A High School Student is Asking About Leopold von Ranke.

Stamp_Germany_1995_MiNr1826_Leopold_von_Ranke

Apparently a high school student is sending e-mails to historians asking them about 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke.  The student is interested in whether or not these historians believe in “objectivity” in the writing of history.  As some of you know, von Ranke had a lot to say about the subject.

Here is what I wrote about him Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

p.49: One of the most important critics of a usable past was the nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886).  He introduced the concept of “historicism,” or the idea that historians should seek to understand the past on its own terms.  Historicism has since become a mainstay of the historical profession.  As Ranke put it, “History has had assigned to it the task of judging the past, or instructing the present for the benefit of ages to come.  To such lofty functions this work does not aspire.  Its aim is to know how things happened.”  Ranke wanted historians to study the past for its own sake, not because it has a usable function for guiding our lives in the present.  He rejected the notion that the past is useful in that it teaches moral lessons, inspires those who study it, strengthens civic bonds, or provides individuals and communities with a better sense of identity.  Rather, for him, history is a science, and historians can teach the Enlightenment ideal of objectivity in their work.  The task of the historian is a conservative one–to seek after objective truth and to narrate “what happened” in the past.  No more and no less.

Several historians have wondered whether the girl asking about von Ranke is a conservative activist of some kind. Here is a taste of Nick Roll’s piece at Inside Higher Ed:

Professors and graduate students at at least six institutions received correspondence from the same email address. Some professors and historians even think the student might be a fictitious character made up as part of a right-wing trolling scheme, or part of an effort to catch “liberal professors” in an embarrassing trap. Even if the student in question — who did not respond to multiple requests for comment at the Gmail address used to contact the professors — is just an kid doing research, in an age of “fake news” and partisan tension, historians are treading carefully.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said that his organization had become aware of the emails over the holiday weekend, and was planning a review of the situation — and what to do when members are approached by unverified students and members of the public — when staff returned Tuesday.

“This is one more reminder of the caution with which everyone should approach email and social media,” he said in an email. “When I receive a query from someone claiming to be a student but without an institutional address, I ask the name of their school and teacher. If I do not receive a satisfactory response I end the conversation.”

It was on Facebook that Greenberg noticed his peers had received similar emails. In one instance, the student had even sent graduate students at Harvard a link (which, as of Monday evening, was available here) to a survey asking for more detailed responses.

“At first one of my [Facebook] friends who is also [University of Texas, Dallas] faculty and I were wondering if this email might have originally come from someone at UTD, since we both got the email, but then when I learned of all the other schools getting it, it seemed to me that someone elsewhere must be casting a wider net,” Lora Burnett, a teaching fellow in history, said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

What’s even more curious, Burnett pointed out on her blog, where she wrote about the incident, is that the University of Texas, Dallas, doesn’t have a formal history major, instead offering “historical studies.” So why would Burnett be of interest to a prospective history major, which the student claimed to be, Burnett thought. Unless, of course, the email is “fishing/trolling by a [right-wing] outlet looking to create a fake-scandal headline: ‘Liberal Professors Don’t Believe in Objective Truth About Past’ or some such nonsense.”

Forgive me if I am not yet ready to believe that this is a conspiracy theory.  If this is indeed a high school student working on a paper, the historical profession is going to look awfully silly. (Does this really merit an AHA investigation?).  This kind of stuff is the reason academic historians have such a hard time engaging the public effectively.  I hope we don’t have to explain all of this to the hard-working teacher who encouraged his or her student to e-mail professors for help.

Of course I could be wrong.  But when it comes to high school students and history teachers I always want to err on the side of caution.

Let’s for a moment give the conspiracy theorists the benefit of the doubt and say that this e-mailer is indeed a “right-wing” troll looking for a “fake-scandal headline.”  This wouldn’t be the first time academic historians have been accused of something sinister by the political Right.  If such a scandalous headline did appear, I would post the piece at my blog and use it as yet another opportunity to educate the public about what historians do and how they work.

More on the Museum of the History of American History

StilesA couple of weeks ago we published a post on Pulitzer Prize-winner T.J. Stiles‘s idea to have a museum devoted to American historiography.  We had fun with this idea on Twitter, as our post indicates.

Stiles has now floated this idea again in a recent article at History News Network titled “We Need a Museum that Tells Us How We Came to Believe What We Believe.”  Here is a taste:

It is time we built a Museum of the History of American History.

If Donald Trump’s comments on the Charlottesville march and murder did nothing else, they awoke much of America to the ongoing battle over the public memory of the Civil War. The resulting outrage shows that memory matters. Memory makes meaning. Memory makes politics.

And politics makes memory. So does the formal study and writing of history, of course, but the relationship between the discipline of history and memory—or broadly shared cultural assumptions—is complicated. Conventional wisdom shapes historians, who often reinforce it with their work; on the other hand, many challenge it by marshaling evidence and arguments that, on occasion, change the public mind and seep back into politics. I don’t mean, then, that we need a historiography museum, but one that traces the intertwining of the popular imagination and the professional study of history. It would go beyond the question, “What happened?” to ask “How did we come to believe that this is what happened?” The answer to the latter can be just as important as to the first.

Read the rest here.

 

What If We Had A Museum Devoted To American Historiography?

Last night historian T.J. Stiles tweeted:

I love this idea–a museum devoted to American historiography.  What would go in such a museum?  Here are some suggestions from the #amhistmuseum hasthag I created to “promote” it.

