The 1619 Project Backs-Off a Controversial Claim. World Socialist Website Responds

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Recently, The New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein issued a statement to clarify a passage in an essay from The 1619 Project. (See our post here). The passage under consideration, which came from project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay, argued that the British-American colonists fought the American Revolution to protect the institution of slavery. After consultation with early American historians, the Times slightly backed-off this claim. Here is Silverstein: “We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.”

Thomas Mackaman of King College (PA) and the World Socialist Web Site has been a strong critic of The 1619 Project.  Check out our interview with Mackaman in Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Here is a taste of his response to Silverstein’s statement:

Silverstein’s belated effort in damage control does not withdraw the 1619 Project’s assertion that 1776 was a “lie” and a “founding mythology.” The Times editor is attempting to palm off a minor change in wording as a sufficient correction of a historically untenable rendering of the American Revolution. Hannah-Jones’ passage now reads, with the changed phrase in italics:

“Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere.”

This passage is still false. Protecting slavery could not have been a significant cause of the American Revolution, because, far from posing a threat to slavery, the British Empire controlled the slave trade and profited immensely from its commerce in people, as well as from its Caribbean plantations which remained loyal during the war for independence.

Yet in his article, Silverstein reiterates the initial error and compounds it with new layers of confusion. He writes, “We stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the patriots toward independence was a concern that the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery” [emphasis added].

There is no evidence for any of this. The chain of events that led “toward” independence had already emerged with the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, seven years before the Somerset ruling. “The British” did not seek to disrupt “American slavery” until Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of 1775—issued after the war of independence had begun—offered emancipation to slaves and indentured servants who took up arms against masters already in rebellion. The proclamation in fact explicitly preserved slavery among loyal British subjects, many of whom would live out their days under Dunmore in his final post as royal governor of the slave-rich Bahamas.

And this:

Silverstein’s latest foray only adds a new layer of dishonesty to the sordid 1619 Project affair. Were he serious about valuing criticism, as he claims, Silverstein might have written the following:

“We thank the historians who have brought to our attention the many errors in the 1619 Project. We are compelled to acknowledge and correct these errors. We have written to schools that have already received copies of material from the Project asking that they return them, and that they withhold them from students until the errors and distortions, and the processes that led to them, can be corrected. We profoundly apologize to the historians whose scholarship and professionalism we maligned. The Times’ will seek their assistance in preparing a revised edition of the 1619 Project. Finally, as painful as it is to do, we recommend to our readers that they study the essays and interviews criticizing the 1619 Project published in the World Socialist Web Site.”

Read the entire piece here.

*The New York Times* Backs-Off a Controversial Claim in its 1619 Project

The New York Times Magazine offers some nuance. It appears that a recent panel featuring Alan Taylor, Annette Gordon-Reed, and others had something to do with this.  Watch it here:

A taste:

Today we are making a clarification to a passage in an essay from The 1619 Project that has sparked a great deal of online debate. The passage in question states that one primary reason the colonists fought the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery. This assertion has elicited criticism from some historians and support from others.

We stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the patriots toward independence was a concern that the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery. Versions of this interpretation can be found in much of the scholarship into the origins and character of the Revolution that has marked the past 40 years or so of early American historiography — in part because historians of the past few decades have increasingly scrutinized the role of slavery and the agency of enslaved people in driving events of the Revolutionary period.

That accounting is itself part of a growing acceptance that the patriots represented a truly diverse coalition animated by a variety of interests, which varied by region, class, age, religion and a host of other factors, a point succinctly demonstrated in the title that the historian Alan Taylor chose for his 2016 account of the period: “American Revolutions.” (For some key selections from the recent scholarly work on the Revolution, see this list of suggested reading from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture.)

If the scholarship of the past several decades has taught us anything, it is that we should be careful not to assume unanimity on the part of the colonists, as many previous interpretive histories of the patriot cause did. We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists. A note has been appended to the story as well.

Leslie Harris Weighs-In on the 1619 Project

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Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, fact-checked The New York Times 1619 Project.  Here is what she said in a recent piece at Politico:

On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.

Hannah-Jones and I were on Georgia Public Radio to discuss the path-breaking New York Times 1619 Project, a major feature about the impact of slavery on American history, which she had spearheaded. The Times had just published the special 1619 edition of its magazine, which took its name from the year 20 Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia—a group believed to be the first enslaved Africans to arrive in British North America.

Weeks before, I had received an email from a New York Times research editor. Because I’m an historian of African American life and slavery, in New York, specifically, and the pre-Civil War era more generally, she wanted me to verify some statements for the project. At one point, she sent me this assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”

I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.

The editor followed up with several questions probing the nature of slavery in the Colonial era, such as whether enslaved people were allowed to read, could legally marry, could congregate in groups of more than four, and could own, will or inherit property—the answers to which vary widely depending on the era and the colony. I explained these histories as best I could—with references to specific examples—but never heard back from her about how the information would be used.

Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.

Both sets of inaccuracies worried me, but the Revolutionary War statement made me especially anxious. Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.

Read the rest of her nuanced perspective here.

Click here for our collection of posts on the 1619 Project.

Women Could Vote in New Jersey Between 1776 and 1807

NJ Map

I continue to plug away on my history of the American Revolution in New Jersey.  This piece encouraged me to keep forging ahead.  Here is a taste of Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times‘ piece “On the Trail of America’s First Women to Vote“:

“The New Jersey exception,” as it’s sometimes called, has been puzzled over by historians, who have debated whether it represented a deliberate, widespread experiment in gender equality, or an accidental legal loophole whose importance was greatly exaggerated by the era’s partisan press.

But curiously, there has been little to no direct evidence that more than a handful of women had actually cast ballots — until now.

