Under Construction

I’ve been writing lots in the last months, most of it for a forthcoming book and some of it elsewhere (Smithsonian, Scholarly Kitchen). I’ve also written lots of probably too-long Twitter threads! But I haven’ been writing here, and I miss it.

The site is getting a full update that will give me space to write about my research, about teaching, and about the issues in scholarly communications and higher education that I care a lot about and am reading, learning, and thinking about.

By the end of the summer you’ll see a fresh look, and I’ll have a more flexible space to work here.

Please Have a Big Helping of History

I find Thanksgiving an especially challenging holiday. In my family it’s always been billed as the holiday we can all agreed on. With a diversity of faith commitments, differing political perspectives, spread across the country, at least we can all agree to spend this one day expressing our gratitude for, especially for the people we love. Right?

Well, no. Or not just. I noted this last year in a short Twitter thread, linking to an op-ed in the New York Times by historian David J. Silverman and then other resources. Thanksgiving’s connection to the 17th century has long recalled a gauzy, stylized 19th century version focused almost exclusively on English settlers. But I’m very aware that when we focus on the least common denominator version of Thanksgiving, eg my own beloved family’s emphasis on gratitude untethered from historical context, or even when we look at the history of its establishment as a holiday in the 19th century, it’s too easy to skip over the critical, consequential and violent 17th century history.

Am I actually arguing that everyone around a Thanksgiving table have a conversation about the 17th century? Of course I am. History is always good for what ails us. And a significant feature of our American ailment has been–not always but often– a disinclination to the hardest and most important history. I will never tire of quoting George W. Bush at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “A great nation does not hide its history.” Many have expressed similar sentiments, many of them doing so more eloquently or with greater subtlety and sophistication, but on that occasion from that president, Bush’s point was and remains important.

I was thinking about all this as I considered why it is that I write an annual July 4th roundup of op-eds and historians’ considerations of the holiday, but I’ve only ever written a Twitter thread for Thanksgiving. For an early Americanist it’s a go-to holiday for reflection on the era. So too is Thanksgiving, with regular, serious reflection from historians and other writers on both the 17th century histories of settler colonialism and then the 19th century histories of national expansion that rewrote the earlier era. (And even a little on the key actors in the 18th century who facilitated that handoff.) The volume seems very different, with so much focus on the anniversary of American independence and its history, though I wonder whether that is changing. Certainly Thanksgiving, like July 4th, offers a key opportunity to consider historical information but also contexts and patterns that have shaped the United States and the culture and society we live in today.

In that spirit, a round-up of some new and recent writing about Thanksgiving:

If you only read one thing let it be this piece that Philip Deloria wrote for the New Yorker last year, “The Invention of Thanksgiving: Massacres, myths, and the making of the great November holiday:”

“Autumn is the season for Native America. There are the cool nights and warm days of Indian summer and the genial query “What’s Indian about this weather?” More wearisome is the annual fight over the legacy of Christopher Columbus—a bold explorer dear to Italian-American communities, but someone who brought to this continent forms of slavery that would devastate indigenous populations for centuries. Football season is in full swing, and the team in the nation’s capital revels each week in a racist performance passed off as “just good fun.” As baseball season closes, one prays that Atlanta (or even semi-evolved Cleveland) will not advance to the World Series. Next up is Halloween, typically featuring “Native American Brave” and “Sexy Indian Princess” costumes. November brings Native American Heritage Month and tracks a smooth countdown to Thanksgiving. In the elementary-school curriculum, the holiday traditionally meant a pageant, with students in construction-paper headdresses and Pilgrim hats reënacting the original celebration. If today’s teachers aim for less pageantry and a slightly more complicated history, many students still complete an American education unsure about the place of Native people in the nation’s past—or in its present. Cap the season off with Thanksgiving, a turkey dinner, and a fable of interracial harmony. Is it any wonder that by the time the holiday arrives a lot of American Indian people are thankful that autumn is nearly over?”

Philip Deloria, “The INvention of Thanksgiving,” The New Yorker, Nov. 18, 2019

In 2017 I did a Twitter thread about some of the first Thanksgiving claims, kicking off with a pretty cranky review I wrote in 2016 about The Pilgrims. My point was that William Bradford would be thrilled to know that his perspective on the Plymouth Settlement via Of Plimoth Plantation was so long-lasting and effectively communicated. I wonder if I’d be more forgiving this year, and am resolved to rewatch.

