Vast Early America


POSTS BY

Karin Wulf

Vast Early America for 2019

Vast Early America is a phrase I coined in 2016 to use as a hashtag, but #VastEarlyAmerica isn’t of my making, of course. This way of understanding an expansive early America is the work of decades of scholarship. To my mind, it’s an urgently needed perspective on the foundational American history.

I spoke quite a bit about Vast Early America this year, in webinars, at conferences, in public forums. I also wrote a couple of pieces about Vast Early America, and wanted to gather and reference them in one place.

In January I published a piece, “Vast Early America,” for the National Endowment for the Humanities Magazine, Humanities.

American history courses usually begin with the peopling of the Americas, then move on to European colonization and the crisis of the British colonies. Tethered to the East Coast, historical attention turns west again as the United States expands its territorial claims in the nineteenth century. But a more expansive view of early America—what I and other scholars have taken to calling “vast early America”—would help us better understand the colonial and early national periods as well as the full sweep of American history….

Some recent critiques of early-American scholarship note that increased attention to diverse people (women, enslaved African Americans, Native Americans) and places (California, the Caribbean, West Africa, Atlantic port cities) takes us outside the framework that marches us from Colonial (British) America to the Revolution to the early United States. According to this complaint, the broader view of early America renders us less able to speak to the nature and origins of our nation. The argument for the traditional version of early America is that the basic laws and governance of the United States are rooted in an Anglo-American tradition, which is occluded by attention to the longer histories of places and people less closely connected to that tradition or that only “became” part of the American polity later on.

I could not disagree more. I would even go so far as to say that an American national history that does not see the depth and breadth of Native America across its historical landscape, that does not see slavery lying at the bedrock of the American experience, that overlooks the centuries-long significance of Mexican-American heritage cannot appreciate the great democratic ambitions the United States has articulated, defended, and pursued for almost two and a half centuries.

Go back to 1757. As the musical Hamilton asks, How did “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” from a “forgotten spot in the Caribbean, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
Hamilton’s story is an early American story about the economy of Caribbean sugar and slavery and about the nexus of indigenous, African, English, French, Spanish, and other people across the huge expanse of early America from which he emerged. Yes, he was well read in political philos-ophy, and he went on to wield his skills to remarkable effect. And a well-developed, and still growing, political history of Anglo America will always be an essential part of American history. But it is only a part.

Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and other political leaders of the early, eastern United States will continue to stride through the pages of our histories, but they will occupy that space as slaveholders as well as political leaders, and they will share that space with other people and places that will help us understand these founders better. A capacious approach to early America shows us a past that was infinitely complex, dynamic, globally connected, and violent. And it also still shows us—better shows us—the origins of an ambitious, powerful, and democratic nation. In short, we need an early American history, but one that fully grasps the depth, breadth, and complexity—the vastness—of early America. That is both good history and good civics.

“Vast Early America,” HumanitiesWinter 2019, Volume 40, Number 1

In March I had the fun and the great privilege of chairing a session on Vast Early America at the Organization of American Historians meeting, with a fantastic panel of Christian Crouch, Ronald Johnson, and Michael Witgen. The audience was large, and ready to talk. I wrote about the session for the Omohundro Institute’s blog, “Must Early American be Vast?” I’ve included in that post some links to other work referencing “Vast Early America.” And, continuing the theme of how and why Vast Early America is not only resonant but really vital, I wrote about the conversations at the session on national history.

If, as the participants on the roundtable and many in the audience seemed to feel, a vaster early America is incredibly important to American national history, how does that national purpose relate to scholarly and decidedly non-national ones?  Or, as a member of the audience put it, if the French Atlantic is surely part of Vast Early America, is it necessarily of interest to Americans?  And what if the answer is no?  If aspects of this historical field are not purposed to the civic interests of contemporary Americans, are they any less important?

Of course not; quite the reverse.  We begin our work as historians—as scholars, we study the past on its own terms.  From that perspective it is quite clear that it isn’t the distortions of a twenty-first century lens that makes early America look vast.  The kinds of work that have brought scholars to see an expansive geography and diverse people as part of a culturally, economically, intimately, politically, connected past has been driven by equally complex scholarly impetus.

Yet there is something inherent in this recognition of an early American past as complex and diverse that speaks to an urgent civic need.  There is nothing simple about even the most traditionally confined early America; the narrative of a British colonial-into-Revolutionary America-cum-United States is itself an exceptionally complex and contingent history.  Setting that history within a wider continental, Atlantic (and beyond)—yes, vast—context can let us better appreciate that complexity and contingency.  And at the same time, perhaps more importantly, it illuminates a fuller and truer early America.

“Must Early America be Vast?” Common Sense Blog, May 2, 2019

Last year I wrote about teaching a graduate seminar on Vast Early America, and I’m scheduled to teach that seminar again in the coming year. That, and much more in the coming year, will surely provide more opportunities to speak and write about the what and why of Vast Early America. Stay tuned.

Frayed Fourth: A Roundup for 2019

It’s a bit of a gray day here in the mid-Atlantic, probably not the best weather for fireworks. July 4th writing, though, is no respecter of weather, flourishing regardless. Or maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe in fact July 4th writing is flourishing because of the storms.

Writing about July 4th writing is an annual opportunity to meditate on national meaning and memory, a task that I first I thought was being made harder by what has felt like an intensity of recent writing (not to say that the previous 240+ years were not intense) about the essence of American ideals and practice. What could be said for the 4th that hasn’t been said in op-eds and elsewhere, at a pretty constant pace? So I briefly started to survey the Washington Post for the weeks before July 4th in the last several decades to see if the volume of writing about constitutional issues has actually been increasing. But I gave that up. For me, in this case the specific historical accounting doesn’t matter. Whatever we think has gone before, there was never a time to be a citizen on the sidelines. Many may feel that there is a newly urgent need to act on behalf of American ideals, but as a historian I should know better; this urgency is real, but it is not new.

Fragment of the Star-Spangled Banner, 1813. Library Company of Philadelphia. I wrote about the history of the flag’s preservation on the blog in “A Star Spangled Metaphor” http://karinwulf.com/star-spangled-metaphor/

So let’s take a look at what’s out there for July 4th.

