the literary country

Raymond Williams
The Country and the City

Synopsis: While this is primarily about ideas of country and city in English literature, Williams makes some important points about the actual complexity of things. Between the changing natures of the two poles, there are “many kinds of intermediate and new kinds of social and physical organization.” Williams reminds us of the “temptation to reduce the historical variety of the forms of interpretation to what are loosely called symbols or archetypes,” when it is the variety and “the coexistence of persistence and change which is really striking and interesting” in our ideas about he country and city. (289)

Williams further claims that “the idea of an ordered and happier [rural] past” serves as a counterpoint to a critic’s perception of “disturbance and disorder” in the present. But any such idealization, he says, is based on a very selective view of fleeting moments in the past that “cover and evade the actual and bitter contradictions of the time.” (45) Even though Williams’ country is primarily in the past, his point may be equally valid for the rural world of the present: the noble, heroic country that promoters hark back to usually “rested on the brief and aching lives of the permanently cheated” who are invisible in the record. We have to be especially careful not to let them remain invisible, or else it will be “precisely at this point that the ‘town and country‘ fiction serve[s]: to promote superficial comparisons and prevent real ones.” (54)

Critics: For the most part, they address
The Country and the City’s place in Williams’ development as a socialist humanist. Like Williams himself, they remain a little too literary to be particularly useful to me from the perspective of history. I think in the long run, I may have a chance to look again at the way Williams criticizes Marx and Engels for falling into an assumption about the “idiocy of the country,” but that seems dated -- I’m not studying Victorian British rural history, and I don’t believe in putting theory before evidence in the way I think I’d need to, in order to use this more. For my purposes, Williams channeled through Cronon will probably be the best bet.

One interesting point: the editors of
Science Fiction Studies were apparently huge Williams fans. One reviewer mentioned Jeffries’ After London, which I might want to look at in a different (Bradlaugh) light sometime.

Pronatalism or nostalgic modernism?

Laura L. Lovett
Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938

The 1998 UC Berkeley dissertation underlying this book was subtitled
Nostalgic modernism, reproduction, and the family in the United States, 1890-1930. This title seems more representative of the whole work. In the new introduction, Lovett says the U.S. “invested heavily in the reproduction of its citizenry during the early twentieth century.” She labels this covert, relatively non-coercive public policy focus “pronatalism” and suggests the subjects of her study “promoted reproduction indirectly.” But the argument seems to circle back on itself, and at times it is unclear whether these reformers promoted families, motherhood, and reproduction for its own sake, or as a means to another end. Setting aside the pronatalist framing argument she introduced in the book, Lovett’s study of five reformers shows how they all used symbols and images of family and rural life, and asks important questions regarding the power these symbols had, over the reformers as well as their audiences.

Idealization of rural family life is complicated by the two distinctly different uses Lovett shows it put to: for Mary Elizabeth Lease, “political decisions had effects on the daily lives of women and children,” (6) whereas for urban reformers like Roosevelt and Ross, family and the rural home are tools for “controlling and directing a changing social order.” (4) In the two other cases (George H. Maxwell’s national irrigation plan and the Arts and Crafts movement that grew around it, and Florence Sherbon’s popular eugenics), the motivations of the principals seems much less straightforward. All the cases are interesting, and seem to scream for more attention. Other attractive ideas for further study include the deployment of a “Jeffersonian” agrarian ideal, and how its definition and use may have changed over time, a broad assessment of Populism in both its positive and negative incarnations, a closer look at Edward A. Ross (especially his relationships with Rita Hollingworth and Charlotte Perkins Gilman), and an investigation of the Craftsman and Back-to-the-Land movements. And, as Lovett says, the use of nostalgia and especially rural nostalgia by reformers.

Racism and fear of white “race suicide” seems to have been an important motivator for some reformers. Lovett and Danbom seem to agree that urban activists had agendas beyond the good of country people, when they advocated “Country Life” improvements. The chapter on Mary Lease extends the story by beginning to look at what country people thought. Lovett enriches this story further by creating continuity from the populist era into the progressive (Danbom begins his study around 1900, and ignores rural agitation in the 1890s, implying that those issues had been resolved and the Country Life issues are new and unprecedented). When Mary Lease sees “the spread of Iowa evictions as a clear omen that English-style landlordism was establishing itself,” and when she further notes that the evictions “coincided with the government giveaway of 300,000 square miles of public domain land to railroad corporations,” the rural critique of the system takes on dimensions of intelligence and sophistication lacking in some depictions of populism. (27, 28) Lease’s charge that Roosevelt’s “Progressive party stole the Populist Platform plank by plank, clause by clause, without casting even the faintest shadow of a word of credit” also suggests a closer look at politics across this transitional period might be a good idea.

Another unexpected idea is that although Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the frontier closed, George Maxwell “spent much of his time arguing that...it was merely underwatered.” (48) The National Irrigation Association and railroad sponsorship of the water projects that reshaped settlement and agriculture deserves more attention. J.J. Hill’s role as “empire builder” might be worth a closer look, as well as the Little Landers, the evolution of the Arts and Crafts movement (especially William Morris’ London “Red House” and the connection to anarchist Peter Kropotkin. 63). Finally, the thinking of E. A. Ross seems to have continued to develop through the years, unlike that of Roosevelt. Ross might be a subject for closer study.

Similarly, the racism of the Country Life movement (and in the idealization of “yeoman” rurality in general?) might be something to look at more closely. If the “Huck” accounts in Shutesbury were actually fabricated, and if classification of Swift River Valley people as “degenerates” helped Boston get the Quabbin Reservoir, there might be a story there. In the popular eugenics chapter, the AES seems to have a grasp on the need to make rural life more “economically and culturally attractive.” Their identification of the automobile’s ability to enhance “access and mate selection in rural communities” goes a long way to explaining the dramatic increase in rural cars in the 1920s noted by Danbom.

Critics: Jennifer Fronc reviewed
Conceiving the Future for Reviews in American History (at the time, Fronc was at Virginia Commonwealth University -- they are now colleagues at UMass/Amherst). Fronc says the book’s greatest strengths “rest in Lovett’s perspective on the problems created by urbanization and her analysis of the gendered implications of pronatalist thinking.” (631) I found the argument for pervasive pronatalism less convincing than the argument for pervasive racism, when it came to the motivations or hidden agendas of these people and groups. For example, even accepting the sincerity of Roosevelt’s “indictment of childless women,” (95) his pronatalism was in service to his fear of “race suicide.” For me, the stronger arguments concerned racism and nostalgia.

Interesting References:

American Eugenics Society Papers, American Philosophical Society Archives, Philadelphia
Bellamy, Looking Backward
Iyenaga, Japan and the California Problem
The Problem of Civilization Solved
Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population
Mead, Helping Men Own Farms
Perkins, Herland
Pinchot, The Fight for Conservation
Plunkett, The Rural Life Problem of the United States
Plunkett, Ireland in the New Century
Roosevelt, Rural Life
Ross, Foundations of Sociology
Ross, Principles of Sociology
Ross, The Social Trend
Ross, Social Control
Ross, The Causes of Race Superiority
Smythe, The Conquest of Arid America
Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class
Walker, Immigration and Degradation
Wichita Independent


Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris, and the Craftsman Ideal in America
The Book of the Roycrofters
The Country Life Movement
A Social History of the American Family
Tomorrow a New World
Reluctant Modernism
Cronon, Nature's Metropolis
Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race
An Army of Women: Gender and Politics in Gilded Age Kansas
The Populist Moment
Race: The History of an Idea
The Roots of Southern Populism
Building Suburbia
Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency
Populist Revolt
The Age of Reform
Mystic Chords of Memory
The Populist Persuasion
The New Empire
Land of Desire
Levenstein, Revolution at the Table
Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest
Malone, James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest
Preserving the Farm Family
The Tolerant Populists
Pisani, From the Family Farm
Pisani, Water and American Government
Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt
Rafter, White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies
From Private Vice to Public Virtue
Cadillac Desert
Queen of the Populists
Tindale, The Populist Reader
White, "It's Your Misfortune"
Rivers of Empire

Rural Life, 1908

Sir Horace Plunkett, The Rural Life Problem of the United States, 1919 (originally published as a series of articles in Outlook, 1908-9)

Plunkett was an Irish aristocrat (born at Dunsany Castle, 3rd son of the 16th baron -- the author of
The King of Elfland's Daughter was the 18th baron) who became a leading figure in home rule and developed the idea of Irish rural cooperatives. Interesting guy, might warrant a closer look.

Plunkett’s thesis in this book, which seems to have influenced a lot of American sociologists and County Lifers, is that “the city has developed to the neglect of the country,” and that of Roosevelt’s three pillars of Country Life, “better farming, better business, better living,” the business problems of farmers should be addressed first. (3, 12-13) Plunkett refers briefly to his experience in rural Ireland, and also to Denmark, which has come up so many times in these primary texts that it probably demands some attention.

Being an aristocrat, Plunkett has access to American leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and James Jerome Hill. He portrays these men as being genuinely concerned with “The Future of the United States” (title of a 1906 Hill speech I need to find a copy of), and especially with soil conservation. Plunkett argues for a strong connection between what he sees as the two key elements of Roosevelt’s administration, conservation and rural life improvement.

During the first phase of the industrial revolution, Plunkett says “economic science stepped in, and, scrupulously obeying its own law of demand and supply, told the then predominant middle classes just what they wished to be told.” (37) “Social and political science,” he says, “rose up in protest against both the economists and the manufacturers,” which, if true, might be an interesting way to look at the development of these disciplines. (39)

Interestingly for an analysis written a hundred years ago, Plunkett introduces the idea of a “world-market,” (40) and says rural neglect is caused in part by the fact that “reciprocity” between city and country “has not ceased; it has actually increased...But it has become national, and even international, rather than local.” (41) “Forty-two per cent of materials used in manufacture in the United States are from the farm, which also contributes seventy per cent of the country’s exports.” (41-2) But the complexity of new trade patterns and supply chains has hidden the mutual dependence of city and country. Plunkett concludes “until...the obligations of a common citizenship are realized by the town, we cannot hope for any lasting National progress.” (42)

If there is specific blame to be laid, Plunkett directs it not at the system as a whole, but at profiteers. “Excessive middle profits between producer and consumer may largely account for the very serious rise in the price of staple articles of food,” he says. But even though urban middlemen are to blame and the problem impoverishes rural people at the same time it aggravates poor city people, “the remedy...lies with the farmer” rather than with legislative action or government reform. (43)

Although he doesn’t explain how the system has managed to marginalize them, Plunkett suggests that excluding rural people from the political sphere has damaged democracy. Farmers’ experience of the cycles of nature, which Plunkett pictures as slower and less mutable than the commercial and industrial processes city people live with, give them a more balanced political sense. City dwellers’ “one-sided experience” may account for “that disregard of inconvenient facts, and that impatience of the limits of practicability, which many observers note as a characteristic defect of popular government.” (49) Plunkett also suspects farmers might be less amenable to “the cruder forms of Socialism...perhaps because in the country the question of the divorce of the worker from his raw material by capitalism does not arise.” (50-1) American farmers are not alienated from their means of production because most of them are proprietors (had this been a problem in tenant-farmer dominated Great Britain?). So even if they aren’t fully capitalists in the sense that urban industrialists are, Plunkett seems to say, at least they aren’t victims of capitalism in the same way urban wage-earners are. (Plunkett avoids any reference to the ethnic immigrant contribution to American life, with the exception of a subtle nod to the success his countrymen have had infiltrating urban politics)

Plunkett tries to call for “a moral corrective to a too rapidly growing material prosperity,” but he fails to identify the motivation for the “reckless sacrifice of agricultural interests by the legislators of the towns.” (54) The issue he avoids confronting directly seems to be the increasing unevenness of the prosperity he cites. Even in rural areas, the rewards are going disproportionately to the few. And in most cases, profits are captured by the middlemen, at the expense of both rural producers and urban consumers.

Suggesting that even though they have no public voice, farmers “keep a full stock of grievances in their mental stores,” Plunkett warns of “serious unrest in every part of the United States, even in the most prosperous regions.” (61-2) Compared to urban people, their “material wealth is unnaturally and unnecessarily restricted; their social life is barren; their political influence is relatively small. American farmers have been used by politicians, but have still to learn how to use them,” he says. (63) This is at least partly due, Plunkett believes, to the way the west was settled.

Based on his personal observations of the Middle West in the 1880s, Plunkett says “settlers, knowing that the land must rise rapidly in value, almost invariably purchased much larger farms than they could handle...they invented a system of farming unprecedented in its wastefulness. The farm was treated as a mine,” and soil fertility was turned into corn crops year after year, without fertilizer or rotation. (67) Though averse to blaming government, Plunkett does recognize the “opening up of the vast new territory by the provision of local traffic for transcontinental lines was an object of national urgency and importance...the policy of rewarding railroad enterprises with unconditional grants of vast areas of agricultural land,” he concludes, is “one of the evidences of urban domination over rural affairs.” (69-70)

“Under modern economic conditions, things must be done in a large way if they are to be done profitably,” Plunkett says, “and this necessitates a resort to combination.” (89) Combined effort has three benefits: economies of scale, elimination of “great middlemen who control exchange and distribution,” and political power. (90) For better or worse, he says, “towns have flourished at the expense of the country by the use of these methods, and the countryman must adopt them if he is to get his own again.” (91) But farmers, Plunkett admits, being “the most conservative and individualistic of human beings,” are unlikely to organize themselves in joint stock companies and hand over control to others. (94)

Plunkett’s solution, the farmers’ cooperative, acknowledges the fact that “when farmers combine, it is a combination not of money only, but of personal effort in relation to the entire business.” (96) While this description is not exactly accurate (farmers produce a standardized product, but there are limits to centralization and scale economies relative to say, steel production, so the economic comparison with industry is complicated), Plunkett is trying to emphasize that the “distinction between the capitalistic basis of joint stock organization and the more human character of cooperative system is fundamentally important.” (97) Compared to
Ireland, where Plunkett had been instrumental in developing rural coops, “as things are, the [American] farming interest is at a fatal disadvantage in the purchase of agricultural requirements, in the sale of agricultural produce, and in obtaining proper credit facilities.” (114) Cooperatives could address each of those needs.

The long-term result of “better business,” Plunkett says, are “Better Farming and Better Living.” Cooperatives would begin a process of renewing rural social bonds, leading to a new neighborhood culture. Rather than trying to “bring the advantages of the city” to the country, rural communities would “develop in the country the things of the country, the very existence of which seems to have been forgotten.” “After all,” he says, “it is the world within us rather than the world without us that matters in the making of society,” once the physical necessities like clean water, medicine, and electricity have been made available by attending to “better business.” (127)

Plunkett is well aware that his “subject is rural, my audience urban.” (143) This may explain why his final chapter de-emphasizes the establishment of business-oriented cooperatives, and focuses instead on education and socialization. One point he does make is that existing rural organizations, the Grange, and the Farmers’ Union could all be enlisted into the cause of helping establish and support rural coops. It would be interesting to read further, and see if the Country Life Movement ignored this advice, and stuck with a top-down approach; and if this limited its reach and efficacy.

(cross-posted to my
rural history blog)

Small Community Economics, 1943

Arthur E. Morgan, Small Community Economics. Yellow Springs, OH: Community Services, Inc. 1943

Arthur E. Morgan 1878-1975, born in Cincinnati, grew up in St. Cloud, MN. Engineer, Unitarian, President of Antioch College. 1st head of TVA in 1933, removed in 1938 for criticizing TVA’s direction. Utopian. Wrote bio of Edward Bellamy. Founded Community Service, Inc. in 1940.)