Follow along and add your own suggests: #amhistmuseum

“Ideological Origins at 50” Recap

2cfad-bailynLast month Yale University hosed a conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bernard Bailyn‘s landmark The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

Over at “American Revolutions” blog, Harvard graduate student E.G. Gallwey has provided a nice synopsis of the proceedings.

Here is a taste:

Several distinct themes emerged over the course of the two-day event that aimed to examine the signature contribution Bailyn made to our understanding of the Revolution. First, Eric Slauter placed Bailyn in his historiographical milieu. The influence of Caroline Robbins and J.G.A. Pocock on Bailyn’s interpretation of radical whig thought are well-known. But it was his reading of the work of lesser known American literary scholars, which provided the impetus for Bailyn’s study of words and their changing meaning as a symptom of shifts in political culture and understanding. By adopting this strategy, drawn from the work of Moses Coit Tyler, Elizabeth C. Cook, and Perry Miller, Bailyn was able to provide an interior view of the revolutionary generation and an intimate excavation of its mentalite.

Originally published as an introduction to an edition of revolutionary pamphlets, entitled The Transforming Radicalism of the American Revolution, Bailyn’s work, together with the companion volume The Origins of American Politics, provided a periodization or intellectual chronology of the rise of revolutionary consciousness. In this way, Jack Rakove’s paper recalled his experience of teaching Bailyn’s text and how its pedagogical function served to underline key questions of causation, an analytic at odds with the dominant trend of histories of the last decade which have focused on the lived experience of the Revolution. Rakove described Bailyn’s text as providing two distinct modes of explanation for the Revolution. The first provided an account of the causes of the Revolution under the influence of a worldview, or ideology, which pushed Americans from fear and suspicion at the loss of liberties, to outright resistance, and finally revolution against the threat posed to liberty by Britain’s expanding imperial state. The other, faced only after Independence had been declared, involved the eclipse of ideology in place of debate over key political and social questions, including slavery, religious freedom, and democratic rights. The specific role played by Whig ideology could not provide the answers for constituting a new and powerful national government, especially since—as Bailyn made clear—the suspicion of governmental power was the cornerstone of radical Whig thought.

The transition therefore from colonies to separate states, was a mere preamble to a much larger transformation in the structure of politics, where the nation-state produced out of the ashes of revolutionary separation required some new conception of sovereignty capable of holding a union of states, each highly jealous of their liberty. Danielle Allen provided a compelling account of the thought of James Wilson, who was shown to have nurtured an account of unitary sovereignty based on the new American nation as far back as the Declaration. Equally, Daniel Hulsebosch’s paper made clear that the constitution of 1787 was also a product of the international legal dimensions of governance, in which commercial and financial obligations structured the process of constitution making despite contradicting imperatives of domestic politics. Across the Atlantic, debates over sovereignty were being fought out in the France in a similarly ideological vein. As Patrice Higgonet discussed, the work of Francois Furet a decade later, and the guiding emphasis his work placed on ideas and their expression in public life, led to the convergence of historiographical concerns in French and American history. But for Higgonet, Bailyn’s account of the ‘pragmatic idealism’ of the American style of national governance was fundamentally at odds with the radicalism of the French. Indeed, such a contrast recalls Hannah Arednt’s famous distinction between the political and social bases of revolutionary thought.

Read the entire post here.

A New History of Race?

StampedI am not a historian of race, but, as an American historian, I do teach a lot about the role that race has played in the history of the United States.  This week in my Pennsylvania History class we have been discussing the 1838 Pennsylvania Constitution and the framers’ decision to restrict voting rights to free white men.  The new constitution allowed Pennsylvanians to get up to speed with the universal (white) manhood suffrage that was pervading much of Jacksonian America, but it also represented a step backwards for free blacks.  The original 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution gave voting rights to all free men, including blacks.  The 1790 Constitution limited voting rights to taxpayers, but did not distinguish taxpayers based on race.

Studying these three Pennsylvania constitutions reminds us that history does not consistently bend toward progress.

I do my best to keep fresh on new books related to race in America.  The Author’s Corner helps.  So do my attempts at curating the history Internet in an attempt to keep this blog going.  I thus always appreciate historiographical posts like Eran Zelnik‘s piece at U.S. Intellectual History Blog: “Should we be talking about the new history of race?

Here is a taste:

Over the last several years there have been numerous discussions, panels, articles, and other commentary about the “new history of capitalism.” Books such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told, and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams have been on everyone’s radar as a fresh new historiographical tradition. While I have learned much from these books, one of the most unfortunate aspects of this so-called “new” history is that it views itself as new and novel rather than rooted in a long tradition of black radical thought. (Walter Johnson is less guilty of this than Beckert and Baptist). And for the most part we historians have embraced this historiography at face value as new.

Another historiographical tradition that has its roots in black radical thought has emergedover the last several decades much more quietly—perhaps because it refused to claim its novelty. Often grounding itself much more explicitly—and in my opinion thoughtfully—with this powerful intellectual tradition, the recent history of race as a social and cultural construction has changed the way we think about race. In hindsight it now seems to me that 2016 was the year in which the intellectual history of racial constructions reached new heights with three truly ground-breaking works of intellectual history: Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation by Nicholas Guyatt, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution by Robert Parkinson, and, of course, the National Book Award winner, the magisterial Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi.

