In the interest of expediency—due to the fact that I’m covering five chapters (252 pages)—this installment will follow a mechanical format. I’ll be concentrating on facts and highlights instead of constructing a review narrative with lots of reflection. I hope to resume that format next week. Continue reading
Benjamin E. Park is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. He studies the cultural, religious, and political history of America between the Revolution and the Civil War. This post originally appeared on his personal blog here.
Remember when we were all Atlanticists? Apparently we’ve moved on to something new already.
Whereas it used to be “trendy” to place early America’s history in a strictly Atlantic context—in which an emphasis is placed on the intersections between the United States, Europe, and, to a lesser extent, Africa—there has been an upswing in work recently that places the period into conversation with developments taking place in the non-United States nations of North and South America. Three books that came out this year exemplify this trend: Caitlin Fitz’s Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (Liverlight), James Alexander Dun’s Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press), and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (Norton). I hope to highlight each of these books soon—there’s always a hope!—but I wanted to point out a few particular elements of this methodological approach. Continue reading
The Fourth of July is, by happy circumstance, generally a good day for historical editors. Over barbecues and across beaches, from sea to shining sea, folks seem glad to talk about founding-era documents and—critically—the many drafts that manuscripts arise from. Huzzah for the archivists who salvaged the Declaration for its trip down the Delaware, we say, and for the librarians who align digital worlds to parse the Magna Carta next to the Bill of Rights. Setting the revolutionary drafts in global context is one route to the past. Another way to think about the Declaration is to focus on its local legacies, to continue my experiment in producing “small-batch” intellectual history.
For, months before that “memorable Epocha” of 2 4 July 1776, as Pauline Maier showed in American Scripture and in its appendix, many declarations of independence rippled through the colonies. To townspeople, the language of revolution must have seemed both old (English liberties to uphold) and new (popular sovereignty replacing monarchical rule). When they first spoke of an American revolution in print—before Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues drafted a document intended to serve as a “plain” and “common sense” argument that reflected an “expression of the American mind”—what did “we the people” declare? To the drafts! Continue reading
Embarking on a study of early American women’s intellectual history calls for a strong bibliographical base, and I’m using this post to learn your news and views of useful literature. Hopefully, we can refer to and build on Patrick S. O’Donnell’s excellent list of resources regarding “Women Intellectuals in the European Enlightenment,” published here. Since this nascent project has a public history feel—I’m interested in how women’s lives and intellectual contributions (ca. 1612-1891) are reflected in everything from standard scholarship to city statues and social crusades—I have listed select digital and archival resources for the first phase (1612-1848), below.
This is, of course, only a preliminary list. Paging all historians, librarians, editors, archivists, journalists, and history fans: Please add your recommendations in the comments.
This continues my post from last week which argued against the significance of the American Revolution. As I mentioned earlier, this essay is self-consciously polemical—so feel free to give me a hard time.
We often say that the modern period, the 19th and 20th centuries, witnessed fast paced changes that explain the rise of a new modern consciousness. However, for many Europeans and indeed many inhabitants of the widening Atlantic world the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were no less, if not more, turbulent times. They learned of new continents across the seas, encountered new peoples with diverse cultures, and imagined the world and even the cosmos anew. Many of them during this period radically changed their religion. Though most Europeans remained Christian, those who embraced Protestant Christianity viewed their relationship with god and their society on new terms. New sects and cults with radical ideas seemed to capture the imagination of millions. Others adopted foreign religions as their older traditions did not seem well adapted to the changed landscape they now inhabited. Some societies witnessed most of their brethren die, while others were violently kidnapped from their homelands and put to labor on the other side of the Atlantic.