Morgan begins with foreword titled “What Is Rural Life?” He says that according to the USDA, there are “about 22,000,000 persons living on American farms.” (5) This is about 17 percent of the 1943 population, and Morgan goes on to say that the “better half of the farms” produce “90 per cent of all marketed farm produce.” If those farms would “increase their production by only 10 per cent, which seems entirely feasible, the rest could go out of business without reducing the total of American agricultural produce.”

Morgan disagrees with sociologists like T. Lynn Smith (President of the
Rural Sociological Society and author of The Sociology of Rural Life) who claim “farmer and countryman are almost synonymous terms.” (6) “Even in agricultural communities,” Morgan says, “the population of towns which directly serve surrounding farm areas is from a quarter to a half as great...Most of these village residents also are rural people. Then there are fishing towns, mining towns, railroad towns, summer resort towns, quarry towns, lumbering towns, hydro-electric power plant communities, textile mill towns, and oil well towns, all with their non-farm, rural populations. At the present moment probably about half of the rural population of America is non-farm population.”

In view of this “strikingly new picture of rural life,” Morgan calls for a balanced approach to rural community planning. The “dominant economic activity” should not be the area’s only economic activity, he says. (8) Rather, “Variety and range of economic activity” are keys to developing communities that can satisfy “the normal range of human needs.” (9) Although a “rural community is wise to produce a major part of its own food supply,” Morgan believes “producing crops for the general public seldom is profitable to the amateur.” (10) He concludes that “few American communities are more than fifty per cent self-sufficient by local production,” and urges rural communities to think about what they can produce for the outside market.

While parts of Morgan’s booklet seem to betray a slightly “New Deal” technocratic orientation, his suggestions generally make sense. And they’re directed at rural people, not at bureaucrats -- possibly a result of Morgan’s falling-out with TVA and its techno-bureaucracy. The guy makes sense, and he’s probably worth looking into a little more deeply, when I get around to writing about rural reformers and radicals.

Roots of Rural Capitalism

Christopher Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860 Ithaca: Cornell Press, 1990.

“Between the 1780s and the 1860s the New England countryside underwent a profound social and economic transformation. From an economy dominated by independent farmers, it became part of a broader national market and an outpost of industrial capitalism.” (8)

But what does independence mean? Is it subsistence farming, with the goal of 100% self-sufficiency? Trade with locals, based on negotiated values rather than “market” prices corresponding to those in faraway cities? A sense of not being “dependent” on wage-based employment, afforded by land-ownership and local reciprocity? When “the distribution of wealth and the social patterns of access to the instruments of capitalistic economic power became increasingly unequal,” (17) what was happening? Were the “river gods” making themselves aristocrats, keeping the money and power in the family? Were the Boston Associates coming into the Valley, creating a mill city at Holyoke? Were these developments inevitable, and did they have to proceed to the specific ends they arrived at? Lots of questions remain unanswered.

If “Farmers traveled more to exchange produce” and “Prices...increasingly converged with each other and with those in distant markets,” (59) why were the farmers looking outside and producing for the cash market? Too many sons and not enough land? Taxes from Boston (which led to debt, foreclosures, Shays’ Rebellion)? And what about the Workingmen’s movement? Rev. Samuel C. Allen ran for governor in the 1830s, partly on a platform opposing agricultural mortgages held by corporations, “bringing the yeomanry...into a state of dependency and peril.” (205) This probably warrants a closer look...

Red Earth

Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, Red Earth, 2004

Oklahoma is most frequently thought of by the public and portrayed by environmental historians as the site of the 1930s Dust Bowl of Steinbeck’s
Grapes of Wrath. Donald Worster wrote his classic tale of ecological mismanagement in the same year that Paul Bonnifield wrote a story of the triumph of Oklahoman spirit in the face of natural disaster (1979, The Dust Bowl and Dust Bowl, respectively). William Cronon used the 180 degree disparity between these histories to comment on the incredibly subjective nature of (even environmental) history, finally threading a way (after four rewrites, he says) through post-modern concerns regarding narrative and cognition, to an embrace of history as a more-or-less moral fiction, aiming at (but never quite reaching) truth (“A Place for Stories,” JAH March 1992).

In contrast to these tales of declension and progress, Lynn-Sherow writes about the settlement of Oklahoma a generation earlier, and wonders what might have been. “Of all the ways in which history can be written and remembered,” she says, “human based environmental change is often a ‘winner’s’ history told by the people who remain” (145). Through a variety of influences including chance, culture (including racism), and environment, “in less than one generation, the collective farming practices of the Kiowas [tribe] and the mixed-use practices of African American settlers were swept aside” (147). In their place, “an elite group of native-born white farmers were eventually triumphant” and a “highly diverse ecology of native plants, animals, and people” became “a more simplified ecology centered on a scientifically approved list of domesticated crops and animals.”

Her conclusion, that “white farmers’ acceptance and enthusiasm for mechanized agriculture…initiated and sustained the simplification of the territory” is a declension, in the sense Cronon said Worster’s book was. Or is it? A more simplified ecological system is usually more fragile and subject to disturbances (like drought). So she’s using Cronon’s "second set of narrative constraints" (making "ecological sense") to get past the subjectivity of her judgment that monoracial commercialized monoculture is bad.  Cool.

Wilderness and Class

William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Environmental History, 1996.

Cronon says the popular reaction to the idea of wilderness owes much to the two related concepts of “the sublime and the frontier.” (9) The sublime is “one of the most important expressions of that broad transatlantic movement we today label as romanticism,” (9-10) but maybe we should unpack it a little and separate the elements that go into it. Cronon does not, and this leaves him only a vague ground to stand on, when he wants to talk about
secular responses to the “sublime.” He observes that in order to gain the power it has “the concept of wilderness had to become loaded with some of the deepest core values of the culture that created and idealized it: it had to become sacred.” (10) This is true in more than just a metaphorical way, but Cronon doesn’t go far enough unpacking these ideas. A closer look at them might help us understand some of the problems carried over from this religious frame of mind, that get in the way of straightforward responses to environmental issues.

The frontier myth, Cronon says, allows Americans to believe that because they were pioneers in a “virgin” land, white Europeans “reinvented direct democratic institutions” and “reinfused themselves with vigor, an independence and a creativity that were the source of American democracy and national character.” (13) We’re squarely in the territory of myth, here; it would be easy to argue that these famous results of frontier life were as mythical as the life itself. But it’s easy to agree that “to protect wilderness was in a very real sense to protect the nation’s most sacred myth of origin” in the minds of many conservationists.

Cronon says nostalgic conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister (author of
The Virginian) showed an “ambivalence, if not downright hostility, toward modernity.” (14) But it was a modernity that had served them both very well. Politician and popular author warned men against emasculation by the “feminizing tendencies of civilization,” but their status as wealthy, elite intellectuals probably put them in more danger than the fact they lived in cities. Only men like them had the leisure time or the inclination to worry about their masculinity, which is why only the “wealthiest citizens” were found “seeking out wilderness for themselves.” (15)

The fact that most early enthusiasts were rich men might also help explain the otherworldliness of the wilderness ethic. The “quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism” rest on a “flight from history.” (16) Unlike the experience of farmers, miners, or other workers whose jobs or lives gave them contact with the natural world, for these men “wilderness embodie[d] a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural.” (17) Extending this idea to the present, Cronon suggests that our supposed isolation from nature retards environmental progress. To the “extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our
real home is in the wilderness...we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead.”

Worse yet, Cronon says modern deep ecologists’ “wilderness premise that nature, to be natural, must also be pristine,” actually distracts society from important issues and opportunities for change. “We need an environmental ethic,” he says, “that will teach us as much about
using nature as about not using it.” (21) Otherwise, the “long affiliation between wilderness and wealth” will be continued. (20) Only the wealthy are able to see wilderness, and then retreat to another place where they can be separate from it. Everywhere else, “too many other corners of the earth become less than natural and too many other people become less than human, thereby giving us permission not to care much about their suffering or their fate.”

Cronon argues that humanity must abandon environmental dualism and “bipolar moral scales” (nice allusion!). The myth of wilderness, “that we can somehow leave nature untouched by our passage” or that we can wall off pieces of the environment and save them from human contamination, is absurd. “The dilemma we face,” Cronon concludes, “is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave.” This is a more realistic choice, and one that is open to everyone.

The Adirondacks

Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature, 2001

The first section, on the Adirondack State Park, was most interesting to me. Jacoby highlights what he calls the “hidden history of American Conservation, by which he means the consolidation of state power, the systematic denigration of rural land use (Jacoby calls this “degradation discourse”), and the elimination of local customs regarding commons with top-down state and national laws designating “wilderness” areas. Jacoby suggests this wilderness is “not some primeval character of nature but rather an artifact of modernity.” (198) Jacoby also agrees with William Cronon’s suggestion (in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 1996) that the idea of wilderness conservationists “tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others,” and betrays “the long affiliation between wilderness and wealth.” (Cronon, 20-22)

Jacoby introduces his subject with a reference to E.P. Thompson. He says he wants to provide a “
moral ecology...a vision of nature ‘from the bottom up.’ ” (3) Jacoby agrees rural commoners had a different response to their environments than the “appreciation of wilderness” Roderick Nash found in the “minds of sophisticated Americans living in the more civilized East.” (quoting Nash, “The Value of Wilderness,” 1977. 2) But their response was not primitive or rapacious, as portrayed by George Perkins Marsh at the beginning of the conservation movement and historians like Marsh ever after. In many cases, Jacoby says local resistance faced by conservationists was due to the fact that “for many rural communities, the most notable feature of conservation was the transformation of previously acceptable practices into illegal acts.” (2) Reading this introduction, I wondered was reminded of the “hares and rabbits” controversy in England. Jacoby gets to this point, I found -- but not directly and not as strongly as I might have liked. Which is nice, because he leaves something for me to do in a research paper.

The Adirondacks are the source of the Hudson river, and are nearly worthless as farmland. These are both important points, as is the forest’s location, close to Albany.
Marsh’s Man and Nature attracted attention in New York, and I should take a closer look at this and the other contemporary writing Jacoby mentions. For me, the most interesting feature of the story is the proliferation of “private parks,” which seem very much like the enclosed, aristocratic hunting lands of Britain. “By 1893,” Jacoby says, “there were some sixty parks in the Adirondacks, containing more than 940,000 acres of private lands, including many of the region’s best hunting and fishing grounds, at a time when the state-owned Forest Preserve contained only 730,000 acres.” Jacoby quotes Forest and Stream, which observed in 1894 that “‘Private parks in the Adirondacks today occupy a considerably larger area than the State of Rhode Island.’ ” (39) By 1899, the New York legislature was debating the monopolization of land and exclusion of poor local people from hunting. References were made to British aristocratic land enclosure, and the prosecution of “poachers.” In 1903, locals murdered Orrando Dexter, a park owner who had prosecuted several trespassers.

I think there’s a lot more to this story. Jacoby is more interested in the evolution of conservation, and tends to see these conflicts as being between conservationists and their opponents. I see it more as a conflict between locals and outsiders. The Albany conservationists have more in common with robber-baron (and some politician) park owners than with any of the locals. It’s no coincidence that they tend to overlook tree theft by the timber industry and illegal (or obscenely excessive legal) hunting by the park owners, while prosecuting locals for “squatting” on ancestral lands, taking deer or fish out of season to feed their families, and cutting non-commercial hardwood species for firewood. Jacoby tends to see this from the authorities’ point of view; I think this could be treated differently. I’m really curious, for example, about the locations of those sixty parks. How much of the very best land did they take? How many towns did they hem in, or restrict rights of way to? How much of that land is still privately owned? (
according to Wiki, in 1900, the park’s area was 2.8 million acres, of which 1.2 million was state owned. In 2000, the park had grown to 6 million acres, of which 2.4 million is state owned. After deducting for the area of towns, lakes, and small lots, that leaves about 3 million acres in private ownership. That's about the size of Connecticut. Hmm... Has anybody ever really looked at the distribution of land in America? How it was distributed initially? Who owns it now?)

Imagined Civil War

Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War, 2002

“The real war will never get in the books.” Walt Whitman 1882 (1)

Fahs says our division of texts into elite and “trash” is a way of “organizing cultural authority…that readers, writers, and publishers would not have recognized at the time.” (3) It’s also interesting, how there were not only “shared rhetorics” in Northern and Southern war writing, but common practices stemming from a shared “commercial literary culture.” (6) In the popular sphere, the commercial nature of writing and printing is (perhaps) more influential than in high literature.

“Conventions of popular literature shaped many Americans’ expectations when war began,” Fahs says. (7) To what degree did the recent shared print experience of the Mexican War (1846-8) influence this? She describes a trajectory of group allegiance leading ultimately to “nation-based individualism,” but it’s hard to distinguish this from an ongoing reaction against the tug of the mainstream. As nationalism grows, and some writers “celebrate the nation as a newly abstract entity,” others begin to assert an individual’s position relative to this new center of gravity. (11) The “felt tension between the needs of the nation and the needs of the individual,” and a “culture-wide sense that all stories were valuable” could both be a response to the overwhelming of individualism and crushing of individual stories that took place in a military camp, a battlefield death, and a mass grave. “As the mass movements of armies increasingly defined the war and the outcome of battle was increasingly mass slaughter, sentimental literature often explicitly fought against the idea of the mass, instead singling out the individual soldier as an icon of heroism.” (94) In this sense, we have a birth of the modern, and a scene-setting for the mythology of the West.

Fahs early on comments on the change produced by technology, but she doesn’t take it far. “Both north and south,” she says, “war became not just an obsessive, all-consuming subject but also a mode of perception and a way of life.” (18) “Newspapers suddenly became an urgent necessity of life,” (a deliberate nod to Gilmore?) satisfying “the public’s desire for news on an hourly, not just daily, basis.” (19) Railroads and telegraph moved mail and information like never before. But this benefit accrued more to the North, which was much better wired. Oliver Wendell Holmes called the result “perpetual intercommunication,” suggesting writers were well aware with the change.

Fahs reports that southern critics claimed “Had a Southern novelist truly painted in as engaging a style” as
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, popular opinion would have been swayed and America would have finally understood “the real workings of out Biblical system of labor, and its truly Christianizing and elevating effects on the slave.” (27) It’s unclear, from her presentation, however, whether this is a widely-held view, or just the ravings of a few critics at the Southern Monthly, who may or may not have believed it themselves. Certainly, no novelist seems to have stepped forward to carry that torch, which probably says something about different the opinions of artists and critics.

There are several more interesting points along the way. Southern papers were regularly indignant over the fact “old patrons of the Yankee weeklies and monthlies would buy them at any price.” (41) At least in more elite literary circles, the political break between north and south doesn’t seem to have created the hoped-for (at least among editors) cultural divide. Fahs also mentions that “the issue that especially exercised the letter writers was [
Harpers Weekly’s] assertion that the war would ‘inevitably sooner of later become a war of emancipation.’” This claim apparently cost Harpers some of their ongoing southern readership – it would be interesting to know how much of the heat came from northerners who’d been hoping it just wouldn’t go that far.

Fahs says “the median age of soldiers was 23.5. Yet imagining soldiers as ‘boys’…suggests a distinct cultural unease with the idea of soldiers as full-grown men separated from the maternalist culture of home.” (109) But maybe the atrocities both sides were able to perpetrate on the other is the real source of this “unease.” Whereas in both north and south, “early wartime poems imagined women renouncing men who would not be soldiers,” (128) maybe neither side was so happy, getting what they’d asked for.

