The Author’s Corner with Patrick Griffin

515zcPMhSNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Patrick Griffin is Madden- Hennebry Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. This interview is based on his new book, The Townshend Moment: The Making of Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth-Century (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Townshend Moment?

PG: I started the book with nothing more than a hunch.  I had always been fascinated by the parallels and connections between Ireland and America in the eighteenth century.  And two British brothers, Charles and George Townshend, at the very same moment held important positions that helped determine the fate of each place.  Could their stories, if brought together, tell us more about Ireland and America and about the empire the brothers were responsible for?  I began scratching the surface, and I discovered that their entangled story suggested a deeper set of questions.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Townshend Moment?

PG:  At certain junctures of time and through contingent events, men and women come to believe they are living during critical “moments.”  Empire and revolution are born through such ways of thinking.

JF: Why do we need to read The Townshend Moment?

PG: We need to read this story because it reminds how complex the past really is and how we, as actors, try to come up with simple ways to bring meaning to that complexity and act on that meaning in the present with an eye toward creating the future.  The book offers on one level a dual biography of two larger-that-life characters who determined the fortunes of empire, as well as a comparative history of Ireland and America in the eighteenth century.  It also explores, in a new way, the relationship between imperial reform and revolution at the beginning of the “Age of Atlantic Revolution.”  Finally, it suggests how powerful people believe that they can comprehend and shape the forces of history and global processes of change to try to bring order to a system.  Of course, they soon learn that people far away have other ideas.  They, too, come to believe they can craft their own destinies, but ones often at odds with what those in power propose.  This is a classic tale of hubris, a drama in fact.

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

PG:  I became an American historian by dumb luck, contingency, or Providence.  I don’t quite know which. I was destined to be a Political Scientist.  I started my graduate career doing Comparative Politics.  I soon learned that I had talents in other areas.  In a graduate program for history, I followed my passions, and they led me to the eighteenth-centiry Atlantic.  I have been there ever since, and I imagine I will be there for a long time still.

JF: What is your next project?

PG: I am, speaking of hubris, working on a study of the Age of Atlantic Revolution(s).  The parentheses matter here.  I am not sure if the period gave birth to a singular event or to a plurality of events.  We shall see.  I am calling it, for lack of a better term, a provocation.

JF: Thanks, Patrick!

My Piece on the Greenwich Tea Burning at the Omohundro Institute Blog

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Check out my piece on the Greenwich Tea Burning at Uncommon Sense, the blog of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.  The post accompanies “The Politics of Tea,” episode 160 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 2: To the Revolution! series.  Learn more here.

A taste:

In 1772, Philip Vickers Fithian, a twenty-four year old graduating senior at the College of New Jersey at Princeton, delivered his commencement disputation on the topic, “political jealousy is a laudable passion.” The disputation echoed the words of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s Cato’s Letters. It distinguished between “domestic and ecclesiastical jealousies,” which were harmful to the kind of Christian morality essential to sustaining a republican government, and “political” jealousy, which Fithian described as “rational, uniform, and necessary.” The truly “jealous” citizen kept a careful and virtuous watch on his government leaders to guard against vice and corruption. Political jealousy served as a unifying force. Fithian said that it had the “natural tendency” to “unite people” around interests closely associated with the preservation of a political community. Two years later, Fithian would witness political jealousy in action among the patriots of his hometown, the small hamlet of Greenwich, New Jersey.

Greenwich is located on the Cohansey River about six miles from the Delaware Bay. In the eighteenth century it served as an official British customs port, albeit not a very busy one. Sometime in the second week of December 1774 a brig—local lore identifies it as the Greyhound—docked at John Shepherd’s river landing. It carried East Indian tea. Fithian, who had just spent a year working as a tutor on Robert Carter III’s Nomini Hall plantation on the Northern Neck of Virginia, was in town when the Greyhound arrived. He knew that these were not ordinary times and the Greyhound, because of its cargo, was no ordinary ship.

Read the rest here.

The Problem of the 1780s

ArticlesOver at The Nation, historian Richard Kreitner interviews Seattle University Law Professor George William Van Cleave about his new book We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution.   I hope to read Van Cleave’s book at some point since I don’t think I have ever read a book-length treatment of the Articles of Confederation.

Here is a taste of the interview:

RK: The overarching problem of the 1780s, as you write, was “stalemate government.” Why were things so blocked up?

GWVC: There are two basic reasons. First, the structure of the Confederation itself. The government designed by the Articles of Confederation made it easy for relatively small groups of people—especially individual states or sections of the country—to block any change. There was a requirement for every single state to agree to alter the powers of the Confederation. At least nine states needed to support any significant fiscal or military legislation. Any section could say, “We’re opposed to this, so it’s not gonna happen.” This happened repeatedly throughout the period I’m writing about.

The other significant reason is that from the beginning the Union had been a pretty loose alliance, so people felt relatively free about saying they just didn’t feel like going along with a particular policy. New York is a great example. New York City had one of the major ports in the United States, and the import taxes were very profitable for the state, which didn’t have to raise other kinds of taxes. But the rest of the states wanted to pass a federal import tax, which would have forced New York to give up its own. That was anathema for New York’s political leaders, who thought about how they could block such a tax every time they got out of bed. But, under the Articles of Confederation, there was no way for Congress to impose sanctions on New York for holding out, even if all the other states wanted to go forward. The result was stalemate.