The big national papers are reliable publishers of July 4th writing, and often from historians. The Washington Post editorial staff has a piece up about George Washington as an inspiring leader, but they’ve also published a longer piece from Rick Atkinson, adapted from his new book The British are Coming about the fate of empires (and republics?) that’s worth a close reading. The New York Times editorial board seems less sanguine that the Post; their July 4th “taking stock” focuses on the cruel crisis of the southern border, but also notes some of the humane responses to it, concluding that “versions of … American contradictions have persisted for a very long time, but they seem particularly acute on this national birthday. The question to Americans, as ever, is whether they can summon the spirit to address them.” The Times also published an op-ed from T.H. Breen on the lessons of the revolution; noting that Washington warned against the rise of “political Mountebanks” — demagogues who “miss no opportunity to aim a blow at the Constitution” and “paint highly on one side without bringing into view the arguments which are offered on the other.” Jason Opal writes for the Los Angeles Times about the American Revolution as “a genuine revolution — a period of dramatic and unplanned changes” as such, not really useful for banal prescriptions of national unity. Opal begins with a reference to Richard Nixon’s “Honor America Day” on July 4, 1970 which…did not go well. Opal’s is a nice complement to Kevin Kruse’s 2017 piece for the Washington Post on why partisan claims to the meaning and commemoration of the 4th usually go sideways.

A great genre of July 4th writing is local op-eds. I haven’t found too many this year, alas. I usually check in with the papers in places where I have family: Charlottesville and Williamsburg in Virginia; Annapolis and Baltimore in Maryland; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Seattle, Washington; various cities and towns in Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. (I also either subscribe to those papers or get their e-newsletters or both; if you’re a fan of the First Amendment and of the essential role of a free press, I encourage you to do the same.) I’m less interested in the syndicated pieces, so only highlight the articles by their local reporters.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch published a list of “books to ..get you into the Fourth of July Spirit.” Interesting that it includes a lot of primary materials, including the Library of America edition of Benjamin Franklin’s writings, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and a book about Billie Holiday. The Charlottesville, Virginia Daily Progress has a piece about the 1919 July 4th celebrations and parade honoring black World War I veterans. A World War II veteran remembers what he values in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. The Baltimore Sun went with a local story from 1776, “Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the Only Catholic Signer of the Declaration.” In the Saturday Evening Post, not quite a local publication,Ben Railton looks at Jefferson and Adams on their mutual death day (yes, they both died on July 4, 1826), encouraging Americans to see these founders with “flaws and all.”

One of my favorite local July 4th stories this year comes from the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. This story tells of a missing copy of the July 11, 1776 edition of the Maryland Gazette (a progenitor of the modern paper) which had printed the Declaration of Independence in full. Inexplicably cut out of the bound copy in the Maryland Archives, it was found in the Enoch Pratt Library, returned to the Archives and restitched into the volume! Library nerds will enjoy the details about page numbering.

Presenting the Declaration of Independence is always a straightforward way to honor the holiday. The Daily Progress posted the text under the headline “Independence, Declared and Remembered” with a byline to “Committee of the Continental Congress First Draft by Thomas Jefferson.” NPR has posted their annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. Some may remember that last year when NPR tweeted the text line by line, some people were confused, couldn’t identify it as the DOI, and thought NPR was advocating revolution. It’s probably a good idea to keep reiterating and teaching that text, don’t you think?

Among canonical texts for July 4th, few compete with the Declaration of Independence. But the words of the great nineteenth-century abolitionist, activist, orator, and writer Frederick Douglass come close. The National Museum of African American History and Culture website offers some context for Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” A writer in the Post Gazette reflected on Psalm 137, at the center of Douglass’s speech. Another piece of helpful context is historian Martha Jones’s piece in 2017, recounting the words of Baltimorean William Watkins who, two decades before Douglass, “penned his own bitter reflections on the “Anniversary of American Independence.”

Just as a lot of editorials are raising the question of how the holiday is politicized in recent years, some long form pieces are looking at the history of politics and the 4th. In The Atlantic David Waldstreicher notes that “the Fourth of July has Always Been Political.” He writes about celebrations in the early republic, a subject of his first book, arguing that “just as they blamed the British and their Native and African allies while drawing on British traditions, they used the Fourth of July to praise and criticize their governments and one another, in the process struggling over who, and what, was truly American.” Also in The Atlantic Ibram Kendi bookends an essay on the relationship of power and freedom with John Adams. Writing to his wife in the spring of 1776, Adams was bemused to be that “ told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where.” Kendi’s point is that struggle for power, a struggle between those who have it, and those who do not, is an essential aspect of the revolutionary legacy. Each of these historians raise questions about how the revolution is taught, which is the subject of an essay in Politico about whether “Americans are Falling out of Love with their Landmarks.” Looking at falling visitor rates (falling from the 1980s, it’s important to note) at places like Colonial Williamsburg, the authors end with some questions about whether we need a richer, fuller more diverse American story. Why, yes. YES WE DO.

Museums around Washington DC and elsewhere have scheduled special events and exhibits for the holiday. The National Archives hosts an outdoor reading ceremony this morning, and then is open from noon to 4. Their website also lists activities at various presidential libraries (because those libraries are managed by the National Archives and Records Adminstration, though famously the Obama Library will not be, not really a digression because our records are a critical aspect of our ability to know what we commemorate on July 4th and a new model of access to those records is important). The Smithsonian National Museum of American History points to its aging but still excellent online exhibit about the Star Spangled banner and current exhibition information. The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia hosts a new exhibit of rare 13 star flags. The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, is, for the first time, open for July 4th.

Libraries and archives are observing the holiday with blogs and exhibits, too. The Library of Congress website is highlighting images from the microfilmed versions Jefferson’s drafts of the Declaration of Independence. The Massachusetts Historical Society has a post up about Abigail Adams’s writings, “We Should Have Learned Women,” part of their exhibit on “Abigail Adams: Independence and Ideals.” The American Antiquarian Society has posted an illustrated inventory of her letters in their collections.

I can’t end without mentioning a terrific episode of Ben Franklin’s World on “Celebrating the Fourth.” Make sure you don’t miss the bonus audio about Liberty Poles! And Emily Sneff’s blog post to accompany the podcast on noisy celebrations. For dogs and others with sensitivities, the sounds of independence can be overwhelming, but we learn here about the bells, cannons, music and other audio that has marked July 4th. Every year Liz Covart and the team at the Omohundro Institute work extra hard on these July 4th episodes, and I think it shows.

As I read so much July 4th writing, I came back, as I often do, to thinking about not only the texts of independence, but the material and visual record of commemoration and reflection. I’m taken with the stories of the Star-Spangled banner, in part because of the long history of pieces cut and pulled and passed around, making private relics of what we consider collectively owned. I also read again about Faith Ringgold’s long engagement with the flag, in the People’s Flag Show of July 4th 1970 (as Nixon was hosting his “Honor America Day” at the Lincoln Memorial) and in subsequent work. But of all these, I find her “Flag Story Quilt” most apt today. It’s evocative, gorgeous, painful.

I’m sure I’ve missed lots of good reflection, and I’ll keep adding to this throughout the week. My previous posts on July 4th are here, here, and here.  Wishing you and yours the July 4th you need, be it noisy or quiet.


