The Author’s Corner with Andrew Shankman

Original Intents.jpgAndrew Shankman is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University at Camden.  This interview is based on his new book, Original Intents: Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the American Founding (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Original Intents?

AS: I was excited by the charge given to me by Oxford University Press—to write a book that would advance scholarly knowledge of the nation’s constitutional, political, economic, and financial origins, but that would be entirely accessible to any reader and that could be completely understood without any prior knowledge of subject.  Oh, and to keep it under 200 pages!  That was an exciting challenge.  Scholars are very good at writing for other scholars, and some of them get good at writing for a general audience.  That such a prestigious press wanted me to write a book that the general public could enjoy and learn from, and that would not sacrifice any complexity—would not “dumb it down”—and so would benefit scholars too—that seemed such an exciting and a great idea, and a very worthy challenge to take on.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Original Intents?

AS: Original Intents examines the political, constitutional, and economic ideas and policies of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison from the American Revolution through the early 1790s.  Original Intents argues that Jefferson and Madison had profound disagreements with Hamilton about the meaning and purpose of the Constitution and the future of the nation, and that the ideas of all three were shaped, evolved, and changed by their ongoing and heated arguments with each other.

JF: Why do we need to read Original Intents?

AS: Original Intents recreates in close to real time the step by step ways in which Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison came to realize what they thought and who they were.  They came to their understanding through intense engagement with each other during the most significant, creative, and productive period of their lives. The arguments the three had with each other from the American Revolution through the early 1790s (mostly it was Jefferson and Madison agreeing with each other and seriously disagreeing with Hamilton) established the framework for how Americans came to understand their Constitution.  Their arguments also began the debates that continue to our day about the proper relationship between the national and state governments, how much and in what ways governments should tax and take on debt, and what sort of nation we the citizens should aspire to have.  In their different ways, all three of them believed the United States was an ongoing experiment, that its institutions were only as strong and durable as the citizens who made use of them, and that the Constitution provided the basis and the beginning for a never-ending conversation among citizens and between those who governed and the people they were governing.  Original Intents explores how all that began, and how three of the people most responsible for shaping and overseeing the new Constitution quickly discovered that they disagreed about what it said and what it meant.  Understanding their ideas—their differing original intents—allows us to better understand the immensely important historical legacy we have inherited, and the tremendous burdens, responsibilities, and also privileges that come with being a citizen.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?

AS: From an early age I knew I wanted to study history.  I loved mythology, the middle ages, the Civil War, the old west.  But I decided to try to become a professional historian and specialize in late 18th and early 19th century American history in the fall semester of my junior of college at Northern Illinois University, in 1991.  That semester I took a course in American diplomatic history to 1898 with a wonderful professor who died this past December named Carl Parrini.  The first eight weeks were all about the 1780s and 1790s.  Learning about Hamilton’s financial system, the crazy 1790s when Americans were accusing each other of being secret British agents scheming to restore monarchy, or of being crazy radical operatives of revolutionary France plotting to erect a guillotine in Philadelphia—all that stuff was amazing to me.  The paintings make all these 18th century folks look like boring wax figures wearing wigs.  To learn that they weren’t that at all, to learn just how fascinating and passionate and complex they all truly were, and how wild and wooly it all really was, I was hooked, and I’ve stayed hooked.

 JF: What is your next project?

AS: My next book moves forward in time to the period between the end of the War of 1812 (1815) and the Nullification Crisis (early 1830s), which was when South Carolina argued that it could nullify federal law within its state borders.  I’m looking at a group of younger (for the most part) followers of Jefferson, who came to be known as the National Republicans.  By the end of the War of 1812 the National Republicans began to fear that much of what they had expected to be true about the United States was not going to happen.  They had assumed three things: first, that the U.S. could and should remain almost exclusively agricultural.  Second, that the national government could be very inactive most of the time, especially domestically.  And third, that slavery would naturally grow less and less significant over time.  Between 1815 and 1825 people like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Mathew Carey, Richard Rush, and many, many others came to believe that none of those three things was true or was going to happen.  My book will be about why they concluded that, what they tried to do about it, and why, by the early 1830s, they had provoked a large national movement in opposition to them that defeated them.  I’m writing a story of thoughtful, principled, and often deeply flawed failure.  I plan to title it The National Republicans: Capitalism, Slavery, and the State during the Long 1820s.

JF: Thanks, Andrew!

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