After scouring archives and historical societies across New Jersey, researchers at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia have located poll lists showing that women really did vote in significant numbers before the right was taken away.

The newly surfaced documents, which will be featured in an exhibition opening in August cheekily titled “When Women Lost the Vote,” may seem to speak to a hyperlocal story.

But the discoveries, the curators say, shed fresh light onto the moment when the meaning of the Revolution’s ideas was being worked out on the ground, in elections that had more than a little resemblance to the messy, partisan and sometimes chaotic ones we know today.

Read the entire piece here.

The 1619 Project: Debate Continues

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When we last left the debate on the 1619 Project, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz leveled more criticism of the project in a piece at The Atlantic.  

Social media historians (and some non-historians who are advancing informed and not-so-informed opinions) are going crazy.  While many ague based on historical evidence and best practices, there is clearly a political dimension to all of this.  The 1619 Project has led to some good conversations on race and slavery in the United States.  It has also exacerbated political divisions in the discipline over how to do history in the 21st century and how the study of the past informs competing visions of American identity.  And yes, as Annette Gordon-Reed tweets, personalities are involved.

There were two major salvos yesterday.

Alex Lichtenstein, the editor of the American Historical Review, considered by many to be the most important historical journal in the United States, weighed-in on the controversy.  Here is a taste:

…many scholars initially greeted 1619 with excitement and effusive praise. In part, I suspect that this was because the basic impulse behind the collection of eighteen articles and many additional short essays—by journalists, historians, sociologists, poets, legal scholars, English professors, artists, playwrights, and novelists—reflects how many, if not most, American historians already teach about that past in the undergraduate classroom….

So why the hostile, if somewhat belated, reaction? Here I admit to being perplexed—hence my initial hesitation to wade into the debate. The initial caveats came from an unlikely precinct, at least for a mainstream public intellectual knock-down, drag-out. In early September, the website of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) fired a broadside at the Times, denouncing the 1619 Project as “a politically motivated falsification of history” designed, in their view, to bolster the Democratic Party’s alignment with “identity politics” at the expense of any serious engagement with class inequality. This attack came not from the expected quarters of the right, which one imagines would find offensive and unpatriotic the denigration of the American promise as irredeemably racist, but from the Trotskyist left. As good Marxists, the adherents of the Fourth International denounced the project for its “idealism,” that is to say, its tendency to reduce historical causation to “a supra-historical emotional impulse.” By mischaracterizing anti-black racism as an irreducible element built into the “DNA” of the nation and its white citizens, the Trotskyists declared, the 1619 Project is ahistorical and “irrationalist.” This idealist fallacy requires that racism “must persist independently of any change in political or economic conditions,” naturally the very thing that any materialist historian would want to attend to. “The invocation of white racism,” they proclaim, “takes the place of any concrete examination of the economic, political and social history of the country.” Perhaps even worse, “the 1619 Project says nothing about the event that had the greatest impact on the social condition of African-Americans—the Russian Revolution of 1917.”4 (Well, OK, I was with them up to that point.) In some ways, the debate merely reprises one fought out nearly half a century ago: Which came first, racism or slavery? Who is right, Winthrop Jordan or Edmund Morgan?5

But that, it turns out, was merely the opening salvo. In October and November, the ICFI began to post a series of interviews with historians about the 1619 Project on its “World Socialist Web Site,” including (as of January 11) Victoria Bynum (October 30), James McPherson (November 14), James Oakes (November 18), Gordon Wood (November 28), Dolores Janiewski (December 23), and Richard Carwardine (December 31).6 As many critics hastened to note, all of these historians are white. In principle, of course, that should do nothing to invalidate their views. Nevertheless, it was a peculiar choice on the part of the Trotskyist left, since there are undoubtedly African American historians—Marxist and non-Marxist alike—sympathetic to their views. Barbara Fields comes immediately to mind, as she has often made similarly critical appraisals of idealist fallacies about the history of “race” and racism.7

If these scholars all concern themselves in one way or another with historical dilemmas of race and class, they hardly are cut from the same cloth. Bynum, best known for her attention to glimmers of anti-slavery sentiment among southern whites, some of which was driven by class grievances, doesn’t always take the Trotskyists’ bait. For example, she points out that “we cannot assume that individual [southern] Unionists were anti-slavery,” even if they “at the very least connected slavery to their own economic plight in the Civil War era.” Similarly, McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, acknowledges in his interview that initially most Union Army soldiers fought to “revenge an attack on the flag.” (As the Green-Wood memorial indicates, that’s how many chose to remember it as well.) Still, McPherson complains that the 1619 Project consists of “a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lack[s] context and perspective on the complexity of slavery.” Yet it is safe to say that he would not sign on to the Marxist version of the Civil War preferred by the ICFI—“the greatest expropriation of private property in world history, not equaled until the Russian Revolution in 1917.”8

McPherson insists in his interview that “opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.” Sure, but it wouldn’t be difficult to find a dozen historians who could say, with confidence, yes, but on balance, slavery and racism themselves have probably been just as, if not more, important. In his interview, Oakes, one of the most sophisticated historians of the rise of the nineteenth-century Republican Party and its complex place within an emergent anti-slavery coalition, offers a bracing critique of the recent literature on slavery and capitalism, scholarship that underpins sociologist Matthew Desmond’s contribution to 1619. But other than gamely defending Lincoln against the charge of racism, Oakes doesn’t really direct much fire at the 1619 Project in particular. For his part, Wood (described by the Trotskyists as “the leading historian of the American Revolution”) seems affronted mostly by the failure of the 1619 Project to solicit his advice, and appears offended by the suggestion that the Revolutionary generation might have had some interest in protecting slavery. Yet, oddly enough, even he seems to endorse what has become one of the project’s most controversial assertions—that “[Lord] Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown’s cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots.” Those are Wood’s words, and they are part of his wide-ranging and fascinating discussion of the place of anti-slavery and pro-slavery sentiment in the Revolutionary era and the Revolutionary Atlantic World more generally.