Guyatt’s book provides a much-needed inquiry into the intellectual history that made the patently contradictory and heinous notion of “separate but equal” thinkable and compelling for Americans. It also offers historians a crucial template for assessing anti-black and anti-Indian racism within the same intellectual landscape. Parkinson’s book is an exhaustive account of how ideas about race galvanized the opposition to the British during the American Revolution. It is the best attempt so far to finally wrest the intellectual history of the American Revolution from the stranglehold of the republicanism/liberalism debates. Kendi’s book is quite a marvelous achievement of intellectual history that charts the history of anti-black racist ideas. Cutting through numerous Gordian Knots with impressive intellectual precision, I believe that it will replace Winthrop Jordan’s classic White Over Black as the seminal intellectual history of race in American historiography.

Read the rest here.

More “Abundant History”

history-and-presence-199x300Earlier today I posted some thoughts on the first few chapters of Robert Orsi’s History and Presence.  I did a little more digging and found some of Orsi’s early thoughts on the subject in a 2007  American Scholar essay titled  “When 2+2=5.”

The imagined story of Orsi’s grandmother in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a wonderful illustration of the difference between “presence” and “absence.” It further illuminates Orsi comment about museums in my previous post.

This difference of theological interpretation is fundamental to the identities of these two divisions of the Christian world (the history of the Orthodox faith is another matter), and it is the pivot around which other differences, other identifications, accusations, lies, and hatreds have spun (and in some places at some times still spin). Catholics in the United States in the middle years of the 20th century, for instance, claimed that Protestant support for birth control was yet another expression of corrupted and disembodied Protestant modernity. What do you expect from people who think the Host—the Communion wafer, which is, for Catholics, the real presence of Christ—is nothing? Catholics I have spoken to who grew up in Catholic towns in rural Nebraska in the 1940s and 1950s told me they were deeply ashamed of their large farm families because they knew the children in nearby Protestant towns made fun of their parents’ fecundity, associating Catholics with the body and sex in a nasty schoolyard way. Catholic statues weep tears of salt and blood, they move, they incline their heads to their petitioners; recently in the diocese of Sacramento, California, which is near bankruptcy as a result of sexual abuse lawsuits, the eyes of a statue of the Blessed Mother leaked what believers saw as blood. Religious historians in the last decade or so have taught us that Protestant popular culture is also replete with images and objects and that there are divisions among Protestant churches over the meaning of the Eucharist. But still the basic differences between a religious ethos that is based on the real presence and one that is not are deep and consequential.

This divide between presence and absence, between the literal and the metaphorical, between the supernatural and the natural, defines the modern Western world and, by imperial extension, the whole modern world. Imagine one of my Italian Catholic grandmothers going to see a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She climbs the museum’s steep steps rising up from Fifth Avenue and pushes through the crowds and into the rooms of medieval art, where there are many lovely statues of the Blessed Mother, whom my grandmother knows and loves. My grandmother wants to touch the statues. She wants to lean across the velvet ropes to kiss their sculpted robes or to whisper her secrets and needs. But this is not how modern people approach art. For them, the statues are representations, illustrative of a particular moment of Western history and the history of Western art, and are to be admired for their form and their contribution to the development of aesthetic styles over time. There’s nothing in them, no one there. The guards rush over and send my grandmother back out to the street.

This is a parable of two ways of being in the world: one associated with the modern (although this is complicated, clearly, since my grandmothers lived in the modern world after all, and you can find believers in cathedrals throughout the world today petitioning statues); the other with something different from the modern. One is oriented toward presence in things, the other toward absence. As the guard rushing over shows, the difference is carefully policed—as carefully policed as the difference between Jesus in the bread and wine and Jesus not in the bread and wine was policed on that August morning in Paris or at the base of Campion’s scaffold—although with less dire consequences. Certain ways of being in the modern world, certain ways of imagining it, are tolerable and others are not. Especially intolerable are ways of being and imagining oriented to divine presence.

Read the entire essay here.

A Historiography With the Gods as Agents

Back in August we featured Orsi’s History and Presence in the Author’s Corner.  You can read that interview here.  Over the last few weeks I have finally gotten a chance to dig deeply into this book.  I am taking it slowly.  It is a thought-provoking work.

Orsi wonders what the practice of history might look like if “the transcendent broke into time.”  How might we envision a historiography in which “the gods” are active agents and we, as historians, make an effort to try understand what they are doing.  What intrigues me the most about this suggestion is that it comes not from David Barton or some other providential historian of the Christian Right that we criticize here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but from a Professor of Religious Studies and History and the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University.

Unlike the aforementioned providential historians, Orsi is not suggesting that we try to discern the workings of Providence in the world.  Instead, he starts with the assumption that God and the gods are present and have been present to millions of people in the past.  (He draws the word “presence” from the Catholic doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist).  He writes: “I am inclined to believe that presence is the norm of all human existence, including in religion, and absence is an authoritative imposition” (p.6). He is asking his readers “not to make the move to absence, at least not immediately, not to surround presence with the safeguard of absence, but instead to withhold from absence the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual prestige modernity gives to it, and to approach history and culture with the gods fully present to humans.” (p.8).history-and-presence-199x300

Orsi calls for an “Abundant History” that rejects the secular inclination to interpret “presence”–such as a Marian apparition or a pilgrimage to a shrine or a vision–according “to the authorized interpretive categories” of the political, sociological, ideological, technological, scientific, and economic.  He urges us to avoid explaining religious phenomena as social constructions.  Orsi adds:

In an intellectual culture premised on absence, the experience of presence is the phenomenon that is most disorienting, most inexplicable.  This puts that matter of “translation” and “bracketing” into a new light.  Constraints on the scholar’s imagination become, by means of his or her scholarship, constraints on the imaginations of others, specifically those whose lives the scholar aims to present and understand. There is a double intellectual tragedy here, for once their reality is constrained by ours, they no longer have the capacity to enlarge our understandings of our imaginations.  This is the price of ontological safety. (p.64).

