U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Good Place to Begin

Last week I posted an excerpt from my field exam in transatlantic history in the long 19th century, in which I discussed some of the methodological challenges of the field.  I suggested that the idea of the Atlantic or of the transatlantic is “rooted in and sustained by materiality at every turn.”

No text on my reading list better explored or exemplified that intertwining of the ideal and the material than Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001). Below is a section from my exam in which I discuss that work in relation to how we teach and learn not just the U.S. history survey but also U.S. intellectual history. 


This book made visible what has all too often remained hidden:  the crucial historical importance of those multitudes of people who left no memoirs, who signed no declarations, who wrote no sermons, who had no perceptible social importance, who were good for nothing but their labor and their ability to bear another generation of laborers.  The emergence and growth of chattel slavery and the plantation system forced and enforced such a life upon millions of Africans; this book framed slavery squarely in relation to class, emphasizing how this class of people, a class of many colors, had been integral to the history of the New World from the outset.

When it comes to teaching U.S. history to undergraduates, even textbooks that talk about class don’t really talk about class.  For example, The American Journey, the survey textbook from the HIST 1301 class for which I TAed last fall, while it does an excellent job of dispelling the myth that the Americas, especially North America, were an unpeopled wilderness, offers an abysmally homogenizing account of “the colonists” or “the settlers.”[1]  In the wake of John Smith’s return to England, the textbook relates, “the colony nearly disintegrated.  More settlers arrived, only to starve or die of disease.  Facing financial ruin, company officials back in England tried to conceal the state of the colony.  They reorganized the company twice and sent more settlers, including glassmakers, winegrowers, and silkmakers, in a desperate effort to find a marketable colonial product” (38). The survey textbook gives little indication of the historical situation made clear throughout the Linebaugh/Rediker account:  the emerging nation-states of the Atlantic world all stood on the common foundation of a landless, stateless, harried but not quite helpless proletariat.

The last time I took a United States history survey I was a junior in high school, and we began the semester by reading John Winthrop’s “Modell of Christian Charitie.”  For an overcrowded, underfunded high school class in the farmlands of northern California, that was not a bad place to begin:  the shining city on a hill.[2]  Years later, when I took the U.S. intellectual history survey course here at UT Dallas, we began with the same text, and we discussed Winthrop’s idea of the mutual interdependence of the rich and the poor, the privileged and the needy.  Still a good place to begin.  But we missed an opportunity to discuss not only the mimetic dimensions of Winthrop’s thinking on interdependency, but also the material conditions that enabled his vision of the ideal community to come to us in the first place.

I think we need to think about the “nodes of the Atlantic nautical networks [that] were built by workers who hauled the rubble to crate a breakwater — a mole, or jetty, or pier — to protect the anchorage; hewed the stone, transported it, and arranged it on the seabed; and piled rocks to form retaining walls, or seawalls, with drainage and weep holes” (Linebaugh/Rediker 47). If we don’t think about these “hewers of wood and drawers of water” in the same space — chronological or geographical, sure, but more importantly, pedagogical — in which we think about intellectuals or philosophers or statesmen, we run the risk of impoverishing even the richest ideas from the past while at the same time putting them not so much out of our students’ reach as out of their very desire to reach for them.  What better way is there to understand either the mutual care or the implicit “class discipline” of Winthrop’s admonition than to consider it within the larger context of the workers and mariners and hostlers and heretics and whores whose labor helped Winthrop’s idea take root in the New World?

Similarly, Linebaugh and Rediker portray the “problem” of Anne Hutchinson in a new light — new to me, anyhow.  In their telling, her trial was not merely — perhaps not even primarily — a dispute about theology, or even about the spiritual autonomy of women per se.  Her trial was about the power of Winthrop and his fellow leaders to command the labor of others’ bodies, male and female.  As these historians tell the story, “Hutchinson’s allies in the militia also objected to the appointment of an army chaplain, threatening to refuse to go to war against the Pequots and weakening the military power of the colony” (90).  That particular dimension to Hutchinson’s insubordination — her presence as an obstacle to prosecution of war against the Pequots — is crucially important, and helps explain the stakes of her trial.  The Puritans weren’t just slap-happy about maintaining theological orthodoxy for orthodoxy’s sake — though it is important to acknowledge that purity of belief for its own sake was important to them.  However, the imposition of orthodoxy within the Puritans’ ranks also paved the way for the imposition of their authority and power on surrounding lands.  Hutchinson’s banishment “removed opposition to the Pequot War and cleared the way for slavery.  Many surviving Pequots were enslaved and shipped off to the other Puritan colony in the New World, Providence Island; the return cargo to Massachusetts was African slaves” (91).  Framing this familiar narrative not in terms of the colony’s internal power structure but in terms of its external relationships with other peoples, other “nations,” is a brilliant and bracing methodological move with political implications:  it renders visible the interconnectedness of the various “outposts” ringing the Atlantic, thus offering an alternative to the familiar story of American exceptionalism.