Taken as a whole, the interviews are of enormous interest, but more for what they have to say about these scholars’ own interpretations of key aspects of American history than as a full-on attack on the 1619 Project. Reading closely, one sees the interviewed historians trying to avoid saying what the Trotskyists would like them to say, offering a far more nuanced view of the past. This certainly entails dissent from some of the specific claims of 1619, but it hardly requires them to embrace fully the Trotskyist alternative, which I suspect at least several of them would be reluctant to do. Frankly, I wish the AHR had published these interviews, and I hope they get wide circulation. Not for the critique of the 1619 Project itself, but because collectively they insist on the significance of historical context, the careful weighing of evidence, the necessity of understanding change over time, and the potential dangers of reductionism. I would urge anyone to read them.

Read the entire piece here.  Lichtenstein respects the critics of the 1619 Project who were interviewed at World Socialist Web Site, but he was not overly impressed by the letter these critics wrote to The New York Times.

The second major response to Wilentz’s piece in The Atlantic comes from early American historian David Waldstreicher at the Boston Review.  Here is a summary of Waldstreicher’s piece:

Some historians, espousing what we might call the establishment view, insist that it is anachronistic to see slavery as central to our understanding of the decades-long revolutionary period. According to this view, the Revolution was in fact fundamentally antislavery, since it led to what Bernard Bailyn called in his 1967 study The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a “contagion of liberty” that made it possible for Americans to think critically about ending the institution. Such accounts emphasize that various Northern states restricted the slave trade and began to institute gradual emancipation during and after the Revolutionary war, and that enslaved people used the ideals of equality voiced during the Revolution to press their own case for freedom. Although a civil war was fought over what the government could and could not do about slavery, these historians say, Lincoln and other members of the Republican Party envisioned a path to emancipation under the Constitution and made it happen.

This is the accepted orthodoxy underwriting the contention, made in the letter sent to the Times, that it is just wrong—as well as bad politics—to tell schoolchildren that some or many or even any American revolutionaries fought to defend their property in slaves from a powerful imperial government. Hannah-Jones wrote that defending slavery was a primary motivation for independence in 1776, but the pushback from Wood and Wilentz was far more absolute. This was not surprising to academics who have followed the work of these historians. Wilentz argues in his latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding(2018), that the Constitution was antislavery in its essence and most of its subsequent workings, and has repeatedly gone out of his way to attack those who emphasize the proslavery politics of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. And for his part, Wood, a student of Bailyn, called talk of slavery and the Constitution in Staughton Lynd’s pathbreaking work “anachronistic” in his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republicand has never let up. According to his view, the founders belonged to a “premodern” society and didn’t talk or think about slavery or black people. In response to Silverstein’s response, he wrote, “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

On the other side of this debate is a growing number of scholars—Woody Holton, Annette Gordon-Reed, Michael McDonnell, Gerald Horne, and myself, among others—who question the establishment view of the Revolution and the founders. These historians, most of them younger than Wood or Wilentz, see a multi-sided struggle in an American Revolution that was about colonizing and winning power and authority. They see slavery as more than a peripheral matter. They do not take for granted that the story is primarily one of uncovering the motives and beliefs of the founders. Their work has considerably undercut the glass-half-full version of the narrative, which sees the end of slavery as a long-term consequence of American idealism and independence.

In ambitious works that explore the “unknown” revolutions that contributed to the independence movement, for example, books such as Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution(2005) and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804(2016) have challenged Wood’s sunnier version of events. In their hands the story loses some of its traditional romance but gains a deeper sense of realism. Other scholars, such as Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), have shown just how concerned the revolutionaries were, in both the North and the South, with slaves as an internal enemy. Perhaps most important of all, newer histories show how Africans and their children themselves forced the issue onto the agenda of the revolutionaries and the empires competing for dominion, especially in wartime. If we were talking about any other revolution or civil war, we wouldn’t be surprised that enslaved people fought on both sides, depending on which side seemed more likely to improve their condition.

Read the entire piece here.

Whatever you think of Waldstreicher’s article, it is a wonderful overview of revolutionary-era historiography.  Graduate students take note.

Stay tuned.  We have more coming on this controversy.  In the meantime, read all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.  I also tried to explain the project to my local community here.

Sean Wilentz’s Criticism of *The New York Times*’s 1619 Project

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Some of you will remember Sean Wilentz‘s letter to The New York Times criticizing the newspaper’s 1619 Project.  You can read it here.  The letter is signed by Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood.  With the exception of Wilentz, all of these American historians criticized the 1619 Project at the World Socialist Web Site.

After the publication of the letter, journalist Adam Serwer wrote a piece at The Atlantic titled, “The Fight Over the 1619 Project is Not About the Facts.” The subtitle reads: “A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine‘s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.”

Today The Atlantic published a longer piece by Wilentz on the subject.  Here is a taste of piece “A Matter of Facts“:

The opportunity seized by the 1619 Project is as urgent as it is enormous. For more than two generations, historians have deepened and transformed the study of the centrality of slavery and race to American history and generated a wealth of facts and interpretations. Yet the subject, which connects the past to our current troubled times, remains too little understood by the general public. The 1619 Project proposed to fill that gap with its own interpretation.

To sustain its particular take on an immense subject while also informing a wide readership is a remarkably ambitious goal, imposing, among other responsibilities, a scrupulous regard for factual accuracy. Readers expect nothing less from The New York Times, the project’s sponsor, and they deserve nothing less from an effort as profound in its intentions as the 1619 Project. During the weeks and months after the 1619 Project first appeared, however, historians, publicly and privately, began expressing alarm over serious inaccuracies.