Orsi concludes this chapter by wondering:

The past may act upon us in such a profound way as to erase our intentions of remaining outside of it.  This is the vertigo of abundant history.  It comes upon historians as a result of their training and disciplining.  But it may be that this is what abundant historiography is: approaching events that are not safely cordoned off in the past, that are not purified, but whose routes extend into the present, into the writing of history itself.

I am about halfway through the book and it is giving me a lot to think about.  I recently took a break from reading and listened to Ed Linenthal‘s interview with Orsi on the Process Podcast produced by the Organization of American Historians.  You can listen to it here.

There is one section in the podcast in which Orsi talks about museums as places where “figures of presence are gathered.”  These sacred objects–Orsi gives an example of a Buddhist deity–are meant to be touched and spoken to, but the practice of museum protocol means that they must remain behind glass walls.  This, Orsi notes, enforces a “code of absence” in the museum.

The conversation with Linenthal is fascinating since he is not only the outgoing editor of The Journal of American History, but he also has a background in religious studies and has written a lot about sacred spaces in American civil religion.

Orsi admits that there is “little tolerance” in academia for the kind of abundant history he is talking and writing about.   He claims that he doesn’t know how to convince his colleagues that this kind of “real presence” is part of the “empirical world.”

I’ll keep reading.  Stay tuned.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Orsi

 

history-and-presence-199x300Robert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University.  This interview is based on his recent book History and Presence.

JF: What led you to write History and Presence?

RO: Whenever I’ve said in a lecture that I believe religious history and contemporary cultures are constituted as webs of relationships between human beings and the various special figures of their respective religious traditions (gods, saints, ghosts, ancestors, the dead, etc.) present to each other in the circumstances of domestic and political life, with the special beings as agents in their own right, invariably the question arose what such a historiography would look like. History and Presence is my response to this question.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of History and Presence?

RO: History and Presence makes two interconnected arguments: The first is historical, (1) that the lived reality of special religious beings, their efficacious presence (in wartime, for example, or within families, or as agents of social discipline or of resistance), has been not only a bitterly contested matter since early modern debates between Catholics and Protestants over how Jesus is “present” on earth after his ascension into heaven; it has been constitutive of modernity itself, with the parties of presence—Catholics and those with Catholic-like understandings of relationships between humans and gods—relegated to the past of the species and the infancy of each individual. The second (2) offers a historiographical theory of presence and then uses it to explore how a concept of the “real presence” of the gods (an intentional borrowing of a Catholic theological term for theoretical purposes) provides an alternative to normative modern epistemologies and ontologies for the study of religion and history.

JF: Why do we need to read History and Presence?

RO: The critique of secularism as a religious project has inexplicably (to me) coexisted with the failure to conceptualize “religion” in any way other than on the terms of the normative modern or the secular. The normative modern/secular is like a finger trap; there seems to be no way of getting out of it, and the more we struggle, the tighter it gets.

I ask readers of History and Presence to try the thought experiment with me of approaching history and culture through what I call a “matrix of presence,” to see how such a perspective may surface and challenge their methodological and theoretical “unthought knowns,” the deepest level of their understandings of what the real is, and perhaps be generative of new insights in their respective areas of inquiry or reflection. This is explicitly to repurpose a concept (“real presence”) that was essential for establishing hierarchies and boundaries in modernity, among peoples, for instance, between civilizations, races, and classes, and among ways of being in the world, as a theoretical wedge to pry open those boundaries and disrupt these hierarchies.

If we do not examine the fundamental role of the denial of “real presence” in constituting so many domains of modern knowledge and practice, among them constitutional law, conceptualizations of religious freedom, strategies and disciplines of nation building, approaches to art and hermeutics, as well as the study of history and religion, then we will be destined to reproduce these limits and hierarchies over and over again, in this way contributing to the normative work of modernity in endless repetition.

If we already always know that religion: 1) is a medium of social coherence, although in “cult” or “sect” form occasionally media of social disruption; 2) that certain ways of being religious are irrelevant to the study of modern history other than as data; 3) that special religious beings are figments or fragments of something else but unreal; 4) that religion’s historical and cultural role is functional and that religious practice and experiences grids neatly onto other social categories (race, class, gender among them as well as the public/private distinction)—then why bother studying it?

This is another answer to question one: I wrote History and Presence because I was frustrated by the always already known quality of so much writing about religion, history, and culture (although there are exceptions), their utter predictability.

The theory of abundant presence offered in History and Presence may contribute as well to altering the place of religious studies and theology in the humanities and social sciences, from being always the dependent variables to disrupting the unthought knows of these various domains of inquiry and in this way produce new knowledge about history, experience, and culture.

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

RO: I’m a scholar of religion in history and contemporary practice with Catholicism as my case study for developing theoretical approaches to history, religion, human subjectivity, and culture. Pretty quickly it became apparent to me that Catholicism was a potent vantage point from which to look at modern history and religion more broadly. Catholics are surprisingly absent from US history.  A recent history of New Orleans, of all places, references Catholicism only on a couple of pages and ignores the role of Catholic orders of women and men, such as the Ursulines and the Jesuits, in the making of the city. This is hardly anomalous: although Catholics comprised the largest populations of modern US cities, they are all but absent in histories of US cities and theories of urbanism. This absence, as I argue in the book, is one of the long enduing consequences of those early modern debates about real presence, as Catholics and others whose religious imaginations resembled the polemical version of Catholicism, were written out of history. But again to look out from this place offers a revealing perspective on what is always already known in the study of modern history and culture, and to challenge it.