In the book’s fifth chapter (one of the issues with
The Imagined Civil War is that it seems a little like a series of essays, each briefly exploring an area that in the future might support a wider treatment. This is typical of groundbreaking books, though, so maybe that’s a good problem to have.) Fahs explores the changing descriptions of black men in these “low” print media. She reports that some southern propagandists continued to predict a massive return of runaway slaves, as they realized how good they’d had it on the plantations. Northerners were somewhat ambivalent to portraying black men (and it was nearly always MEN) as heroes, until the “aftermath of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth’s fight at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863.” (169) Even then, northern whites seemed most comfortable when heroic, armed black men died at the end of their stories. Whites persisted in “refusing to imagine the continuing lives of black men.” (171) W.E.B. Du Bois commented on the irony of black men achieving status in the minds of whites only when they killed white men. Even Louisa May Alcott, who published a story of an inter-racial relationship in Moncure Conway’s radical Commonwealth in 1864, seems to have felt “a fundamental discomfort” with ideas like “black soldiers killing whites they had known.” (173) Fahs doesn’t compare this with portrayals, in the same types of media, of whites killing their neighbors and even relatives. So it’s unclear whether the discomfort was primarily racial, or more a more general feature of coming to grips with the fratricidal nature of the war.

In a chapter on war humor, Fahs raises some interesting questions about the “critical distance” of satirists, who “emphasized the fear, incompetence, cupidity, avarice, and racism of those involved in the war effort.” (201) Between the lines, she hints at a growing class division, as humorists “puncturing prevailing heroic ideas of war,” begin to question the logic that has “so long made all peoples the ready military sacrifices of some people.” (quoting Robert Henry Newell writing as Orpheus C Kerr in the 1861
New-York Mercury, 204). This type of sharp satire was apparently widespread. Fahs describes Lincoln reading satire to his Cabinet, and mentions that Charles Farrar Brown (Artemus Ward) became editor of Vanity Fair in May 1861.

The final two chapters didn’t seem as gripping (or didn’t correspond to my own interests as much), but raised one really significant point, about the shift in story-telling about the war, toward spotlighting individual experiences. It seems as if the increasingly anonymous ways in which Civil War soldiers fought and died spurred a reaction in popular consciousness. The Civil War did not produce the (high) literary response of World War I, possibly because the rich and literate didn’t volunteer for service the way educated Englishmen like Ford Madox Ford went to the trenches. So maybe Fahs exploration of “low” print culture opens the door for an exploration of the birth of American modernism in the Civil War. I hadn’t ever really noticed that Stephen Crane’s
Red Badge of Courage was published thirty years after the war, by a young man who hadn’t even been born until 1871! There’s a lot more to explore here – Alice Fahs has opened a Pandora’s Box that probably contains many more surprises.

Martin Guerre

Maybe the people most offended by Martin Guerre are the ones who don’t WANT you to play with their histories. The guys who don’t want you in dialog or argument with them, questioning whether the people they describe would REALLY feel that way or do those things. Natalie Zemon Davis doesn’t seem to mind if I say, “no, I think the dramatic arrival of the ‘real’ Martin Guerre is just TOO MUCH of a coincidence, regardless of whether the court believed it a miracle.” To me, not believing in miracles, the reappearance demands explanation. If it really was the original Martin Guerre (and Davis says he lived another thirty years and then died in Artigat as Martin Guerre, which would have been unlikely for a paid imposter – the fact that the first imposter DID is what makes the story so remarkable, after all), then how did he know to come home at precisely this moment? In whose interest was his sudden presence? His brother was in prison and about to be charged with false accusation.

The people who’d hate this type of speculation most, would be historians who expect to be BELIEVED when they write narratives of the past. Guys who have an understanding of history centered on concepts like objectivity, rules of evidence, and the like. Authors who expect their readers to not only appreciate their scholarship, but accept its results. Their basic objection to Davis is her playfulness with the idea of historical knowledge. But their specific criticisms tend to circle around format; and these are legitimate concerns.

The Return of Martin Guerre was a movie before it was a history. Although Davis was challenged by “new questions about the motivations of people in the sixteenth century,” and wondered what had become of “the ‘perhapses,’ the ‘may-have-beens’” typical of scholarly history; her close association with the production also led her to try “an expository style for the first part of the book that could provide the equivalent of cinematic movement,” to “allow the book to be read, if one wished, like a detective story (or like Coras’s Arrest Memorable) at a single sitting” (Martin Guerre viii, “On the Lame” 575). To a great extent, this choice of narrative experiment hid most of the scholarship and analysis underlying the story. Since the text didn’t display and visibly weigh this evidence, people lost sight of the work behind the story. This led some critics to assume Davis had irresponsibly interpreted sources to push a presentist agenda. It also obscured some interesting questions about identity in the period (for example, if identity lies partly in playing social roles and fulfilling one’s responsibility to the group, could Pierre Guerre have accepted the imposter as “real,” because he clearly was more successful than the original Martin at these roles? Who would prefer a “real” Martin who abandoned his family and betrayed his social responsibilities? Did Pierre’s suspicion begin when pseudo-Martin began conducting his business in ways that were against Basque “identity,” even though completely consistent with Artigat norms?). And it highlights questions about historians, audiences, their expectations, and about what history SHOULD be.

Martin Guerre is easy to read. Both in the sense that the book is short, filled with action and conflict, and won’t send the average reader to the dictionary too frequently; and in the sense that the narrative voice is authoritative and decisive. While Davis rightly argues that the rich settings and thorough backgrounds and back-stories help us enter the world these characters inhabited, this thick description also creates an air of narrative omniscience. Davis compounds this impression by stating conclusions (“Bertrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back, and be different”) rather than making qualified guesses. The wide-awake reader will realize that Davis cannot know Bertrande’s dreams and wishes, especially in the absence of documents. Davis might argue (and does in response to criticism) that Bertrande’s actions expose her thoughts. But she didn’t have a chance to discuss this, the way she structured Martin Guerre; and the reader can be pulled along by the fast-moving story, and pass by the issue without even realizing it’s there.

Is this what we historians are most upset about? In Davis’s response to Finlay, she discusses her thought processes, expands on the evidence (in copious French and Latin footnotes, to the dismay of the linguistically challenged), and substantially proves that she knows what she’s talking about. So if we give her the benefit of the doubt, is the real problem that
Martin Guerre violates some hallowed expectations about the ways we express historical ideas to the public?

Robert Finlay’s attack,
“The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” contains some revealing language. He begins by saying “It is the consensus [not HIS judgment, mind you, the consensus] that The Return of Martin Guerre is a genuine rarity, a work of sophisticated scholarship with general appeal”, (555) and proceeds to argue that “if historical records can be bypassed so thoroughly in the service of an inventive blend of intuition and assertion, it is difficult to see what distinguishes the writing of history from that of fiction.” Along the way, he implies that Davis may have lifted her story from Janet Lewis’s historical romance, since “Davis’s version of the story mainly differs from Lewis’s in her presentation of an explicit collaboration between the wife and the imposter” (569, 570).

Finlay accuses Davis of believing that “unsubstantiated insight can itself be taken as evidence” (559). “Nothing is cited from Coras’s text,” he says, “to support these contentions” (569). The text is supreme, and “speculation, whether founded on intuition or on concepts drawn from anthropology and literary criticism, is supposed to give way before the sovereignty of sources” (571). If documents are the only legitimate sources, presumably Finlay advocates giving up on the majority of those who lived in the past, and like the Guerres left no written records. Davis, for her part, counters that her reading was much more extensive than Finlay’s, and much more sophisticated. Where Finlay accuses her of manufacturing Coras’ suspicions of Bertrande, Davis quotes Coras own statement of those suspicions. She points out the specific endnote, which, oddly, does not exist in my edition of the book; and says this is just “one of several places where my notes were ‘beside the point’ for Finlay because he was inattentive to what was on Coras’s page” (592).

Surely this is the issue. Aside from the many (funny) personal shots the two historians take at each other, the disagreement comes down to Finlay’s suspicion that Davis is playing games with the past, and Davis’ portrayal of Finlay’s “inattentiveness to the whole argument of my book and his deafness to my authorial voice” (598). Davis’s interpretation rests on both texts and inferences made by examining the actions of her characters. She explains this persuasively in “On the Lame.” The problem seems to be that by writing
Martin Guerre in the style she did, Davis undermined her ability to present an argument and conclusions acceptable by historians like Finlay. The narrative was, as Finlay complained, a straightforward series of assertions about what happened and how people felt. The endnotes were mostly technical abbreviations, and did very little to show the historian’s process or the evidence she considered in crafting her story.

So, who are we writing history for? As Finlay snidely observed,
Martin Guerre was popular. A lot of people read it, and gained some insight about how people lived nearly 500 years ago. Or, about how some people may have lived. Is it important, whether they were clued into the subjective, contingent elements of the knowledge they gained about the past? Despite her demonstrated interest in them, did Davis’ style in Martin Guerre help or hinder the reader’s understanding these complexities?

I like the experiment of
Martin Guerre, and the question both Finlay and Davis pose: “In historical writing, where does reconstruction stop and invention begin?” (569, 572) The reader experiences a fast-moving, straightforward narrative differently from an erudite, heavily-qualified scholarly text; and DIFFERENT readers experience it. I think the question of the public’s experience of history is an interesting one. Certainly, with the variety of legitimate historiographical schools and their competing sets of techniques for examining the past, it makes no sense to limit the tools historians can use to express their findings to the point where all histories look like academic monographs. That would be like giving everybody an 18-wheeler, when some people clearly want and need only a pickup. But, what responsibility do we have as writers, to give our readers access to the gears, nuts and bolts (and baling-wire) behind the finished vehicle?

Would a cinematic
Martin Guerre story, backed up by an in-depth documentary of the primary sources, the historian’s techniques and conclusions, have resulted in a less contentious book? Would the public have picked up a thicker book? Would they have checked the endnotes more frequently, if they found a description of sources and a discussion of the historian’s process there, rather than a series of coded references to archival documents they’d never see? Do those incomprehensible notes really communicate anything beyond the author’s demand to be believed? It seems as if an opportunity to invite the public into the historians’ world has been missed.

ps. If I was writing a fictional story based on these elements, I’d amplify on two things. First, the “miraculous” reappearance of the original Martin Guerre at the crucial moment. Second: “Trying to take him off guard, President de Mansencal asked him how he had invoked the evil spirit that taught him so much about the people of Artigat. Coras said that he paled and for once hesitated, to the judge a sure sign of guilt.” This is the one moment in the record where pseudo-Martin seems to lose his cool.

pps. Interesting coincidence that modern technology for capturing images was pioneered by
Louis Daguerre.

Environmental History

John T. Cumbler, Reasonable Use

“What we have only recently come to appreciate is that there was a whole generation of reformers very much concerned about the environment who were neither antimodernists [like Thoreau] nor wilderness protectors. They were modernists who rejected not the modern world, but the way the modern world was being fashioned…they struggled to make the environment of the most settled parts of the nation more amenable to human habitation.”

“Henry Ingersoll Bowditch…pushed for a radical approach…saw environmental degradation as something to be confronted and ameliorated for the benefit of the poorest and weakest.”

“According to the
Connecticut Valley Farmer and Mechanic, farmers had to practice modern scientific farming in order to keep their farms productive and profitable.” (21, Springfield, May 1853) Other boks to look at might be Sylvester Judd’s History of Hadley, Edwin M. Bacon’s The Connecticut River and the Valley…, and Dwight’s Travels. Other papers might be the Vermont Republican and American Yeoman and the Hampshire Gazette.

Brian Donohue, The Great Meadow

Read this right after Merchant and Cronon. Donohue examines the ecology of colonial Concord farming in extreme depth. Some of my classmates thought this led to questions of relevance, which seems a fair criticism. But Donohue’s detailed description of the land and the agriculture Concordians practiced on it was a welcome antidote to Merchant’s vagueness and ideologically-dominated narrative.

Part of the value in Donohue’s book comes from his approach to the project he’s undertaken. Environmental historians spend a lot of time alluding to sustainability and degradation. Donohue deliberately limits the question: “did the system of husbandry put in place by the first proprietors and their descendants undermine its own ecological foundations, or could it be sustained?”

The answer to this question, it turns out is, it depends. Fields were kept in tillage “for centuries, and some is being plowed to this day.” Despite the arguments of Rothenberg, Cronon and Merchant, that he says “have emphasized the ecological damage that resulted from this revolution to a ‘world of fields and fences,’” Donohue believes “these people knew what they were doing.” He concludes “Colonial husbandry in Concord …was intensive farming, in which…a workable balance among these lands was established and carefully maintained.” Ironically, the market-oriented agriculture that followed, according to Donohue, was “a far more extractive,
extensive way of farming” than the methods used by Concordians for nearly seven generations.

Donohue is so thorough in his descriptions of Concord farming, and his writing is so vivid, that a sense of inevitability seems to creep into the reader’s mind. He tries to avoid it, challenging assumptions as wide as the existence of the Holocene as a distinct period [in a passage that echoes “big history,” Donohue says we’re in a Pleistocene interglacial, and it’s nearly over]. But he does such a good job describing what happened in Concord, and how it was sustainable, that the reader can forget that Concord was not a closed system. The combination of crops is altered toward the end of the period, when farmers begin planting potatoes. In addition to being invisible on the records [and leading some to incorrectly assume that crop yields per acre were decreasing at a greater rate than they actually were], potatoes were a more efficient source of nutrition than the grain they replaced. So even if sustainable, the Concord system was not necessarily optimal.

Similarly, technological change and other resource substitutions complicate the picture at the end of the period Donohue describes. The increase in nearby urban populations, competition from newly accessible western farms [via the Erie Canal and railroads], and the sheer inability of Concord to feed all its people, necessitated openness to the outside world. There are a variety of possible solutions to sustainability, once you decide how many and what types of relationships with the outside are allowed. Maybe the lesson is that humans don’t seem to want to live within the constraints of the closed system [especially with its limits to population growth], and are always seeking a way around it. What happens when there’s nowhere left to look for energy sources outside the system?

More Big History

Maps of Time, continued

Did I mention before, that the discussion of these scientific ideas are tied up with the story of their discoverers/elaborators? These are two different things, though. Somehow, Bryson seems to do a more engaging job of this, because he introduces them as personalities, and gives them part of the narrative.

So, there’s Bryson, there are more detailed studies of parts of the big picture, by the appropriate specialists…what’s the selling point of the single-volume integration? It’s gotta be, the filters the author applies. What Christian calls the creation of a new myth.

To some degree, anyone who writes a book featuring cosmology and human evolution is still fighting against the enemies of Darwin. To what degree is this an issue, in Big History? To what extent is Christian positioning history OUTSIDE the grasp of religion and its nonsense accounts of creation? This IS still an ongoing battle, in a lot of places (a fact grad students at a place like UMass might easily forget). Creationism is being forced into public schools.

Christian’s main metaphor in the part of the book dealing with what we normally recognize as history, is a sort of Cisco communication model. Hubs and centers of gravity. Informational throughput, leading to innovation, mixing of cultures and ideas, etc. China is a center of awesome gravity, but it falls behind because it isn’t central enough. On the other hand, it powers the entire system, by being a sink for silver and driving the Eurasian exchange network. Is there a similar pattern at work in the Americas? How does Michigan copper get to Central America?

Big History

David Christian, Maps of Time (first look)

Five hundred pages of text, fifty pages of notes, thirty pages of bibliography. Christian begins at the beginning, with the Big Bang. I’m about 125 pages into the book, and multi-cellular organisms are just starting to appear. In other words, I’m still about 600 million years from the beginning of what we normally consider history.

So far, the text has been interesting and very readable. I’ve read a little about the cosmology and biology he’s covered. Enough to know that he’s covering the high points well, and leaving out a lot of detail. This is inevitable, and while it might not make an evolutionary biologist happy…then again, maybe it would!

The whole thing is about context and communication, I suppose. It’s interesting to me that the genre he’s writing in really goes back a way – at least to
Robert Chambers’ Vestiges in 1844! He’s probably exposing a lot of people to this science for the first time. And, depending on what he does once he gets to the “historical” period, maybe he’ll be able to get us to look at that from a new angle.

