U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Use and Abuse of Intellectual History: Reflections of an Early Americanist (part 1)

As a newcomer to the blog and an early US historian I thought to start off with a series of posts exploring some of the challenges facing early American intellectual history. While much of the following is quite subjective, I hope this resonates with some of our readers. I would be grateful to hear of other scholars’ insights on this matter.

As an Early Americanist still attempting to apprehend the ins and outs of my profession, attending the recent S-USIH conference in Indianapolis proved more intriguing than I had expected. As anyone familiar with early Americanist historiography knows, the designation ‘intellectual history’ in my era of choice carries with it quite a burdensome load of assumptions about one’s political leanings and historical agenda. Indeed throughout the weekend in Indianapolis I found myself conflicted about how much this classification of a methodological (not sure about this modifier, I will try to get back to it in later posts) subfield—intellectual history—has to offer me and my kind in the context of the last half century of historiographical debates.

Coming into this conference I had already for quite a while viewed myself a cultural historian of the early republic and antebellum periods of US history, so to some degree I self consciously maintained a certain conceptual distance from intellectual history. In other words, though I had always found intellectual history—as it is practiced in the early American field—crucial to my research (and a compelling intellectual exercise besides), I did not have grand expectations for this conference. To a certain extent my premonition was correct—for though many of the panels were fascinating in their own right, very few of them seemed to address my era of interest. This, I think, was neither the fault of the organizers of the conference nor the field of intellectual history, so much as the particular heritage of early U.S intellectual history—which I will try to here unpack. Nevertheless, I ultimately found much food for thought in the least likely of places, as far as my expectations were concerned, namely in the plenary session “What is US Intellectual History?”

I must admit that I almost missed the session on account of unnecessary cynicism. Indeed, I even told my partner, who ultimately convinced me to attend the session, my suspicion that we will yet again behold the too common ritual of academic self congratulation, wishful thinking, and polite liberal discourse, rather than any candid critical introspection. To my surprise and delight I could not have been more wrong, as the panelists presented an array of critical perspectives ranging from fierce, ‘slam-poetic,’ to the pithy and analytical. Not only did I enjoy them all immensely, I haven’t stopped thinking about the themes of the panel since and how they apply to me as an early Americanist.

I found it reassuring that to some degree or another all panelists were critical of the elitist construction of intellectual history as a subfield interested exclusively in ideas expressed by a small—though admittedly mesmerizing—group of intellectuals as legitimate subject matter. Furthermore, as a culturally oriented type, I could not but sympathize with Kathryn Lofton’s invocation of popular culture of the blandest sort as a needed provocative intervention in a field whose very name strikes a bit of an elitist note. I also found Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s construction of the field as dealing with “ideational stuff” a compelling formula for delineating the contours of the field.

I would like to flesh out some of the possibilities that might open up in the field of early US history, if we are to take the themes advocated in this plenary panel to heart. Could we use these guidelines to breath new life into early US intellectual history? Would it be a worthwhile project?

To start things off I would like to provide a (very) short and crude account of the rise and demise of revolutionary era American intellectual history, focusing particularly on developments following the appearance of the republican synthesis in 1960s and 1970s (just in case someone out there has not heard this many times told tale).

Until the 1960s, most historians who sought to explain the American Revolution and the founding of the American republic looked either to John Locke’s liberalism, in the case of consensus historians, or to economic interests entrenched in American society, in the case of the progressives.[1] The former were certainly engaged in intellectual history, the latter prioritized a materialist approach. However, in the 1960s Bernard Bailyn and his students argued that the founding fathers were neither forward thinking liberals nor a class of entrepreneurs as much as anxious republicans, whose identification with the ideas of the British opposition party led them to view the actions of the British establishment as acts of tyranny.[2] In the 1970s J.G.A. Pocock’s contributions solidified this school into a fully fledged republican synthesis that plumbed a wide ranging intellectual heritage from the classical period to the American founding fathers.[3]

In response, during the late 1970s and 1980s, several intellectual historians, most notably Joyce Appleby and Drew McCoy sought to bring liberalism back in. Showing the relevance of the body of liberal thought to the founding of the US, they rekindled interest in liberalism.[4] By the 1990s the discussion of the era’s intellectual history seemed moot, as most scholars expressed their agreement that distinguishing between liberalism and republicanism was somewhat anachronistic. In short, historians realized that both were influential bodies of thought, and that contemporaries did not make the presentist distinction between the two. Thus, most scholars regarded the whole episode as settled and over-analyzed.

