The Author’s Corner with Christopher Pearl

conceived in crisisChristopher Pearl is Associate Professor of History at Lycoming College. This interview is based on his new book, Conceived in Crisis: The Revolutionary Creation of an American State (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Conceived in Crisis?

CP: At face value, that question seems simple, and people ask me that question a lot. But, at the same time, it is hard to answer succinctly. So, I apologize for this rather lengthy response.

If I had to sum it up, I think it started out of simple interest–I wanted to understand the causes and consequences of the American Revolution. I love the literature on the American Revolution, but always debated how the interpretations of the more imperial centered histories and domestic revolutionary histories worked together (a rather standard starting place, for sure). We have an extensive body of literature that interprets the causes of the American Revolution through an external lens, particularly through the dispute between the British Parliament and the colonial legislatures over constitutional issues, especially sovereignty. Then, we have another excellent vantage point looking at domestic problems rooted in the intersection of economics and politics. Adding to that, we have a vibrant history of the frontier and the racial, economic, and political motivations for dissent and revolution there, which often bridge the divide between imperial and domestic origins. And then we have investigations of the revolutionary war that see that period as dynamic for the foundation of the United States. I wanted to understand how all of those issues and periods intersected.

I think the other motivation for this book is my interest in governance–both how people in general experience power as structured in a particular government and how they understand what a government should do on the ground. We have a rich history about how early Americans thought about the limits of government, but, the other question, I think, is asking what early Americans thought about the place of government in their daily lives, or, quite simply, what government should and could do?

My book is an attempt to bring those questions together by looking at the structure of government, the practice of governing, and how people wrote and thought about both. I tried to do that in one colony turned state, Pennsylvania (sometimes on a very mundane level). For example, how do debates over the structure of the local courts or the regulation of fishing, hunting, lotteries, wagon wheels, oysters, bread, leather, the quality and price of consumer goods, or something as large and significant as land and property ownership (to name just a few) reveal essential aspects of early American visions of government and governance, and how did that understanding of government and governance shape the causes of the American Revolution and the states that were birthed in that moment? I try to address those questions directly in my book, showing how the dialogue about colonial and imperial governance shaped both the causes of the revolution and how the new states were formed and governed.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Conceived in Crisis?

CP: At a basic level, Conceived in Crisis argues that the American Revolution was not just the product of the Imperial Crisis, brought on by the British Parliament’s attempt to impose a new idea of empire on the American colonies. To an equal or greater degree, it was a response to the inability of individual colonial governments to deliver basic services, which undermined their legitimacy. Factional bickering over policy, violent extralegal regulations, and the dreadful experiences of conducting an imperial war while governing a demographically growing and geographically expanding population all led colonists and imperial officials to consider reforming the colonial governments into more powerful and coercive entities. Using Pennsylvania as a case study, my book demonstrates how this history of ineffective colonial governance precipitated a process of state formation that was accelerated by the demands of the Revolutionary War.

JF: Why do we need to read Conceived in Crisis?

CP: I think my book is important for its investigation of how problems of governance at the localist of levels helps explain the causes of the American Revolution and how colonies became states. Moreover, I think my book is important because it makes us grapple with how revolutionaries understood the basic principles of governance during a foundational moment for the United States. As I look out at the political landscape, I am continually struck by how many Americans don’t quite understand or have a very narrow conception of how the founding generation understood government. We tend to focus on “the founders” and the limits of government rather than how that generation envisioned what governments do and why they do it. I think my book is essential in filling that gap.

Despite my confidence in what I just laid out, I want to emphasize that my book is an attempt. I think more needs to be done to understand the myriad of ways that governments and the governed worked out the basic contours of governance in the revolutionary era.

Happily, many of the issues I see as intimately intertwined with what I tried to do are being done or have been recently done. I think recent works by Brian Philips Murphy, Robert Parkinson, Alan Taylor, Jessica Roney, Cole Jones, Patrick Spero, Ryan A. Quintana, Whitney Martinko, and Max Edling, coupled with some anticipated books by Hannah Farber, Susan Gaunt Stearns, Michael Blaakman, and Matthew Spooner, for instance, are and will be really important. The collective history here, I think, tells a significant story about the revolutionary era in a way that should make us rethink standard narratives, and through that, the thrust of history in the United States. As scholars, we all have individual focuses, and sometimes we disagree, but taken together our work tells a rich history and I think we are in an excellent moment for a new understanding of the revolutionary era.

