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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
 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
 Most famously in Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967).
 Particularly in the masterful J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (1975).
 For example in Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (1992), and Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic (1980).
 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.