Just about 240 years ago, on April 19, 1775, hostilities erupted in Massachusetts between British troops and colonial militia in what came to be known as the Battle of Lexington and Concord. This event traditionally marks the beginning of the American Revolution—though, as with much else, many historians have suggested other markers.(1) For instance, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s recent conference on the American Revolution, which marked the 250 year anniversary to the passage of the Stamp Act, suggests that 1765 stands out as a key moment as well. In that conference, which received significant attention from our colleagues at The Junto, historians came together to revitalize the historiography of the American Revolution. Indeed in the keynote delivered by Woody Holton he argued that the scholarship of the American Revolution has suffered from an “originality crisis.”
Though I did not attend the conference and cannot do full justice to its themes, I thought it would be a productive intellectual exercise to argue that, if anything, we have been making too much out of the revolution and should turn our attention elsewhere. I have always found the American Revolution as a weird event, and I must confess that the more I teach it the less I am sure what Americans wanted out of this so-called “revolution.” To be sure, I do think that in several regards the revolution marked a crucial watershed moment in world history and certainly in the history of the US. However, as American historians I wonder if we do not pay more attention than necessary to this event and too little to others. In the next two posts I will take a shot at arguing against the significance of the American Revolution. I do so in the spirit of polemics so please feel free to give me a hard time.
by Jonathan Wilson
There’s an interesting take on early America in the new issue of Modern Intellectual History. The article is an unusually layman-friendly essay on digital humanities, but it’s also an excellent essay on the importance of a spatial imagination to those of us who work on American intellectuals. And it challenges conventional thinking about the intellectual significance of the American Revolution, so I think it merits careful reading.
In “Where Is America in the Republic of Letters,” Caroline Winterer reflects on what modern digital tools can reveal about early American intellectual life. Specifically, Winterer discusses an ongoing initiative at Stanford called “Mapping the Republic of Letters.” There she is the lead researcher on a project to visualize Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence networks in the mid-18th century. In her new MIH article, Winterer tries to explain how digital projects like this can challenge or revise historians’ thinking.
Winterer contrasts two dominant ways of conceptualizing intellectual exchange in colonial British America. “Put bluntly,” she writes, “the Atlantic world has become an early Americanist’s category, while the republic of letters has become an early modern Europeanist’s category.” She suggests that this is due to Americanists’ nationalistic assumptions. European historiography, by definition, (and I’m embroidering a bit on her text here) starts from the the recognition that nations are contingent and porous, while Americanists, always conceiving of their subject teleologically as the future United States, struggle to recognize the limits of the nation at all. So for us, the British “Atlantic world” is useful as a rather grudging way frame and problematize the thing that was not yet the United States, while Europeanists are happy to follow the cosmopolitan “republic of letters” wherever it leads them, whether around the Mediterranean or into the Far East.
This may fall slightly off the mark, I think. The more important thing about the Atlantic world is that it’s a sneaky way to maintain a special relationship between Britain and the United States, preserving the privileged place of English law and ideology in our studies of colonial and revolutionary America while acknowledging the existence of other empires and constituent peoples. In other words, I think the Atlantic world is actually more about U.S. historians’ Anglophone nationalism than their American nationalism. Nevertheless, Winterer’s observation seems important. It is true that the republic of letters gets far more play in early-modern European history than in early American history, and this almost certainly means something interesting.
According to Winterer, one thing it means is that early American intellectual history needs to take a closer look at where the letters of the republic were actually going. “The big, broad idea of an Atlantic world” is a clumsy replacement for more precise locating of nodes in transatlantic intellectual networks. Mostly, she writes, the paths taken by writers and writing reveal that British America’s “Atlantic” intellectual life was really centered on England, and not just England but London (phenomena like the Edinburgh enlightenment and John Fea’s rural enlightenment notwithstanding).
A second use for the concept of the republic of letters, Winterer argues, is to show that America’s revolutionary “philosopher-statesmen,” Benjamin Franklin in particular, weren’t really as new as certain historians have claimed. Franklin, Winterer writes, should not be seen simply as a producer of Enlightenment knowledge. His real importance lay in his function as a key node in Enlightenment literary networks, a sort of “human switchboard” who relayed ideas to and from his many correspondents. This sort of figure, Winterer says, was not exactly new to Europe, but it may also have been more common in colonial America than most people realize. Winterer points to Prospero’s America, Walter Woodward’s recent study of John Winthrop Jr., which reveals that the 17th-century Connecticut governor maintained a similar transatlantic correspondence network one hundred years earlier. The scale of Franklin’s literary output and scientific success was extraordinary, but he functioned as the literati had throughout the early modern era.