What is your next project?

RO: As of September for the academic year 2016-2017, I will be a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, where I will be working on a study of the implications of real presence in the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up in modern Catholicism, looking in particular at how many (not all) men and women abused by priests—who in Catholic theology are closely aligned with the real presence of Jesus, Mary and the saints—struggle with this ontology over their lifetimes. This extends the work I begin in the last chapter of History and Presence, called “Events of Abundant Evil.” (The Catholic author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, once wrote that if there are demons, there must be angels, and I go on the assumption that the reverse is true as well.) I want to set the CSA crisis in relation to wider historical, cultural, sexual, theological, and religious environments, again not to fit it snugly into them, but rather to see how it may complicate what is already known about religion and sexuality, for instance, the boundaries and excesses of religious bodies, the sexual understanding of children and adolescents in 20th century US history and in Catholicism, and the place of the gods in sexual and religious violence.

JF: Thanks Bob!

Teaching Old Historiography

MorganI love Joe Adelman‘s piece today at The Junto: “The Significance of Old Historiogaphy in American History.”

Adelman, who teaches American history at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, writes about trying to teach fresh new perspectives on American history when his students do not know the older work upon which the authors of these new perspectives are building.

Here is a taste:

The issue arose this week in my Native American history course when we read and discussed Drew Lipman’s article on the murder of John Oldham and the saltwater frontier…As part of his historiographical discussion, Lipman distinguishes his definition of “frontier” from that of Frederick Jackson Turner’s.[2] When this came up in our conversation, I paused and asked how many students were familiar with the Turner thesis. Only three students were, only two had read Turner’s essay in a college classroom—and they both read it in an English course (the same one). That seemed a little embarrassing to me as a teacher.

On a certain level, though, that level of engagement makes complete sense to me. Why should they have read it? Very few people conceptualize the “frontier” in the same way that Turner did 125 years ago, nor do they feel a need to respond directly to his argument as part of the historiography. It is, in many ways, totally outdated, more a primary source for views about Native Americans and the West in the 1890s (that’s how my two students read it in their English course, paired with something by Teddy Roosevelt) than a work of historical scholarship that requires engagement. At the same time, however, the Turner thesis or frontier thesis had such an enormous impact on historical scholarship for decades that it still matters on a certain level, enough so, for example, that cutting-edge, Bancroft-worthy research published within the last decade still name-checks Turner. So maybe students should encounter it, or at least have passing familiarity with it.

So I wonder–is it possible to teach both new perspectives and older historiogaphy in the short time that we have with our students each week?  I think it can be done. Let’s take my British Colonial America course, for example.

In this course, I largely stick with the classics.  I still, for example, have students read Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery/American Freedom.  We read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives and Jon Butler’s seminar article “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretation Fiction.”  I have assigned Richard White’s The Middle Ground and Dan Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country.

Most of these interpretations, of course, have been challenged by more recent scholarship. I am aware of this and use my class time to discuss these texts and get my students to think about the ways these particular works have been challenged.  Sometimes I even hand out bibliographies of scholarly works that have engaged with these classics or offer a different take on the subject matter. For example, when we discuss Morgan, I also want them to know something about the work of Kathleen Brown and Rebecca Goetz, among others.

In other words, don’t judge a course by its reading list.

But I imagine that one could turn this approach to teaching American history on its head by assigning the most recent work in a particular field and using class time to talk about the older works that made these new interpretations possible.

Whatever approach is taken, we want students to be exposed to historiography and historiographical development over time, multiple interpretations of the past,  and the process by which new interpretations are created.

Thanks, Joe.  This post is making me thing.

Historians of Canada Have Been Studying Loyalists for a Long Time

loyaliststamp

Because history is often written by the winners, Whigs and patriots have long dominated the study of the American Revolution.  Loyalists–or those men and women who supported the Crown during the Revolution–have thus received sort shrift in the narratives that historians write about this era.

Are early American historians rediscovering the Loyalists?  Yes and no.  While many historians in the United States are trying to bring more complexity to the story of the American Revolution by bringing Loyalists into the mix, others–particularly scholars who focus on Canada and “North America” more broadly–have been studying Loyalists for a long time.

This is the argument of University of New Brunswick historian Bonnie Huskins in a recent piece at Borealia.

Here is a taste:

It has been gratifying to see the number of recent Borealia blog posts on the loyalists – Sources for Loyalist Studies, Loyalists in the Classroom: Students reflect on historical sources, The Future of Loyalist Studies, and Let’s Play Again: Recovering “The Losers” of the American Revolution (Part I). However, it is sometimes a tad frustrating to hear references to the loyalists as an ‘overlooked’ people. Perhaps this is the case in the context of American historiography, but I would like to interject with the reminder that scholars of British North America/Canada have been studying the loyalists for a long time. This is articulated in Jane Errington’s 2012 review essay “Loyalists and Loyalism in the American Revolution and Beyond” as well as Ruma Chopra’s “Enduring Patterns of Loyalist Study: Definitions and Contours.” I realize that many scholars of early America are more interested in examining the loyalists in situ. Indeed, one of the most interesting directions in loyalist studies is the analysis of loyalist reintegration into the United States being pursued by historians such as Rebecca Brannon. Nonetheless, I still hold that the literature written about loyalists and loyalism in a Canadian and Atlantic World setting are useful for American researchers. Perhaps this is a transitional moment, as Chris Minty suggests in The Future of Loyalist Studies. As scholars and public historians engage with the loyalists who returned to the United States, or never left, it is hoped that they will do so in the spirit of collaboration.

