Following E. P. Thompson’s work on the British working class in the 1960s historians of what we usually call the “new social history” have attempted to produce history that would not rest on texts authored by elites, but on other forms of evidence culled from the archive. Recently I have been preoccupied with the question if that is something intellectual historians should attempt as well. And if they do would it still be intellectual history?
Over the last several years there have been numerous discussions, panels, articles, and other commentary about the “new history of capitalism.” Books such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told, and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams have been on everyone’s radar as a fresh new historiographical tradition. While I have learned much from these books, one of the most unfortunate aspects of this so-called “new” history is that it views itself as new and novel rather than rooted in a long tradition of black radical thought. (Walter Johnson is less guilty of this than Beckert and Baptist). And for the most part we historians have embraced this historiography at face value as new.
Another historiographical tradition that has its roots in black radical thought has emerged over the last several decades much more quietly—perhaps because it refused to claim its novelty. Often grounding itself much more explicitly—and in my opinion thoughtfully—with this powerful intellectual tradition, the recent history of race as a social and cultural construction has changed the way we think about race. In hindsight it now seems to me that 2016 was the year in which the intellectual history of racial constructions reached new heights with three truly ground-breaking works of intellectual history: Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation by Nicholas Guyatt, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution by Robert Parkinson, and, of course, the National Book Award winner, the magisterial Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi.
I’m no historian of the Christian Reformation and just barely squeeze in as an early modernist (for the most part my research covers the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century), but have developed over the years an avid interest in the history of Protestantism. I’m even thinking about antebellum religious history as my next research project—after I will hopefully publish a book on the cultural history of white men in early America. So, in that dubious capacity of someone who considers himself knowledgeable—though far from a specialist—about the Reformation and its legacy, I would like to defend what had originally gotten me interested in the Reformation: the Weber thesis.
In two recent conferences I attended there seemed to be some hostility towards Max Weber’s famous thesis about the affinity between Protestantism and capitalism by scholars of early Protestantism. I first noticed this at the recent S-USIH conference in the panel “Whither Puritanism? Reflections on the State of the Field.” In that panel the eminent scholar of early American Christianity, David Hall, seemed to challenge the notion that the Weber thesis retained much of its interpretive force. I perceived this “tightness” once more at the last AHA conference in Denver in a panel titled “Whither Reformation History: A Roundtable Discussion on the 500th Anniversary.” There, to my astonishment, none of the panelists even alluded to the heritage of predestination, let alone Weber. Once I forced the issue in the Q-and-A portion there was an odd reaction from the panelists, as well as the crowd, that seemed to regard Weber and predestination more broadly as a heavy-handed and outdated way to approach the history of the period.
It is easy to underestimate the significance of James Fenimore Cooper for American literature and American imagination more broadly. To the modern reader his prose appears tedious, his characters shallow, and his plots formulaic. Even when compared with contemporaries he at times appears as a clumsy curiosity: he lacked the wit of Washington Irving or the psychological penetration of Charles Brockden Brown. He did, however, demonstrate an uncanny ability to cater to the sensibilities of an American audience thirsty for cathartic formulas that could elevate the American settler-colonial project to the realm of the mythological—despite festering moral equivocations. Indeed, in many ways Cooper pioneered the themes later taken up not only by Emerson and Whitman, but also by more critical authors such as Melville, Twain, and Faulkner.
To those who might not know, I lived most of my life in Israel/Palestine. Thus I am quite familiar with how a seemingly marginal site of conflict can become worldwide news. I have also often had to explain this dynamic to people, both in the US and Israel/Palestine and elaborate why I do not buy the all-too-easy anti-Semitism argument—that a ubiquitous hatred for Jews leads the world to scrutinize the Jewish state far beyond the attention it really warrants. The answer once you think about is quite simple: context. To understand why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict attracts more attention than many other larger or more bloody conflicts we need to appreciate its symbolism; the “work” that it does for people still engaged with the struggle over colonialism and its heritage. It has become a flashpoint for the billions still reeling from or still under colonialism, on the one hand, and for the hundreds of millions attempting to legitimize their positions of power in the West, on the other hand. It’s not only that many in the West cultivate an affinity to Israel as a settler-colonial society, and many who oppose colonialism share strong affinities with Palestinians, it is also that Israel/Palestine is in some ways a well-worn issue for which the two sides have dug deep trenches and find it compelling for symbolic reasons to take to these trenches every time the opportunity arises. And of course that three different religions find the land itself sacred adds much fuel to the fire.
Searching for a fitting post for this surreal week, which will see Donald Trump’s inauguration, I stumbled upon an oft neglected Walt Whitman poem that seems to capture the carnivalesque spectacle we will behold over the next four years. Unlike Bakhtin’s carnivalesque however, this episode will most likely not prompt a challenge to the powers that be, but will rather help retrench and revanche longstanding power structures in American society.
