*Hamilton* in the *Journal of the Early Republic*


Over at Professor Park’s Blog, historian Benjamin Park calls our attention to a historian’s roundtable on Hamilton published in the latest issue of The Journal of the Early Republic.

Joanne Freeman, Andrew Shocket, Heather Nathans, Marvin McAllister, Benjamin Carp, and Nancy Isenberg contributed to the roundtable.

Here is a taste of Park’s post:

But is Hamilton historically accurate? Benjamin Carp says that might be the wrong question to ask. Attendees should know that it’s not accurate history–the characters are breaking out into song and dance, after all. Rather than wondering if it is “good history,” we should rather ask, “is it good for historians?” (292) At its best, the play asks intriguing questions regarding how history and myth are constructed. It is left to historians to take advantage of the doors that are opened.

Nancy Isenberg, as you might expect, is not as optimistic. She worries that by merely celebrating the play, historians are abdicating their duty to hold popular memory accountable. She says the historical errors in Hamilton are not peripheral, but “massive” (296). The play distorts Hamilton’s personality and, especially, his commitment to power structures. (I especially enjoyed her discussion of the “faux-feminism” politics in the play [299].) Hamilton is not helping the promotion of accurate and useful history. “Americans ought to feel uncomfortable about their collective past,” she concludes. “We look foolish otherwise, as cheerleaders of American exceptionalism” (303).

Read the entire post here.

Revolutionary America: An Update on Textbook Selection

brown-and-carpIn the past I have spent a lot of time stressing over readings for my 300-level course on the American Revolution at Messiah College.  How many  monographs should I assign? How should I balance new works with classics in the field? What are the seminal scholarly articles that must be assigned?  What about important primary sources?

This year I decided to avoid the stress and assign only two textbooks. The first text is Gordon Wood’s short and concise The American Revolution: A History.  Wood’s text is limited in what it accomplishes, but I want students to have a political overview of the events leading up to the revolution, the war, and the confederation period.

The second text is Richard D. Brown and Benjamin Carp’s reader Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791.  This text is loaded with excerpts from some of the best secondary essays in the field (Gordon Wood, Alfred Young, Gary Nash, Fred Anderson, Carp, McConville, Armitage, Jasanoff, Dowd, Sinha, Zagarri, Crane, Butler, Noll, Onuf, Gross, Beeman, Cornell, Bouton) and some very teachable primary sources.

Most importantly, Major Problems allows me to assign manageable readings that my students can actually digest and discuss.  It allows us to spend more time analyzing primary sources and has enabled me to introduce historiography more effectively.  The discussions in class have been much better because we are not rushing to finish one monograph and get to another.  After fifteen years of teaching this course it now feels less like a graduate seminar and much more like an undergraduate history course.

Here is what we have done so far:

Day 1: Introduction to the course.

Day 2:  Discussion of the “Britishness” of the colonies of the eve of the American Revolution. Here I reveal my preference for the Anglicization interpretation of British America. Ben Franklin’s “For Interest of Great Britain Considered” (1760) was perfect for this discussion.

Day 3: We talked about the 12-15 research paper the students will write.  I introduced students to the Early American Imprints and Early American Newspapers collections. (We are fortunate to have these resources at Messiah College–thanks Beth Mark!).

Day 3: Discussion of four documents on changes in British customs policy and the Proclamation of 1763.  My favorite is George Washington’s letter to his land agent about trying to illegally buy land beyond the Proclamation line.  It portrays Washington as a self-interested land speculator.  This is a side of Washington that is new to most of my students.

Day 4: We read documents on the Stamp Act.  Brown and Carp include sources chronicling the violent resistance to the Act as well as the more intellectual opposition that came through people like Patrick Henry and the Stamp Act Congress.  The students really enjoy the descriptions of mob activity in New York written by Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden and his son David.  Today one student pointed out David Colden’s blatant attempt to land a job as a stamp collector and court the favor of the powers-that-be in London. Rank ambition indeed!  (Colden would end up fleeing to Canada).

Stay tuned.

Benjamin Carp on Edmund Morgan’s “Slavery and Freedom”


Edmund Morgan

As some of you may recall, Edmund Morgan’s 1972 Journal of American History article “Slavery and Freedomwon the 2016 Junto Blog “March Madness” tournament for the best journal article in early American history.