Read the rest here.

 

Jane Kamensky Talks John Singleton Copley

KamenskyCheck out Mark Cheathem‘s interview with Harvard historian Jane Kamensky.  She talks about her award-winning book A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley.

Here is a taste:

For those who haven’t read your book, would you please provide a synopsis?

Jane Kamensky (JK): A Revolution in Color tells an off-kilter story of British America in the age of the American Revolution through the biography of the New England-born painter John Singleton Copley. Born on the eve of King George’s War, Copley came of age in a thoroughly British Boston, with streets named Queen and King, and book stores and coffee houses touting the latest news from London. He identified thoroughly with an imperial imaginary, dreaming of a world in color an ocean away. When Boston grew heated over taxes in the 1760s, he identified as a Son of British Liberty, and hoped for a return of the status quo ante. He painted men and women on all sides of the conflict–Paul Revere and Thomas Gage, Samuel Adams and Francis Bernard–who doubtless gave him an earful while they sat for their portraits. But when shouting turned to shooting, he, like Melville’s Bartleby, simply preferred not to. Copley’s life and work make visible, literally visible, the viewpoints of that large group of early Americans whose preferred side in Britain’s American War was neither. As Yeats would say of another revolutionary conflict more than a century later, he thought “the worst [were] full of passionate intensity.” He himself lacked political conviction, focusing his own intensity on art and family strategy rather than matters of nation or party. His rise and fall show both the terrors of revolutionary fervor, and the costs of passivity in an age where people insisted on forging their own destinies. Like the Revolution itself, it’s a very ambivalent story.

I would venture to say that many Americans have never heard of John Singleton Copley. What led you to choose him as the subject for this book?

JK: If they haven’t heard of Copley, they’ve seen his work. His Paul Revere is surely the second most famous face of revolutionary America, and we see a version of it every time we hoist a bottle of Sam Adams lager. And of course, Bostonians know Copley as written into the very landscape of the city: Copley Square, the Fairmont Copley Hotel, Copley T station. But the irony is, Copley’s life doesn’t support his use in contemporary culture, which follows a kind of New England nationalism. That gap was interesting to me. Plus, the evidence is very rich: in addition to his dazzling painted work, Copley and his kin left hundreds of letters, which is true for very few artists. Those letters allowed a muddled, middling character to emerge from the swirl of events in the age of revolution. Like a Copley portrait, he’s a well mottled character. We have too few of those in the literature of revolutionary heroes and villains.

Read the rest at The Republic Blog

 

Jane Calvert on John Dickinson

The University of Kentucky is running a great piece on Jane Calvert, the planet’s foremost expert on John Dickinson.  As many of you know, Dickinson was the author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-68), a response to the Townsend Acts.  Though he was the primary author of the Articles of Confederation, he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.  It’s a great story from revolutionary America and Calvert tells it well.

Read the piece here.

Or watch:

 

“Native American Revolutions”

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This is the title of the latest series at Age of Revolutions blog.  Expect essays from Karim Tiro, David Andrew Nichols, Andrew Frank, Kathleen DuVal, Kate Fullager, Michael Lynch, and Michael McDonnell.

Here is a summary:

Any perceptive #twitterstorian or scholar of the Age of Revolutions will notice the repeated reference to the idea of #VastEarlyAmerica. Karin Wulf named her blog after the historiographical shift. Other group and personal blogs have started to plumb the depths of the historical American periphery, and its place within the western hemisphere and world history. Conferences and papers have been devoted to it (talks too). Books and articles are now pouring out of presses, rethinking the origins of the United States in terms of its contours, as well as its (dis)contents — many of these works have been penned by our esteemed contributors. In this series, we revisit an important side of #VastEarlyAmerica, by thinking of #VastEarlyNativeAmerica. We have asked historians to think about Native American agency during the American Revolution. The result is the following schedule of amazing scholars, working the myriad angles of Native American experience, perception, agency, or lack thereof.

Read more here.

Have You Visited the Museum of the American Revolution Yet?

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Whether you have or have not (I have not) visited the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, I recommend Caitlin Kelly‘s review of the museum at Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog.  Here is a taste:

Alas, while you can get t-shirts and trinkets emblazoned with quotes from Abigail Adams and Benjamin Rush, the Museum of the American Revolution largely avoids the fate of other such museums and historic sites and complements the story begun by the National Park Service down the block at Independence Hall. Its vivid, lush, multimedia exhibits color in the lines that the historical sites surrounding the museum provide. MAR weaves a complex and sophisticated narrative that includes not only the Founding Fathers but also women, foreigners, Native Americans, and people of color. The museum also does well to present these groups within their contexts both historical and geographical, paying particular attention to the divided loyalties among native groups and people of color,  as well parsing the difference between experiences of colonists in New England, the Middle Atlantic, and South. To critics, this dedication to a more inclusive narrative is at the expense of American exceptionalism. Writing in the Wall Street JournalEdward Rothstein captures this feeling, complaining that the “exhibition tells us more about how the Revolution fell short than about how it transformed possibilities.” If there is any truth to that assessment, may we all be glad that the museum did “fall short.”

Read the rest here.