As historian Heather Richardson wrote in her daily Letters from an American, the holiday should probably be celebrated for its origins in President Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War gesture at national unity in defense of democracy. In 1863 after two brutal years of war, Lincoln called for a national day of thanksgiving– in August. Then in October he called for a second. Only in 1941 did Thanksgiving became a regular, annual holiday. There’s also a piece up on the New York Times that argues that “Thanksgiving is a Celebration of Freedom” because of its 19th century history. I’m not going to wade into why that particular take on the connection between anti-slavery and Thanksgiving seems off, but I’d argue somewhat differently — yes, it’s very important to understand the 19th-century context in which a regional, New England harvest feast became nationalized. But it’s equally important to understand that at the same time New Englanders had been working to erase both their own history of slavery and the continuous history of Native Americans. The New England, including Plymouth and Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, that comes out of the 19th century was the product of a very blinkered view. As ever, the 19th century looms so very large in how we understand early America.

This year for Smithsonian Magazine I talked with Carla Pestana about her new book, The World of Plymouth Plantation. Carla takes on the ways that 17th century writers like Bradford planted the seed of 18th century regional historical enthusiasms that then became a national holiday in the following century. She also writes about the ways that the Plymouth setters were nested in a larger historical context, the first and most important of which was the Native world of the Wampanoag and their neighbors.

There are some very good food-themed pieces this year. In the Washington Post Ramin Ganeshram wrote about Hercules Posey, the chef enslaved by George Washington. Posey ran a complex kitchen creating meals –including a feast for the day of thanksgiving Washington declared in February of 1795–for the family but also for entertaining congressmen, diplomats and other dignitaries. He ran for freedom in the late 1790s, and lived in the free black community in New York until he died around 1812. when Washington was president. A new piece from Neha Vermani on the Shakespeare and Beyond blog of the Folger Shakespeare Library considers “The turkey’s journey from the Atlantic to the early modern Islamic world.” Speaking of turkey, several years ago Yoni Applebaum of The Atlantic wrote a good piece about “How New England’s Turkeys Became City Dwellers.” He traces a longstanding pattern in America of flora and fauna disappearing or adapting is startling ways to the intensity of human consumption and occupation– certainly a pattern early Americanists are familiar with from extensive scholarship. I also liked this piece in the Post about “143 Years of Thanksgiving Coverage.” Journalist Becky Krysta mostly writes about the food, and the politics of the food, but also “nostalgia.” She notes for example that “in 1939, an “early New England Thanksgiving menu” included oyster soup, venison, cornbread and plum pudding with brandy sauce.”

The Smithsonian has a lovely online feature, “Thanksgiving in North America,” with images of objects from around the museums. I really loved these two, both in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian. There are also some old restaurant Thanksgiving menus, some of them reflecting the food (and historical) nostalgia that the Post article references.

Speaking of teaching, this 2018 NPR story popped up again, focused on teachers working to make Native American history more central to Thanksgiving. A story in the Boston Globe focused on teachers doing less with Pligrim hat construction paper projects, and more with the serious history of settlement. More campuses are committing to land acknowledgements plus revised curricula; this story from Tampa features Anthropologists at the University of South Florida recognizing “the Seminole people, as well as other indigenous groups such as the Calusa and Tocobaga” and in a release “the department asserts that “many of our ideas about the origins of this holiday are historically inaccurate, reproducing damaging portrayals of Native Americans.”

Speaking of historic sites, a key development this year was that Plimoth Plantation changed its name to Plimoth Patuxet, recognizing the two people and cultures that they interpret. They have a good accounting of the Thanksgiving holiday’s development on their site, but more important I think is the FAQ for the Wampanoag homesite interpreters and interpretation. It is well worth taking a moment to read those, and reflect on why they are necessary. Closer to home for me, you can read about early Virginia settler connections with early New England–though this blog post does not mention that men with John Smith were also kidnapping Native Americans in New England. And that Tisquantum, also called Squanto, was taken with intention of being sold into slavery in Spain.

Let me know what I missed. I love reading local news especially, so if you wrote or read something terrific this year, please drop an email or contact me via Twitter and I’ll add it.

I’ll leave you with Alexandra Petri’s commentary on Thanksgiving and American history. “Across the United States, millions of people pointedly spurning CDC advice as they celebrated Thanksgiving during a time of increased covid-19 community spread were excited to hearken back to the very first traditions of European settlement in the Americas . . . . These Thanksgiving reenactors were dedicated to making sure the holiday got the celebration it deserved. “Usually,” another ardent patriot said, “my Thanksgiving celebration is based on a selective and misleading interpretation of history. This year, it will be based on a selective and misleading interpretation of science as well.” Laughing, crying, and hoping you and yours are safe and well.