In the introduction, Christian claims his two major influences are Annales-style
longue durée history and Jungian mythologizing. The archetype he seems to want to use to unite the macro (geological/biological) and micro (human social) histories is apparently the image of running up the “down” escalator. The impulse of things (mainly life, but he extends it to stars and cultures) to fight entropy: to build order out of the growing chaos all around.

This is a different archetype from Eliade’s eternal return or Yeats’s gyres. And it’s different from Hegel & Marx’s teleology. It’ll be interesting to see where he takes it.


The authors of the anthology introduce slavery with the observation that perhaps no other element of American history is as guilt-ridden, and that historians are not immune from the emotional power of slavery or contemporary race issues. “Had the country been conceived of as existing primarily for the benefit of its actual inhabitants,” they say, things might have been much different. This reminder that colonialism and its pace of development was directed by the European powers spreads some of the guilt, but certainly doesn’t shift it from American shoulders.

On the other hand, a lot of work seems to have been done in recent years, situating slavery in the development both of capitalism and of the “atlantic world.” International trade, which “immensely stimulated the production of staple crops” at the expense of a more balanced, internally-focused agricultural economy, encouraged large-scale operations and slavery as an economically “rational” solution for labor. (We still need to develop an economics that prevents short-sighted, immoral, and socially destructive practices like slavery from seeming rational.)

W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, Winthrop Jordan, Richard Dunn, and David Brion Davis all look like people I’ll want to circle back around to, when I have the time. The two selections in the chapter, one by Breen and Innes and the other by Higginbotham, address the question of which came first, slavery or racism?

Breen and Innes begin (the excerpt is from
“Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676) by reminding the reader that “Men have been enslaving one another for over three thousand years, receiving philosophic justification from every major Western thinker from Plato to Locke.” They claim “there was nothing inevitable about the course of race relations, at least in the years before Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The idea that “race itself becomes a sufficient cause for behavior,” they say, “flies in the face of social reality.”

Breen and Innes criticize authors who rely too heavily on Virginia statute law. “Statutes usually speak falsely as to actual behavior,” they say, quoting Winthrop Jordan, who went on to try to justify his use of them. They reject Jordan’s argument that statutes at least reveal “communal attitudes;” countering that “many whites were indentured servants,” who felt so much common cause with their black neighbors that “the House of Burgesses became sufficiently worried about the unruliness of the colony’s landless white freemen that they disenfranchised them.” In fact, they suggest, later Virginia statutes can be viewed as attempts to pry apart poor white and black Virginians, to prevent them from challenging the Colony’s power structure.

Much has been made of a piece of 1640 legislation that has been interpreted as an order to disarm black Virginians. Breen and Innes show this to be an error, reviewing the wording of the law and citing later court records dealing with guns which clearly do not deny blacks the right to bear arms. They review several cases in which runaways were caught and punished, which have been used to suggest unequal treatment. Breen and Innes admit this possibility, but call attention to the fact that blacks and whites ran away together, apparently trusting each other with their safety and futures, if not their lives. This reinforces their point, that “the possibility of large-scale, interracial cooperation continued to worry the leaders of Virginia.”

Finally, Breen and Innes challenge the argument that court records that list the race of participants are evidence of racism. The records did not in fact list race all the time, they say. “Many routine items – the sale of land and livestock for example—did not carry the convenient racial indicators.” Once historians realize that some of the “normal” court transactions involved black people, they say, they may be able to widen their view of black history beyond the “sexual and criminal activities that presently occupy a disproportionate place in the analysis of early American race relations.”

The second selection, from
Shades of Freedom by A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., probably should have been put first in this chapter. Breen and Innes were clearly criticizing this author and his belief that the early Virginia legal tradition represents an effort by racist whites to institute race differentiation as a precursor to establishing lifelong, hereditary slavery. Higginbotham, a former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, limits his discussion to the judicial record. There are no details in his analysis from outside the judgments.

“When the first Africans arrived at Virginia in August 1619,” Higginbotham says, “they were initially accorded an indentured servant status similar to that of most Virginia colonists.” While he admits that unlike indentured whites, the blacks came involuntarily with no contract for eventual release, he says an equally important reason for their difference from white servants was that “since the fifteenth century, Englishmen had regarded blackness as “the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.” Higginbotham seems to be quoting Jordan, and apparently believes this attribution proves the claim, because he doesn’t try to support it further.

I’m actually really pleased that I was able to comment on Breen and Innes first, because it gave me an opportunity to talk about something
other than religion. Unfortunately, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Higginbotham’s premise in Shades of Freedom is that the notion of black inferiority was the chicken to slavery’s egg. His experience as a federal judge showed him that a presumption of inferiority continued to influence the highest levels of public policy. Fighting this prejudice is a heroic goal; unfortunately, Higginbotham’s claims about racism in this selection can be sustained only if you avoid looking at the elephant in the room with him, which is religion.

“Prior to 1680,” Higginbotham says, “the colonies would often follow the Spanish and English practice that blacks who had been baptized into the Christian religion were to be accorded the privileges of a free person.” He doesn’t specify what these privileges were – clearly becoming Christian didn’t make you free. This is demonstrated by one of the cases Higginbotham goes on to cite.

In the first case,
Re Tuchinge, 1624, “John Phillip A negro Christened in England” is allowed to testify against a white defendant. Higginbotham claims the language shows the court’s assumption of a black man’s inferiority: “In a jurisdiction where black did not carry the stigma of inferiority…the blemish of his race would not need to be washed clean by the grace of his Christian religion.” That’s a possible explanation. Another is, that non-Christians could not swear and testify in court. They had no standing in the English legal system (the “disability” of non-Christians lasted into the nineteenth century in England). A black man would be assumed to be a non-Christian, unless proven otherwise.

In 1630, the second judgment,
Re Davis, has the defendant being “soundly whipt before an assembly of negroes & others for abusing himself to the dishon[o]r of God and shame of Christianity by defiling his body in lying with a negro.” Higginbotham infers that Hugh Davis is white, because his race is not mentioned. His offense, described as a crime against Christianity, is according to Higginbotham that he slept with a black woman. The whipping in front of “negroes & others” is “especially humiliating, because he would have been debased in front of individuals who were his legal inferiors.”

Higginbotham’s explanation seems strained, in a culture where “a white master had the right to demand sexual compliance of his female slaves, just as surely as he had the right to ride his mares. This practice…was, to be sure, already tolerated in secret as a matter of privilege in 1630.” If, as he says later, Davis was a poor man who would not be entitled to such privileges, would he have felt the humiliation Higginbotham suggests? And in any case, if we’re looking for crimes against Christianity, “abuses” that “defile” a person, isn’t it more likely that Davis (whether black or white) and the “negro” he lay with were both male? Is it just an editor’s slip that has Higginbotham concluding that in the case “the black person’s irredeemable inferiority was measured by
his presence as the reason for the white man’s punishment”?

In 1640, another sex case,
Re Sweat, has the court whipping a pregnant black woman and forcing the white father to do “public penance for his offence at James city church.” Higginbotham says the judgment focuses on humiliation rather than compensation to the woman’s owner for the fact that “during the pregnancy and post-childbirth period, she probably became less valuable,” completely ignoring that since no mention is made of the child, the slave woman’s owner apparently gets to keep her (assuming she survives the whipping). Higginbotham is so convinced of the shame of sleeping with a black woman, that to him the meaningless slap on the wrist of “penance” is worse than the “monetary damages” Sweat wasn’t forced to pay.

The final case,
In Re Graweere, describes how John Graweere, a black slave, bought his son’s freedom from the mother’s owner. When John’s owner made a claim, on the basis of his ownership of the father, the court ruled in John’s favor and freed the son. Higginbotham says the decision turned on John’s promise that the boy “would be made a Christian and be taught and exercised in the church of England.” The court declared “the child shall be free…to be and remain at the disposing and education of the said Graweere and the child’s godfather who undertaketh to see it brought up in the Christian religion as aforesaid.”

Higginbotham says “this case is correctly interpreted as significant evidence that, by 1641, the legal process had not contemplated the institution of hereditary slavery.” But if this is the case, why was it necessary for John Graweere to
buy his son away from the boy’s owner? Higginbotham deduces that Graweere is probably not a Christian himself, which seems reasonable. But then he jumps to the conclusion that the godfather mentioned in the judgment must be white. Wouldn’t it be reasonable, if the father was non-Christian, for the court to be interested in the Christian godfather’s role in training the boy? Wouldn’t it be likely, if Higginbotham’s claims are correct and racism is creeping into the picture, that something as unusual as a white godfather promising to train a freed slave boy, might be mentioned more explicitly?

Higginbotham claims that “if the precept of black inferiority meant anything, it certainly meant that, in the court’s estimation, the child’s Christian education would have been better safeguarded if entrusted to the care of a white colonist than if placed in the hands of a black servant, Christian or otherwise.” It seems less of a strain to conclude that “the precept of black inferiority” actually
didn’t mean anything, in this time and place. Higginbotham also claims that if a black godfather could insure the boy’s Christianity, then blacks would have converted “en masse” and petitioned the court for their freedom. He forgets that John Graweere had bought his son’s freedom, and the court was simply protecting him from a claim that would have undermined property conventions that were, contrary to Higginbotham’s claim, moving towards institutionalizing hereditary slavery.

Higginbotham finds racism in these accounts, and maybe it’s there. But the language of the judgments suggests the court was at least as concerned about religion. In the final case, he says large numbers of blacks would convert in order to improve their circumstances. Passing over his mistaken equation of Christianity with freedom, it does seem that Christian blacks enjoyed privileges and status denied to the unconverted. So, why didn’t more blacks become Christians?

Higginbotham says the sexual crimes were dealt with harshly because the two white men involved were “poor whites or servants who had managed to sleep with black women.” If this was the case, why did one court decision carefully record the black person’s owner, while the other made no mention of it? While it does seem reasonable to think the authorities may have wanted to minimize fraternization between potentially rebellious black and white populations, was rebellion even an issue at the time of these cases?

If we take a cue from Higginbotham, and assume the cases in court records tell us something about what’s going on in society, what do these cases suggest? Certainly, that there was a lot of sex happening, that religious and civil authorities wanted to prevent. Maybe that some of this illicit sex was leading to pairings (marriages, families, domestic alliances) that circumvented normal social channels and the controls of proper marriage, inheritance, and even property rights (if we conclude, contrary to Higginbotham, that the whites were already institutionalizing permanent, hereditary slavery). In each of the cases, Christianity is at least as visible a factor as race, and the blacks’ status as non-Christians is central to the problem. Maybe the hidden social issue was that there was something in black culture that prevented slaves from becoming Christian to improve their social status. A cultural element that gave them something more valuable, which they weren’t willing to turn their backs on. Just the type of thing you’d want to eliminate, if you were planning to establish lifelong, hereditary slavery.

Teaching Kids History

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

The subtitle of this award-winning volume of essays, promises to chart the future of teaching the past. Wineburg’s main point, that the “historical thinking” and close, critical reading practiced by professional historians are very different from the ways students in other fields (and high school students, even in history classes) are taught to read and think. This is a valuable insight, which historians who write for the public (and grad students) would benefit from pondering. Wineburg’s essays, gathered from a decade of articles, conference papers and informal presentations, open a new field of study and outline a number of questions that he and others have begun trying to answer.

Wineburg begins by observing that standardized testing doesn’t provide an accurate picture of students’ historical knowledge, partly because of the testers’ focus on data and facts. He suggests that a wider exploration might explore the “cultural pores” through which students (and the general public) acquire historical understanding, “make meaning…[and] situate their own personal histories in the context of national and world history.” Wineburg places the debate over history at the center of the American culture wars, complete with Lynne Cheney at the head of the National Endowment of the Humanities, and candidate Bob Dole calling his opponents in the national standards debate “worse than external enemies” of America. Given the nastiness of the debate over what should and shouldn’t be taught, “some might wonder why history was ever considered part of the humanities…that are supposed to teach us to spurn sloganeering, tolerate complexity, and cherish nuance.” Wineburg’s claim is that history is mind-expanding and humanizing, but only if we learn to think like historians.

Historical thinking, Wineburg says, “goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think.” Wineburg observed high school students, and found that even those with well-developed reading skills “shaped the information [they] encountered so that the new conformed to the shape of the already known.” He compares the naïve high-schooler’s approach to Collingwood’s belief “that we can somehow ‘know Caesar’ because human ways of thought, in some deep and essential way, transcend time and space.”

Against this “classic historicist stance,” Wineburg argues with Carlo Ginzburg that the historian’s task is to “destroy our false sense of proximity to people of the past…The morte we discover about these people’s mental universes, the more we should be shocked by the cultural distance that separates us from them.” The Egyptians, Wineburg concludes, “drew differently because they
saw differently.”

This is familiar territory to academic historians, who delight in the tension between the two extremes of “classical” objectivity and “post-modern” subjectivity – and generally live somewhere in between. Wineburg, of course, is writing primarily for social studies teachers and educational administrators. The part that may be new and shocking to professional historians is how their nuanced, qualified descriptions of the past change as they enter the high school classroom. Textbooks, Wineburg says, “pivot on what Roland Barthes called the ‘referential illusion,’ the notion that the way things are told is simply the way things were.” Textbooks eliminate “metadiscourse…places in the text where the author intrudes to indicate positionality and stance.” They generally speak in the omniscient third person, suggesting that they’re presenting “just the facts, ma’am,” and that there’s one correct interpretation and it’s the one they’ve presented. Metadiscourse, Wineburg says, indicates an author’s “judgment, emphasis, and uncertainty.” Historians “rely heavily on ‘hedges’ to indicate indeterminacy, using such devices…to convey the uncertainty of historical knowledge.” Textbooks don’t.

This approach to teaching the past, Wineburg suggests, leaves students unaware that for actual historians, the past is substantially more mysterious and their understanding of it more tentative and contingent – and as a result much more interesting than the textbooks. Students are left with a “presentist” point of view, and come to see concepts like prejudice, tolerance, racism, fairness, and equity “as transcendent truths soaring above time and place,” rather than as “patterns of thought that take root in particular historical moments.” As a result of current methods, Wineburg says, students (and some teachers) don’t know what to make of figures like Abraham Lincoln, whose attitudes toward black people don’t fit those of the twenty-first century.

The two main elements of “historical thinking” for Wineburg seem to be subtext and context. General readers mine texts for data points, he says, while historians are aware of the text as both “a rhetorical artifact and…as a human artifact.” To the historian, “texts emerge as speech acts,” subject to “the same set of concepts we use to decipher human action.” Furthermore, historians are rarely the intended audience of the documents they study, so “as eavesdroppers on conversations between others, [they] must try to understand both the authors’ intentions and the audiences’ reactions” to the text. In contrast, students and their teachers too often looked for “straight information,” and “failed to see the text as a social instrument skillfully crafted to achieve a social end.”

Having laid out this argument, Wineburg presents a series of studies he’s performed over the years. He shows bright, articulate high school students failing to understand the context of primary documents, while historians examine the sources of statements as closely as the statements themselves. In one ironic passage, a student-teacher who majored in history as an undergraduate is less able to pull back from the text, than a former physics major (suggesting perhaps a difference in the way these people learned about paradigms and the contingency of knowledge?). Finally, in a concluding essay, Wineburg makes some interesting points about lived and learned memory, and observes wryly that “family” experience of history has largely devolved into jumping onto the couch together and popping in a Spielberg video.

Historical Thinking, like most field-establishing texts, opens more doors than it closes. Clearly there’s a lot left to do, if the goal is to teach secondary educators and high school students how to think more like historians. Wineburg has outlined the problem, and has made a convincing case that “historical thinking” could lead to greater “intellectual charity.” How to implement solutions, and how critical thinking in history is different from and superior to critical thinking in other fields, are questions that still need to be explored. The promise of “charting the future of teaching the past” is not fulfilled in this volume – but maybe we now have some ideas about where to look.