A harder problem, Winterer concedes, is what all of this means for the nature of intellectual cosmopolitanism and empire. For example, what was the relationship between centers and peripheries in the republic of letters — and is it appropriate to view early America as intellectually peripheral? The answer is unclear. On ordinary maps of correspondence networks, American letters appear as long lines crossing the vast Atlantic ocean. But does this mean that Americans were less firmly connected to London and Paris than provincial Europeans were, or more? Similarly, does mapping intellectual networks shed any light on the role of religion in carrying ideas? In the absence of well-organized missionary-intellectual orders like the Jesuits, were British America’s religious literary networks primarily a cause of empire or an effect? The concept of the republic of letters, Winterer suggests, opens these as important questions without resolving them.
Finally, and most importantly, Winterer argues that the concept of the republic of letters calls into question the significance of the American Revolution. “In fact,” she writes, “seen in the broader context of the republic of letters, the specific influences of the American Revolution and republicanism on the deep structures of US intellectual life become more difficult to assert with confidence.” In the first decades after the Revolution, the intellectual life of the new nation was not necessarily preoccupied with republican politics. Often, intellectuals in the early American republic were more concerned with the same sorts of questions that had long kept the public of letters humming — questions of personal refinement and honor, virtue in a prepolitical sense, and appropriate sensibility. So when the ground beneath American intellectual life shifted later in the 19th century, was this because of the Revolution and democratization, or was it because of a wider evolution in the modern republic of letters? Winterer clearly favors the second thesis.
To say that I agree with Caroline Winterer about the importance of visualizing early American intellectual networks would be an understatement. That’s true whether we’re discussing “visualization” in a formal sense, i.e., the sense of precisely representing large data sets as comprehensible graphics, or in an informal sense — meaning the presentation of stories about travel and communication that make it easy to imagine ideas as concrete, material, personal things rather than abstractions.
But I also worry about what Winterer’s model might mean for the study of “intellectuals” as people. The great virtue of the concept of the Atlantic world is that it reminds us of the enormous importance of ships (bear with me a moment) to literally every aspect of life in early America. Not just particular ships, like, say, the Mayflower or the Arbella— the special vectors of special people with special thoughts — but shipping in general. It puts many different kinds of exchange at the center of what it meant to be and think in colonial America. And it makes it increasingly hard to set apart ideas as a special kind of thought, or to set apart colonial intellectuals, a priori, as special people. Early American intellectuals may be distinguishable as unusually good writers and thinkers, but they were also full participants in a culture of exchange that encouraged written representations of all kinds. Their ideas had meaning not only in the republic of letters, but also in a much larger public of letters — an enormous quasi-Habermasian commercial public sphere. So the concept of a watery world of exchange opens up intellectual history to new topics and new forms of relevance to other subfields, in ways that the concept of a relatively rarefied cosmopolitan republic of letters does not.
It seems to me that mapping the republic of letters will be most useful if it can help us represent that aspect of early American intellectual life. Benjamin Franklin’s thousands of letters traveled overwhelmingly between London and a handful of American cities. But who were the thousands of people who sent and received them? With whom else did those people correspond about the same questions? And how closely were “ideas” bound up with their daily pursuits? If we can find better ways to visualize these dimensions of intellectual exchange, we may find ourselves in a much better position to argue for the importance of the life of the mind to the wider history of early America.
Jonathan Wilson is a Ph.D. candidate in American intellectual history at Syracuse University, writing a dissertation on articulations of national identity in antebellum New York City. He is a member of a new early-American group blog, The Junto, which is scheduled to launch on December 10.