Teaching Vast Early America (Take 1)


My marked copy of the Introduction to Contested Spaces of Early America ed. by Juliana Barr and Edward Countryman (U Penn Press, 2014)

In a 2006 essay for the American Historical Review,  “Atlantic History: Definitions, Challenges, and Opportunities,” Alison Games encouraged historians to “leap into the ocean….[t]he water’s great.” More capacious even than Atlantic history, Vast Early America offers its own distinct set of challenges and opportunities.  Let me note up front that the origins of the United States is but a chapter–an important chapter, but a chapter nontheless–in the history of #VastEarlyAmerica.  I’ll have (much) more to say in coming weeks (posts here and elsewhere) about defining Vast Early America, and why a vast conceptualization of Early America is so important. Vast Early America is an expansive, inclusive view of the early American past that grapples with the complexity and diversity of this space and time.

But for this post I’m focused on teaching. In attempting my first graduate seminar on this vast field last spring, I was not so much jumping into the water as jumping out of a space shuttle, trying to get as broad a perspective as possible before opening the chute closer to ground. And readying for a troubled landing. And asphyxiating because there is no oxygen in space.  If you’re unimpressed with my analogizing, prepare to be disappointed with the syllabus.

I don’t just admit but assert that given the breadth of this field, “there is no way to [survey it] satisfactorily.” Students may find this frustrating. Isn’t their task to “master” (let us think about that term, shall we?) a field, and shouldn’t I be helping them to do that? Certainly I ask them to read a lot.  But I try to emphasize that each and every historian in this field is learning more about what we don’t know, and about how to grapple with that challenge. We have to think long and hard about what it means to claim an expertise in “early America.”

From my vantage what that means is to be clear about how vast the field is, how the discipline I am trained and teach in –history–is situated vis à vis other ways of comprehending the early American past (anthropology and literature, for example, two key disciplines that connect with historical studies of early America), and also how scholarly study has and has mostly not engaged with descendant communities who have different and valuable knowledge about that past.

Certainly I’ve already learned a lot from Take 1, and have thoughts about what Take 2 will look like in 2020 (for spring 2019 I’m teaching a related seminar on comparative gender and family in the early modern Atlantic World). My colleagues at William and Mary are also starting to teach seminars on Vast Early America, and I suspect that we’ll each have a distinctive take.

What, where, and when is “early America?” The Omohundro Institute has long described its purview as “the history and cultures of North America from circa 1450 to 1820 [and] related developments in Africa, the British Isles, the Caribbean, Europe, and Latin America,” but even this may be too limiting. The intensely and complexly interrelated histories of the peoples of four continents over four centuries demand a broad perspective, even while we want to know ever more detail about developments on the ground.  Multiple languages—native, European, African—and different kinds of sources ask for different kinds of investigation and skill. How can we see it all?

This seminar attempts to survey the breadth of this vast early American field. To appreciate this vastness, we will read widely in the chronological, geographical, disciplinary and methodological diversity of the field. There is no way to do this entirely satisfactorily—there may be too much older literature, too little breadth, or too little grounding and too much reach. The point is to try, and in the effort to appreciate the task.

A common question about conceptualizing Vast Early America is whether “vast” refers to geography, chronology, subjects, or methods. Long story short: yes.

Certainly early American scholarship has become more geographically capacious over the last two decades.  A quick look at the Omohundro Institute’s publicationsbooks, essays in the William and Mary Quarterlyblogs, and podcasts–illustrates that comprehending early America means comprehending the full North American continent, and the critically connected Caribbean, and the Atlantic world. As well as the shaping influences of Africa and Europe, but also Asia. This sense of a globally situated early America surely follows a pattern in historical and other scholarship generally, but it is also attentive to the particular and profound influences of global connections made in the 16th-early 19th centuries.

There are plenty of debates among historians about the implications of this geographically expansive early America. For now I’ll just note that geography is only way in which early American is vast. Interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and digital humanities perspectives offer essential insights. And the turn to thinking critically about how the archives that have informed traditional historical work were founded, organized, and populated is a key aspect of Vast Early America.

Thus the syllabus I wrote for last spring began with thinking about how archives and special collections libraries–their institutional histories, contents, cataloguing and other ways of making those contents accessible–have shaped early American scholarship and are reshaping the history of a much vaster early America.  For the first class meeting, each student was assigned to research an archive or library with collections that have been or could be deemed to be important for studying early America. They should learn something about the history of the institution, its founding and founders, its early and subsequent collecting priorities, and how its collections have been important to histories of early America. The point was to show how many collections on the east coast especially were created in the early national period, and have collections highlighting their founders’ priorities.  This isn’t to say that archives are bound to these priorities; as many students showed, state archives and private libraries alike have found ways to creatively stretch and re-interpret their collections.

Some of the readings for Hist 715: Vast Early America (Spring 2018)

An expansive and comparative Early American geography was also definitely a theme.  In a week we considered Atlantic Revolutions, for example, the class read Andrew O’Shaughnessy’s An Empire Divided, about the islands that did not join the British mainland North American colonies in rebellion, and several chapters from John McNeill’s Mosquito Empires about the influences of ecology and disease vectors on the fate of revolutionary actions or resistance. Also that week, we read  Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804; Steven Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution; Ada Ferrer, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution; and Janet Polasky, Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic. There is such a depth and breadth of rich literature on questions of how to frame what is revolution or revolutionary, who participated in what, and when, and why, and what kinds of outcomes we can trace to these ambitions or actions.

I also wanted to capture some of the traditional, mid-20th century early American historiography.  We read Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic, for example. Though I don’t think it’s possible for me to disagree more with Wood’s more recent depictions of the early American field, Creation is a book that was deeply meaningful for me and that has been broadly influential. We read other canonical work, and work that is becoming canonical, such as Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery and Jean O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting (which is where we ended the course).

Sometimes I shaped the syllabus knowing what else the students would be exposed to, either in my own previous or next seminar or through some of the Omohundro Institute’s programs.  For example, Marisa Fuentes’s Dispossessed Lives:  Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, for example, is one of the most discussed recent books in early American history. I started assigning Professor Fuentes’s Gender and History essay on Rachel Polgreen and the challenge of archival absence/ presence in 2011. I also assigned her book in 2017, and because Professor Fuentes is a member of the OI’s Council, the students were lucky enough to have a group discussion with her in Williamsburg during the Council’s annual meeting. So I knew that I could count on this powerfully important interpretation to be a presence in the seminar even without assigning it.

