Author: Karin Wulf (Page 1 of 2)

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.”

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!

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