As the above debate raged within circles of intellectual historians of the early U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s, the rise of the New Left and the scholarship of E.P. Thompson in the 1960s fuelled a very different historiographical agenda that cast itself in opposition to republican synthesis historians. As part of a wider movement of “New Social History,” historians such as Alfred Young and Gary Nash rejected the elitist slant of the era’s intellectual historians and looked for new primary sources, seeking to write history from the “bottom up.” They came to regard the American Revolution from a “neo-progressive” perspective that recovered the economic analysis of class interests first expressed by progressive historians, complementing it with rigorous empirical scholarship that stressed both statistical data and popular culture.[5]

Curiously, despite the conservative zeitgeist of the last decades, social historians seem to have emerged victorious from this clash. Indeed, during the 1990s and 2000s most of the vibrant scholarship of the revolutionary period (this is admittedly a bit subjective) regarded traditional intellectual history—the scholarship of texts produced by American elite gentleman—as a limited and somewhat wrongheaded program for understanding the founding of the American Republic. Thus in the last two decades many historians turned to a more polyphonic view of the American Revolutionary period, which attempted a more cultural and multifaceted interpretation of the era. Some new directions that emerged were: scholarship of the role of slaves and Native Americans during the American Revolution; the analysis of the enduring class struggle throughout the period; histories that used culture as a meeting point between intellectual and social perspectives; and examinations of American civic society with a focus on the inclusion and exclusion of women.

All this is to say that as an early Americanist, who has been particularly attracted to the work of the neo-progressives, and who esteems the work of Al Young and Gary Nash above all other accomplishments in my field, the designation intellectual history rang quite hollow to me before attending this plenary panel. There are two reasons for this, as far as I can detect. First, the pursuit of intellectual history itself, at least in my mind, has been tethered to a more conservative approach to history. Second, and perhaps no less important, I feel—and I suspect others do too—that the very high bar set by some of the most capacious and original minds in our field renders such an intellectual engagement quite daunting. This, I now realize, has inhibited me from treading on the same intellectual terrain inhabited by historians of the caliber of Bailyn, Pocock, and Appleby. And though I am not yet sure what to make of intellectual history as applied to the revolutionary and founding periods under the guidelines promoted in the panel, or how erecting a new “tent” might invigorate rather than stifle our scholarship, I would like to explore this question over this series of posts.

[1] The classic examples are Charles Beard’s, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) for progressive history and Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), for consensus history

[2] Most famously in Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967).

[3] Particularly in the masterful J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (1975).

[4] For example in Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (1992), and Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic (1980).

[5] Al Young wrote many articles and books but more importantly cultivated a community of historians dedicated to research from the bottom up. Our colleagues at The Junto recently ran a series of posts about the legacy of Al Young . Gary Nash wrote (and still writes) broadly, but his most influential work is probably The Urban Crucible (1979), which helped recover the role of urban class conflict in the American Revolution.  I want here to also recognize the early groundbreaking work of Jesse Lemisch, who has contributed to this blog on occasion, whose 1962 dissertation Jack Tar vs. John Bull constituted a very early attempt at a corrective approach to the historiography of the revolution.

13 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Every much enjoyed the your post Eran and happy to have an early Americanist in our midst. We need more engagement with early American intellectual history. May your tribe increase.

  2. Welcome again, Eran!

    JenniferRR talked “ideational stuff” in her panel contribution, but she, in the past, has talked “history of thought.” That formulation is the one I like and share. I think it’s capacious enough to handle anything you want in any era, while also foregrounding all things you want to touch in the “intellectual realm.” So then the question, for the historian, becomes about what, or which, objects of thought you think have a compelling story. Or how does looking at the history of thought change an old story? – TL

    • I like history of thought. I wonder though whether emotions would count as thought or, ideas for that matter. I think the recent trend towards history of emotions and affect is quite interesting and could prove quite useful.

  3. There has undoubtedly been a crisis in early American intellectual history for the last few decades. The republican synthesis and subsequent critiques by the likes of Appleby had a draining effect on the field. So much so that two subsequent generations of early Americanists have not only been turned off to the idea of “intellectual history” but also to the questions that the intellectual historians of the 1960s and 1970s sought to address. Those subsequent generations committed themselves to questions that could be answered through the methodologies of social and cultural history. And, even though the historiographical arc may be cyclical, no one in their right mind expects a return to the type of intellectual history done by Bailyn. The question for early Americanists who still think ideas mattered to the founding and development of the new republic is: How can we incorporate ideas into the period as we understand it now, i.e., post-social and cultural turns. There is no turning back the clock, and, in many ways, I think this is the same challenge faced by political historians of the period. I own that I have no immediate or satisfying answer to this question. I would suggest, however, that a part of our task is to get out from under that cloud of original sin wherein we are all immediately and methodologically typecast as neo-Bailynians, who think that ideas are either the only thing that matters or that they always matter more than anything else.

    But in addition to changing other people’s minds about intellectual history, I would argue that we might also need to change our own minds about it. For my part, I have come to think of intellectual history as a form of cultural history (and, in some instances, vice versa). In this post-1970s world, many of us are not interested anyway in doing old-school intellectual history, in being the next Bernard Bailyn or Perry Miller (methodologically speaking) We’re less interested in a primary task of tracing the rarified lineage of ideas isolated in elite texts so much as tracing their transmission and manifestation in the broader culture. (Bailyn, I suspect, may have thought he was doing this but I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate the reasons why many of us think he did not.) The most valuable intellectual history is simultaneously cultural history, because ideas as historical objects of inquiry will always be their most powerful and persuasive when they are cultural contextualized. For example, I am working on a dissertation about the role of historical knowledge in colonial and revolutionary culture. I am working with how ideas about historical events and historical writing conflicted and shaped the political, religious, and legal cultures of the colonies. Obviously I think the ideas are important but not necessarily intrinsically. They’re important because they were an integral contribution structurally (among others) to the broader cultures of the colonies in general. If it helps to think of the transmission of ideas from thinkers to society and the manifestation of ideas (in a way that goes beyond the methodology of Bailyn) as work in the “intellectual culture” of the period, then that’s fine with me because I don’t see social and cultural history as standing in opposition to intellectual history.