Set Forth A Reckoning?: July 4th Roundup

As soon as I started this blog, I knew I’d be writing about July 4th writing (and listening, and watching). This is a time of year when early Americanists can reliably get some attention to the complexity of the American Revolution. The urge to smooth out that history is ever-powerful of course, to offer a narrative of British colonial past to American national present via the liberating tool of revolution. A lot of pablum is spread. But there are often also deeper considerations by historians and journalists about the early American past that scholarship and analysis has long showed to be much more violent and much less about liberty. I also started writing these as an ode to the thrill of having been quoting in the Washington Post‘s lead editorial for July 4th, 2000 on exactly this point of how divisive the Revolution was.

2017: Writing Fourth and A Star-Spangled Metaphor

2018: Writing Fourth (again!)

2019: Frayed Fourth

Previous July 4th posts

Our civic culture is always better served by better history, and by better history that is not only widely shared but widely discussed. This year I don’t need to dig too hard for insightful writing about the era of the Revolution; we’ve been having a year-long national conversation thanks in large part to the New York Times 1619 Project. The volume of controversy about Nikole Hannah-Jones’s opening essay for the New York Times Magazine is a subject unto itself. Opening the essay noting that “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true,” Jones asserts what historians have been arguing for decades– that slavery was central to the eighteenth-century world of the Founders, and in fact the lives and fortunes of many of the Founders themselves. Arguing that 1619 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in British mainland North America is a truer foundation for the nation than 1776, Jones provoked public attention to this critical history. (Leslie Harris had the best take on the 1619 Project, pointing out that “It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy. At least that is the corrective history toward which the 1619 Project is moving, if imperfectly.”)

In the wake of the 1619 project’s prescience, pandemic, and protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd, this year’s editorials are doing less Revolution and more revolution?, looking directly at the moment we’re in rather than the national founding. Even this David McCullough piece from 2005, reprinted today in the Richmond Times Dispatch, has a bit (not a lot) more bite than I expected. The Post leads with “Black Lives Matter is America’s Ray of Light this Independence Day”:

Before their Revolution, Americans who saw the emerging new nation as a global moral leader were regarded by some as hypocritical in the extreme. “How is it,” asked Samuel Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers” of enslaved workers? There was no good answer to that question. It was, in fact, this very hypocrisy that was to cost the country dearly in civil war and civil discord over two centuries and more. But the new and impassioned protests in America, by people of all colors, offer hope — the best hope in a long time — for “a new birth of freedom” proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg….what’s taken us so long is a fair question. Too many of us have been as oblivious to this injustice as the faraway British Parliament was to American grievances in 1775. 

Washington Post, “Black Lives Matter is America’s Ray of Light

In Charlottesville, the Daily Progress went with a “did you know” approach. The best thing about their “Ten Facts about the Declaration of Independence” is that it highlights archival preservation, in this case the holdings of special collections at Small Library at UVA. More compelling is the idea behind the Philadelphia Inquirer’s annotations to the Declaration, by a group including historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar– though I couldn’t get the annotations feature to work! Among flashback features, the Chicago Tribune included material from 1873, in the run-up to the centennial of 1876. The Los Angeles Times featured important July 4th speeches, heavy on the 19th century and including both Susan B. Anthony and Charles Francis Adams from 1876. And of course, Frederick Douglass.

Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” is surely the most iconic July 4th speech. The Post borrowed its resonant title with “What to the African American is the Fourth of July,” with readers reflecting on “race and racism in America”; Sharon Brooks of Tallahassee, Fla, for example, offered that “Black people have fought and died in every war since the Revolutionary War, when some slaves were even promised their freedom for fighting in place of their masters.” The Seattle Times offered a “Check Your Patriotism” editorial that kicks off with Douglass. In Smithsonian Magazine British photographer Drew Gardner paired American descendants in startling period dress and styling with their famous forbearers, including Douglass’s great great great grandson, Kenneth Morris (see also Jefferson descendant Shannon Lanier). And NPR filmed five young Douglass descendants reading Douglass’s speech; it’s powerful in any context, and this context more so. It’s a very good companion to their traditional reading of the Declaration of Independence. In this year’s version of the latter, Melissa Block gets the ending, with a mutual pledge of sacred honor. Ari Shapiro reads the text about “merciless Indian savages.” On that racist cant, read Jeff Ostler in the Atlantic from earlier this year. Every year I wish NPR would dedicate as much time to the history of the Revolution and this document, to the mutual histories of native dispossession, slavery, and the experiment in democracy as they do to that text. Maybe the addition of Douglass is a start.