Quite fittingly perhaps, Whitman released this poem, first entitled “Poem of the Proposition of Nakedness,” in 1856 for the second edition of Leaves of Grass, as his beloved nation was disintegrating before his eyes. This was the year that saw the election of James Buchanan, widely thought of as one of the worst presidents in the country’s history. It was also the year of Senator Charles Sumner’s infamous caning and of bloody clashes in Kansas between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces over the future of the West.
I would like to say a few words in memory of the late Joyce Appleby, a giant in our field of United States intellectual history. One of the great masters of the essay format, Appleby was at her best articulating compelling and pithy interventions in the historiography. What other scholars needed a book for, she could deliver in a tightly written, yet subtly argued, essay. Most famously, she pushed back against the republican synthesis historians (sometimes also known as neo-whig historians) and reclaimed a place for liberalism in the intellectual history of early America. Thus, Appleby’s work is indispensable to the way we currently view the composite ideologies of the revolutionary and early republic periods. In some ways Appleby’s polemic was so convincing and integrative that we no longer know what to argue about in early American intellectual history.
One of the most powerful insights Edmund Morgan offered us over his long and illustrious career was that Bacon’s Rebellion, its context, and its aftermath provide an early roadmap for the history of race relations and its intersection with class politics in American history.(1) Unfolding a story of opportunities lost, Morgan suggested that Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 marked a turning point in the history of slavery in Virginia and the southern colonies more broadly.
Up till then slavery was not yet the central institution it would later be, as both indentured servants and slaves formed the underclass of early Virginia. In the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, instead of forming a cross-racial alliance that would challenge the rule of the gentlemen class, white men struck a faustian bargain across class lines on the backs of black folks, defining freedom as a white person’s privilege and slavery as the default status of people of African descent. Thus slavery became the favored labor regime in the south, indentured servitude dwindled, and blackness and whiteness became entrenched in law and custom.
In last week’s post I suggested that—especially as intellectual historians—we prioritize the content of Trump’s campaign rhetoric over culling statistical data as a means of understanding Trumpism. Of course there is need for both, but it seems that pundits have become far too reliant on quantitative data and to a large degree regard the vocabulary of Trumpism as mere epiphenomena. I also argued that the only class related orientation that seems to hold water with regard to Trumpism is that most of his followers identify themselves in opposition to the construct of liberal coastal elites. In other words, they view themselves as representatives of the common American man—the sympathetic little guy for which America supposedly stands (as will be made clear, they view that ideal type as male and white). In this post I will examine the meaning of the signature slogan of Trump’s campaign, “Make America Great Again,” by locating it in the long history of American nationalism.
It is not surprising that the slogan “Make America Great Again” elicits the most enthusiastic responses from white men who do not view themselves as part of the country’s refined elites: it is an appeal to reclaim something real that was lost over these last few decades. White men have lost their ability to traverse the American landscape with impunity as though it was their amusement park. Worse yet, the coastal elites want to clamp down ever further on their “freedoms”: from shaming them for telling sexist and racist jokes, to forcing them to drive with seat belts, to the prospect of taking away their guns.
What makes the slogan so compelling is that it targets that exact pool of supporters without overtly brandishing itself as the motto of the white common man, and it promises them to reclaim that lost condition without clearly articulating it. Nevertheless, it invokes American nationalism as it was designed to be from quite early on. This nationalist tradition dates back about 200 years to the War of 1812, when common white men launched a nationalist persuasion in their own image and usurped the older colonial and revolutionary commitment to urbane and refined gentility of the country’s patrician elites. In the process, they forged a nationalist ideology that championed democracy and freedom, yet held oppressive consequences for those who did not enjoy the quintessential American bounties of whiteness and manhood. That is how freedom and oppression became different sides of the same American coin.
Many opinion pieces have tried to account for the success of Donald Trump and interpret its causes and origins, and many more are surely to come. Mining polling and other statistical data for explanations has become the chief avenue for these inquiries. Indeed, interrogating these data for understanding Trumpism has become something of a national obsession—even before the elections. These kinds of analyses seem to assume that statistical data might reveal the more fundamental impulses lying underneath the noise generated by Trumpism.
To be sure, they usually imply, we will find in the Trump camp the usual suspects that we all expect—resentful white men, that is—but something else must account for this phenomenon as well. In this vein, of complicating the simplistic race and gender narrative in the wake of the elections, we have heard for example that more than half of white women voted for Trump and a bit more than a quarter of what we call the ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic’ vote, did so as well, apparently. We also have heard, way too much in my opinion, about the white working class.