I shaped the seminar reading with an eye to what else I knew students would be getting over the course of the semester through the OI’s colloquia series, and our informal (but heavily attended) graduate student and faculty reading group.  For example, as I thought about the readings on Atlantic Revolutions, I knew that our extra-curricular reading group was taking up Marcela Echeverri’s Indian and Slave Royalists in the Age of Revolutions: Reform, Revolution and Royalism in the Northern Andes, 1780-1825Echeverri’s book is a careful and subtle investigation of the character of enslaved and indigenous loyalism to the Spanish monarchy during the early nineteenth century revolutionary age. And she situates her study of black and Indian royalism in the Province of Popayán in the larger literature of loyalism (her Introduction’s footnote 8 is a model of a historiographical note). In short, how many ways could we explore these questions, ones that would themselves be difficult to get around in a full course, within a week of readings?

In other words, my syllabus for Vast Early America was developed and situated within a specific context. Which is exactly how I expect students to consider all of the texts they encounter in the seminar: contextual.

The syllabus is attached here:  HIST 715 SP 2018 Vast Early America FINAL

I hope you’ll share your thoughts about reading and teaching Vast Early America.

Slavery in New England
(Public Reading Series)

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post for The Scholarly Kitchen about different types of projects working to engage public audiences with scholarship (especially history).  In that post, I related my enthusiasm for a local book group,  the Early American Reading Series (yes, EARS), that I lead at the Omohundro Institute.  I described how we had read a challenging and incredibly important book at the end of last spring, Michel-Ralph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, which generated an incredibly good discussion about history, politics, and power.

In various posts on this website, I’ve written in a bit more detail about the reading group, starting last fall when I described developing  source packets for each meeting.  The basic idea is to include primary sources that expose the evidentiary infrastructure of historical scholarship that can help guide the discussion of the book, and that offer a way for readers to extend their experience of the book. I started the packets when we read Erica Dunbar’s book Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. (You can read about the EARS group book lists and schedule here; and the source packet for Dunbar here; one for Jane Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color:  The World of John Singleton Copley here; the one for Trouillot here).

This week we discussed Wendy Warren’s New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. The source packet was not as full for this book in large part because most of Warren’s sources are not available online; she worked through extensive New England court records.  This was a point of useful discussion. Whereas with Dunbar’s book, we could read Ona Judge’s words in an interview she gave to a newspaper (thanks to databases of early American newspapers) and the exchanges between George Washington and his agents as he was trying to chase her down and take her back into slavery at Mount Vernon (thanks to the Papers of George Washington and the really phenomenal Founders Online).  It includes for the first time a précis and a link to Nancy Shoemaker’s review of Margaret Newall’s Brethren By Nature:  New England Indians, Colonists,  and the Origins of American Slavery, because I wanted us to talk about the significance of Warren’s discussion of Native American enslavement in New England. And I was able to include one key document, a centerpiece of Warren’s final chapter, Samuel Sewall’s 1700 pamphlet “The Selling of Joseph,” because the Massachusetts Historical Society has wonderful online access to the full item (and in high resolution). I also added an example, also from the MHS, of a deposition concerning the contested claims to own two men in Boston in 1740, because I wanted to discuss the ways that slavery appeared in New England court records even if we couldn’t look at precisely the cases Warren was discussing.

The packets are certainly useful for me in that they help me to think through how the discussion might unfold. I think they have been variably successful in discussion because ideally I’d get them finished and sent out a full week before the group meets! But even if we don’t get to dig into them as much as I’d like each time, the fact of them reinforces the point about the necessary relationship of historical evidence (and the complexity of it) to argument.

The next book we’re reading (November 11) is Flora Fraser’s Princesses, the Six Daughters of George III.  My plan is to create a packet well in advance that will facilitate discussion of the book, the sources that Fraser was able to use, because at the time she was one of the few scholars who gained access to the Royal Archives, and how the digitizing of the archive through the Georgian Papers Programme is changing what and how we can understand the wider world of the Georgians. I’ll be including in the source packet some of the materials from the GPP that are most important for Fraser’s analysis.

Writing Fourth: A Roundup for 2018

The Washington Post, July 4, 2000.

July 4th is big.  Never mind that  independence was approved on the 2nd, and John Adams famously predicted we’d all be shouting huzzah and setting off fireworks 2 days ago. The 4th it is (the day that the Declaration of Independence was approved). And it’s a unique opportunity to reflect on what the United States was, is, and might be. Writing about July 4th is a distinct opportunity to assert and to wrestle with American ideas and practices. I’m fascinated by this phenomenon, as a historian but also also as a reader and writer.

Did I mention that in 2000 the Washington Post’s lead editorial for July 4th quoted me?  I mention it embarrassingly often because it was such a riveting moment for me in every way, including opening the newspaper (yes, I still went to my front door to collect the paper) having no idea I’d been quoted and … then dropping it to call my parents, knowing that they’d have opened or be opening their morning papers, too.

It was also my first introduction to the power of online writing, as I’d written a piece to accompany the PBS series Liberty.  I wrote about the experience of families falling on different sides of the conflict. The editorial, I think by then-editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, reflected on the American Revolution and quoted me for a lovely full paragraph and a half about specific family contexts, noting that “In the realm of politics and warfare, ardent Loyalists and avid Patriots traded sharp insults and ultimately mortal blows. In the realm of the family, such extremity could be tempered by sympathies engendered by close contact with and knowledge of “the enemy.” Though I’d quibble with this extension of my argument (and even with my own focus, which was on the Philadelphia Dickinson, Norris, and Thomsons), the editorial was making the point that American conflicts don’t have to be irrevocable. It concluded that “America did well to conclude what was, in many ways, a civil war without one side’s condemning the other to wholesale exile and destruction. Its future relies on a continued understanding, through the bitterest of national controversies, that “the enemy” whoever it might be, is still one of us.

I read all of this very differently in 2018 than I did on the excited morning of July 4, 2000.

More of that from me in another post, but for now, here’s a round-up of just some of the July 4th writing this year, which seems (anecdotal evidence only!) to be more intense and profuse than ever.  I’ve only scratched the surface. (I wrote about July 4th writing last year, too.)

Museums and Archives

The National Archives has a nifty blog post about the Dunlap broadside:  “The National Archives is famous for displaying the engrossed parchment copy of Declaration, but what’s lesser known is that we also have a Dunlap Broadside in our possession. It has been displayed only occasionally as a very special document display—only 26 known copies survive.”  The post includes a short video explainer with curator Alice Kamps.

And of course the Archives also highlights the pages on its website that include images and explanation about the parchment copy.

The Library of Congress has on online exhibit about the Declaration, including their manuscript copies of the Declaration in Jefferson’s hand.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History shared a blog post with some of its Independence day treasures, including Thomas Jefferson’s writing desk. Yes, that’s the very one on which he penned the document he wrote with the committee that included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut.