On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.

The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.

No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth. That tool is far too important to cede now.

Read the entire rest here.  Whatever one thinks about Wilentz’s argument, it is hard to say that he is not making a case based on historical facts or offering a critique of the 1619 Project that is within the bounds of historical inquiry.

Clayborne Carson is the Latest to Talk to the World Socialist Web Site About the 1619 Project

Clayborne Carson


Clayborne Carson and former Black Panther Ericka Huggins at Occupy Oakland Protest, November 2, 2011

Clayborne Carson is professor of history at Stanford University and director of its Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. He is the author and editor of numerous books on King and the civil rights movement, including The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a taste of his interview with Tom Mackaman at World Socialist Web Site:

Q. …I think one of the things that is missing in the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones is any appreciation of the power of the contradiction that was introduced in 1776 with the proclamation of human equality, and also the impact of the Revolution itself. I thought in our interview with Gordon Wood he took that question up very effectively, pointing out that slavery became very conspicuous as a result of the Revolution. Also disregarded is the Afro-Caribbean historian Eric Williams, who analyzed the impact of the American Revolution on the demise of slavery. Instead the Revolution is presented as a conspiracy to perpetuate slavery.

A. Yes, and it’s wonderful to concentrate on that contradiction because that to me explains Frederick Douglass, it explains King. What all of these people were united on was to expose that contradiction—and we should always keep exposing it—the contradiction between the self-image of the United States as a free and democratic country and the reality that it’s not. If you are a black leader, your job is to expose that contradiction. If you go through a list of all the great orations in African American history, nearly all of them focus on that. They want to expose that and use that contradiction.

Read the rest here.

Click here to see our previous posts on the 1619 Project.

How Should You Respond When Your Stamp Distributor Resigns Under Pressure?

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William Franklin

On September 3, 1765, William Coxe, the Distributor of Stamps for New Jerseyresigned.  Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765 and it was scheduled to go into effect on November 1, 1765.  The New Jersey Sons of Liberty were putting pressure on Coxe to resign and the treatment that stamp collectors received in other colonies was probably also a factor.

Here is Coxe’s resignation letter to New Jersey royal governor William Franklin. It’s  short and sweet:

I think it incumbent upon me to acquaint your Excellency, that on my Return from New-Jersey on Sunday last, I came to a Resolution to Surrender the Office of Distributor of Stamps for the Province to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. My Resignation, & the Reasons for it, I have sent to their Lordships this Day, and if any Papers come to my Hands relative to that Office, I shall transmit them to your Excellency as the proper Person to receive them, but I think it most probably my Letters may arrive in England before any Commission or Stamps are sent away.

Franklin was not happy about it.  He responded the next day (September 4, 1765).

I received yours of Yesterday, acquainting me with your having resigned the Office of Distributor of Stamps for New Jersey, I must own myself not a little Surpriz’d at the Information, as I have not yet had the least Reason to apprehend but that the Act might be quietly carried into Execution throughout this  Province. It is true, that the Inhabitants here have their Objections to the Stamp Act, as well as those of the other Colonies, but I have not heard of any Design among them to oppose its Execution by Violence or otherwise. All of them with whom I have conversed on the Affair seem to think that they are as much bound to pay Obedience to their Act as they are to the Acts laying Duties on Trade, & those other Acts relative to the Colonies which they have heretofore obeyed, and that, as good Subjects, they ought no to make any Opposition to the Act, now it is pass’d, till they ave first try’d all dutiful Means of obtaining Redress of such Grievances as it may occasion.  These likewise (to do the Americans Justice) seem to be the Sentiments of the most Sober discreet Men of every Province. As to sending me the Papers which may come to Your Hands relative to the Office, it can answer no good Purpose whatever, as I am not impowered to appoint any Person to execute it. But I cannot help thinking, as you made Application for the Office, that you are bound to Honour to endeavour, at least, to carry it into Execution.  The ill Consequences, after the Act takes place, which might result, for Want of  the Stamps, to every Inhabitant who ha any Dealings and other Mischiefs which may be brought on the Province on Account of their being supposed by our Superiors at home to have prevented your exercising the Office, must otherwise lie at your Door.  At any Rate, it is your Duty to keep the Papers until some person shall be appointed to Succeed you. Thus much, Sir, I am induced to mention to you, not only from a Sense of Duty to the Crown, but out of the Regard I have for the Interest & Character of the People of this Province. 

1619 or 1776?

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The debate over the 1619 Project continues. What is the 1619 Project and how has the debate over its publication unfolded thus far?  Click here and read our posts.

Here is Conor Friedersdorf a The Atlantic:

America’s original revolutionaries, along with Abraham LincolnFrederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., all placed the universalist ideals of the Declaration of Independence at the center of this country’s founding. But that paradigm is under vigorous challenge from The New York Times Magazine. Last summer, the magazine began publishing the 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia. In essays, stories, poems, podcast episodes, and more, the Times has grappled with how slavery shaped all that followed.

More controversially, the project explicitly aims to reframe American history, rejecting the centrality of 1776 and instead “understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” In 2020, the Times will expand the 1619 Project into a book and promote classroom materials adapted from it.

That revisionist ambition quickly brought out critics—in outlets as normally antagonistic as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the World Socialist Web Site—who challenged the Times’s reframing and the factual claims offered as its basis. Last month, five historians alleged significant factual errors in a letter published in the magazine, alongside a response from Jake Silverstein, its editor in chief, who declined to issue corrections. That prompted another round of critical coverage from the World Socialist Web Site and historian Gordon Wood, a leading scholar of the period, who was irked most by the Times Magazine’s doubling down on the claim that a primary reason American colonists favored independence was to protect slavery. “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves,” he wrote. “No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

That movement conservatives, tenured historians, and the editors of the World Socialist Web Site align so substantially in their critiques has broader significance. The debate over the relative salience of class, race, and hierarchy in the United States has divided the left while yielding odd convergences, and not only between classical liberals on the left and right. Both Trotskyites and movement conservatives can be fiercely protective of the revolution of 1776 and worry that centering race in history and politics divides America in corrosive ways (though they differ wildly on what should or will likely happen if racial fissures recede).