Interpretations of American History, Vol. 1

Chapter Three of this historiography textbook begins with an enigmatic quote: “’I am an Indian,’ wrote Virginia planter-historian Robert Beverley in his 1705 preface to his The History and the Present State of Virginia.” The authors suggest Beverley’s identification with “Indianness” highlights “some of the unique problems in attempting to track the historiography of American Indians.” But the sample readings they provide show how far the study of native cultures and their encounter with “America” still has to go.

“Historians of Indians,” the authors say, bring not only their “political agendas...[but] their personal desires, identifications, and hatreds” to the study. In their chapter introduction, they mention a number of writers who’ve criticized the colonists’ treatment of the natives, beginning with “Bartholeme de Las Casas…
The Devastation of the Indies in 1552.” They quote Puritan leader Cotton Mather’s celebration of the plague that wiped out “Nineteen of Twenty” people among the tribes near Plymouth prior to the Mayflower’s arrival, “so that the Woods were almost cleared of those pernicious Creatures, to make Room for better Growth.” (Mather’s italics) Also quoted is John Underhill’s conviction that “Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”

These are insane statements, which go a long way toward either undermining the reader’s belief that colonial leaders were actually religious people. Or to confirming a suspicion that the religion they professed was imperial, white-supremecist, and in the end, all about power and domination.

That’s why it’s so surprising to me that the two passages included, about the new perspectives on Indian history, are both so deeply committed to exploring Indian culture’s response to America solely from the perspective of religion.
Colin Calloway begins by saying that “in the eyes of the Christian invaders, Indians had no real religion.” But would finding a pious, recognizably religious (even a Christian) native community have changed their actions? Or are we right to “question the missionaries’ assumptions, finding their arrogance repellent and despising them as agents of cultural genocide” (they were agents of actual, not cultural genocide)? And if “Christianity was a weapon of conquest, not a path to salvation,” is the Indians’ relationship with colonial religion the most valuable cross-cultural element to explore?

Calloway gives nearly all his attention in this selection to Indian adoption of (or adaptation of) Christianity. Some tribes, he says, found common ground between the missionaries’ teaching and their old beliefs. Some treated the “Christian saints…[and] Franciscans…as additional shamans.” Others, finding the French wouldn’t sell guns to non-Christians, “accepted baptism to secure firearms.”

If some Indian women converted in order to learn to spin wool or to read, and some men joined for weapons, it seems to me that the things they learned and got (spinning, reading, guns) are at least as relevant as the theology they embraced. There are so many points of contact between the natives and the colonists, it seems like there would be other, more interesting dimensions to the interplay and resulting cultural change. Trade, technology transfer, farming, travel, buying and selling land, fighting – not to mention all the cultural elements (ethical, economic, philosophical, political, scientific, and even household knowledge and fashion) that aren’t part of the catechism – all seem more vital to understanding the Indian encounter with the white man than how natives reacted to white religion.

Religion seems to me most relevant to the ongoing relationship between the Indians and whites, not in how the Indians reacted to it, but in how the whites used it. Whether in the sense of “Spanish missionaries [who] regarded resettling Indian people as peasants…as a prerequisite of Christianity,” or in the more passive sense of using religious communities (that “resorted to whipping, branding, and solitary confinement to keep the Indians on the path to ‘civilization and salvation’”) to sweep together the refugees of villages wiped out by white diseases, it’s the colonists’ use or abuse of religion that’s really relevant. Or their refusal to engage when it suited them, as when “in 1782, American militiamen butchered ninety-six pacifist and unarmed Morovian [Christian] Indians in their village at Gnadenhütten.”

The most interesting element of the Indian response to Christianity might be Calloway’s brief mention (quoting Axtell) that some “Indians ensured the survival of native culture by taking on the protective coloration of the invaders’ culture.” They appeared to convert, while secretly “giving traditional meanings to Christian rites, dogmas, and deities.” They learned from their conquerors that the religion was an empty vessel that could be filled with anything at all, so they hid their culture in the last place whites would look for it.

Gregory Evans Dowd, like Calloway, seems to put religion at the center of his study of the Indian response to invasion. In Dowd’s case, native spirituality is the vehicle for a prophetic nativist resistance to continuing white encroachment. This quasi-religious movement was challenged by (presumably Christian or secular) Indian groups who favored accommodation.

In this excerpt (hopefully not in the book it came from, nor in the author’s complete body of work), the emphasis on religion is (slightly) less of a problem than Dowd’s formulation of these two groups, the nativists and the accomodationists. Although Dowd allows that “Militant religion [was] in somewhat of a hiatus during those years,” he insists that religion “provided and continued to extend the intertribal network upon which unity depended.” Citing the “intertribal, even diplomatic character of prophecy,” Dowd argues that militant networks possessed a “shared symbolic lexicon.” He implies that this was the only symbol system shared among the far-flung, linguistically distinct tribes of North America.

But this is exactly the point that argues against the other side of Dowd’s formula. There was no “Indian” national consciousness. “The heritage of Indian diversity and of highly localized, familial, and ethnically oriented government” made it extremely difficult for many Indians to join the artificial, newly-created “nativist” Indian nation. Those “Indians who identified with ‘tribal’ leaders” can’t simply be lumped together and written off as “advocates of
accommodation.” And the nativist prophets’ use of language and symbols seemingly borrowed from their enemies’ religion cannot have made matters any easier for the dissenters.

When “prophets and shamans…accused them of the neglect of ritual and warned of an impending doom,” skeptical listeners may have examined their own local experience against the prophets’ generalized complaints. Were they neglecting the rituals? Did they believe in a vengeful, angry God? Thoughtful Indians might have noticed that accusations that “they had failed in their commitments to the sacred powers,” and that they must “kill witches…to purify themselves,” had a remarkable resonance with the New England Christianity of the recent past. And the emphasis on “the Great Spirit, the remote Creator who became increasingly important, probably under the influence of Christianity,” probably raised some doubts in the minds of tribes intent on preserving their own local traditions in the face of American encroachment.

Given ongoing American aggression that impacted resisters and appeasers alike, a united, continent-wide Indian resistance was a reasonable response. But, notwithstanding the efforts of Neolin, Tenskwatawa and others, basing the nativist case for unity on a vaguely Christian-sounding religious appeal seems like it was a bad idea. In the end, this selection leaves me wondering if, in fact, there were other bases for Indian unity, and to what extent they may have been tried. Restricting the conversation to the religious sphere may have been the Indians’ great mistake. At least in the way we think of religion. If we widen the scope of the idea, to encompass all (or nearly all) of Indian life, then the Indians’ actions make more sense. But then we’re talking about apples and oranges, and the argument presented in this excerpt needs much wider and deeper elaboration.


Interpretations of American History, Vol. 1

The Puritans: The basic claim seems to be that Puritanism is one of the main sources of American Exceptionalism, and possibly of the American character in the colonial and early national periods. Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson talk about “traits which have persisted long after the vanishing of the original creed.” But then, in distinguishing between “authentic Puritanism” and what its descendents (evangelism and universalism) retained of its elements, they immediately call into question whether the traits which persisted were peculiarly Puritan, or part of the underlying culture.

“Puritanism,” they say, “has not been sustained by any denomination stemming from it.” It is a distinct and different thing, which would repudiate the new lights as enthusiasts and the universalists as materialists. So what were they, and more importantly, why do they matter?

Miller and Johnson make the insightful (and widely applicable) point that “notwithstanding the depth of this divergence [between the Puritans and the English Church], the fact still remains that only certain specific questions were raised.” It’s possible to be bitter opponents, and be very much alike. In fact, “the vast majority [of] ideas held by New England Puritans…were precisely those of their opponents…about 90 percent of the intellectual life, scientific knowledge, morality, manners and customs, notions and prejudices” that made up Puritan culture, were those “of all Englishmen.”

Certainly, it was on the other ten percent that the Puritans defined themselves, when they set out to remove themselves from England and set up their own society in the New World. But just because they did this, are we obligated to agree with them? In fact, when they were NOT addressing the rationale behind their emigration, were these differences with their old neighbors and relatives in England really the guiding principles of life for the New England Puritans?

Miller and Johnson point out that when historians try to “trace developments and influences on subsequent American history and thought, we shall find that the starting point…is as apt to be found among the 90 percent as among the 10. So again, if this is the case, how do we justify our acceptance of the 10% as the guiding lights in the daily lives of all the people who lived in Massachusetts Bay?

The situation is complicated if you’re not a Christian, and as a result don’t appreciate the subtleties of the theological differences that made up this putatively critical 10%. Yes, you can appreciate that
they may have felt very strongly about issues you consider trivial. But the question remains, why are these differences historically significant? The answer, for the unbeliever, would have to be found in the different actions these rival theologies inspired.

Miller and Johnson admit that, to a large extent, the “conflict between the Puritans and the Churchmen was…a debate among pundits.” The question remains, how much was this debate relevant to the non-pundits? In what ways did the people of Massachusetts Bay participate in the debate? How did it affect their lives?

Puritan doctrines held the seeds of their own undoing – or at least of challenges like the Antinomianism of Anne Hutchinson. Miller and Johnson describe the Puritan leaders’ attempts to control these excesses, which seem like nothing more than the logical conclusions of their differences with the English Churchmen. In this sense, the Puritans appear hypocritical; unwilling to consistently and completely apply the ideals they profess.

“New England theocracy,” Miller and Johnson say, “was thoroughly medieval in character.” But again, was this due to the 10% that was different, or the 90% that was the same as English religion? Or do the needs of both sects, to propagate and maintain themselves by controlling the beliefs and behavior of their followers, require just such a feudal social order?

“In America,” they continue,” “the frontier conspired with the popular disposition to lessen the prestige of the cultured classes” and the church hierarchy. Isn’t this another way of saying that the urban elites and Puritan divines had little to offer that could lessen the struggles or enhance the wellbeing of pioneers struggling to survive on the frontiers? “Sermon after sermon reveals that in their eyes the cause of learning and the cause of hierarchical, differentiated social order were one and the same.” That centralized, “higher” learning supported ministerial claims to social dominance. Doesn’t this suggest, by extension, that “New England theocracy” was designed to play the same role?

Seems to me that, far from rehabilitating Puritanism as the leading source of American exceptionalism, Miller and Johnson have called out a number of ways in which the small set of beliefs that set the Puritans apart from their theological adversaries are shown to be insignificant, self-contradictory, and possibly irrelevant in the creation of American culture. In the end, isn’t the Puritans’ real contribution, not their eccentric theology (abandoned and misrepresented even by their direct descendants, the new lights and the universalists), but rather their
dogged insistence that they were, in fact, exceptional? Isn’t that the basis of the American myth? That we’re special, even when we’re exactly the same?

Philip Gura’s 1984 contribution to the Puritan story suggested more attention should be paid to the radicals like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams who challenged the Puritan authorities. Gura says “in many cases, theirs were the same Protestant principles Winthrop and the others earlier had defended in England yet, under pressure to settle the wilderness and codify their ecclesiology, soon enough condemned as seditious or heretical.” That’s a polite way of saying that when they’d become the establishment, Winthrop and his allies denied the ideas that had formed the basis of their rebellion.

Gura criticizes Miller for “treating the whole literature as though it were the product of a single intelligence,” and thus missing any subtle differences or development over time that might be seen in Puritan documents. He says “Miller viewed New England dissent as a sideshow to the events on the main stage of…intellectual and social history.”

Looking at town and church records, Gura claims, supports his argument that “
Heterogeneity, not unanimity, actually characterized the colony’s religious life.” However, unlike others who questioned the reach of Puritan ideas across the wider working-class New England population, Gura continues to view New England as an area “settled in the belief that it was to become nothing less than a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.”

Gura’s exclusively theological focus allows him to conclude “what is apparent in the colonists’ elaborate definitions and justifications…and evident in their polemics against dissenters is that the New Englander’s ideological self-image was shaped…by an unyielding effort to neutralize the influence of those who argued for a much more radical reorganization of the society.” Again, this seems like a polite way of saying that, once they had gained power, the Puritans wanted to reinstate centralized authority and eliminate any further dissent or theological elaboration. This rigidity toward those outside the power-group, who may not have realized the reform game was officially over, is what prompted Roger Williams the “monstrous Paradox [that] God’s children should persecute God’s children.” The fact that New England congregationalism “produced supporters as harsh and intolerant as the English prelates” suggests that there really wasn’t that much difference between the Puritans and their adversaries back in England. Theology was an excuse for a power struggle; and was jettisoned as soon as the Puritans obtained the power they sought.

Of the two excerpts presented in the text, it seems Miller and Johnson had a more ironic sense of the narrowness of Puritan thought, and the likelihood that although the Puritans contributed to the myth of American uniqueness, it may not have been through their theology; but rather through their arrogance. Their declaration that they were exceptional, not the theological details of their position, seems to be the key to their contribution. That, and the subsequent consolidation of social and political power that allowed them to dominate New England for more than a century.

Chilean Copper in 1872

James Douglas Jr., “The Copper Mines of Chili,” Engineering and Mining Journal 1872.

James Douglas Jr. was the son of a Scottish-born Quebéc physician and member of the Royal College of Surgeons. Born in 1837, Douglas was drawn to study the metallurgy of copper after working at a mine his father owned a share in. In 1869, Douglas and Dr. Thomas Sterry Hunt published the “Hunt and Douglas” process of reducing copper using salt. This process was used successfully in North Carolina and Chile by the early 1870s. In 1871, Douglas apparently traveled to Chile; probably to help establish his extraction process. His account of Chilean copper mining appeared in the April edition of London’s Quarterly Journal of Science and in installments, with “revisions and corrections” in the 1872 E&MJ, beginning with the May 21 issue. In 1881, Douglas began his career at Phelps Dodge by going to Arizona to investigate what became the Copper Queen Mine.

Douglas begins his first installment of the article with a review of Chilean copper mining, acknowledging the fact that “As the produce of the Chili mines now regulates the price of copper all over the world, and all speculation as to its future price must depend on the probable future yield of these mines, their condition is a subject of prime importance to all interested in the copper trade.”

Nearly “all the copper comes,” Douglas says, “from the coast range, and from within 30 miles of the sea; and nearly two-thirds of it from the three great mineral districts of Tomaya, Carrizal, and Chañaral.” A little copper comes from the “Cajon de Maipu,” and the “Condes Mines” in the cordillera “produce 200 tons or so of 23 per cent. ore annually.” Othe cordillera mines are the “Cerro Blanco…a little south of the Copiopó…and the Esploradora mines of Mr. Sievert, in the Atacama Desert, 120 miles inland.” Generally, transportation difficulties and the lack of high-yield deposits prevent mining inland.

Starting in the south, Douglas lists the Chilean mines. South of Santiago, he says, “a number of small mines are worked both in the Cordillera and the coast range; but their total yield falls short of 1,000 tons of fine copper annually.”
Is the site of Braden’s find (El Teniente) being worked by small-scale miners?

“Crossing the line of 33 deg. S. latitude,” Douglas mentions “mines on both sides of the Melon Valley and the Catemo and San Felipe mines.” He describes the ores (“The San Felipe ores are of grey sulphides; but as a rule the lodes are narrow.”), indicating that he’s studied them first-hand in some detail. The “Paral mine on one of the Coimas group of lodes, where a lode of a yard wide yields on an average a 30 per cent. ore,” is an exception, but “the mine is very badly worked…twice as many men are employed in pumping as in breaking the ore.” About 3,000 tons a year from this district “is made into regulus and bars at smelting establishments in the Melon and at Catemo. In the San Felipe Valley, Urmeneta and Errasuriz [sic] have attempted to use the peat—which is here abundant—for smelting, but as yet without advantage.”
There’s an article in an earlier number of the E&MJ about using peat for fuel in Britain and the US – apparently U&E are up to date on the latest doings.