Monticello’s recent opening of an exhibit on Sally Hemings garnered national coverage (see Annette Gordon-Reed’s important piece in the New York Times “Sally Hemings Takes Center Stage”; other NYT here, and WaPo coverage here, for example) and inspired some appropriately July 4th reflections from NYT writer Brent Staples, “The Legacy of Monticello’s Black First Family.”

Podcast

This week’s Ben Franklin’s World  is a special episode, highlighting frenemies John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and what they can teach us about patriotism and partisanship.  That might sound glib, but I’m perfectly serious. Those two intellects and personalities have much to share about the period of the Revolution and the early United States, and there could be no better guide to the way histories of these two, and this essential era, have unfolded than Liz Covart in conversation with documentary editors extraordinaire Sara Georgini (The Adams Papers) and Barbara Oberg (the Papers of Thomas Jefferson). Plus, some cool appearances by folks voicing the principals. Come on, you can’t tell me you aren’t all recognizing these voices (especially Jefferson)??

Jefferson attached a note to the bottom, saying that the desk would likely become a treasured relic, “for its great association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence.” Jefferson Desk 67435/ 31819, National Museum of American History

Blogs

Edith Gelles wrote a great piece on the OI blog to accompany the BFW episode.  “Abigail and Tom” shows us an important aspect of the Adams-Jefferson correspondence; as she writes, “Neither Abigail nor Jefferson minced words.”

No July 4th would be complete without substantial discussion of Frederick Douglass’s profound essay, “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” It is reproduced here on Black Perspectives.  Democracy Now has audio of James Earl Jones reading it.  This essay in The Atlantic, When the Fourth of July was a Black Holiday” opens with it. Martha Jones posted on medium about William Watkins, writing about July 4th in 1831: “Before Frederick Douglass.”

Emily Sneff of the Declaration Resources project wrote a terrific piece for Age of Revolutions about the early history of publicizing the Declaration.  In “Convulsions Within:  When Printing the Declaration of Independence Turns Partisan,” Sneff notes that “The New York Times first devoted an entire page to the Declaration of Independence exactly 100 years ago, on July 4, 1918,” but that “the tradition of publishing the Declaration annually on July 4 dates much further back.” And it was rarely without debates over the meaning and implications of the document and the Revolution it marked.

Declaration Resources

We celebrate American independence today, but the relationship of national independence from Britain to the Declaration of Independence is a fascinating one, and often conflated. What exactly is being commemorated on July 4th? As an episode pointed up dramatically last year, when NPR tweeted lines of the Declaration at a time, horrified reactions suggested not only that lots of folks don’t know the document, but that they don’t necessarily understand the context or the intention behind it.

Because they have been doing yeowoman work to bring more information about the Declaration to light, earning plenty of new social media  follows and references this year, It seems only fair that Declaration Resources gets its own section. This project, led by PI Danielle Allen of Harvard and with Emily Sneff, has been both prolific in its own right and inspiring others.

The work of the Declaration Resources team in identifying a copy of the Declaration in the UK as one of the very few parchment copies made the news again this week in various UK outlets including the Chichester Observer in West Sussex (a local paper).

Declaration Resources published a series of Fresh Takes on the Declaration of Independence for July 4, 2017. I got to participate with a great group of historians reflecting on what a new reading of the Declaration means. For me, it was about the past and our present. “Historians live in the now as well as the past; in the politics and the civic rituals of the present, the essence of American democracy can feel both precious and elusive.” And it was also about the holiday as a holiday, in which the text of the document plays a key role. When my children were small, I helped lead readings of the Declaration for neighborhood parties; as my children got older they did the reading. I have some pretty spectacular video of them reading in their homemade tricorn hats.

Joe Adelman was inspired in part by the invitation to Fresh Takes, but also by his annual teaching of the Declaration, to offer his own take for this July 4th. Joe reminds us of the position of the authors and signers, both looking back and looking forward: “We often think of the Declaration as forward-looking, presenting natural rights and offering a beacon for future generations. But reading it with the 1776 audience in mind underscores its focus on the past. Indeed the Declaration offers nothing for the future but the “Lives, [] Fortunes, and [] sacred Honor” of the delegates. The prospect of independence must have been exciting to many. But many hearing or reading the Declaration for the first time must have thought, “What’s next?”

Editorials 

Because it’s July 4th, with its traditional reflection on American political values, and because Monday is the 150th anniversary of the 14th amendment, the New York Times uses the amendment as the focus of a piece about how, amid extraordinary strife,  America can “start over” in ways more true to the nation’s ambitious language of democracy and equality. As part of its coverage for the holiday, the Times also asked an astonishingly homogenous group to opine on “What Does the United States Stand For?”

In The Washington Post, an editorial suggests that “America First,” a provocative phrase with darkly historical resonance, should instead recall to us “America as leader of a worldwide movement toward government of, by and for the people.” In the Post’s excellent Made by History series edited by Nicole Hemmer and Brian Rosenwald, historian Jeanne Abrams remembered the ladies, focuses on the women of the political elite, including Abigail Adams, and their role in the Revolution.  John Garrison Marks with the American Association for State and Local History asks “Will America’s 250th  birthday bring the country together or sow even more discord?” And he calls important attention to the need for historians to engage the upcoming anniversary in 2026.

I’ll bet all of you have wonderful local papers that are running July 4th editorials. In the Omohundro Institute’s local newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, a piece contrasts two men, one who works directing Dominion Power’s development into the James River and the other Bill Kelso, storied archaeologist of Jamestown, on opposite sides of the river and a key issue of historical and environmental concern.  In another local paper in our region with roots in the early American past, the Annapolis Capital (which originated as the Maryland Gazette) ran a moving editorial about why its staff is marching in the July 4th parade. It’s both not as simple as it seems, and perfectly straightforward. After the terrible violence at the Capital Gazette, “we’ll be on West Street and Main Street because we want our readers and our community to see that we believe things will, eventually, be OK again. Eventually.”

Some of my Fav July 4th Twitter:

Fish Guts. Or, How to read a Book, a Sentence, and a Page.

Editor’s Note:  Last month I offered a guide to the quick and dirty business of gutting a book.  Composed mainly for the benefit of graduate students in history, many of whom I see struggling to take command of a large literature and either reading too few books or too many reviews of books as a substitute, my step by step for getting the essence of an argument and its position in the scholarship was greeted with mixed reviews.  An anonymous colleague offers, contrapuntal, the below.  KW

The dedication to The Complete Angler’s Vade-Mecum (1808) courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library

Gutting a fish, like gutting a book, is a practical, if brutal, process.  You chop off the head, scoop out all the internal organs that kept the creature alive as it swam through the seas, scrape off the scales, and the next thing you know, it’s a nice chunk of consumable protein. The fish is thus efficiently rendered, with a very particular goal in mind. No need to be squeamish—we all need to eat. Let’s just not confuse this process with appreciating the fish in all its fishiness, or gutting with reading.