Over at Process: A Blog for American History (the official blog of the Organization of American Historians), Ben Carp of Brooklyn College reflects on the significance of Morgan’s essay.  I can’t think of a better person to do this right now.  Carp recently published a great essay on Morgan in Reviews in American History and has been tweeting about Morgan in honor of what would have been his 100th birthday (Morgan died in 2013). Follow along at #edmorgan100

Here is a taste of Carp’s post:

“Slavery and Freedom” is an article about Puritans, even though it doesn’t mention them at all; it’s about what happens when you try to colonize a place without them.

The article purports to be about how the Revolutionary leaders’ “dedication to human liberty and dignity” arose alongside “a system of labor that denied human dignity and liberty every hour of the day.” And indeed, we largely remember the piece for articulating “the central paradox of American history”: how the United States emerged as a beacon of freedom when so many African-Americans remained in chains, with entangled repercussions that still define the nation.

And yet the article spends surprisingly little time on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or Virginia’s slave society, and neither does American Slavery, American Freedom. It’s an irony that Edmund S. Morgan (1916–2013), the article’s author, would have appreciated (call it the “the ‘Paradox’ paradox”): how an unintended argument became his most enduring legacy.

“Slavery and Freedom” began life as Morgan’s presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in April 1972. Morgan had analyzed the Puritan work ethic and the way that the Founders applied it to their rebellion. But when he tried to attribute the ethic to elite slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson, he realized the argument wouldn’t quite hold. So he looked more closely at history of early colonial Virginia to figure out why the South turned out differently. “Slavery and Freedom” was primarily interested in the problems of work and discipline, which led Morgan into discussions of English ideas about debt and idleness, Francis Drake and the Cimarrons, the cultivation of tobacco, the fate of laborers who completed their indentures, and Bacon’s Rebellion.

Read the rest here.

Edmund Morgan at 100

MORGAN-OBIT-articleLarge-v3Michael Hattem of Yale writes at Storify:

The hashtag #edmorgan100 was started by Ben Carp in anticipation of his article on Morgan being published in the academic journal, Reviews in American History.  Other historians have joined in to note and discuss the life and work of one of the most important American historians of the last century.

Review the twitter conversation that #edmorgan100 generated through Hattem’s storified tweets.

Ben Carp Responds to My Academic History Post

I have long admired the work and ongoing career of Benjamin Carp.  In case you don’t know Ben, he is the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College.  He is also a prolific historian and public scholar.  Check out his books Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution and Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America.

Ben was dismayed by my recent post “Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing ‘Academic History’ and Writing History for Public Audiences” and asked me if he could write a response.  Of course I jumped at the chance to have Ben’s byline at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I am also flattered and honored that he would take my post and my work seriously enough to respond in the way he did.  For that I am thankful.

Fellow historians like Ben remind me why I love being a part of this profession.–JF

Here is his response (after the video, which Ben requested that I post with his article :-)): 

Baby Come Back: A Response to John Fea

As a fellow Mets fan, I will always feel a certain kinship with John Fea, and I have long valued his voice, his insights, and his scholarship. I agreed with much of his post, but it also filled me with dismay. I, too, cheered Karen Wulf’s post about the need for academic history and the impossibility of bending all our work toward a public audience.

I have come to some of the same conclusions as John: gratitude that I have attained a sense of calling in my job, a refusal to overvalue “prestige,” and a desire to speak to broader audiences when I can. But I have come to the opposite conclusion: a need to make sure I don’t spend all my time on public writing, and a need to keep plugging away at academic work. In a side conversation on Twitter, John and I talked about our search for a “middle ground” between academic and public history, but in his blogpost he seemed to be moving toward the edge of that ground, if not over a cliff.

Like John, I’ve also tried to write works for an academic audience and a public audience; and I’ve encountered the joys and frustrations in both. The miseries of academic publishing are well known: sniping peer reviewers, the long lag time, and the limited audience (sometimes). But public history is no picnic either: editors and filmmakers (and readers!) sometimes want something very paint-by-numbers, or conformist, or wrongheaded; the demand for gripping narrative and relatable characters can often lead historians away from more challenging topics. Sure, careerism stalks academia, but pelf and popularity contests can sometimes undermine a lot of public history. No one knows this better than John Fea, who has drawn upon his credibility as a scholar to assail the hacks who are out there misinforming the public.

People’s attention spans (in academic realms or the public) are finite. Every piece of writing must fight to be heard, and we hope it’s the good stuff that wins. For academic articles, “losing” that fight will mean fewer eyeballs or citations; for public history a “loss” will mean the same thing, except it’ll feel worse if there’s money riding on it.

But in spite all of these difficulties, I think it’s the scholar’s responsibility to try to work in both worlds if one has the capacity to do it.