Read the rest here.

Losing the Revolution

loyalistsWe have mentioned Borealia here before.  It is relatively new blog devoted to early Canadian history.  Not only is the blog attractive, but it has also been putting out some really good content.  In the past couple of months Keith Grant and Denis McKim have published some thoughtful posts on the history of loyalism during the age of the American Revolution.

A case in point is Taylor Stoermer‘s recent piece, “Let’s Play Again: Recovering ‘The Losers’ of the American Revolution.”

I like how Stoermer frames his post.  Here is a taste:

Much has been made lately of the rediscovery of the American Revolution by scholars as a series of questions that remain unresolved.  Both veteran historians and those new to the field (although those groups aren’t mutually exclusive) are, through conferences and colloquia and online forums, exploring this ostensibly transformative event of the late eighteenth century on something close to the level of those who lived through it, now that we are in a “post-Atlantic” historiographical moment.  Mostly gone are the debates that left the study of revolutionary history somewhat moribund, as neo-whigs and neo-progressives, even a neo-tory or two, marched away from the field without a decisive victor, as their concerns were abandoned like an unnecessary baggage train, in favor of shifting interests towards exploring discrete groups in provincial America, the Early Republic, and what was left of British North America.  But now revolutionary history is in the midst of something of a renaissance, which as a historian of the Revolution, I can only applaud, even as I watch with no small wonder as historians largely dismiss the work of older, yet still very much relevant, scholars in favor of their new pursuits of intellectual happiness.

Nevertheless, it is an exciting moment for those of us who still find the American Revolution a puzzling and exciting field of inquiry, especially because, as one looks more closely at it, the more it resembles an exercise in fauvism, devolving into tiny points of colorful interest that reveal patterns missed by earlier observers.  The danger, of course, is in remaining so focused on the small points that the larger picture is lost, as happens in so many micro-histories, as valuable as many of them are in recovering the stories of the heretofore unsung men and women who made most of the history of the period.  After all, as Henry David Thoreau reminded us in his reflections on “Revolutions” that “The hero is but the crowning stone of the pyramid—the keystone of the arch…. The most important is apt to be some silent and unobtrusive fact in history” (Journal, 27 December 1837).  And such an approach helps us to avoid the pitfall, into which many of us can trip, of considering whatever happened in eighteenth-century North America that divided the British world from an American one, as part of a grand, impersonal scheme of processes and mentalities, almost Calvinistically predetermined by the forces of social change that led inexorably from the colonial to the early national period of U.S. History (leaving Canada, unfortunately but conveniently, out of the picture).

But there remains that pesky question of just what was so revolutionary about the period in between the colonial era and the Early Republic, what we call the American Revolution?  The fact that it now seems to be an open question for scholars, perhaps for the first time, whether sitting at a university or in an armchair, is invigorating enough.  The first historians of the Revolution, such as Mercy Otis Warren and John Marshall, never doubted for a moment that there was something transformative about it.  Their primary concern, however, was not whether such a transformation took place, but who was responsible for it, and therefore could define it for contemporaries and posterity.  That we can freshly approach the people and events of the period, without being weighed down by the ideological baggage of centuries, but also without ignoring it, should drive an entire new era of scholarship that puts the colorful points, many of which have only dimly been perceived, back into the broader picture.

For me, the overlooked people who are most interesting are the loyalists, and properly defining them, as my work seeks to do, along with that of other historians with similar interests, can reveal a whole new revolutionary history, one that not only breaks down our understanding of the period’s freighted language, like “patriot” and “tory,” but that might make us entirely redefine what we mean when we say “the American Revolution.”

Read the rest here and stay tuned to Borealia for the second part of Stoermer’s piece.

Why Teach Historiography?

keep-calm-and-study-history-36When I first began teaching American history at the college-level I wanted my students to learn historiography because I thought I was preparing them for careers as historians. Every good early Americanist must know how historians have differed about the origins of the American Revolution or the rise of capitalism.  They needed to know the difference between the Gordon Wood and Gary Nash on the revolution or James Lemon and James Henretta on the roots of American capitalism.  I thought I was in the business of training historians who would one day become just like me–an American history professor.

Over the years my approach to teaching historiography has changed.  I still teach it, but my motives are different.  I am no longer as concerned about whether my students remember the particular interpretations of the past the we discuss in class.  A few of them who head off to graduate school will remember the names of authors and the essence of their arguments, but most will not.

So why do I still teach historiography?

I think Jeffrey T. Manuel, a historian at Southern Illinois University and the author of a recent piece at Process on teaching historiography, has the best answer to that question. In his report on a recent session on teaching historiography at the 2015 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Manuel writes:

The roundtable began with a discussion about the importance of incorporating historiography in introductory classes. There was immediate consensus that historiography was valuable to students because it humanizes history, allowing them to see the individual historians behind each analysis. Jason Stacy noted that partway through the semester his students began identifying journal articles by the author’s last name, a sure sign that they were connecting interpretations with specific authors. By focusing on historiography in introductory classes, students come to see history as a boisterous conversation—an argument, at times—about the past and its meaning. Roundtable speakers agreed that once students recognize history as a conversation, they feel much more comfortable entering that debate with their own arguments and interpretations.