My own judgment diverges somewhat from the main rival factions in this debate. Like many critics, I hope the Times Magazine’s work succeeds in causing more Americans to recognize the remarkable faith that African Americans showed in our country’s promise even in eras when America least deserved it. Yet the core reframing that the 1619 Project advocates would unwittingly set back, rather than advance, the causes of equity and racial inclusion. Placing America’s founding moment in 1776 honors the diversity of its people in a way that 1619 does not.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Cole Jones

captives of libertyCole Jones is Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University. This interview is based on his new book, Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Captives of Liberty?

CJ: When I began to study history professionally in 2007, the United States was deeply mired in the seemingly unending “War on Terror.” What had begun as largely conventional conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had devolved into complex counterinsurgencies in which the enemy did not abide by the laws of armed conflict as codified in the Third Geneva Convention of 1949. In a war against a tactic—terrorism—instead of a nation state, enemy prisoners posed thorny political questions. To treat Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters as prisoners of war eligible for exchange would implicitly acknowledge their legitimacy. Instead, U.S. forces held them indefinitely as illegal combatants. While the American populace responded in horror to news of abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention centers, official policy towards enemy captives remained unaltered.

This was the political context in which I began to think about America’s first war—the Revolutionary War. At the time, historians and pundits drew a stark contrast between contemporary Americans’ conduct of war in the Middle East—especially their treatment of enemy captives—and the apparent “humanitarian” actions of the “Founding Fathers.” I was intrigued by this juxtaposition and wanted to learn more. How had the American Revolutionaries negotiated the political and military challenges posed by prisoners? The answers I uncovered in the archives challenged my preconceived notions about the American Revolution and the war waged to secure it.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Captives of Liberty?

CJ: By analyzing the treatment of prisoners of war, Captives of Liberty recovers a revolutionary transformation in the conduct of the war that created the United States. Over the course of the struggle, British atrocities and loyalist resistance—both more often imaginary than real—galvanized ordinary Americans to wage an extremely violent war for vengeance that the decentralized revolutionary government could not contain.

JF: Why do we need to read Captives of Liberty?

CJ: Captives of Liberty is a cautionary tale about the power of revengeful rhetoric to escalate violence. The over 17,000 British and allied prisoners who suffered in American hands testify to the dangers of dehumanizing political opponents and to the fragility of law in the face of emotion. Revolutionary Americans had entered their conflict with Great Britain determined to demonstrate to the world that “Americans are humane as well as brave.” They failed to live up to this lofty aspiration of limiting war’s violence, but that does not mean that we should jettison their ambition. Instead of trying to live up to the standards set by the founding generation, we should strive to do better.

I also hope that my book restores the war, and its attendant suffering, deprivation, and death, to the political history of the American Revolution. Tearing down monarchical governance and establishing a republic came at a terrible cost that historians are only recently beginning to emphasize. American politics and society were profoundly shaped by the eight-years of civil war: a struggle every bit as revolutionary in character as its European successors. It is time, I think, for historians to abandon the antiquated and inaccurate title “The War for Independence” and to start calling the conflict what it really was: “The American Revolutionary War.”

JF: Why did you decide to become an American historian?

CJ: I grew up in the Hudson River valley of New York, surrounded by small vestiges of America’s colonial past. I have been fascinated by the American Revolution for as long as I can recall. The popular narrative of “Good American Patriots” versus “Bad British Redcoats” always troubled me. The causes, conduct, and consequences of the Revolution seemed so much more complicated than those platitudes suggested. I carried my interest in the Revolution into college where I caught the bug for historical research. After doing archival research on both sides of the Atlantic and loving every minute of it, I committed to the Ph.D. program in early American history at Johns Hopkins University. I count myself very fortunate to be able to read, write, think, and teach about American history for a living.

JF: What is your next project?

CJ: I am currently at work on two projects. The first is a short book, under contract with Westholme Press, that examines the opening stages of the Revolutionary War in North Carolina, culminating in the climactic battle at Moore’s Creek Bridge in 1776. The second more substantial project is a history of the war west of the Appalachian Mountains, currently entitled Patrick Henry’s War: The Struggle for Empire in the Revolutionary West. In short, it is a history of the rise and fall of Virginia’s empire during the era of the American Revolution.

JF: Thanks, Cole!

Gordon Wood on the 1619 Project

Earlier this month we did a post on the World Socialist Website’s interview with James McPherson.  The topic was The New York Times‘s 1619 Project.

And now the same website has published an interview with historian Gordon Wood.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Q. The 1619 Project claims basically that nothing has ever gotten any better. That it’s as bad now as it was during slavery, and instead what you’re describing is a very changed world…

A. Imagine the inequalities that existed before the Revolution. Not just in wealth—I mean, we have that now—but in the way in which people were treated. Consider the huge number of people who were servants of some kind. I just think that people need to know just how bad the Ancién Regime was. In France, we always had this Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities view of the society, with a nobleman riding through the village and running over children and so on. But similar kinds of brutalities and cruelties existed in the English-speaking world in the way common people were treated. In England, there must have been 200 capital crimes on the books. Consequently, juries became somewhat reluctant to convict to hanging a person for stealing a handkerchief. So the convict was sent as a bonded servant to the colonies, 50,000 of them. And then when the American Revolution occurs, Australia becomes the replacement.