At the OI, we have years of July Fourth blog posts and episodes of Ben Franklin’s World : you can catch up on all of them in this helpful roundup. This year, Liz Covart put together a stellar episode on “Whose Fourth of July,” interviewing Christopher Bonner and Martha Jones to explore how African Americans experienced July 4th in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Also not to be missed, on the blog, Derrick Spires has written a post reflecting deep research, “Dreams of a Revolution Deferred”: “for Black citizens of the early United States, the Fourth of July was a yearly reminder of a revolution deferred—the always-not-yet nature of Black freedom in a “pseudo-republic.” Following the work of Black activists and intellectuals through the antebellum period, he concludes that:

Black citizens maintained faith in themselves and a sense of justice, if not their white fellow citizens. For despite the many setbacks, these celebrations offered moments of joy and fellowship through which Black communities could affirm themselves in the face of anti-blackness by reminding themselves and those around them of where they’d been, who they were, and where they were determined go. Black joy had and continues to have power. 

Derrick Spires, “Dreamsof a Revolution Deferred”

Yesterday the film of Hamilton the Musical started streaming on Disney Plus, and although no word on how many people viewed it it seems like it was… a lot. Historians joined in for a night of Historians at the Movies, with Hamilton scholar Joanne Freeman joining creator Jason Herbert to host and post on Twitter using the #HATM hashtag along with the #HamilFilm hashtag that Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Hamilton team were using. The film prompted a round of reviews and reflections that connected the musical’s themes with the context of its Obama-era hopeful, progressive notion of America’s history and trajectory with Trump-era pessimism. In the Atlantic David Sims called it “a time capsule.” After watching last night, NYT columnist Jamelle Bouie, who reads and thinks about early American history as much or more than any journalist, was more blunt about the soft-pedaling of the Revolution:

“It provides a pleasing, grade-school story of the American Revolution, a celebratory narrative in which the Framers are men to admire without reservation. Through its casting, it invites audiences of color to take ownership of that narrative, as if they should want to take ownership of a narrative that white-washes the history of the revolution under the guise of inclusion.” 

Jamelle Bouie, Hamilton review on Letterboxd

My own sense is that Hamilton is not only powerful but important because of the opportunity it opened to think about history– no, no, I don’t mean that way. Some folks have embraced the musical for having made the founding cool for kids to learn about. That hasn’t been my experience. I’m inclined to think about historical process as the key lesson anyway, but even my own kid was more interested in whether this was the right take, how the interpretation was functioning. He wasn’t beguiled into an uncritical founder’s celebration just because he loved —and oh did he love–the music. As I said last night on Twitter, historians like Joanne Freeman who can illuminate the history of that period (Joanne does far more than that in her public educational outreach) are incredible. But I still think the point of Hamilton is that history is really elusive and what you make of it can be fully dependent on the materials you employ and the narrative you’re driving. It’s our charge to be alert to that, to share the process of historical production as much as we can. When historians point out that no, Hamilton wasn’t an abolitionist and that no, his squad of Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan wasn’t quite all that, they point up the ways that Miranda was selecting and narrativizing.

This emphasis on history as process is, no surprise my special pleading for early America, all that much more critical when we engage the very foundations of this nation. I was taken with Annette Gordon-Reed’s comment in a forum about monuments hosted by the American Historical Association that Americans need to have a “more mature relationship with the Founders.” To extend her comment in ways she may not have intended, I think that’s just right. A mature perspective is one that allows for complexity and for not only error but even grievous wrongs.

This July 4th, are we finally embarked on a real reckoning with the complex, violent (vast) early American past? The past is always our platform for the future, which is why it is so powerfully contested. The cliche is that complexity is too dull for popular consumption, that the public wants a tidy version of history. I think that’s neither true nor useful. We all experience and can acknowledge the tremendous complexity in the world around us, and in our own lives. The scholarship is there to support this fuller, more complex and ultimately sturdier historical platform for a national future. Even in the midst of a pandemic, global economic collapse, and private and community pain of so many kinds, I want to see a glimmer of hope.

Did I miss some good July 4th reflections and opining I should add? In previous years I’ve added more blog posts and local editorials so I’d love some pointers.

*Also, my COVID-19 mantra is “good enough.” This is a messy post, but I’m going with it because it’s good enough for a July 4th morning! May your independence day be a safe one.

