar. The main responsibility of an historian is to analyze evidence objectively, then make an argument based on that analysis. If that means exposing the warts of a person or group, then so be it. That’s not political correctness–it’s accurate history. Call me naïve, but it seems that whatever our political leanings, we as Americans should want honesty from our public figures.
If you want another perspective on the Tennessee Tea Party issue, Gordon Belt has written a great post.