I don’t think people realize just what a cruel and brutal world existed in the Ancién Regime, in the premodern societies of the West, not just for slaves, but for lots of people who were considered the mean or lowly sort. And they don’t appreciate what a radical message is involved in declaring that all men are created equal and what that message means for our obsession with education, and the implications of that for our society.

Read the entire interview here.

Where is Governor Livingston?

Liberty Hall Kean

William Livingston’s Liberty Hall

New Jersey’s revolutionary-era governor William Livingston was constantly on the run during the war.  Here, for example, is historian James Gigantino on Livingston during the British occupation of New Jersey in 1776:

Livingston’s whereabouts from mid-December to early January remain unknown; not known even if he remained alive, John Hancock addressed a late December letter to “Governor Livingston or the present Executive power in New Jersey.”

Livingston managed to survive several assassination plots. His home in Elizabeth-Town (Liberty Hall) was damaged by the British. And he was forced to move his family back and forth between Liberty Hall and Parsippany.

Here is Gigantino again:

Livingston had good reason to request personal protection.  British troops attacked Elizabethtown in February 1779 with the intention of capturing or assassinating him at Liberty Hall.  Finding only his wife and daughters, they hoped to seize the governor’s papers, but the quick-witted Livingston women instead proffered a pile of old law papers and correspondence from a recently captured British ship….Apparently , the governor agreed that a strong “conspiracy against me” had formed in Essex [County, New Jersey].  After the summer of 1779 and until the end of the war, he never returned for significant periods to Liberty Hall.  He believed that both he and his wife had to accept the inevitability that the British would burn their home and that the couple should “prepare ourselves to bear it with Christian fortitude.”

This is the context for understanding a letter that I read over the weekend.  A twenty-six-year-old British spy (and a former member of the Elizabeth-Town militia) named John Cunningham wrote the February 26, 1780 letter to William Tryon, the loyalist governor of New York.  It contained intelligence on the Continental Army.  Here is a relevant taste:

The Assembly is now sitting in Mount Holly in West Jersey. It is hard to say where Governor Livingston is to be found….In general the old County man may be said to be disgusted…They openly say the country has been cheated by the cry of Liberty, and that it is all a Delusion….Dr. Witherspoon is turned out the Congress–Mr. Livingston the state Governor less and less tolerated. He is called Cruel and miserly & cowardly both by Whigs and Tories. He is universally spurned at for dodging up and down the Country and shunning his own house where he leaves one of his daughters almost always alone.

According to Cunningham, things were not going very well in New Jersey in the winter of 1780.  Earlier in the letter he discusses the dire conditions among the Continental Army at Morristown and notes that the people of Morristown are tired of having the army in town.

Source: (CO 5/1110 The British Nation Archives, Adam Matthew Database).

Governor Franklin Was Worried About His Stamps

WilliamFranklin2-570x381

William Franklin

Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765. This law was designed to raise revenue in the wake of the French and Indian War through the sale of stamps on paper products, including attorney licences, land grants, playing cards, newspapers, and pamphlets.  Prime Minister George Grenville appointed men to distribute the stamps shortly after Parliament passed the act.  The Stamp Act would go into effect on November 1, 1765.

Grenville appointed Philadelphia merchant William Coxe to distribute the stamps in New Jersey, but amid pressure from the New Jersey Sons of Liberty, including threats to Coxe’s life, he resigned his post on September 3, 1765, weeks before the stamps even arrived in the colony.

Last night I read New Jersey Governor William Franklin‘s September 14, 1765 letter to British general Thomas Gage concerning the Coxe’s resignation. Franklin writes from Burlington, New Jersey and Gage, the British commander-in-chief of North America, is in New York.  Here is the letter:

The Person appointed Distributor of Stamps for this Province having resigned his Office on Account, as he Says, of the Intimidations he had received that both his Person & Property would otherwise be endangered, & having likewise refused to take Charge of them on their Arrival here, it becomes my Duty to do all in my Power for the Preservation of what is of so great Importance to His Majesty’s Revenue.  I have summoned the Council to meet here [Burlington] on Tuesday the 24th Instant, to ask their Advice on the Occasion; and as I have Reason to think it will be their Opinion that the Stamps should be placed in the Barracks in this City, under a guard until His Majesty’s Pleasure should be known thereon; and as it may be dangerous to employ the Inhabitants in that Service, considering the risque there is of their being infected with the Madness which prevails among the People of the neighboring Provinces, I should be glad to be informed by you, Sir, Whether if I should find it necessary to call upon you for the Aid of the Military I may be assured of receiving it. I imagine that about 60 men, with officers, will be sufficient, as the Barracks may be easily made defensible….P.S. By What I can learn, the Stamps are not expected here till some Time next Month.”

And here is Gage’s September 16th response:

I have the Honor of your Letter of the 14th Instant, and take the earliest opportunity of informing you that you may depend upon the Aid of the Military that you demand & seem to think necessary for the Preservation of good Order in the Province of New Jersey.  The Troops are at present a good deal dispersed but I shall give Orders for their being immediately assembled, and One Hundred Men with proper Officers, Shall be ready to march at your Requisition. I beg leave to remark that the sooner you come to a final Resolution the more effectual Service the Troops are likely to be of.”

Both of these letters can be found in CO 5/987, The National [British] Archives, Adam Matthew Database.

Crossroads of the American Revolution Will Place Historical Marker Outside First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, New Jersey

ETown Graveyard

In 2013 I did some consulting for a non-profit organization affiliated with the historic First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, New Jersey.  My team conducted research on James Caldwell, the revolutionary-era pastor of the church.  You can read about our work here and here and here.  Some of you will also remember my January 2014 writing binge related to this project.  Somewhere on a flash drive I have that 40,000 word report.  I am sure some of it will eventually make its way into my current book project on the American Revolution in New Jersey.