Centering the Archives of Early America; or, Teaching Vast Early America in a COVID-19 Semester

I planned my second effort at teaching Vast Early America as a graduate reading course for Spring 2020. Putting a course together is always an exciting challenge, but teaching this field as a field even more so. Of course I had no idea that the second half of the semester would be consumed by the crisis of COVID-19, or that I would be conducting the seminar from my dining room via Zoom. No one wanted the community we were building in this seminar to depend so quickly on wifi access and videoconferencing. And no matter how resonant with some of thee material and themes of the course, no one wanted this demonstration of how the world is connected through economies, pathogens, and violence or how profoundly inequitable the impacts of the new coronavirus would be. Yet despite–maybe even in some small measure because of –this extraordinary context, the students were remarkably committed to reading and discussion about scholarship.

Some of the readings for HIST 715: Vast Early America, Spring 2020.

It was a semester I won’t forget, in part because the pandemic underscored the critical necessity of historical analysis and inquiry but mostly for the students’ determination and care for one another.

The course focused on how to read the vast field of early American scholarship, but also on the key role of archives and archival material in shaping the field. We looked both at the ways that the prominence and relative surfeit of certain kinds of materials long encouraged a particular (largely British American) vantage on early America, but also on why and how a capacious understanding of the era is made possible through new sources and fresh methods of scrutinizing both new and traditional materials. This framing around how archives and scholarship are crucially linked as historical phenomena and as intellectual practices is essential to understanding the history and historiography of (Vast) early America.

The crucial relationship to assess in scholarship –and the one that is vital and portable for transparent and democratic governance–is that of evidence to argument. What evidence supports the contention you are making? This is rarely as simple as “I located a source that reports x, ergo I can assert that x happened.” Footnotes are the historians’ version of receipts; from the notes the reader can follow the evidence and the logic that’s been employed to connect that evidence to the assertions in the text. Understanding the nature of archival evidence, then, is a crucial first step in understanding historical scholarship.

But to understand the nature of archival evidence, we also have to understand something about archives themselves, libraries and special collections or other repositories that collect, catalogue, and make accessible the materials on which scholars rely. For each class meeting we read a collective, core work or two, usually a book or a book and an essay, and then each student also skimmed one of the “also” readings and we discussed those first to set context. On the first day of the course there was an extra dimension. Each student was asked to take a look at an archive or library– a state historical society, or a special collections library–and report on the history of the institution and its collections as well as what kinds of materials for studying Vast Early American the institution held. Was the institution known for its early American materials? What were those materials, and what were the collecting priorities–and the context for setting those priorities–at each institution? This exercise has been illuminating for individual students and for the full class. Their choices were terrific for discussion, too, diverse and compelling. This set us up for thinking about an expansive geography of early America, but also about the nature of the sources we’d be scrutinizing in each week’s reading.

You should investigate, analyze and then write about the origins, collecting emphases, and significance to the early American field of any archive or special collections library you find interesting.  As soon as you select one, post the name as we’ll try not to have duplicates.  How to find the collecting emphasis of any library?  In the about pages, sometimes in highlighted collections.  It might not be obvious, but it might be implicit. Any field is in large part created by the archive of materials considered central to its scholarship.  In this way, early America as a field has been shaped by a set of holding institutions as much as by scholars/ their scholarship.  I don’t want you to necessarily take the position of either traditional or more expansively defined early America in this assignment– just explore.  And report back.

the first week’s assignment for the graduate students in the Vast Early America seminar

The archives the students explored were a fantastic array. The Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh (warmed my Pittsburgh heart). The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). The Society of the Cincinnati. The Missouri Historical Society. The Mariner’s Museum. The Early Americas Digital Archive. And more. All fascinating as institutions, and as institutions whose work has shaped the early American field by their collecting, their cataloguing, and their programs. Revisiting these selection months later, I’m reminded of the terrific discussions, and the students insightful observations about the archives they’d taken a look through.

The first and last week readings framed our emphasis on archives, archival sources and methodology. We started with a selection that included a book that is always on my closest book shelf, Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. (You can read about my adventures introducing Trouillot to a general audience reading group here. Short version: it was great.) And our final core reading was Jean M. Obrien’s Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. The readings in between tracked through innovative and classic scholarship. From start to finish, we talked about the evidence that an author used, the method, and the context for each. Those bookend readings then, were essential.

I’ll remember this semester for the pandemic, but also for the startlingly fresh perspectives the students brought to what are still, for me, exciting works of scholarship (whether I’d taught them 2 times or ten). I’m attaching the pre-COVID19 version of the syllabus below, and I wrote about the first Vast Early America seminar, in Spring 2018, here. I’d love to hear how you are learning, reading, teaching, and writing about Vast Early America, too.