As I look out at the new and coming literature on the American Revolution, I am energized. It has made me appreciate something Thad Tate wrote about the field in 1977. For Tate, the bicentennial of American Independence influenced scholars, from a host of directions, who tried to come to grips with the American Revolution. Surveying the scholarly scene, Tate thought that “the results were so impressive as to appear to leave limited room for additional work in the immediate future.” Time, Tate concluded, was necessary to digest and make sense of it all. I think that we are in the early stages of something similar, and I am excited.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the sources material you worked with in the writing and researching of Conceived in Crisis.

CP: I wanted to understand the practice of governing in the revolutionary period, so I started by creating a database of petitions to Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature from 1740 to 1775, trying to find common complaints and requests. Through that, I focused on public petitions, or, rather, petitions signed by multiple people asking for legislative action. Once there, it became readily apparent that there was a severe disconnect between how the government and the governed understood the basic elements of governance. Tracking the dialogue between “the people” and the government in other sources, such as court records, legislative minutes, statutes, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and private papers framed the book as it now exists. I think it all came together when I started to see the same requests over and again demanding reform of the judicial system and regulatory policies. Those were key reform issues throughout the eighteenth century. As Laura F. Edwards demonstrates in her book, The People and Their Peace, local legal institutions had a significant impact on the lives of all people in early America. The way they functioned shaped everyone’s economic existence and the security of their communities. In essence, courts and regulatory policies at the most local of levels, shaped by colonial, and, eventually, statewide laws, represented the totality of governance for most early Americans. When I found that those local grievances started to make their way into a wider public political dialogue in the 1760s and 1770s, essentially linking something disparate into something far more oppositional, and then the same ideas for change informed the state constitutions and subsequent legislation by the state governments during the revolutionary war, I knew I had an interesting thread to track down and write about.

JF: What is your next project?

CP: I am currently working on a book project that analyzes the development of American executives during the American Revolution by looking at the wartime tenures of the fledgling state governors, presidents, and plural executive councils of five states–Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Such a study seems both timely and necessary considering the prevalence of modern discussion concerning the proper reach and remit of executives (of all stripes) as well as recent trends in the scholarly literature reemphasizing the importance of the war years to the development of the United States. Through this project, I am trying to understand how the war years shaped how executives acted, but more importantly, how people on the ground perceived and debated executive powers. I want to tease out how early Americans, from all walks of life, envisioned and experienced executive power. I think this new project will show how executive action and the public dialogue that it instigated had a lasting impact on a particularly American variety of executive power during the early republic and beyond. Thankfully, I will be a research fellow at The David Center for the American Revolution and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies next year to help complete the project.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

Master Local Historians

Tennesse State Archives

This looks like a great program.

Humanities Tennessee has awarded the American Association of State and Local History a grant to pilot Master Local Historians (MLS).

Here is the press release and description of the program:

AASLH is proud to announce that we have been awarded a grant from Humanities Tennessee to pilot our newest program, Master Local Historians.

The Master Local Historians project is a training program that highlights the relevance of historical inquiry for the general public and provides people with an opportunity to hone their historical research, writing, and interpretation skills. Participants will learn the basic tools and methods of the craft of history to better understand, and even explain, the world around them. By the end of the course, they will have a greater appreciation for the work of public history and be better able to assist history organizations in a variety of ways.

This project is funded by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in-kind matching support from AASLH.

History—both knowledge of the past and the practice of researching and making sense of what happened in the past—is crucially important to the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the future of our nation. On a state-by-state, community-by-community basis, people are figuring out what history means in the context of today. AASLH continually evaluates the opportunities history organizations have to employ history’s essential role in nurturing personal identity, teaching critical skills, helping to provide vital places to live and work, stimulating economic development, fostering engaged citizens, inspiring leadership, and providing a legacy. The Master Local Historians program is one such opportunity.