I was thus pleased to see that the church, the burial ground, and the neighboring academy building (which sits on the site of the school where both Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton studied before they went to Princeton and Kings College respectively) will be commemorated with a historical marker.  Here is a taste of a piece at Yahoo:

The story of the City of Elizabeth’s deep Revolutionary War heritage is now being told by two interpretive signs located outdoors on the campus of the historic First Presbyterian Church and burial grounds on Broad Street.

The signage will be unveiled on Monday, Nov. 4th, 2019 at 11am by representatives from the City of Elizabeth, The Elizabeth Destination Marketing Organization [EDMO], the Greater Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads of the American Revolution, and the Snyder Academy.

The Elizabeth markers are a vital part of the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association’s statewide signage program to create a recognizable brand for more than 200 sites that tell the story of New Jersey’s crucial role in the war for independence. Featuring the six-pointed star used in the original United States flag, the signs are designed to make it easier for residents and heritage tourists to locate key Revolutionary-era historic sites and learn more about the state’s deep Revolutionary War heritage.

New Jersey saw more battles and skirmishes during the American Revolution than anyplace else, and families were deeply affected by the many years of conflict that took place at their front door,” said Janice Selinger, executive director of Crossroads of the American Revolution. “Crossroads is proud to highlight the many contributions of Elizabeth’s Revolutionary notables, especially as we work towards attracting more heritage travelers to discover the state’s contributions during the commemoration of the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026.”

“As the first capital of New Jersey and home to our first Governor, Elizabeth has played a vital role in our state’s and nation’s past,” said Mayor J. Christian Bollwage. “Now residents and visitors can learn about Elizabeth’s deep ties with the Revolutionary War through these informative signs and what better place to do so than in front of the City’s First Presbyterian Church, where the first Colonial Assembly met in 1668.”

Read the entire article here.

 

Exploring Religious Disestablishment: State by State

DissentI am glad to see the release of Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833. Carl Esbeck of the University of Missouri and Jonathan Den Hartog of Samford University have edited a very useful book for anyone interested in the relationship between church and state in early America.  Authors include Evan Haefeli, James Kabala, Shelby Balik Kyle Bulthuis, Brian Franklin, and John Witte.  By the way, some guy from Messiah College who has a blog wrote the essay on New Jersey.

Over at the Age of Revolution blog, Den Hartog introduces us to the themes of the book.  Here is a taste:

The American Revolution came about through a sequence of fractures in the ties between the colonies and Great Britain. One of those fractures arose from an important call from the Continental Congress. On May 15, 1776, Congress approved a resolution urging each of the colonies “to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”[1] This invitation immediately called into question the charters and habits under which the colonies had been operating in a British constitutional and legal regime. It thereby forced the new states to question and modify long-standing arrangements, potentially transforming many aspects of American life.

One key element of those reconsiderations was the public place of religion for the states. In 1776, various forms of church establishment stretched from Georgia and South Carolina to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Although “establishment” has often been used to mean financial support for the official church, in reality, these establishments often connected with many other aspects of colonial life, property holding, and governance.[2] It was in the states that Americans experienced the most issues around “church and state.” The states thus provide the best location in which to examine how Americans pursued religious liberty in a revolutionary moment. Although much ink has been spilled about the First Amendment, even more significant change occurred at the state level.

The process of religious disestablishment in the states provides a fascinating story in political and legal innovation. It transformed conceptions of ties between religion and politics, religion and the law, and the citizen’s relationships and duties. It produced a unique American model of religious liberty for all, voluntary support of the churches, and non-sectarianisn (non-preferentialism) in governmental approaches to denominations. It’s a story that needs to be told.

In order to examine religious disestablishment at the state level, Carl Esbeck and I recently co-edited a volume entitled Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the American States, 1776-1833(University of Missouri Press, forthcoming November 2019). We recruited twenty-one scholars to analyze how establishment and disestablishment operated at the state level. These scholars—historians, political scientists, and legal experts—brought their distinctive insights, as they each took up one specific state. The range of investigation took in the original thirteen states, along with other early-admitted states such as Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Contributors also examined the special cases of Ohio (admitted from the Northwest Territory), Louisiana and Missouri (additions from the Louisiana Purchase), Maine (carved out of Massachusetts), and Florida (gained from Catholic Spain).

Read the entire piece here and then buy this book for your personal and university library.

Liberty Hall Museum Appoints New Director

Liberty Hall

Liberty Hall, once the home of New Jersey’s first governor William Livingston, has a new executive director.  Her name is Rachael Goldberg.

Here is the press release:

UNION, N.J.Oct. 24, 2019 /PRNewswire/ — Liberty Hall Museum, Inc., the organization devoted to the preservation and protection of New Jersey’s first Governor’s house, announced today that Rachael Goldberg has been named as Executive Director.

Rachael is a long-term employee, who has served in a number of capacities at the Museum.  Her new responsibility now will be to provide direction as the Museum strengthens its unique school program and looks for ways and means to encourage repeat visitors.

John Kean, President of the Museum said, “We are particularly fortunate to be able to promote someone within our organization who has such exceptional qualifications.”

Rachael began working for the Museum more than 10 years ago and has served in a number of different assignments. She is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island where she earned her degree in History.  She holds a Master’s Degree in American History from Monmouth University, as well as a certificate in historic preservation from Drew University.

Liberty Hall was the home of New Jersey’s first elected Governor, William Livingston.  Built in 1772, on the eve of the American Revolution, and passed down through seven generations of the Livingston and Kean families, Liberty Hall has been a silent witness to more than 200 years of American history.

The Livingston/Kean family has produced governors, senators, congressmen and captains of industry.  No less accomplished were the ladies of Liberty Hall.