The pre-COVID19 syllabus for HIST 715 Vast Early America (SP2020):

Time’s Convert in Vast Early America: Some Readings and Resources (Part 1)

For fans of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls world, 2019 brought two wonderful treats.  For those of us in the U.S., we finally got access to the Bad Wolf and Sky productions 2018 adaptation of A Discovery of Witches starring Teresa Palmer, Matthew Goode (and more). And Time’s Convert, Deb’s latest installment of this rich historical-fantasy-romance-and-more, was released in paperback.  I’m particularly attached to Time’s Convert because much of it is set in eighteenth-century America, and I am delighted to have it in multiple formats.

One of the things I most admire about Deb as an author is the incredibly evocative historical detail she provides.  As an award-winning scholar of science and early modern England, when she describes, for example, the literary and scientific interests of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, in Shadow of Night you know there is a deep well of scholarship and source material behind it.  Or when she introduces the Voynich manuscript in the Book of Life, of course there is a rich, complex story (and mystery) behind it.  In both the “Wider Reading and All Souls Resources” section in The World of All Souls (pp. 479-481) and on Deb’s website where she has posted “Further Readings you can read about her own scholarship as well as some additional background.

For Time’s Convert the All Souls world comes back to North America.  This was an important setting for multiple strands in the first three novels, including Marcus (later Whitmore) MacNeil’s birthplace in mid-eighteenth century Hadley, Massachusetts, his fateful encounter with Matthew Clairmont at the  Battle of Yorktown, and then his violent revelry in early nineteenth-century New Orleans.  

Key North American Sites for TC.

Now we learn much more about these places and events and many others that fill out Marcus’s story, and how it relates to the larger Bishop-de Claremont clan.  The story moves from colonial New England and the mid-Atlantic to early national New York and Philadelphia and New Orleans, with some key developments in places such as Boston, Massachusetts, Trenton, New Jersey, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Deb posted a link to the Pinterest board she created while working on the book, and it offers a multi-dimensional bibliography of sorts–wonderful images of evocative places, and period material culture including architecture, clothing, and medical instruments that were essential to building the texture of the book’s setting and background. And, as part of the excitement about the paperback release of Time’s Covert, Deb described for The Week six of her favorite books set in the period of the American Revolution.  I love them all!  And –yay!– one of them is the diary of Hannah Callendar Sansom that Susan Klepp and I edited, and introduced with substantive chapters about the politics of courtship in Philadelphia, the challenges of motherhood, the power of a woman’s temper– and more.

Of many possibilities, I selected here ten early American places and themes that I found to be especially compelling aspects of the Time’s Convert story, and offer some extra readings and resources I thought fellow fans might enjoy exploring.  There are so many wonderful things to read, listen to, visit, and watch about this rich historical period that the below represents only the very tip of the proverbial iceberg.  No major spoilers here, but there are some pointers so if you haven’t finished reading the book you’ll want to do that first.

I’ve started with five topics, and will have five more next week in Part Two, so be sure to check back.

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1.   Thomas Paine and Common Sense  

Of course we have to start with Thomas Paine; Paine is a vital force and Common Sense is a critical theme in the book.  Marcus carries that pamphlet (less than 50 pages in its first edition) with him everywhere, and later has it bound.  It is a sort of talisman as well as inspiration.  

Common Sense was an extraordinary piece of work, and possibly the best-selling work of its time.  The quote that opens Time’s Convert, and gives it its title, is in the very first paragraph of Common Sense:

“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

From the first edition of Paine’s Common Sense (Philadelphia, 1776)

The sentiment Paine expresses is pretty pessimistic.  People often think things they have known for a long time are acceptable, especially if those things are not immediately challenging their family’s wellbeing. They might be suspicious of new things or ideas, regardless of their relative merits.  But he went on this pamphlet to lay out a case against monarchical government that captured both the spirit and the political theory of a democratic moment.   There are several excellent online resources for reading Paine’s work, and for reading about Paine.

A digital edition of Common Sense is one of the Paine publications in the Lapidus Collection at the Princeton University library.

You can find a great online project tracking the explosive spread of Common Sense around the world here.  I’m especially proud of this project’s co-author, Marie Pellisier, who is now one of my PhD advisees at William & Mary.  The Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College has some great Paine projects and collections, and the nearby Thomas Paine Cottage Museum is where he lived from 1802-06.