Graduate students in history, especially when studying for comprehensive exams, need to move through a long list of books very quickly.  KW is absolutely right when she argues that her TICCN method–Title (and structure), Introduction, Conclusion, and Notes—is better than the usual options. Better than only getting to page 97 of a 300-page book, better than slogging away into the wee hours every night and harming your health, better than thinking you’ll “know” a book by reading its reviews. KW also wisely cautions that this method of reading is best suited to getting a sense of the topography in a particular field of study. It is not how one ought to read in one’s area of specialty, and not the way people usually read when reading for pleasure.

Moreover, TICCN resembles the general advice given long ago by the philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book (1940), though TICCN is more useful to history graduate students because it is more discipline-specific. Adler talked about three stages in the reading process: (1) the analysis of a book’s structure, which includes identifying the topic addressed and the problem to be solved; (2) the interpretation of the book’s contents, which includes understanding the book’s terminology and locating the author’s propositions and arguments; and (3) criticism: showing where the author is uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete. Adler taught that with practice, the reader could perform the first two tasks at the same time, but cautioned that the last—criticism—ought to be delayed until the first two were completed. Using the TICCN method, the student will presumably discern the book’s topic and structure from the title and table of contents, and locate the study’s main arguments and central concepts in the introduction, conclusion, and chapter intros and conclusions. Looking at the notes, the student will get a sense both of how the author argues from the evidence and engages the existing scholarly conversation—both crucial to any kind of critical evaluation.

Still, some caveats are in order. Gutting a book is not the most important mode of reading for a historian. Or, to put it another way, TICCN is a great way to be an efficient consumer of historical knowledge but not a sufficient way to become a producer of historical knowledge. It should go without saying that reading textual primary sources should be an operation that’s conducted closely, carefully, analytically. Slowly. What about secondary sources?  Not all arguments are so simple, and not all language so pellucid, that comprehension can occur with a few quick blinks at a chapter’s intro and conclusion. I. A. Richards in How to Read a Page (1942, interestingly subtitled A Course in Efficient Reading) urged readers to slow down, even to the point of sub-vocalizing, because the ear could sometimes detect logical structure that the eye misses. Slowing down to be attentive to the rhythms of language within an argument not only helps readers perceive how arguments are constructed but helps them as writers, constructing arguments themselves. Reading closely and carefully, they see not just how the argument is expressed in the structural relationship of chapters to book but also in paragraphs to chapter and, as Stanley Fish explores in How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (2011), in the structure of sentences themselves.

The TICCN method takes most of the contents of each chapter and tosses it out like fish entrails splattered on waste paper. But is the evidence marshalled to support an argument merely a series of interchangeable illustrations reinforcing some general point, or an accumulation of data points or information that gives a conclusion probability like a series of weights added to a scale? This might be true for some forms of social or economic history. But in many other kinds of history—cultural, intellectual, literary, art, and so on—the sources are dense, tangled, multi-layered, multivalent, and difficult. They have to be sifted and probed, unfolded like complex origami figures. The interpretive argument emerges from the careful analysis of the sources themselves.  However the interpretive argument may be summarized in an introduction and conclusion, it cannot be reduced to those bare summaries. By ignoring the stuff of the chapters, TICCN risks missing what, in fact, the book is really about.

Since KW referenced Annette Gordon-Reed, so will I. The great value of Gordon-Reed’s Hemingses of Monticello (2008), it seems to me, is less in the conclusions she comes to or in the sources she cites than in how she takes the reader with her as she reasons her way through the evidence, line by line, and page by page.  Though the book is not really in my area of specialization, if I had gutted it with TICCN instead of reading it closely and carefully, I would have missed what’s great about the book.

Where does this leave us? History graduate students, by all means use the TICCN method as needed when plowing quickly through scores of books (outside your area of specialization) for your comprehensive exams, or generally when trying to see the contours of a field of study. Just don’t make this your default mode of reading. An additional caution: when assigning a book for a two-and-a-half-hour seminar, professors do not necessarily expect you to read every single world like a Talmudic scholar hunched over the Torah. But if they are going to devote this much class time to a book, most professors—at least one, anyway!—will expect your comments to be rooted in a closer reading than the gutting described by TICCN.

And there is a curious thing about the verb “to gut.” When referring to fish, the stuff that is extracted from the body is what’s thrown away.  When referring to a book, the stuff that’s extracted from the body of the text is thought to be the “essential contents” or the “important passages.” This reversal points to a nagging question: it is not always so easy, when dealing with books or pages or sentences rather than fish, to know at a glance what is important and essential, and what is not—what are good guts, and what are bad.

Unimaginable

In early December a teenage boy who has been a part of our family’s close community for a decade, the same age as my younger son, took his own life.

All around us people are thinking through the implications of this loss. We think first of his family, and how much we want to help them, though we know there is nothing we can do but stand nearby as they grieve what we can only barely grasp. We think of our community, and how it is changed. We think of the boys, his friends. My son is a wise soul; he knew right away that saying things out loud that others were too shy or too uneasy to say was nonetheless the right thing to do.  He spoke of grief and anger and confusion, and of his constant concern for the family. “Can I hug you again?” he said to his friend’s mother at the memorial. He rounded up his friends to talk with a grief counselor together, and he continues to make use of the counselor at school.

He understands that none of us will be the same. He understands that we shouldn’t want to be the same.  Every week he returns to this loss, not pushing it out of mind. “Grief is hard,” he says.

I’ve written about Hamilton the musical plenty of times now, but in the aftermath of the suicide I’ve listened to this one song hundreds of times.  It sounds every parent’s bass chord. Unimaginable.

There are moments that the words don’t reach.

There is suffering too terrible to name.

You hold your child as tight as you can,

And push away the unimaginable.

The moments when you’re in so deep,

It feels easier to just swim down.

Sometimes I feel I spend most of my energy as a historian considering two inexplicables: the nearly unfathomably specific details of an individual life, and the vast commonality of human experience. The former can be so alluring, while the latter is often about cruelty and misery and is always, in the end, about death. It is the most shocking and the most routine of human experiences.

I’ve read and now written a lot about death for my book on the culture of early American genealogy. Death, whether the unexpected death of a young person or of an ailing or elderly person, was a moment that often prompted the kind of reflection I’ve been exploring– for family connection and memory. The death of people who had the means to memorialize their family and friends in text and object and image, but most often the death of people who were far away from those who loved them, or who left only the merest of traces that we can recapture. Scholars such as Rick Bell and Terri Snyder have written about suicide in early American contexts. Vincent Brown and Erik Seeman have written about death’s ubiquity. I’ve learned a great deal from these historians and others. But I know my writing is deeply informed by personal loss, including this most recent one.