History is indeed a conversation.  By teaching historiography to students we get them to see that there are multiple sides to every human story.  In the process we develop citizens who know how to think more deeply and critically about the stories that they are presented with every day.

 

Brantley Gasaway: Diversity and Debates With the Social Gospel Tradition

GasawayBrantley Gasaway of Bucknell University offers another dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  See all  of his AHA 2016 posts here.

While historians devote much of our time to critically examining the past, we also ask critical questions about the ways in which previous scholars have interpreted this past. As a result, numerous sessions at professional conferences such as this one are devoted to historiographical issues, re-examining familiar narratives, concepts, and interpretive categories. The first session I attended on Thursday was devoted to reassessing the concept and history of “culture wars.” Today, a panel of historians presented papers that sought to “Rethink the Social Gospel(s).”

In the earliest historiography, scholars portrayed the Social Gospel as a movement developed and led by elite white Protestant liberals, popular primarily in urban centers, concerned most with the deleterious consequences of industrialization and urbanization, and ebbing in influence after the 1930s. In recent decades, however, historians have challenged this characterization by showing how the theology of Social Gospel was adopted and adapted by a variety of religious and racial activists in many different locales and for many different purposes. Today’s panel continued this trend.

Curtis Evans, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, delivered a paper that examined the efforts of the Federal Council of Churches’ (FCC’s) Department of Race Relations as a manifestation of the Social Gospel. This initiative was founded upon one of the Social Gospel’s core theological principles concerning “the fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of man.” As an ecumenical and cooperative organization of liberally-inclined Protestants, the FCC inherited the Social Gospel tradition and, from the early 1920s through the 1950s, extended their commitment to address social problems to racial injustice. Through the participation and leadership of African-American ministers, the FCC developed concrete programs designed to change not only individual attitudes but also systemic racism as embodied in economic, educational, and legal structures. Because the FCC concluded that the realization of the Kingdom of God required the eradication of racial injustice, Evans concluded, the work of the Department of Race Relations deserves a place in narratives about the Social Gospel.

Arlene Sánchez-Walsh of Azusa Pacific University focused on the labor activism of Emma Tenayuca and the 1938 strike of Chicana pecan shellers in San Antonio. The vast majority of the workers were Catholic, while a sizable minority were converts to the Assemblies of God tradition. Nevertheless, both the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Assemblies of God leaders opposed the strike for a variety of reasons, including labor leaders’ association with communism. As a result, Tenayuca, who had indeed joined the communist party, and other workers were forced to draw their inspiration and justification from sources outside of traditional religious institutions. As Sánchez-Walsh explained further during the discussion period, she found no influence of the traditional “Social Gospel” theology and liberal Protestants in her case study.

Paul Putz, a Ph.D. student at Baylor University, focused on two controversies during the Gilded Age in the Midwest. In 1894, the commencement address given by Christian Socialist George Herron at the State University of Nebraska created public debates concerning the Social Gospel’s legitimacy and limits. In 1900, Charles Sheldon, author of the classic Social Gospel novel In His Steps (that introduced the question “What Would Jesus Do?”), assumed editorial responsibility for the leading paper of Topeka, Kansas for one week and pledged to run it according to Social Gospel principles. Despite their initial enthusiasm, local black leaders criticized Sheldon for virtually ignoring issues of racial injustice. For racial minorities, attention to racial problems represented the sine qua non of Social Gospel activism. Thus, Putz concluded, historians must pay attention not only to familiar leaders such as Herron and Sheldon but also to other Social Gospelers and their priorities.

Cara Burnidge of the University of Northern Iowa gave the final paper and offered the most explicit reflections on Social Gospel historiography. Her paper analyzed how Social Gospelers’ theology concerning the “brotherhood of man” led Washington Gladden, Lyman Abbott and other leaders to support the United States’ international interventionism and participation in World War I in order to spread the democratic ideals vital to social salvation. Burnidge urged historians to focus not only on Social Gospelers’ goal of social salvation but also upon the diverse means they championed in their efforts. In her case study, she highlighted leaders’ desire to work through the United States and its foreign policies to realize the Kingdom of God as a global reality. As such, Burnidge concluded, Christian interventionism in global affairs represented an important impulse of the Social Gospel movement.

Heath Carter, a professor at Valparaiso University and author of the recently published Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford, 2015), responded to the panelists by asking how their research contributes to historiographical accounts of the Social Gospel. With so much diversity and internal debates, is it still useful to talk about the Social Gospel, or is it better to describe Social Gospels? Is the Social Gospel best understood as a “movement,” a “tradition,” or a set of emphases?

While much of this discussion lies beyond my specialization, I left with a sense that it is most useful to differentiate between the self-conscious Social Gospel movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and the practices of many Christians in a wide variety of contexts who drew upon Christian principles in diagnosing and redressing social problems. Perhaps this latter category is best characterized as “Social Christianity” in order to distinguish it from “the Social Gospel”—a suggestion made during the audience discussion by Mark Edwards (based upon, I think, the work of Gary Dorrien). I look forward to seeing how this session’s participants and other scholars write about the Social Gospel in the coming years.