The Library of America volume of Thomas Paine: Collected Writings is invaluable; it is edited by Eric Foner, whose book Tom Paine and Revolutionary America places Paine in the context of the era’s social and political developments.  Want to know more about Paine’s political vision?  Historian Seth Cotlar’s Tom Paine’s America:  The Rise and Fall of TransAtlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic offers a view of how Americans viewed the potential for radical governmental reform in the decades after the Constitution was adopted.

2.  The Seven Years War

This global conflict shadows Obadiah MacNeil, and thus Marcus and his family.  MacNeil was in the Massachusetts militia, and he was at Fort William Henry, an iconic episode of the war, memorialized in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel, Last of the Mohicans, and then in the 1992 film starring Daniel Day Lewis.

North America was only one theater of this war, which engulfed much of Europe in war between France and England and allies across multiple continents and set much of the late eighteenth century (the American and other revolutions, the course of European colonialism, the Atlantic economy) in motion.  The taxation schemes (beginning with the Sugar and Stamp Acts) that the British undertook to pay for the costs of that war, for example, were a primary source of conflict with colonists in North America.  

Major George Washington’s Journal (1754)

Daniel Baugh’s The Global Seven Years War, 1754-1763 (2011) is an important single volume on the subject.  In 1753, George Washington was a raw 21 year-old Major in the British Virginia regiment.  His actions near Pittsburgh formed an essential early chapter in the war, and his journal of his experiences was an 18th-century bestseller.

Fred Anderson is a preeminent scholar of the Seven Years War in North America.  His first book, A People’s Army:  Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years War (1984) is a foundational study of how colonists and British regular military viewed and fought alongside one another.  He looked at letters and diaries to see how their interactions reflected a realization of their differences, and shaped expectations for the Revolutionary conflict to come.  Among Anderson’s other books is The War that Made America:  A Short History of the Seven Years War, which accompanied a PBS series of the same name (you can still get it on dvd).

Fort William Henry was a British Fort built in 1755 at the southern end of Lake George  in what is now upstate New York.  This was part of the British defensive efforts against the French.  The infamous “massacre” in early August, 1757, has long been the subject of myth and misunderstanding.  Archaeologist David Starbuck has recently published a book on the subject, and in this blog post tells a bit about what light the archaeology might –or might not–shed on the subject.  

A really key point is that while most history of the Seven Years War focuses on the European powers that instigated warfare, and addresses Native American history in terms of the competing and shifting alliances of various groups with Europeans, for Native Americans the war was yet another that rolled through their lives and territories– in other words, as with all of early American history this war, too, should  be understood from the perspective of Native Americans–with Europeans adjacent.  For a helpful reorientation I recommend a book I’ve read with graduate students and also read with a local Williamsburg reading group, historian Michael Witgen’s An Infinity of Nations:  How the Native World Shaped Early North America.

3.  Race and slavey in early New England

Zeb Pruitt of Hadley is an important character in Marcus MacNeil’s youth, and he provides an invaluable insight into the diverse reality of early America.  Born into a free black family, Zeb is still, of course, acutely aware of the impact of racial prejudice and the association of race with slavery.  He is not only a compelling character in his own right, but illustrates just how deeply slavery was embedded all across early America.

Two excellent recent books address the significance of race and slavery in New England, subjects vital to understanding the colonial history of the region.  Erica Dunbar’s Never Caught:  The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, describes Ona Judge’s escape to freedom from her enslavement by George Washington in Virginia and in Pennsylvania, and her subsequent life in New Hampshire.  It also depicts the aggressive (failed) tactics Washington employed to try and recover her.  Dunbar describes the challenges for free black people in eighteenth-century New England, including the work that Judge and her husband did to support their family.  I wrote about using this book for that same local reading group, and included a packet of source materials, here.  Wendy Warren’s New England Bound:  Slavery and Colonization in Early America also traces the early history of slavery in New England, including the enslavement of Native Americans.  You can listen to a podcast about Jared Hardesty’s latest book, Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds:  A History of Slavery in New England, as well as podcasts about Dunbar’s and Warren’s books here and here.

For a long time historians (and popular history) equated the history of slavery with the history of the American south; in fact, there were sharp debates about which region was emblematic of American origins on this basis, whether a region associated with slavery (southern) or abolition (northern).  Dunbar’s and Warren’s books, and other recent scholarship, underscore that slavery was embedded in society, economy, and politics across early America.

The Royall House museum in Medford (just outside of Boston), the home of the largest slave-owning family in Massachusetts, is doing a lot of work to interpret the lives of people whom the Royalls enslaved.  Among those is Belinda Sutton; her remarkable 1780s petitions for pensions owed her from the estate of Isaac Royall (who had freed her in his will) speak so eloquently to her own specific experience but also reflect that of so many others.