In the beginning stages of this project, AASLH has pulled together a team of national and Tennessee humanities scholars and advisors to review existing materials from similar programs and map a framework for a Master Local Historian program. This includes a curriculum that focuses on the basics of the historical profession, with three of those basics being piloted by partner organizations in West, Middle, and East Tennessee, including the Morton Museum of Collierville History, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and the East Tennessee History Center. After the completion of a successful piloting period, AASLH plans to seek funding to launch the Master Local Historians program nationally.

The institutions will host the workshops in winter 2017/2018. AASLH will evaluate the individual sessions and the success of the program as a whole and in 2018 begin to create the full Master Local Historian curriculum based on the Tennessee pilots. The program highlights the continued relevance of history, a major theme of AASLH strategic plan since 2016.

AASLH is proud to have the following people serve as Humanities Scholars on this project, including Dr. Lorraine McConaghy (Public Historian), Myers Brown (Tennessee State Library and Archives), Dr. Carroll Van West (Tennessee State Historian), Adam Alfrey (East Tennessee History Center), Dr. Larry Cebula (Public Historian), Dr. Teresa Church (Public Historian), Dr. Jay Price (Public Historian), Brooke Mundy (Collierville Museum of History), Steve Murray (Alabama Department of Archives and History), Stuart Sanders (Kentucky Historical Society), Dr. C. Brendan Martin (MTSU) and Local Historians: Betsy Millard (Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum), Carol Kammen (Tompkins County (NY) Historian), and Beverly Tyler (Three Villages Historical Society).

For more information about Master Local Historians, and other Continuing Education opportunities, contact Amber Mitchell at Mitchell@aaslh.org.

Call For Papers: Pennsylvania Historical Association Annual Meeting

This is a great conference for those of you interested in Pennsylvania and Mid-Atlantic history.  I encourage you to submit a proposal.

The Pennsylvania Historical Association invites proposals for its 2016 Annual Meeting to be hosted by Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, October 6-8, 2016. 

The conference theme will be “Technology, Business, and the Environment,” but the program committee welcomes proposals on all aspects of Pennsylvania and Mid-Atlantic history. In addition to sessions focused on traditional scholarship, the program committee encourages panels that feature pedagogy, public history, and material culture. Roundtable discussions that foster audience involvement are welcome as well. Full session proposals are strongly preferred, but the committee will also consider individual papers. Graduate students are encouraged to submit proposals. The PHA also supports student research with a poster session showcasing work focused on all aspects of Mid-Atlantic history. 

All program participants must be PHA members at the time of the annual meeting. 

Proposals must be submitted electronically by February 15, 2016 to: https://sites.google.com/site/pha2016meeting/ 

For further information, please contact Beverly Tomek, Assistant Professor of History, University of Houston-Victoria: tomekb@uhv.edu.

Why Your Historical Organization Should Apply for a AASLH Leadership Award

The American Association for State and Local History has an extensive awards program.  Sign up for this free webinar to learn more about it.  Here is the announcement:

Have you always wondered what the AASLH awards program is? Do you feel that your organization is too small to win a national award? AASLH knows that organizations across the country do amazing work in the field of state and local history and want to recognize your efforts. Join this free informational webinar to learn about the program and why you should apply, no matter what your budget size. Also get tips for how to put together an award-winning nomination. January 9, 2014; 2 to 3 p.m. Eastern; Registration opens November 1. Preregistration Required 

Learn more here.

Annual Meeting of the American Association for State and Local History

If you are a public historian, state historian, local historian, or any kind of historian who is interested in state and local history, I encourage you to think about attending the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History in Salt Lake City from October 3-6, 2012.

Here are a few things on the program that caught my attention:

  • Keynote address by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
  • A workshop on best practices for slavery interpretation
  • Religious history tour of Salt Lake City
  • Session by Carol Marsh on “empowering small museums on main street USA
  • Session by Barbara Franco on the intersection of public and private partnerships