Joshua Rothman on the New History of Slavery and Capitalism

CottonIn the last several years American historians have been calling attention to the connections between slavery and capitalism. I must at admit that I am not completely up to speed on this literature, but I do have books by Ed Baptist and Sven Beckert on my nightstand.  I am hoping to get to them during the remainder of my sabbatical.

In the meantime, I found Joshua Rothman’s summary of this new literature at Aeon to be useful.  Rothman is the Director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Of course, given the historical significance of slavery in the US, its links to capitalism are hardly the only issues worth considering. Like all scholarly waves, the current one will eventually crest and trough. But the evidence mustered in recent studies is not likely to lose its import any time soon and, ultimately, the larger point made by scholars bringing that evidence to bear is not that capitalism is a system of inherent evil. It is that capitalism without limits can produce nearly unfathomable human misery as it produces wealth for a select few. Indeed, the abolitionists, most of whom were hardly enemies of capitalism, nevertheless understood that capitalism without limits can and will make property of man. In the US, the Civil War and the age of emancipation was a moment when the nation tried to draw a clear line delineating what can and cannot be legitimately sold in a capitalist system. Historians of slavery and capitalism today remind us that when that line blurs, we fail to sharpen it at our peril.

 

The State of Loyalist Studies

Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History continues to produce solid content.  For example, today I read Christopher Minty’s post on the future of loyalist studies.  As someone who does not write too much about loyalists, I found it to be a short and very useful overview.

Here is a taste:

Defining “loyalist” is difficult for a number of reasons. Many of the problems relate to grouping loyalists together. Those white and black men and women who, at one stage, opposed America’s revolutionaries had different backgrounds. Their stories were rarely comparable, and contrasting impulses underpinned their allegiance. Furthermore, many loyalists were not really loyalists at all. As one contemporary noted during the Revolutionary War, people “wait[ed] to go with the stronger.” That is, they sided with the strongest military, or political, presence. Their ideological or political beliefs mattered less than their lived reality.[3]
Definitions are tricky, of course, but some have been quick to criticize when one is not offered. Philip Ranlet, in a 2014 article in The Historian, criticized Jasanoff’s George Washington- and National Book Critics-prize-winning Libertys Exiles for not providing a rigid definition of “loyalist.”[4]
Back in Nova Scotia, in answer to the question on defining “loyalist,” I remarked that a tiered framework could be useful. I have developed this idea, in an episode of The JuntoCast. The number of tiers would vary, but it would work like this: those who were committed loyalists, individuals dedicated to the restoration of British rule, would be a “Tier 1” loyalist. Those who changed sides, people like Peter Van Brugh Livingston, Jr., would be further down the scale.
This could be a workable tool for teaching purposes, but I do not think it can be used to further scholarship. If one adds too many tiers with hopes of understanding how the Revolutionary War affected ordinary people, then the term “loyalist” becomes meaningless—if everyone was, at one point, a “loyalist,” no one was a “loyalist.” Simply put, by asking what a “loyalist” is indefinitely, we run the risk of missing the forest from the trees.
Where, then, do we go from here? Like Brendan McConville, I do not have an open-access Manifesto for Loyalist Studies. But, like Woody Holton advocates, a return to microhistorical, comparative studies might offer a new direction. Indeed, a focus on the lived reality of people during the Revolutionary War, individuals who, for whatever reason, did not support America’s revolutionaries, could trigger a new direction in loyalist studies. That is to say, by focusing less on “what is” and focusing more on “what happened, and why,” we might begin to understand the contrasting local impacts of war, investigating how and why it affected people in distinct, though related, ways.

Ian Clary on Evangelical Historiography and Christian History

Evangelical Quarterly is running a nice essay on evangelical historiography by Ian Clary of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies in Louisville. The piece is titled “Evangelical Historiography: The Debate Over Christian History.”

Clary summarizes some of the literature on doing history as a Christian–the kind of stuff we explored in both Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation and Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Read Clary’s essay here.

Narrative History

I want to write narrative history, but I still struggle to shake off the graduate training that has conditioned me to write analytically.  In my forthcoming book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I dabble a bit with narrative, but often find myself coming back again and again to the kind of arguments that might appear in a traditional historical monograph. (My readers will have to decide whether my book works as a narrative history).


Don’t get me wrong, I think that a book focused on analysis and argument can still be written in a way that is accessible for a general reader. This is what I tried to do in parts of The Bible Cause. But I do think that narrative is a more effective way of reaching lay readers.

With all of this in mind, I am looking forward to the conversation on narrative scheduled to appear this week at The Junto.  Here is a taste of Tom Cutterham’s introductory post:

Should historians embrace the art of narrative, or treat it with more suspicion? In his review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton back in July, USIH’s Kurt Newman argued that “the book-length narrative” is not “the proper form for the presentation of a historical argument.” Narrative, he wrote, involves too much selection, too many authorial choices hidden from the reader. “Most importantly,” Newman suggested, “constructing a narrative is almost always tied up with some telos or end,” a teleology that serves as expression or conduit of ideology, pulling us towards the outcome we imagine fits. Narrative, in other words, is something more than reasoned argument. It enlists desire to shape the way we think.

For the rest of the week here at The Junto, we’ll be holding a round-table event on narrative in historiography, and we invite you to join in in the comments. What makes something a “book-length narrative,” or what distinguishes narrative history from any other kind? Are there alternatives to narrative that we should be adopting? How does narrative work—or fail—in journal articles and other non-book forms? We would love to hear about your favourite examples of narrative and non-narrative historiography. We’ll be sharing some of our own this week too.