A chronicle of New Jersey and American history, as glimpsed through the experiences of one family, this Victorian-style mansion is a treasure trove of historic riches.

This is of interest to me for two reasons:

  1. I continue to work on a new history of the American Revolution in New Jersey.
  2. I am consulting on Kean University’s William Livingston’s World project.

Eugene Debs, Bernie Sanders, and Anticapitalism

Debs

Eugene Debs

Jamelle Bouie’s recent piece at The New York Times is worth your time.  It is important to remember that many socialists in United States history, including Debs and Sanders, believed they were defending American ideals.

Here is a taste of “The Enduring Power of Anticapitalism in American Politics“:

But Debs didn’t just condemn his class enemies. He also called on his audiences to imagine a better world — to realize the democratic and egalitarian promise of the American Revolution through collective action. “We live in the most favored land beneath the unbending sky,” he said in a speech in 1900. “We have all the raw materials and the most marvelous machinery, millions of eager inhabitants seeking employment. Nothing is so easily produced as wealth, and no man should suffer for the need of it.” Debs’s appeal, noted the historian Nick Salvatore in his 1982 biography, “Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist,” was “frequently described by contemporaries as evangelical, and transcended at that moment factional disagreements and led each in the audience to glimpse a different social order.”

Or, as one self-described “hard-bitten socialist” said to the journalist Heywood Broun at the time: “That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around, I believe it myself.”

I mention all of this because I saw something of that Debs during Sanders’s Saturday rally in Queens, N.Y., where 25,000 people gathered to hear Sanders and many of his most high-profile supporters, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was a show of force for Sanders, who was recently hospitalized following a heart attack.

Read the entire piece here.

When Paul Revere Got the Scoop

Many of us use Paul Revere’s image of the Boston Massacre when we teach the American Revolution.

Revere massacre

 

But over at the blog of the New York Historical Society, we learn that Henry Pelham was the first person to produce an engraving of the Boston Massacre.  Here is a taste:

Pelham came from prominent Boston family and was the half-brother of the artist John Singleton Copley, one of the most renowned painters in 18th-century America. (A teenage Pelham is the subject of one of Copley’s famous early works, the 1765 portrait The Boy With the Squirrel.) It’s not known if Pelham witnessed the Massacre. But as a Bostonian and engraver by trade, he certainly understood how earth-shattering it was. He quickly produced a copperplate engraving depicting the events. At some point in the days afterwards, he showed a colleague a version of it, perhaps an early proof. The image, called Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston, on March 5th, 1770, was highly inflammatory—more propaganda than journalism—showing an organized British squad following an order to fire on the colonists, several of whom fall wounded in the street. It leaves no doubt of the patriot point-of-view: This was cold-blooded murder.

Pelham’s intent was to get the engraving printed and disseminated as widely as possible. There was only one problem: He got scooped. The colleague he conferred with was silversmith, fellow engraver, and Son of Liberty Paul Revere, who quickly realized how powerful the image was and set about engraving one of his own that was remarkably similar to Pelham’s. Revere called his version The Bloody Massacre, Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt and rushed it to press, beating Pelham by several days.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with T.H. Breen

the will of the peopleT.H. Breen is William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University. This interview is based on his new book, The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America (Belknap Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Will of the People?

THB: Unlike the histories of other revolutions—the French and Russian, for example—in which ordinary people figure centrally in the story, accounts of the American Revolution have focused on a few celebrated leaders or on the battlefield. I wanted to restore the missing piece to our understanding of the nation’s origins, people in small communities who experienced fear, called for revolutionary justice, complained about the betrayal of the cause by other Americans, sacrificed a lot to sustain the fight for independence, contemplated revenge at the end of the war and yet through it all managed to sustain a compelling vision of a new republic. Without them, we would not have achieved independence.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Will of the People?

THB: The American people did not initially set out to achieve independence or to organize a genuine revolution. But the actual experience of so many new men coming to power in small communities—of making judgments on revolutionary committees about their neighbors—transformed a colonial rebellion into a genuine revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read The Will of the People?

THB: Unlike other studies that depict the Revolution largely as an intellectual event or as the achievement of a small group of Founding Fathers, The Will of the People shows how ordinary people sustained resistance to Great Britain for eight years and in the process brought forth a new political culture that endures to this day.

JF: Tell me a little about your research and sources for this book.

THB: The book draws on contemporary newspaper accounts, town records, and personal papers to reconstruct how Americans gave meaning to the revolutionary experience.

JF: What is your next project?

THB: My next book will be entitled The Man Who Saved the American Revolution. It is a study of a remarkable early 19th-century printer Peter Force, who collected thousands of revolutionary documents that were at risk of being destroyed.

JF: Thanks, Prof. Breen!

“This is totally non-history, but what’s the name of that song you referenced today in lecture?”

Yesterday in my United States History to 1865 survey course, I lectured on the colonial responses to the Stamp Act.  I also use this lecture to introduce students to the Whig vocabulary of the Founding Fathers.  I try to historicize words like “power,” “liberty,” “slavery,” and “tyranny.”

When I talk about “power,” I note that Whig political thinkers believed that power was not only the antithesis of liberty, but it also had an encroaching dimension to it.  In other words, British Whigs, and by extension the American founders, believed that those with power will always want more.

In order to illustrate the encroaching dimension of power, I use a line from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Badlands”:

Poor man wanna be rich

Rich man wanna be king

And a king ain’t satisfied

Till he rules everything

Sometimes I even sing the lyric.

Usually this part of the lecture is met with blank stares.  The same thing happened today.  My students just don’t appreciate The Boss.

But when when I returned to my office later in the day I received an e-mail from a student.  It read:  “This is totally non-history, but what’s the name of that song you referenced today in lecture?”

My day was made!