4.  Inoculation and the Vaccine Science of the 18th century

Inoculation plays a key role in the story, beginning with Marcus’s experience.  To be clear, this form of inoculation is not the same as vaccination, both of which confer immunity.  The terms are often used interchangeably, but the earlier form is effective though not as safe. The process involved exposing a healthy person to infection, for example by dragging a thread through the pus of a smallpox sore, then embedding that thread underneath the skin.  Advocates of the practice included Queen Charlotte, who continued to inoculate her children despite having lost two to the procedure.  Only in the later eighteenth century was the process of exposing a person to the much less potent form of the virus, cowpox, demonstrated to be as effective in securing immunity.  You can read about the how the English royal family, particularly Queen Charlotte but beginning with Queen Caroline (the wife of George II and grandmother of George III), embraced inoculation in this blog post for the Georgian Papers Programme by researcher Helen Esfandiary.  The post also includes links to Queen Charlotte’s writings about inoculation.

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that my dear Children underwent their Operation with all possible and more than expected for Heroism, I trust that same Providence which has hitherto given me uncommon success in all my undertakings, will not withhold it from me at this time, as I can say with great truth it is not begun without Praying for his assistance as the greatest and best of Medicines I can put my Confidence in.”  

Queen Charlotte to royal governess Lady Charlotte Finch, October 1775.

People were willing to risk inoculation, because it was effective when weighed against the dangers of smallpox.  An extraordinarily dangerous virus, smallpox ravaged North American populations.  This website at Harvard shows death rates from smallpox from the early 18th to the early 20th centuries.  Practiced in the English colonies as early as 1722, inoculation was an example of African medical knowledge making its way to sometimes resistant European populations.  

From Margot Minardi, “The Boston Inoculation Controversy of 1721-22: And Incident in the History of Race,” WMQ Jan. 2004.

In an essay in The William and Mary Quarterly historian Margot Minardi explored and explained how information from a man from Africa, not only enslaved but gifted by a congregation to their minister, provided Bostonians with the critical yet contested method for inoculation.

5.  Moravians in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In Time’s Convert the action shifts to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania when the Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia as the British moved to occupy the city.  The scene opens with John Adams (yes, he was there) being taken to task by the Chevalier de Clermont (Matthew).  Bethlehem offers readers some insight into the heterodox European religious communities in Pennsylvania, especially the Moravians.  One of the singular features of colonial Pennsylvania was its founder, William Penn’s, commitment to religious tolerance.  That tolerance could arguably be said to encompass variants of Christianity, but it is worth reading a bit about the history of Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia’s first synagogue, and thinking about the expansive religious practices of “Protestantism” in Pennsylvania.  The Moravians (and others, such as the Ephratans) had important communal practices.  Kate Carte Engel’s book on Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America explores what this meant for their economy; you can read an interview with her on the Religion in American History blog here.

One of the most interesting, for me, features of the Moravian community at Bethlehem is the role of single women.  I did some research on this for my first book, and Hannah Calendar Sansom discusses some of the friends that she visits in Bethlehem in the 18th century diary Susan Klepp and I edited.  Recent scholarship includes this book translating the letters of Mary Penry, a single woman and a Moravian convert.

Historic Moravian Bethlehem has information about how to visit this extraordinary place, and learn more about Moravian religion and culture.  For comparison and some important parallels, Historic Ephrata is equally fascinating.  

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These are the subjects I plan to cover in Part Two:

6.  Economy and Society in British American Port Cities

7.  Women’s Education & Literary Culture

8.  Benjamin Franklin in Paris (and London, and Philadelphia…)

9.  The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793

10.  Early 19th Century New Orleans

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Also, if you’re wondering why “Vast Early America,”  you can read more about this idea in other of my blog posts.  In short, this is a way of describing the geographically expansive and conceptually rich (vast!) early American past.

Yep, I’m a huge fan of the All Souls books, and a huge fan of their author.

History matters.  Historical context is what guides our understanding, and our decisions.  That’s what historians are committed to sharing, and that’s what Deb shares so wonderfully, among other things, in her multi-dimensional novels that make us care about the past and the people in it.  The past she shows us is really a different place.  There are different priorities and values–very different ways of thinking and being in the world, and many of them seem sharply at odds with our own.  Yet she also shows us some of the most universal of human experiences, of ecstasy and grief, anger and resolution.

I’ll be back next week with Part Two.

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.”


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


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?”


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:

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