When the Hamilton soundtrack was first released, my older son and I would skip the darkest, saddest parts of the musical’s second act as we were enjoying the high energy and snappy attitude of the earlier songs. As soon as we got to Hamilton’s desperation and depravity in The Reynolds Pamphlet…we were off, heading back to Guns and Ships or even You’ll be Back. We’re all spending a lot more time in the chaos and tragedy of the second act now.

Efficient Reading

This blog post’s real title is “How to Gut a (Scholarly) Book in 5 Almost-easy Steps,” but I kind of can’t bear “gut” as a verb, even though I’ve used the phrase for years to describe efficient reading.

Not sure about efficiency.  But she does look a little like Clyde, one of the Omohundro Institute’s excellent mascots.

The premise of efficient reading is that graduate students in particular need to get their heads around a huge (I’ll leave “vast” for my next post–on the seminar I’m teaching this semester) volume of scholarship, and that’s just not possible without some sharp strategy and canny tactics.  A second premise is that when you’re trying to learn a field, getting a sense of the major arguments, methods, and sources is the key rather than the details. Doing research or reading in your area of speciality is different, and calls for different strategy and tactics.

I’ve seen graduate students struggle with a heavy reading load, and I’ve seen them use various methods to try and lighten that load.  One is to not make it through the reading, which is obviously not ideal.  (Understatement.)  I’ve also seen some use book reviews as a substitute.  Also not ideal, but for reasons I’ll explain below. And I’ve seen students sacrifice a lot to make it through every last page, and sometimes (often?) that trade-off (especially with sleep and general health) wasn’t a wise one.

The reason students do this are many, but among them are a sense of anxiety about their ignorance. I don’t think they believe me when I say that the more you know, the better perspective you’ll have on just how little you know. Plenty of clever people have found ways to phrase that. Earlier this month astrophysicist Adam Frank described for NPR how important ignorance is in a world that seems increasingly casual about expertise and “alternative facts.” It might seem counter-intuitive, he noted, but by exposing the limits of our own and others’ knowledge it clarifies where expertise lies and has been achieved. Get used to being ignorant because it’s not only okay, it’s the natural state when you’re leaning. The helpful bit here for graduate students is the same, I think, as it is for me.  It’s not to say that we will never achieve knowledge, even expertise, but that there will always be limits to it if we’re curious about the world. If we think that learning is not only important but exciting and interesting then–yay!–we’re in for a lifetime of acknowledging our (relative) ignorance.

But to the heart of this brief post. My method for efficient reading is TICCN.  I’m referring here to reading a book, but I use the same basic method for an article.

T = Title and structure.

I = Introduction.

C = Conclusion.

C = Chapters.

N = Notes.

Title and structure may be self-evident, but I’m surprised how often or how quickly, as critical readers, we pass over a book’s title. And just as telling, sometimes more so, are the chapter (and section) titles and structure.   Reading an Introduction for the articulation of the thesis is pretty basic, but it’s worth noting that you need to do that intentionally. This is where the author wants you to know where her argument relates to other scholarship, how it contributes to and challenges work in the field. Which field or fields does she think her work is best speaking to or with? How is she positioning her work vis a vis established scholarship? Emerging scholarship?  Particular methods and theoretical positions? The conclusion is next for me because I want to know whether the author in fact ends where she meant to end up.

Reading the introduction and conclusion of each chapter, then, is the next step in assessing the argument’s development. It’s also a way to assess which chapters carry which burden of the argument. Sometimes it’s clear that particular chapters are more consequential than others in moving the argument ahead, and then it’s important to pay particular attention to the evidence that’s marshaled there. I try to skim the notes for each chapter to understand when the type or volume of evidence changes. This is not to suggest that more traditional, textual evidence is reflective of a chapter’s significance (either for the book, or more generally speaking). It might be that the most important argument of the book comes from a particularly revealing analysis of a single source– or interpretation of previous scholarship’s reliance on same. It is to note that attention to how an author marshals evidence can be, along with primary argument and scholarly positioning, the most important thing you take from an efficient reading.

And no, I don’t always read this way. For work that’s in my research area, and when I’m reading for the joy of reading history (which I try to do regularly), I read more deeply and thoroughly. But thinking historiographically, getting a sense of how evidence and argument are related within a book (or essay), and how those relate to other scholarship, I find pretty well served by this approach.

The reason I don’t recommend reading reviews as a method is because the best reviews, in my opinion as a longtime and kind of intense book review editor, are not a summary of the book at hand. The best reviews are a intellectual convening of author and reviewer, with distinct perspectives and aims. Last year I wrote about Annette Gordon-Reed’s review of Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016) as a model of the form.

Book reviewing is the best kind of thinking work, or at least in almost a dozen years as a book review editor that’s what I tried to sell to reviewers as the primary benefit of their labors. Reading is never passive. The act of reading is always an exchange between text and reader; as a reviewer, you read with the outcome of that exchange more explicitly in mind. Particularly for non-fiction reviewers, attentive to the prose, evidentiary foundation and argument of a book, reviewing can be the most rewarding way to read. So, what’s in it for the reader of the review? The review extends the conversation between book and reviewer to include the review reader. And when they tell two friends… it’s geometric. That’s why the best of the genre doesn’t only tell you why you should want to read the book, but why you should read the review.

Okay, so no surprise that I did a forensic analysis of that review, breaking it down to a model, an actual model of sections with this pattern of paragraphs: 3-3-3-3-3-4-5-3.  You’ll have to read that piece to see why I think that’s a genius pattern and an exemplary review. But one thing it isn’t is a book report. It’s a review that would tell you what the book is about, but it tells you more about Gordon-Reed’s encounter with the book.

So. There are lots of ways to read because we’re all wired differently, and we all have different priorities. But this works for me, and I hope it helps students in particular. If my approach isn’t as useful for you, I’d still encourage you to identify your method, surface the process, and organize your notes accordingly.

Happy (efficient) reading!

The Revolution in Bricky Reds

In the fall I shared a primary source packet I created for the community reading group I host at the Omohundro Institute throughout the year.  Finding new ways to explore early American history with non-specialists, especially historical scholarship that has made or is making a contribution to the field, is intensively researched and offers fresh perspectives, is rewarding.  You can see some of the books we’ve read listed on the OI’s website.  The selections are heavy on Virginia, for now.  And they reflect the interests of the group, which asked to read Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs:  Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Omohundro Institute and UNC Press, 1996).