In Aconcagua and southern Coquimbo provinces, Douglas sees evidence of long and extensive mining. “The hills are so saturated with copper that a
desmontes or refuse heap enters as a conspicuous object into almost every bit of mountain scenery, and innumerable slag heaps in many a nook and corner mark the spots where furnaces smelted the ore from neighboring mines till the hill sides, to the serious detriment of agriculture, had been denuded of timber.” Suggests that not only mining but smelting is an old and widely distributed practice. Note it was done with wood, until the local timber was exhausted. And the degree to which it impacted agriculture might shed light on the development of ag policy & adversarial tone of farmers.

“When we reach the river Limari, near Ovalle, we come in sight of the Hill of Tomaya, the most southerly of the great Chili
minerales. It is an isolated mountain, some 3 to 4 miles long, whose summit is 3,000 feet above the level of the plain, and 4,200 above the sea.” From a distance, Douglas can see “long white streaks reaching far towards its base, the enormous piles of desmontes, whose total amount probably exceeds 200,000 tons.” Douglas proceeds to give a detailed account of the mountain and its mines. He notes that “There is not a spring of water on the hill, and the mnes are so dry that they do not supply the needs of the establishments.” “A railroad 36 miles long, connects the mines with the coast at Tongoy.”

On the western slope is the lode from which “Mr. Urmeneta commenced amassing the fortune which the Piké mine has helped to swell.”
A matter-of-fact reference to the fact – forgotten in later generations—that Urmeneta was a successful miner before the Pique find. Not “el loco del burro.”

Douglas notes that “It is…from this isolated hill that a great proportion of all the Chili copper came from the years 1860 to 1865.” The most productive mine on the hill has always been Pique, “owned by Don José Tomás de Urmeneta, whose perseverance in prosecuting the work upon it during years of heavy expenditure and disappointment has been rewarded by raising him to the highest rank among successful miners, and by enabling him to confer vast benefits on his country; for Urmeneta was the first man to introduce into Chili first-rate hauling and mining machinery.”

The Pique lode is “yellow sulphuret, mixed with quartz, carbonate of lime, and specular iron. The yeld of the lode from wall to wall is from 8 to 10 per cent, and its average size varies from 3 to 6 feet…The greatest riches of the Piké were derived from some enormous stopes at about the 60-fathom level, where the lode expanded to over 20 feet in width, and yielded a purple ore, which, as it came from the mine, averaged 30 to 35 per cent. It is supposed Urmeneta netted in one year at that time from this mine alone $1,100,000.”

Douglas describes Pique in detail, mapping out the underground sections and explaining which levels “have been abandoned to
piqueneros or tributers,” and how ore is raised “by means of a Corliss engine and admirable machinery fitted with friction gearing, through three inclined shafts, which attain a depth of 80 fathoms below the end of the adit,” but that the mine’s bottom is 60 fathoms lower, and ore from here “is raised this last 60 fathoms on the backs of apires (or carriers) and by hand winches.”

In 1864, Urmeneta bought an adit on the south flank of the hill, “commenced as far back as 1840 by Don Ramon Lecaros…It was driven but slowly and irregularly until 1864, when Urmeneta bought the work already done, and continued it more vigorously.” Douglas explains how the adit runs beneath a neighboring mine, the Chalaca, also owned by Urmeneta. Pique employs 50 miners, “but a larger number of tributers find employment in the upper workings.” The tributers are productive: of the 1,250 tons taken from the hill daily, “about half comes from the Piké, and of this half may be said to be extracted from the regular workings below the adit level, and half by tributers from the abandoned stopes or by pickers from the refuse heaps.”

Douglas is particularly interested in the machinery used by Urmeneta and others. Pique’s “concentrator” uses “a pair of Huot and Guyler’s beautiful piston hutches [and] twenty English hutches to be worked by hand and twenty by steam.” Most of the mines use a
Blake breaker, an the older Pique “establishment” uses Petherick hutches, “but they do not give satisfaction.” “At the Rosario, Mr. Lipkin collects the concentrated stuff on the sieve,” which is a variation on the standard process. Douglas speculates that a Rittinger Pumpseize might work well, and remarks on the Krupps steel jackets used on all the rollers, which “remain in perfect working order after a twelvemonth, neither pitting nor wearing inequally.”

desmontes are enormous,” says Douglas. “Those of the Piké are the largest and probably the poorest. They originally yielded from 6 to 7 per cent., but having been picked over four times probably do not now contain over four per cent.” So even then, it was already taken for granted that fortunes could be made from the slag of earlier, less efficient operations. But then, Lambert did this a generation earlier…the point is, it was known by North Americans.

Finally, Douglas addresses the labor issue. “The hands employed in this
mineral,” he says, “in every capacity number about 4000. As all ages and sexes work, this represents a population of about 8000. Urmeneta employs about 600, and as many more work on his property as tributers. So, Urmeneta doesn’t own the entire mountain – although he may process all the ore that comes from it… “The rate of wages is for common labor 12 dols. a month and rations, worth 15 cents a day. For miners (native) 18 dols. a month, and rations of 15 cents a day. The same high rates approximately rule throughout all the mining regions of Chili. Cornishmen alone can be trusted with the timbering, and they are even better paid; so that it is evidently a mistake to suppose Chili owes her mining importance to cheapness of labor.” This was the basis of protectionist claims, leading to the tariff act, 1869 (see also)…I’ll need to look into this soon…

Part 2 (May 28 1872):

The next site Douglas describes is the “monster lode of Panulcillo…The Tomaya people say that Providence placed these great deposits almost side by side , that the ores of the one might serve to flux those of the other, but human perversity and English stupidity interfered to frustrate the kind intention.” The old smelter at the mouth of the mine was replaced in 1870 by a new establishment at “the railroad terminus in the valley…[and] consists of ten large reverberatories, and four blast furnaces, erected last year by Charles Lambert, jun.” The mine “is the only property in Chili worked by an English Joint Stock Company with an office in England…with Mr. Heatley in Valparaiso, and Mr. Wier at the mine, and a good price for copper, the enterprise ought to take a new lease on life.”

“A branch of the Coquimbo and Ovalle Railroad terminates near the smelting works.” It used to carry large cargoes from “Las Cardas, Cerillos, Tambillos, Andacolla,” but they have all dried up. The next large mine is “the Brillador, belonging to Charles Lambert.” Only three miles from the “northern sweep of the Bay of Coquimbo…[it was] more extensively worked than any other mine in the Indian and Spanish periods…Stone and copper hammers are still turned up in the refuse heaps…identical…with those from the Indian workings in the Lake Superior mines.” The vein was still productive in modern times. “Mr. Lambert, in 1847, is reported to have made $1,000,000 profit” at Brillador.

Part 3 (June 4 1872):

“The Panteon Mine, at about a mle distant, once yielded handsomely…the old
desmontes of the Panteon supply the furnaces of the Compañia (Mr. Lambert’s Works, near Serena)…[and] the old Spanish slag heaps are still overhauled. Mr. Lambert built the first reverberatory furnace in Chili, and first smelted sulphuretted ores, which previously had been thrown aside as unserviceable.”

Further “north of Serena is the
mineral of Higuera…smelted at the mines on the coast at the port of Totoralillos.” Crossing into Atacama, Douglas describes “the mineral of San Juan…now worked by Messrs. Harker and Dickson, at Lebrar.” The next mineral, Carrizal, “about six leagues in a straight line from the coast, has always been known to exist, but has been worked vigorously only within the last fifteen years…[it] now sends almost as much ore to market as the hill of Tomaya.” The six main mines, “Mondaca, Remolinos, Portazela or Banzanillo Alto, Tora, Cantado, and Santa Rita” yield “monthly about 4000 tons of 13 per cent. ore.” Partly because they’re newer, these mines are “admirably worked…thanks to the wisdom of the principal owner, Don Ramon Ovalle, and to the skill of the manager, Mr. McAuliff.”

Part 4 (June 18 1872):

Douglas describes the “Portazuela and Bazanillo Alto, owned by Messrs. Gonzales and Templeman.” He mentions that “the loss in picking, when the ore is broken by a Blake, exceeds that incurred when hand labor is employed; hence the tributers refuse to use it.” The mines along the Copiapó River, similarly, suffer from a lack of water for processing the ore.
Labor, technology, transportation, and local resources like water and food are all variables in determining whether a mine can be successful at any given time and place.

Douglas mentions Caleta de las Animas, the port from which “the first shipment of copper from Chili is said by Dr. Philippi to have been made to Europe, in a whaler, in the year 1820. It came from the mines of Las Animas, shortly before discovered by Don Diego de Almeida.” The northern mines send their ore partly to “Mr. Sievert’s establishment at Pan de Azucar, and partly…south” to Lota. Most of the mines are small and remote, in soms cases sending their ore “on mule-back 70 leagues to Tagna, and thence by rail to Arica.”

Douglas sums up the production of these various regions, and discusses their prospects of continuing their current annual output of 48,000 tons of copper. He notes that many of the smaller mines and tributers in large mines will be affected by rising wages. “The Chili
peon can get one dollar a day on the Peruvian railroads, and will therefore no longer work at home for 25 cents…Though the yield from each may be insignificant, their total production is by no means trifling. A great deal of copper smelted at Guayacan and the Copiapó establishments is bought in small parcels of a few cwts. each.” The loss of small producers might be partly offset by new technology for extracting low-grade ores, including the Hunt and Douglas method, being attempted “near Tiltil…nder the management of Mr. Waring, one of the best mechanical and mining engineers in Chili.” The Carlos Riesco mine?

Part 5 (June 25 1872):

All the great
minerales are likely to diminish, Douglas concludes. “Tomaya will doubtless produce less…Panulcillo sails so close to the wind that if copper falls it will inevitably fail…No doubt Brillador could yield more…Carrizal…has seen its best days.” A few mines, like “Chañaral, now that it has a railroad, may be expected to increase its yield.” But discoveries of new lodes are unlikely. “A copper lode in a desert country cannot escape detection, more especially in Chili, where all the inhabitants are directly or indirectly interested in mines…All the great lodes now worked, except, perhaps, those of the Salado and others in the Atacama desert, have been known and worked from time immemorial.”

But Chili will make up for some of the coming decline by processing its own ore. “Twenty-five years ago,” Douglas says, “very little copper was smelted in Chili; whereas, in 1870, only 3.16 per cent. was exported as ore, while 55.35 per cent. was exported as bars and ingots, and 41.48 per cent. as regulus.”

“Mr. Lambert…erected the first reverberatory furnace in Chili about the year 1837…[and] “the Mexican and South American Smelting Company…run from 1848 to 1857…benefited Chili by introducing Napier’s method…There are throughout Chili about ninety furnaces making regulus, and about sixty calciners and furnaces making bars and ingots.” The two largest establishments are at Lotan and Guayacan. “The former is owned by a company, which likewise owns and works some coal beds in the neighborhood
(Mattias Cousino, Concepción)…The Guayacan works, on the Bay of Herradura are owned by Messrs. Urmeneta and Errasuriz [sic], and are among the largest in the world, running ordinarily seventeen triple hearth calcining furnaces, thirteen smelting reverberatories, and two refining furnaces…The same proprietors have furnaces at Cerillos, at the foot of the Tomaya hill…and other works at Tongoi, the port of Tomaya.” Across the Bay in Coquimbo are “the abandoned smelting works of Charles Lambert and of Don Ramon Ovalle and Co., and the active works of Edwards and Co., where such care is taken in the selection and smelting that their bars and ingots bring a better price in the English market than those of either Lota or Guayacan.”

Copper in 1867

From the 1867 American Journal of Mining

This is the publication that would later be known as the
Engineering and Mining Journal. In its fifth (?) year, the main feature of the journal were narrative accounts of the news from the major mining areas, organized by the mineral mined. The March 30 1867 edition, for example, contains nearly five columns describing Copper-mining events in Montana, Michigan, and Arizona. At the time, Michigan was the leader in production, and the Calumet mine already the leader in Michigan. Technology was a major focus, the Michigan column describing new machinery at the Isle Royale mill, says: “Never having seen the Chilian mills—on which this simply claims to an improvement—work, we have preferred to maks no speculations, pro. or con. on the subject.” Clearly, the state of Chilean technology and of Chile as a competitor in the copper market, was already well established in the minds of journal readers.

In at least a full page, every other issue, the journal reviews the various mineral markets. A note from San Francisco dated Feb. 23 1867 mentions the “high price of freight and the low price of ores in the markets of Swansea and Boston have had a very depressing effect on the California copper mining interest.” This is a reminder that the only way to move ore from the west coast to the east was still by ship, around South America. A huge advantage to Chilean miners.

March 8 1867: “Chili bars L73, buyers in Liverpool.” (“Dock Edwards” is at Birkenhead, in Liverpool)

April 5 1867: “Chili bars in Liverpool have been done at L71 10s. and L71 5s. the West India Mail which arrived on Wednesday, has brought advices of shipment of only about 800 tons copper from Chili, which may strengthen our market.” (Von Dadelszen and North, correspondents) (4 East India Avenue)

April 12 1867 “the panic in the Stock Exchange, and the complicated affairs of continental politics” blamed for stagnant market. “Chili bars in Liverpool, L71 10s. to L72.”

June 1 1867 edition quotes “The Lake Superior (Ontonagon)
Miner asks the question, ‘Shall we work or suspend?’…The stock of copper on hand April 1st, 1867, is about the same as in April, 1866, showing a consumption in 1866 of 24,000,000 in the United States, none exported.” (in fact, it shows 1,200,000 of “Foreign refined copper” imported). Goes on to claim, “the Chilian mines, it is said, are losing money at present prices, and are not likely to continue many months at this rate.” Is this true? The industry was lobbying heavily for tariffs at this point…

May 17 1867 London report: “An animated business was reported both in Foreign and English copper, the former taking the lead…Chili bars L72 10s. spot and L73 to arrive…Since the arrival of the Chili mail advising shipments of about 2,200 tons of pure copper in a fortnight, buyers have withdrawn, and prices fell 20s. per ton lower.”

May 31 1867: “The last mail from Chili having brought advice of smaller shipments (1,300 tons copper), the market is rather better…” (no Chile price quoted) (this probably from mid-June issue)

July 1 1867 “Copper Trade Circular” from Baltimore says “Copper mining has become extremely adventurous, and these mines that cannot produce native copper at less than 22 cents per lb. or ores less than $30 per ton delivered at navigable shore, cannot expect to live…Ingot Copper ranges at 23 ½ @ 24 ½, being 4 per cent. below the cost of production. Smelters have reduced operations very much and the overstock in the country is fast being redced by consumption. The Lake Superior companies are free sellers, and at the ruling prices large investments have been made on speculation. The Baltimore smelters intend holding their copper over until next Spring, when it is likely better prices will rule.”

July 20 1867 edition features a new “London Copper Trade” column by Vivian, Younger, and Bond. Installment dated June 21: The Chili advices referred to in our last have had their effect all through the week, and transactions have been very exceptional and difficult. Towards the close, however, there seems to be a little more disposition to make business both on the part of sellers and buyers, each showing some signs of giving way a little. The result of the continued low prices seems to have been to rid the market of the weak holders of English copper who went into the article during the Hispano-Chilian war, and also to bring down the price of the raw material to a more reasonable relative value, as compared with the prices of English copper. these two things should give a healthier tone to the article, for such demand as there is now goes to the smelters, and so more directly helps off the stocks. the want of demand, however, continues to be very much felt. We report sales of Chili bars at from L69 to L70 per ton, and of about 2,000 tons of ore and regulus at 14s. per unit. we have heard of no sales in fine foreign copper.”