    Granted, the above might seem obvious or (forgive the pun) self-evident to those who work on intellectual history in other periods, especially the 20th-century US and Europe (where sources to draw those connections are more plentiful), but that it is not to early Americanists is evidence of the long-standing challenges faced by early American historians still interested in the power of ideas.

    • I totally agree, though I still wonder if there might be some use in discerning between intellectual and cultural history. I think they might each underline a different set of questions and angles of approach, which of course doesn’t mean they couldn’t be used in tandem.

  4. Welcome, Eran! This is a terrific piece.

    It has struck me that the liberalism/republicanism split has recently become more interesting again… One source, I think, is the work of Seth Rockman, Ed Baptist, and Sven Beckert, which seems to be driving a reexamination of the history of slavery and political economy in an international context (and outside of the narrower confines of Southern history). Another might be Tomlins’s Freedom Bound, which takes a substantially intellectual-historical approach in many places. In these texts, we find neither Lockean/Blackstonean private property logic, nor Harringtonian political philosophy, in the forms we have been trained to anticipate. Admittedly, I am a total outsider to this period, but it seems like kind of an exciting moment?

    • Thanks for this Kurt. I think you are right, there is an exciting trend I didn’t allude to that seems to address colonialism and slavery from a political economy perspective, yet one that seems more in dialogue with Foucault and Agamben’s notion of biopolitics than with Pocock’s idea of “vocabulary” or Bailyn’s conceptualization of “ideology.”

  5. Eran–
    Welcome to the blog, and thanks for this interesting initial post. You point to the moribund nature of intellectual history in early American historiography in the past twenty years as linked to its success at a moment when intellectual history was very much on the defensive in other subfields. That is, the kind of social history associated with figures like Nash and Young was very much on the ascendent in the 1970s and 80s, but in early American historiography the republicanism/liberalism debates focusing on political ideology and “language” were central to the field during the same period that social history and history from below came to dominate. There was nothing comparable in nineteenth and twentieth century historiography. The success of the “republican synthesis” in the early American field was expanded into the nineteenth century at the very time it was being exhausted in the early American field, as Dan Rogers indicated in his post-mortem “Republicanism: The Career of a Concept”. That turn coincided with criticism of the new social history for its inadequate attention to language and meaning, and helped fuel the cultural and linguistic turns in nineteenth and twentieth-century historiography, even as the approaches associated with Pocock, Skinner and the “Cambridge School” were exhausted on the early American front. (Noticed that you didn’t mention Gordon Wood in your discussion, by the way, and thought that was an odd elision, given the role he has played in shaping a generation of early Americanists).

    I’m wondering, however, if you’re associating “intellectual history” of the period too strongly with a specific debate about political ideology/language, which did dominate the field. You don’t mention, for instance, some of the work on gender and intellectual history associated with Linda Kerber, Ruth Bloch, and more recently Caroline Winterer; the focus on social thought found in Michael Meranze’s Laboratories of Virtue, who uses Benjamin Rush to great account; the work of Bruce Dain on the intellectual history of race; Margaret Abruzzo and others on eighteenth and early nineteenth-century humanitarianism; Sarah Rivett’s Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, and Eric Slauter’s novel reading of the Constitution as a Work of Art. Maybe the republicanism/liberalism debate sucked all the air out of the room, but it seems to me like there have been some pretty exciting things going on in the field of early American intellectual history.

  6. …even as the approaches associated with Pocock, Skinner and the “Cambridge School” were exhausted on the early American front.

    Perhaps worth noting, however, that a former student of Skinner’s, Eric Nelson, has recently published a book on this period: The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding. [n.b.: This is not my field, and I have not read the book.]

    • p.s. above was in reference to Dan Wickberg’s comment (I guess I forgot to click the ‘reply’ button that would have threaded it).

  7. Thanks for this. I agree. There have been interesting engagements with intellectual history in the last few decades, and I’m personally very much indebted to the work of Kerber and Bloch. However, I feel that the most important work on the founding of the American republic of late has been what most folks would call social or cultural rather than intellectual. Furthermore, it seems to me that early Americanists are less inclined to trace long genealogies of ideas, which I always thought was the most compelling aspect of intellectual history. But again this is admittedly quite subjective.

    As for the elision of Gordon Wood–’tis true, I tried to get away with that. He certainly was and still is very influential, but I never got a feeling that conceptually he brought something new to the table as Bailyn, Pocock, and Appleby have. I’ve always thought that he is very useful if you want to get a feel for what elites thought during this period and how ideas shifted over time, but not as much for explaining their origins, say in the manner of Pocock or their underlying context, say in the manner of Pauline Maier, which I feel should receive a mention before Wood and whose work I intend to discuss in future posts.

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