Among the books we read for the fall was Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught:  The Washingtons Relentless Pursuit of the Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Atria, 2017).  I had wanted to intensify the experience of the group, to emphasize the significance of the relationship of historical evidence to argument, and to explore the ways that particular types of archival abundance and scarcity shapes our historical narratives.  And, for me, the historical process is the same process of discernment every citizen of a democracy society must regularly exercise.  So for last election day, I created a packet of some of the most important archival materials that Dunbar analyzes and explores in her National Book Award finalist book, including newspaper advertisements, and George Washingtons correspondence in the key period just before and following  Ona Judge’s escape.  I think it was very helpful for the discussion, and I’m looking forward to seeing the group again this week to know if having those materials, in addition to the text, spurred further, later conversations.  Honestly I’m sure it would have been even better if I had been able to make the packet available significantly ahead of our meeting, but I’m still working on timely delivery!  You can find my post and packet here.

This week we’re discussing another book I have read in many formats and multiple times, and have gifted to friends and family, Jane Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color:  The World of John Singleton Copley (W.W. Norton, 2016).  One of the most powerful themes of the book is the often cruel vagaries of the eighteenth century, the ways that circumstance rather than innate qualities shaped lives then as it does now.   Copley is known to us as a quintessentially American artist, and yet was as skeptical of American identity as he was loathe to assume it.  How could he?  He was a British subject, through and through.  Copley’s astonishing ability to see foreground and background, what Kamensky calls his period-specific, bifocal “bivious gaze,” is plain from cover to cover.  He watched England from Boston, and then America from London.  He also offers a view that is  at once passion and cool assessment.  The lavish colors he employed, from Mercy Otis Warren’s unforgettable blue dress, to the arresting reds (Kamensky calls them “bricky”) of redcoats and robes, and drapery, tempt us to see a world either in intense motion or calm repose.  There is Paul Revere (1768), with that steady gaze, and there is the water pulling Watson and the Shark tautly together.

The Death of Major Peirson (1783). Tate, London.

On Copley’s canvases and Kamensky’s rendering, the Revolution is less the object of this book than a messy, violent, complex background.  One is tempted to compare the war to Kamensky’s professed favorite among Copley’s paintings, The Death of Major Peirson (1783), but one knows the limits of one’s art history background.  Leaving that temptation aside, and indeed the temptation to luxuriate in the luxury that Copley was increasing called to portray, Copley’s life as the model of American ambition tells a story about what he was prepared to sacrifice (family), what he wasn’t prepared to sacrifice (often, pride), and the power of an imperial, British identity.

The source packet for this book is very different than for Never Caught, for multiple reasons.  Some of Kamensky’s most powerful evidence is from Copley’s brush, so I included links to some of the most indicative paintings (of his, but also Thomas Gainsborough’s Ignatius Sancho of 1768).  Some of Copley’s correspondence is easily captured (via Founders Online) and in what Kamensky reports is a quite good edition from the Massachusetts Historical Society of the early correspondence.  Much of the later material  is in problematic edited collections or still in manuscript.  The correspondence I chose to include highlights, I think, that bivious allegiance of Copley’s, as he wrote to John Adams in the 1790s to offer prints of his work to the President and Vice-President.

I’m still working my way through the process of creating these packets.  The next reading is yet to be determined, and will be a group decision.  I’m looking forward to their choice, and to the challenge of finding ways to connect the material to the arguments and narrative in ways that further enrich the readings for us all.  Meanwhile, I’ve posted the one for Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color below.

K. Wulf Primary Sources for Kamensky, Rev. in Color

Civic Engagement (with a Source Packet)

Here in Virginia it’s another important election day, and I’m about to host another reading group for life-long learners.  This group of (mostly) retirees comes to the Omohundro Institute to discuss a mix of explicitly scholarly and dual-audience history.   This year we began, by request from returning readers, with Kathleen Brown’s 1996 OI book, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs:  Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia.   Many of the folks in the reading group also attend an OI life-long learner short course through William & Mary’s Christopher Wren Association.  In the last two years those courses focused on various topics, including Digital Early America.   In 2018 we’ll be teaching #VastEarlyAmerica.  Packing about 35 people in our seminar room for several Wednesday mornings in the spring, we get a chance to talk about the history we know is important with a fresh audience.  The hardcore group has been turning out for the extra, year-round reading group, and the discussions have been great.  The schedule and previous reading list is on the OI website.

Many historians are increasingly attentive to, or at least very vocal about, the value of speaking, teaching, and writing about history as a form of civic engagement.  The most obvious examples in the last months have centered on the fate of Confederate memorials, and the role they played in the twentieth-century politics, and are playing in the twenty-first century politics, of racial violence.  There are so many ways in which historians can take civic action, one of which is addressing, as in that case, a specific history or historical developments.

By reading scholarly books with non-specialists, I get to share not only the history, but the scholarly process.  We focus on that essential relationship of argument to evidence– and by extension, method.  What constitutes evidence?  How do we assess different types and uses of material?  How tightly or creatively is an author using that evidence?  In an age when discernment seems broadly fragile, when the difference between heated comments and bot-generated, targeted bile has become difficult to parse, when digitally altered text and images about, this small exercise in critical reading seems not only important, but a logical extension of my work.

This week we are reading Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s 2017 book, Never Caught:  The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.  I have this book in several formats, the hardcover I read most closely, the e-book I took with me when I was traveling last week and wanted to keep reading, and the signed proof copy that Erica gave me last year– that’s a treasure!  This book, which I’ve regularly described as one of the most important founding era biographies and one of the most important books about George Washington, is a stunning look at how Ona Judge managed to escape and to make a new life for herself and her new family.  But it’s also and fundamentally a book about the practice of racial slavery, as practiced by America’s first president.

And it’s a terrific use case of source material.  What little there is to document Judge’s life before and after slavery is patiently detailed.  The explicit depictions of slavery and Judge’s case in the Washington correspondence, cited in some  other recent work, is unpacked and put into its most urgent context:  Judge’s.  I admire the book’s light touch, moving along at a good pace while taking time to illustrate how Judge experienced Mount Vernon, New York, Philadelphia, and then her life in New Hampshire.  It makes this a perfect book for a source packet.

I’ve attached here the materials that I shared with the reading group and that we’ll be discussing alongside Never Caught today.  These are all materials that are central to Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s narrative and argument.  I included information about where to locate each source, and we’re going to discuss, too, how they can seek out these (and other) primary sources.  I started with the Pennsylvania Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slavery (1780) and ended with the text of Ona Judge’s 1845 interview in The Granite Freeman.

Most days we do what we can to make a difference where we think we can.  On this election day it feels just right to be talking about how to discern the sources that reveal the story of a woman who fought for freedom over 220 years ago, and appreciating the woman who has brought her story to light.

KW-Never Caught Source Reader

« Older posts
WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com