So here is my prediction: John Fea won’t entirely abandon academic writing. As long as he is continuing to teach and advise students, attend conferences and participate in social media discussions, read manuscripts and review books, and write engaging history, he will feel the call to write for a scholarly audience again. Why? Because at some point his curiosity will lead him to a problem he can’t crack. And he will want to write his way out of that problem. Maybe it’ll be something that’ll take 10,000 words to answer, maybe 100,000—either way, it will become, for a time, his new passion. A blogpost will seem too short (“a three-minute record”), a trade book will seem too glib. Maybe the question and the answer will be a little too abstruse or narrow for a broader audience. But he’ll know that his fellow history-lovers are out there, and he’ll want to enter into the lists with them once again to solve that problem. Call it “the pursuit of mutual improvement.”

I can’t know this for sure, but I would guess that John Fea, like Philip Vickers Fithian, is sometimes being called abroad and sometimes feeling the tug of home; like all of us, he struggles with the tensions of reconciling the advancement of knowledge with the demands of the broader world. Unlike many of us, he has grasped the key insight that different audiences will want different things from the history we produce, and he has found ways to connect with these different audiences. This is one of the most admirable things about him. I just don’t believe him when he says that public history is the only kind he wants to do.

As long as our curiosity motivates us, there’s no easy answer to these questions. Given his talents, I think he should do both narrative and argument, both academic and popular writing, and we should all resist the urge to scorn people who aren’t following the same path, so long as they’re doing good work. One thing seems certain to me, at least: surrender isn’t the answer.

Ben Carp Reviews Lin-Manuel Miranda’s "Hamilton"

I have been waiting for this musical ever since I saw (via You Tube) Lin-Manuel Miranda in this performance at The White House:

Hamilton” is now playing at the Public Theater until May 3. Good luck landing a ticket.  All the shows appear to be sold out.  It is coming to Broadway in July.

So for now I am going to have to experience the show vicariously through Brooklyn College historian Ben Carp’s review at Common-Place.  Here is a taste:

The historian’s craft is on full display here.  In “The Room Where It Happens,” James Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson hash out the famous 1790 compromise to locate the capital on the Potomac but have the federal government assume state debts.  Yet as Aaron Burr (in his role as sometime narrator) tells us, we don’t actually know what went down, because no one else was in the room.  Later, Eliza Hamilton burns her letters rather than leave for posterity her opinions about Hamilton’s adultery.  She even sings about leaving the narrative.  Books, letters, and printed pamphlets recur as props, and they are constantly in motion: the characters read news of Laurens’s death, Hamilton’s attack on Adams, and his sordid confessions about Maria Reynolds.  Families try to love one another across distances.  As a historian I’m used to flipping through archival materials, so this dynamism was something of a treat.  On the front of the Playbill, the tagline reads, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” and in a number toward the end, the actors confront the idea that history isn’t static—storytellers might vary, and the differences among them actually matter. Audiences will thrill to Miranda’s interpretation, but they are still offered the idea that different interpretations are possible, and that the historical record leaves gaps for the imagination to fill.  If you’re like David Brooks (who saw the same performance I did), you may fall in love with Hamilton all over again (and is it just me, or does “The Hamilton Experience” remind you of “The Girlfriend Experience”?), but the show leaves room for many other reactions.

Race plays an interesting role in the show.  Ben Brantley found it “appropriate that the ultimate dead white men of American history should be portrayed here by men who are not white.”  In an interview, Leslie Odom, Jr. (who plays Aaron Burr), said, “In the first two minutes of this show, Lin steps forward and introduces himself as Alexander Hamilton, and Chris [Jackson] steps forward and says he’s George Washington, and you never question it again.” And while it’s true that the performances are unquestionably fitting, they also raise interesting questions.  In the show, the only white cast members (as far as I could tell) were either ensemble players (one of whom played the Loyalist minister Samuel Seabury) or Bryan D’Arcy James, who plays King George III to hilarious effect.  (“When push comes to shove / I will kill your friends and family / To remind you of my love.”)  In other words, on stage the whites represent monarchical authority, while the revolutionaries (men and women) are played by people of African, Latino/a, and Asian descent.  This show is, then, about revolutions past and future (and Miranda did acknowledge in the New Yorker that Michael Brown and Eric Garner were on his mind when the cast sang, “Rise up!”)…

…On the subway ride home, I saw a group clutching a Playbill from the show and discussing excitedly whether certain events in it were accurate.  I smiled.  It’s a good thing Hamilton is moving to Broadway for a longer run.  More audiences for this show could well mean a broader audience for other good histories, too.