Von Dadelszen and North’s report (just below) has “Chili bars, L70 10s., sellers.”

VYB June 28 write “The business done in Chili bars and ingots early in the week has been very considerable, the total being about 1,600, principally for shipment to France. Prices have advanced about 10s. to 20s. per ton, the transactions we report having taken place at L68 10s. to L69 10s. for bars, and L78 to L78 10s. for ingots. Holders now ask L70 for the former, and L79 for the latter…The Chili mail, received yesterday, advised only 1,200 tons of fine copper, 700 tons in bars, and 500 tons in ores and regulus, from May 3 to 17, 1867, as against 1,780 tons the same time last year.”

July 12 1867 “Metal Report” says “Copper has again turned in buyers’ favor…Chili bars, L89, in Liverpool.”
Must be typo for L69.

August 3 1867 “Metal Report” says “Copper has been very sick. The last Chili mail advised charters for about 1,900 tons pure copper, of which two-thirds is in bars, which is a large quantity.”

Just below, VYB report “Transactions in all kinds have been extremely limited, and although importers of Chilian copper produce are somewhat higher in their views, this does not seem to be warranted by the course of events. the result [sic], indeed, has been an almost total absence of business. there are, in fact, no sales of the least importance in Chili produce to record. As to English tough cake, it has been sold at L74, the lowest price ever known in the copper trade, except in the year 1782. Sheet copper for India has been parted with at L77…a lower price than has ever been known before…It is very disheartening to such considerable shipments reported from the West Coast by each mail, at rates which must leave the importers serious losers; in fact, the sanguine feelings which still prevailed in Chili as tot eh future of copper is one of the worst features of the market, as tending to keep production up to its full average. With very limited consumption, and no aid from speculation, it seems clear that nothing but really short exports from the West can restore the market to a healthy tone.”

August 16 1867 Metal Report announ ces “A better feeling has come over the market, owing to warlike advices from Chili; holders are not pressing sellers, and in some instances an advance of one or two points has been established…Chili bars in Liverpool, L69 10s. to L70, buyers. Ore sold at 14s. 3d.; most holders ask 15s.”

VY&B (date Aug. 17 1867) say “There has been more business doing, and the advanced prices asked have been more readily paid. Some of the English smelters have shown themselves desirous of being provided with furnace material, rather than being found short of stock in the present unsettled state of the market. The principal transactions in Chili produce since our last have been about 1,000 tons of ores, at 13s. 10d. to 14s. per unit; 600 tons of regulus, at the latter figure, and 150 tons of bars, at L65 10s. and L69 per ton. For bars, L69 10s. is now asked, and for ores and regulus, 14s. 3d. per unit…The mail from Chli brings advices of about 1,700 tons of copper produce having been chartered for, half in bars and the remainder in ores and regulus, with a list of sales amounting to nearly the same quantity of fine copper, prices in Valparaiso having slightly improved, and freights being rather higher. The general feeling in the market here is better, and the tendency on the part of holders of copper (who can conveniently do so) is to keep it at present, in the hope of a future improvement being established.”

The September 3 1867 “Metal Circular” (marked New York – possibly written by the AJM editor?) says “Copper has been quiet, but with a steady demand for consumption, the price has gradually advanced from 26 3/8 @ 26 ½ c. for Detroit, 26c. for Portage Lake, and 25 ¾ @ 26 c. for Baltimore. For the end of September and October delivery ¼ and ½ c. more is paid. The arrivals from Lake Superior are small, and the companies have little to sell. The stocks are almost entirely in the hands of parties who bought for investment or on speculation, and who look for much higher prices in the face of such advices as have just been received from England. The low price and the cheap money have at last begun to tell, and the London market rose in the last fortnight of August from L67 10s. to L74 in Chili pig, with every prospect of a further advance when the position of the article is fully understood. The remarks made in my circular of 30
th July, in regard to our market, also apply to the European markets. A vague impression has prevailed that the production of Copper had increased wonderfully, bt that the consumption decreased. It was founded on the uninterrupted supply from Chili in 1865 and 1866, during and after the Chili-Spanish war, andn the dullness of business in the East Indies, Germany and France, the three largest consumers of British Copper. But now an improved demand for the East Indies has sprung up, and the shipments from Chili begin to fall off at the same time that the production in Cornwall, Australia, California and Lake Superior shows a marked decrease. The next twelve months are likely to see a great rise in the price of Copper and Tin. Both articles have been unreasonably depressed, far below the average of former years, and the reaction will be the more severe. There are no orders for export. 100,000 lbs. Minnesota will be cleared early in August for Hamburg. The total shipments this year amount to one million of pounds.”

In an August 23 1867 Metal Report (printed after the Sept 3 note above), Von Dadelzen [sic] and North say “The market has been much firmer, and holders less willing to sell, pending further news from Chili…Chili bars, in Liverpool, have advanced to L70 and L75 10s. to arrive.”

VY&B (same date) agree: “The firmness evinced by holders, especially of Chili produce in Liverpool, has resulted in a further improvement in prices of that description, bringing the figure for spot bars, good brands, up to 70
l., whilst 14s. 6d. has been refused for a cargo of regulus to arrive. The actual business done has been only moderate—120 tons spot bars, 69l. 10s. to 70l.; 120 tons bars to arrive, 70l., 10s. to 70l. 15s; 20 tons Urmeneta ingots, 78l., cash; 600 tons of ore (half Canadian) sold at 14s. 3d. per unit, and 160 tons of argentiferous regulus at 14s. 2d. per unit. At the present moment there are no sellers of bars to arrive at 71l.

An additional section on the “French and German Metal Markets” says “Advices from Havre indicate more stability in the price of copper at that port, and also induce an impression of a revival of activity in the article. for 20 tons of disposable Chilian, in bars, 69
l. 10s. per ton has been paid (Paris conditions;) since then the tone of the article has been a little firmer.” Raises the interesting question of how much Chilean copper went (directly?) to European markets other than London…

September 6 1867 the Weekly Metal Report says “Copper is a shade easier, but holders are firm…Chili is in buyers’ favor, and quoted L72 10s. for bars, L92 for ingot. Ore and regulus, 14s. 9d. to 15s. per unit.”

By October 25 1867, “Chili bars sold at L69,” suggesting a “dull and slack” market.

November 15 1867: “Nothing new to report…Chili bars, in Liverpool, have advanced to L69.”

The “Metal Circular,” date December 2 1867, New York, says “Copper has improved a little in price in the beginning of November, and has since been steady at 22 and 22 ¼ c. for Baltimore; 22 7/8 and 23 c. for Portage Lake, and 23 and 23 ¼ for Detroit…The London market has declined to the lowest figure of last June, viz: L67 and L67 10s. for Chili Pig. the shipments from Chili, which for a short time showed a falling off, had again increased and this has depressed the European markets.”

A column in the November 9 1867 edition announces “Another Trans-Continental Railway” and describes a plan by Chile and Argentina to build a railroad “to cross the Andes upon the plain known as the Plancheon.” The company, formed in Buenos Aires, has applied for a “grant of land upon both sides of the track, upon which they propose to establish colonies.” The initial colonists proposed are Germans, and the engineer in charge is a German named Otto Von Armen.
This is interesting – did it ever get built? What about the colonization scheme?

Another column titled “Copper Mining,” in the December 14 1867 issue, says “A California paper discourses upon the condition and prospects of copper mining as follows: One of the chief demands of copper of late years has been for locomotives. There is, on average, one engine for every three miles of railroad, and two tons of copper are put into every large locomotive, so that three mles of railroad demand two tons of copper.”
How many locomotives are produced annually? What are the other big users of copper, year by year? and how do they change as technology develops? Until the BIG change – electricity. I need to do a demand-side review of copper fairly soon.

Playing God?

Robert Darnton, “Skeletons in the Closet” (Chapter 8 of George Washington’s False Teeth, 2003)

Is it necessary to point out that there’s a little element of personality cult going on here? Darnton’s personal memoir is interesting, because it’s Darnton. His observations about the historian’s role are almost an afterthought – a justification for the memoir?

Facts have indeed gone soft – or it’s finally been admitted they were soft all along. But do biographers REALLY believe they’re digging out “nuggets of reality” any more or less than they ever did? The “nuggets” –whether you’re writing a nonfiction biography or a historical fiction—are what anchors your story to something that the reader can recognize as an acceptable story. Or story-world; since may of those “facts” go toward establishing setting and populating the story with characters for your subject to interact with. We can never know the “real” Virginia Woolf. Did anybody? EVER? But surely, we can (even if we’re non-specialists, reading popular history) sense when a particular depiction might be “realer” than a competing account.

Darnton doesn’t really describe his own decision-making process in full, and I’d be interested to know more of the details of his
Brissot story. He had a manuscript in a drawer for thirty years, but all of a sudden he’s writing a “protective prolegomenon.” What changed? Why did he decide to go ahead with the project now? How might the manuscript need to change, after all these years?

It DOES sound like Brissot’s life would make a good story. Not least because he isn’t a straight-ahead hero. It seems like post-hagiographical bios are “in” right now, and a guy who had a second-rate publishing career, followed by a brief period of power in Revolutionary France; who visited America and may have been a police spy, might make an excellent subject. If you wanted to portray the times as chaotic, a period when even the revolutionaries didn’t agree much, and where loyalties were nearly impossible to maintain.

Darnton gave up the Brissot project when he took up the one that would define his career. That’s fair. But it’s a long step from there to the question of whether Brissot is worth the trouble. Is that doubt justified – or is Darnton suggesting that NO individual is worth the trouble. That using a well-known figure as “the incarnation of a crucial process” is in fact illegitimate.

I’ll agree that finding “the key to Brissot’s life” and building a birth-to-death narrative around it seems a little old-fashioned, and might even be “playing God.” But the other issue, “pronouncing verdicts about…individuals I had never met,” seems entirely within the scope of what a historian/biographer is understood to do. If the (brand-new, previously unknown) evidence says that Marat was in France when he was thought to have been in England, then by all means say so! I think the court-room analogy is a much better one than the “playing God” one. It suggests reasonable doubt as a standard, rather than omniscient certainty.

Darnton’s discovery, that previous biographers had followed Brissot’s memoirs too credulously, suggests a change in our interests. In the era of great men, Brissot was considered a philosopher because that’s what he claimed to be. But when Darnton “began to read his works against the grain, they lost their luster.” Is this a nice way of saying that Brissot’s ideas and writing were second-rate, and that close reading of the primary texts made this fact painfully obvious?

The police-spying question is fascinating, because it points the spotlight on Brissot’s place in the actual setting in which he lived. Not in his books, pamphlets and memoirs. What did he do, and how did it square with the “public image” he tried to create? How did his contemporaries actually view Brissot? And, what did they base their opinions on?

Erik Erikson’s screen memory is a reminder of Dr. House’s first law: everybody lies. But a sophisticated biographer (and reader of biographies) would know that without being warned. The more interesting observation is, that Darnton found a lot of his own biography in the 1968 paper he wrote on Brissot. The ever darker patterns he arranged his facts into were apparently predetermined ones Darnton chose unconsciously. Were they also interests of the times? The sixties may have been “looking” for different stories and patterns than the 2000s are…but is this “discourse,” or the spirit of the times?

Is the appeal to discourse really necessary? Do we really need to deconstruct history and biography to answer Darnton’s concerns? Or just apply common sense and avoid over-reaching in our truth claims? In the end, as Darnton says, all lives are probably “a bundle of contradictions,” and none is an unambiguous metaphor for any historical insight (except maybe, complexity). So, the onus is on the author, to avoid narrative determinism. Unless he’s writing a novel – in which case he should say so and revel in it.

Michigan Copper

Apparently the story-telling pretty much begins with Angus Murdoch’s 1943 epic, Boom Copper. Later retellings, even if they only deal with a narrow topic like Calumet and Hecla, refer to Murdoch as the source of much of the color and legend associated with the region. The book is divided between the historical narrative of the copper industry in the region, and the stories of the communities and personalities of the region.

Interesting that the UP was the scene of North America’s first mineral “rush,” complete with Deadwood-esque boomtowns and characters. Pure metal deposits were unknown to science, and scientists had trouble believing that commercial quantities of copper could be brought up that would require no smelting to remove impurities. What were the implications for the overall US copper industry? Compared to foreign competitors who had to smelt their ore (until Coro Coro, Bolivia)?

“Three quarters of all the metal taken from the Cliff came out in the form of masses weighing anywhere from a ton to a hundred tons…Nowhere in the world had so much copper ever been taken from so small an area of mineral land.” (54, 56) Sam Knapp’s “Minesota” mine holds the record for the size of a single chunk: either 420 or 564 tons, depending on 1856 reports. Murdoch says the Minesota is also distinguished as the most productive copper mine in history, “in proportion to the amount of labor and capital expended.” From 1852-1856 (after four years of development beginning in 1848), “the stockholders’ investment in the mine had doubled itself, and by 1876 they had received thirty dollars in dividends for every dollar invested. At one time in the fifties, more than 2,000,000 pounds of mass copper was in sight, much of it all ready for cutting up...Probably nowhere else on earth has there been a mine whose skips ran up and down through a solid copper shaft.” (92-3)

Murdoch’s economic analysis of Michigan copper is a little sketchier than his setting and character descriptions. He notes that 1870 was the first time in history copper went below twenty cents per pound (95), and that “fissure mining” was only successful three times (the Central, the Cliff, and the Minesota), but spurred a generation of mining ventures. “Of the 112 discoverable mining corporations which have operated in Ontonagon County,” he says, “only the Minesota has paid more in dividends than it collected in assessments” (97). The story of silver (especially on Silver Islet in Thunder Bay) provides an interesting contrast between the economics of precious metals and copper.

Several of the characters like Sam Hill, Alexander Agassiz, and Sam Knapp would probably make interesting subjects. Murdoch’s treatment of the Secrétan scandal, the paternalism of C & H, and the relationship between organized labor and the mining companies, is suggestive but short on detail. He mentions that copper demand is relatively inelastic, but follows economic trends due to its use in infrastructure. This is probably more true since the maturity of the electronics industry than it was during most of the Michigan heyday. But it’s interesting that he distinguishes between copper and other minerals from a demand perspective.

First Impressions: Books looked at quickly

David Hackett Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism

He makes the point in his introduction that, whatever else there is to say about the spread of democracy, “habit and custom” were generally against it. “even in Rhode Island where, as John Adams wrote, ‘there has been no Clergy, no Church, and I had almost said no State, and some People say no religion, there has been a constant respect for certain old Families.’” (xiii)

Contains appendices with cast of characters by state, as well as political affiliations of early republic newspapers.

Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette

Apparently a collection of essays he had laying around. I shouldn’t have read “Publishing: A Survival Strategy for Academic Authors” first. It was so annoying and Bill-Brysonesque that it left everything else feeling a little too slimy with conceit.

Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America

Is this a standard intellectual history? Not my cup of tea…

John Higham and Paul K. Conkin, New Directions in American Intellectual History

This is a series of essays from 1979, when intellectual history was “in the wilderness.” Two of the major assumptions that had come under attack: that societies tend to be integrated (to have a meaningful “national character” at all), and that a shared culture maintains that integration. If these are not true, then intellectual histories are possible for competing groups. And, most interesting for me, between “intellectuals” and “non-intellectuals.” (Is calling it
mentalities sometimes a subtle slam at the subject of study, who we don’t think is “up to” having an intellectual position? This may be more than just a question of semantics)

Is there a question of agency? Do we assume that “intellectuals” choose their beliefs (world-view, attitude towards change, causality, etc.)? And that regular people don’t. Is determinism a feature of sociology? New social history? Dialectical materialism? And – is it
not present in intellectual history?

