“The Culture of the Confederation Era”

The Panorama, the online site of The Journal of the Early Republic, is running an informative roundtable on the United States under the Articles of Confederation. Here is a taste of Rosemarie Zagarri‘s introduction to the roundtable:

In March 2020, just as the Covid virus was sweeping through the country and the national lockdown was beginning, a writer for The Atlantic magazine announced, “The United States is about to find out whether the Articles of Confederation would have worked.” As President Donald Trump made clear from the earliest days of the pandemic, the federal government would not be responsible for coordinating a national response to the crisis.  Each state would be on its own, left to its own devices in securing ventilators, determining when to open up its economy, and deciding if and when its residents would wear masks. Now as the country continues to struggle to get a handle on the pandemic, we have a glimmer of insight into how the country may have functioned if Americans had rejected the strong central government created by the U.S. Constitution and had chosen instead to retain its first federal government, the “firm league of friendship” established under the Articles of Confederation.

With the benefit of hindsight, then, it seems oddly prescient that a group of early American historians gathered at the SHEAR conference held in July 2019 to talk about, and reassess, the current state of scholarship on the Confederation era and to propose new directions for the study of the period. I see at least three major themes emerging from the papers that offer promising directions for new research.

Read the rest here.

The roundtable includes several articles:

Jane Calvert, “The John Dickinson Draft of the Articles of Confederation.”

Sara Georgini, “When the World Turned Upside Down.”

Robb Haberman, “Record-Keeping and Power Dinners: John Jay, Sarah Livingston Jay, and the Practices of Foreign Policy during the Critical Decade.”

Terrance Rucker, “Bridging Divides.”

Jefferson: “Every man cannot have his way in all things”


An 1801 letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson will be auctioned next month.  Learn more about it at Emily Heil’s piece in The Washington Post.  A taste:

The letter is 218 years old, and yet it might be arriving right on time to deadlocked Washington: a missive from Thomas Jefferson heading to the auction block on Feb. 2 warns against digging in against opponents (sound familiar, anyone?).

The Potomack Company in Alexandria will gavel off the 1801 letter, written by the then-new President Thomas Jefferson to fellow Founding Father John Dickinson. In it, the commander in chief offers words that folks on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue might find useful, as President Trump and congressional Democrats remain at an impasse that’s partially shuttered the federal government.

“My dear friend, if we do not learn to sacrifice small differences of opinion, we can never act together. Every man cannot have his way in all things,” Jefferson wrote, as he despaired about the political divisions of his own day. “If his own opinion prevails at some times, he should acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at others. Without this mutual disposition we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.”

Read the rest here.

Jane Calvert on John Dickinson

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

Read the piece here.

Or watch:


Cool, Cool Considerate Men

One of the joys of watching my daughters grow up is the opportunity I have to talk about American history with them.  Both of my daughters are studying U.S. history this semester.  What is even better is that both of them are now studying the American Revolution.  Caroline is taking an 8th grade history course that covers early American history to 1865.  Ally is taking AP United States history. And I am teaching the first half of the U.S. survey.  In other words, we are all roughly at the same place in our courses.

The Stamp Act was part of our dinner discussion tonight. Following dinner Ally and I went out to get an ice-cream cone (Caroline was at church youth group) and ended up discussing John Dickinson’s resistance to American independence.  I suggested that she watch/listen to this clip from the movie 1776:

Of course she was one step ahead of me.  She had already seen the movie in her political science class and was using the song as a starting point in her preparation.

This led to a discussion about the amount of work she has to do in her AP U.S. history course.  I told her she might be better off taking the U.S. survey in her freshman year at college.  It would be less work for the same academic credit.  At the same time, her teacher is doing a good job and I am sure that Ally enjoys the challenge.

Has Tom Paine Been Neglected by Historians ?

No way, says J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.  Here is his list of recent books on Paine:

  • Kenneth W. Burchell, Thomas Paine and America, 1776-1809 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009).
  • Joyce Chumbley and Leo Zonneveld, Thomas Paine: In Search of the Common Good (Nottingham: Spokesman Books, 2009).
  • Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (London: Routledge, 2003).
  • Paul Collins, The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005).
  • Seth Cotlar, Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011).
  • Jack Fruchtman, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
  • Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).
  • Jane Hodson, Language and Revolution in Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine, and Godwin (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).
  • John P Kaminski, Citizen Paine: Thomas Paine’s Thoughts on Man, Government, Society, and Religion (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
  • Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005).
  • Ronald Frederick King and Elsie Begler, Thomas Paine: Common Sense for the Modern Era (San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 2007).
  • Edward Larkin, Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  • Scott Liell, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2004).
  • Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York: Viking Press, 2006).
  • Mark Philp, Thomas Paine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • Sophia A. Rosenfeld, Common Sense: A Political History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  • Vikki J. Vickers, “My pen and my soul have ever gone together”: Thomas Paine and the American Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2006).
  • Bernard Vincent, The Transatlantic Republican: Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005). 

Hopefully many of these authors will be in attendance at Iona College in October for the upcoming  “International Conference of Thomas Paine Studies.”

According to Bell, if there is one founder who has been neglected it is John Dickinson.  It seems that the only person doing any major work on Dickinson these days is Jane Calvert of the University of Kentucky.  Anyone know of any other Dickinson scholarship in the pipeline?

Great post.