The city on the hill — as a religious community, as a colony, as an ideal or as an idea of nation — has never been there by itself.  That was true in the Puritan period, true throughout the 18th century, true through King Philip’s War, true through the American Revolution, through the War of 1812, and true throughout the period covered by my field.  Moreover, the American “city on the hill” has not always been the most important power among these interconnected and overlapping populations ringing the Atlantic.  This is a crucial interpretative move made possible by the field’s methodological commitment to envision places and polities of the past in a transnational way.  What makes this interpretation crucial is that it is so strange — it is strange to the structure of how U.S. history is taught (the story of the nation-state, the story of which “we” are the subject and the hero) and it is foreign to the conceptual and experiential world of most of our students, even (or perhaps especially) those who are not American citizens.  As Augustine could testify, it is a marvelous accident to have been born in a home that speaks the language of empire.   Just how heavy America’s tread falls upon the rest of the world is something that is probably very difficult for many Americans to gauge.  Nevertheless, the assumption among many that America is the only remaining “superpower” makes reminders of the nation’s past insignificance seem all the more strange, and perhaps for that reason all the more salutary.

[1] David Goldfield et. al., The American Journey: A History of the United States, Concise Edition, Second Edition, Vol. 1 (Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson Education, 2012).

[2] For more on the question of whether or not the city on the hill was “shining,” see L.D. Burnett, “The Good Book,” U.S. Intellectual History blog, https://s-usih.org/2012/02/good-book.html

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Great post about an amazing book, LD. HYDRA is a foundational text in my American Revolution class (read well alongside Terry Bouton’s TAMING DEMOCRACY or Woody Holton’s FORCED FOUNDERS). One student was so smitten by the book that he decided to go to grad school just to study with Linebaugh! I particularly love how the authors make the American Revolution one point in a centuries-long struggle–to your point about the AR’s “insignificance,” it doesn’t even come up until Chapter 7. And yet, the AR seems to be the place where, simultaneously, Hydra and the fight against Hydra achieves national space. To what extent is the abolitionism of Garrison and the Grimkes a continuation of the fight against “slavery,” broadly conceived?

  2. Have you read Christopher Tomlins’ “Freedom Bound”? It’s a beast of a book, but provides important insights about the relationship between colonizing the Americas, indentured servitude, and slavery that should be of interest since you enjoyed “Hydra”. One of the most difficult and most rewarding books I’ve read in graduate school.

  3. Lost my copy in cross-country move, but you’ve inspired me to buy another. Last year I had my survey undergrads read a piece of Matthew Parker’s popular history, The Sugar Barons. They were surprised that there was already so much happening in the Atlantic world before the Pilgrims and Puritans sailed, and also that the Caribbean was the center, not New England.

  4. Thanks to all for the comments. I’ll add the books mentioned above to my wish list.

    Mark, that’s an intriguing question, and I don’t have a good answer right now, but I’ll think on it. I do think that Garrison’s own class background — including perhaps his connections to the seafaring world — must surely have informed his sense of solidarity across racial lines.

    Dan, I was going to include some paragraphs on Cassandra Pybus’s Epic Journeys of Freedom, which also does a good job of decentering New England, but I decided the post was getting long. So I’ll probably put that up next week.

    And I didn’t mean to pick on the survey textbook quoted above — it was just the one I happened to have at hand when I was writing. My guess is that the language of class doesn’t play very well in survey textbooks vying for adoption by state education systems for teaching at the high school level. But there ought to be a way to bury the pill in a wad of dog food. And it’s not that bitter of a pill to invite students to think about the broad and diverse panoply of people who built the past upon which we stand.

    • The politics of admitting there’s such a thing as class is a really interesting topic in itself. On the other hand, it probably accounts for the ongoing popularity of Zinn’s book, which for all its faults, at least said the word!

  5. I really don’t have anything important to add here except: I need to read this book you’ve described!

  6. Also, thanks to helpful guidance, this time around I noted that the “revolutionary Atlantic” included the hemispheric, rather than transatlantic, Americas. The pacific northwest would further confound the transatlantic and transpacific categories. A corollary to the thesis, but significant nonetheless.

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