“Some historians concentrate on clearly articulated beliefs that are amenable to formal exegesis. Others are strongly drawn to examining the less refined level of consciousness the French have taught us to call collective mentalities.” Is this distinction what he thinks it is? Isn’t there a big chunk of underwater iceberg, holding up those “clearly articulated beliefs?” Is it really that easy to distinguish them? Isn’t this why intellectual historians inevitably get around to flirting with psychology?

The authors mention the fashion (at the Wingspread Conference) for studying communities and their “paradigmatic” assumptions (they mention Kuhn and Haskell). This seems like it will be helpful, where it’s possible to identify group membership. Everyone belongs to multiple groups. How does religious affiliation (Catholic vs. Protestant) influence labor activism in early 20
th c. New England? How does relative group ranking (“family first” among immigrant Italians) influence participation and level of commitment in other groups? How does overall skepticism (or irony) affect acceptance of group paradigms? (J. Guglielmo’s Italian immigrant women)

Laurence Veysey quotes Charles Peirce: “It is the belief men
betray and not that which they parade which has to be studied.” Okay, I guess I need to read at least that article…

Paul A. Varg, America, From Client State to World Power


1817 view of the revolutions

Manuel Palacio Fajardo, Outline of the Revolution in Spanish America (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1817)

Palacio outlines the organization of the territories of Spanish America before Napoleon’s overthrow of the Spanish monarchy. He gives special attention to Thomas Picton’s proclamation of 26 June 1797, which seemed to promise British aid to Spanish American independence. (16) In it, Henry Dundas (1
st Viscount Melville, according to the author “foreign minister to his Britannick Majesty,” but actually Home Secretary 1791-4 and War Secretary 1794-1801 under Pitt, elevated in 1802, impeached 1806 for misappropriation of public money) is quoted in a letter of 7 April 1797 “encouraging the inhabitants to resist the oppressive authority of their government…that they may be certain, that whenever they are in that disposition, they may receive at your hands all the succours to be expected from his Britannick Majesty, be it with forces, or with arms and ammunition to any extent; with the assurance, that the views of his Britannick Majesty go no further than to secure to them their independence, without pretending to any sovereignty over their country.” Of course, the Britannick Majesty in question was George III, so maybe the revolutionaries were naïve to believe too strongly in his desire to see colonies freed from their mother countries. By the time they got around to asking for such aid, Spain was no longer an enemy of Great Britain, but an ally in the war against Napoleon.

Palacio goes on to stress the loyalty of the Spanish Americans after the seizure of the Spanish throne. Their
juntas, he says, were temporary and were necessary to maintain order in light of the broken chain of command from the mother country. In any case, they were no different from the juntas of Seville or the other peninsular cities that had taken on self-government in the name of the king.

Palacio says the Americans regarded the establishment of the regency in Spain as an illegal act, and determined to govern themselves independently only after it was clear to them that the illegal Spanish government intended to make war on the “rebels” in America. He gives a detailed narrative of the revolutions up until 1817 (Bernardo O’Higgins is Supreme Commander in Chile at the close). I’ll need to come back to this, when I have a clearer sense of the actual timeline, to see how accurate this account is.

The message Palacio leaves his London readers with, is that the Spanish Americans, although generally unsatisfied with peninsular rule, would never have revolted when they did, except for the assurances of the British that they’d have aid and access to commerce. At the time of publication, they had seen neither (it would be another six years before the British government recognized Spanish American independence). In the final pages, “young General Mina” sails from Liverpool in May of 1816. He arrives in the United States in June, where he picks up not only more “musquets,” (343) but a number of officers who sail with him to the Gulf of Mexico. The United States government is no more enthusiastic about the revolution than Britain, but Palacio believes the people feel otherwise. (346) In the end, after describing unsuccessful missions to the governments of Britain, the U.S. and France (Bonaparte apparently promised his aid just before he was defeated at Leipsig), Palacio seems to be appealing to English-speaking public opinion for political or possibly direct support. It’ll be interesting to see if his book
attracted any attention or comment in London or North America.

Lord Strangford

J. Street, “Lord Stangford and Río de la Plata, 1808-1815” Hispanic American Historical Review 33:4 (Nov., 1953) 477-510

Viscount Strangford, unlike “the impressionable Smith or the irresponsible Cochrane” (510) was not a romantic advocate of Spanish-American independence. Street outlines Stangford’s seven-year ministry to the Brazilian court, which made him the closest British official to the colonies as they began the period of self-government that led to secession from the Spanish Empire.

Street argues against the view (held, he implies, by contemporary Argentine historians including E. Ruiz-Guiñazú) that Strangford was a “magnanimous supporter of the Argentine Revolution of May, 1810” (477). The story he tells of Stangford’s nearly constant involvement in Buenos Aires’ politics and diplomacy, however, at least suggests that the Spanish colony’s issues were far more pressing (and interesting to Stangford?) than anything going on in Brazil at the time.

Street refers extensively to letters and memos from the Foreign Office Archives, between Stangford and a succession of ministers including Canning, Marquise Wellesley, and Castlereagh (the particular timing of changes in the ministries might shed light on shifts in Britain’s level of interest, if not her position on the Spanish Colonies. Might be worth more reading – esp. Castlereagh’s possibly divergent view – p. 497). There are also a couple of references to memoirs and books that may be useful. And a hint: The United States, too, had aroused Stangford’s suspicion by sheltering in Baltimore a French propaganda organization aimed at Latin America” (495).

This is an antidote to the idea that Britain ever had anything beside her own interests in mind, which should be obvious. Street also suggests that Britain’s European interests and policies were always paramount. Even “two-thousand leagues” away, Stangford’s actions are always predicated on his knowledge or surmise of what’s happening in Europe, and what that means for Britain. Maybe this sense of Latin America as a stage for the power-struggles of the old world is something I can do something with…

Utopian ends still don't justify the means

Maurice Meisner, Marxism Maoism and Utopianism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982)

“The term ‘utopia,’ Lewis Mumford once observed, can be taken to mean either the ultimate in human hope or the ultimate in human folly. Mumford also noted that Sir Thomas More…was aware of both meanings of the word when he pointed to its divergent Greek origins:
eutopia, which means the good place; and outopia, which means no place.” (3)

Meisner says the Chinese Cultural Revolution was an application of Marxist-Maoist utopianism. He argues, in spite of contemporary Chinese belief that these were “ten lost years,” that the tragic results are not the whole story. Ultimately, Meisner agrees with Max Weber that “man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.” (27 and several other places)

Interesting, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough: doesn’t really address the issue of means and ends. Though Meisner mentions Robert Owen and others several times while discussing Marx and the sources of his utopianism (although he describes these sources as simply the historical setting for Marx’s ideas), he completely misses the point that Owen and his elaborators in England and America were voluntarists. Their utopian ideas culminated in the cooperative movement and in voluntary socialist communities like New Harmony; not in totalitarian (I hate to use the word, but it seems to apply), top-down, deadly government campaigns like the Cultural Revolution.

I admit to knowing next to nothing about Chinese history, but this seems to be a flaw in Meisner’s argument. Notwithstanding, he raises an interesting question: do utopian ideals necessarily lead to disastrous results? Or just when implemented at gunpoint?

Radical Sects ignores the irreligious

Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982)

Mentioned by Gilmore in his notes and bibliography. Covers the religious sectarianism of the revolutionary decades (1770-1790). Completely ignores any challenges to religion from the outside. As if there were no rationalists, materialists, “infidels,” deists, or atheists at all in New England. The overall effect is to misrepresent the radical impulse, as if it was a denominational issue debated and decided within the religious community.

This isn’t useful to me. Although the religious scholars see a huge difference between the Old and New Light Congregationalists, to me they’re pretty much all Calvinists. The Baptists in Ashfield are interesting, with their appeal to King George III for their rights
against the Puritans and their supporters in the Massachusetts legislature. But Marini doesn’t mention even this. Ashfield gets a brief nod as a site of Shaker activity, but without acknowledgement that the Ashfield Congregational Society voted to run Mother Ann and the “tremblers” out of town.

I think there
is some interesting history buried in the stories of these churches and their disintegration into rival sects in the revolution and early republic. But I’m more interested in what these changes say about the social situation in towns like Ashfield. What if Baptist hisotry in Ashfield was as much about resistance to the people (mainly river-valley proprietors) running the Congregational Society as it was about theology. It’s easier for me to see Chileab Smith as a social dissident than as a theological disputant. We’ll see how that plays out. In the meantime, Radical Sects goes in the discard pile.

Changes in the Land

Changes in the Land by William Cronon (New York: Hill & Wang, 2003). Begins with an introduction called “The View from Walden,” that not only acknowledges some of the changes Thoreau saw in his neighborhood, but explodes the idea that this represents some “fall” from a pristine, a-historical initial state. The landscape is always changing, and was changed by the “Indians” before white people arrived. “There has been no timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis.” (11) Cronon criticizes first-generation ecologists for assuming that all systems tend toward a stable equilibrium, and also for assuming “humanity was somehow outside the ideal climax community.” (10) This may be a cheap shot at ecologists, but it’s an instructive metaphor for historians.

Cronon’s economic argument centers on the ideas that European visitors’ and colonists’ response to New England was colored by their cultural baggage (valuation of the abundance they discovered was influenced by scarcity back home, as in the case of timber and firewood), and on the assertion that the colonists were part of a transatlantic capitalist market and drew the Indians into it as well (in his afterword, written on the twentieth anniversary of publication, Cronon seems to regret the slightly oversimplified depiction of “capitalism”). The pre-colonial landscape he describes is quite different from the trackless wilderness I’d imagined, and Cronon’s detailed descriptions of these differences is one of the most attractive features of the book. Along the way, I picked up a lot of interesting details: like that the colonists were generally healthier and longer-lived than the people they left behind, since they were no longer exposed to the European disease environment (24). Of course, the diseases they brought with them killed 90-100% of the Indians in many affected villages. But the Puritan settlers saw this as a sign of their God’s providence. (90)

“Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance.” (33) Cronon argues this is a misunderstanding of the Indian approach to life and land use. In a passage that reminds me a lot of Colin Tudge’s argument about agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers in
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers, Cronon says that not only did the Indians have a noncommercial value-system that led them to shun accumulation, but they were actually managing their environment in sophisticated ways that the colonists failed to recognize. Burning the forest understory created “edge” environments preferred by game animals. Gardening in “tangles” of maize, beans, and squash maximized crop yields, reduced erosion, and increased soil fertility (relative to the colonists’ monoculture). (43, 51)

Cronon’s point is that the Indians had a more stable approach to their environment than did the colonists. He frequently accuses the colonists of “mining” the soil, but the fact that their society treated land as a commodity doesn’t necessarily mean that individual farmers deliberately set out to put short-term gains before sustainability. He may be leaning to heavily on Turner when he assumes they all simply planned on moving west when they exhausted their farms.

The Indian approach clearly required mobility, which made it incompatible with settled European agricultural culture. In another passage that Tudge echoes in his 1998 book, Cronon contrasts the Indians’ seasonal migrations with the colonists’ construction of fences – even their pastoralism was sedentary! Cronon admits that Indian “conservation…was less the result of an enlightened ecological sensibility than of the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’” (98) He invokes Leibig’s Law to explain low Indian population densities (“biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of year” 41), but doesn’t elaborate on the mechanism of population control (was it by restricting fertility, or by the starvation of the weak?). Clearly, though, the Indians are the “good guys” in Cronon’s account. (I don’t disagree, I’m just pointing it out)

The latter half of the book continues these arguments but doesn’t extend them much. Several interesting items for me, though. Springfield, begun by William Pynchon in 1636 as the latest in a string of “fur posts” on the Connecticut River. (99) Overhunting to the point that “Hunting with us,” says Timothy Dwight, “exists chiefly in the tales of other times.” (101) A typical New England household consumed thirty to forty cords of firewood a year.” (120) “Roads…were typically between 99 and 165 feet wide…since they facilitated moving large herds to market.” (140) And Narragansett sachem Miantonomo made a speech in 1642 that complained about ecological degradation and warned “we shall all be starved” (162), so the colonists assassinated him in 1643. Overall, this was a good read. Cronon proves his case well, as far as it goes. I don’t feel compelled to mine his bibliography at the moment, although I’m more interested in reading Timothy Dwight’s
Travels as a result of this. And maybe Marshall Sahlins.

Hayden White's Metahistory

Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1973)

I’m tempted to jump right to looking at reviews of this, because it’s so absurdly
unreadable. As an example, it begins with a quote from Bachelard’s (who?) The Psychoanalysis of Fire (what?): “One can study only what one has first dreamed about.”

I picked this book up because I’ve read articles by White that have made sense, and because I’m aware he’s a pivotal figure in the battle over post-modern historiography. I’m disappointed that he was apparently unable to write in plain English. Either he believed his insights were too complicated for non-specialist language, or he was too infected with the jargon of the academies where he spent his time. White’s writing is as dense as the French, without having the excuse of being a translation.

But he does some things that are important. In the Preface, he tosses off a definition of history that bears looking at: “a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse…[that] combine[s] a certain amount of ‘data,’ theoretical concepts for ‘explaining’ these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation…of events presumed to have occurred in times past.” I’ll skip over the precious code-word, discourse, because the rest of the statement calls attention to some interesting points.

History is a verbal artifact, constructed using the tools available to writers. These include not only grammar and syntax, but since history is presented as a
story of the past, narrative structures (plots, themes, archetypes) that might carry meanings of their own, based on the reader’s level of literacy, sensitivity to these subtle hints, etc. So in addition to the choice of data and the explanations the historian advances, the way the story is plotted and presented may communicate the historian’s interpretation and even his/her philosophy of history.

White goes farther, claiming that the historian’s philosophy of history “
prefigures the field” of study, and that histories can be decoded for their philosophical content by analyzing the rhetorical “tropes” the historian uses in their presentation.

The book is built on an introduction, where White lays out his theory, and nine chapters of examples, where he reviews the work of nineteenth-century historians and philosophers of history. In White’s theory “the historical work represents an attempt to mediate among what I will call the
historical field, the unprocessed historical record, other historical accounts, and an audience” (5). The “historical field” remains fuzzy—I’ve yet to find where White pins this down. The other elements are interesting, since they point to the historian’s thought processes in searching for data, thinking about other historians’ interpretations, and trying to communicate something relevant and new with readers (White doesn’t mention the historian’s overriding motivation to find something new to say, and thus justify the new history. This is a major concern for the current generation of historians, and I see no reason to suppose it wasn’t relevant in the past.).

White goes on to point out that the historian “invents” history, in a way that shares some of the elements of fiction. A particular historical fact like “The death of a king may be a beginning, or an ending, or simply a transitional event in three different stories” (7). The act of binding a set of historical facts into a story is itself interpretation.

This is obvious on reflection, and it’s amazing that conservative historians like Marwick have allowed themselves to be viewed (or characterized) as trying to deny it. Even a list of data, completely lacking narrative, has been chosen from a much larger possible set. That choice is either completely random, or it’s based on some principle, some question, some pre-existing idea that sent the historian to the data in the first place.

In addition to the recognized forms of explanation (White calls them “explanation by argument” and “explanation by ideological implication”) emplotment itself is explanation, White says. And because it is, White makes his big jump and claims that the meanings of histories (and the philosophies of historians) can be analyzed using ideas from rhetoric.

For the most part, White seems to be claiming that these processes are consciously chosen by historians (in contrast to others, who say the historian is unconsciously preconditioned by his language/culture). “Before the historian can bring to bear upon the data of the historical field the conceptual apparatus he will use to represent and explain it,” he says, “he must first
prefigure the field—that is to say, constitute it as an object of mental perception. This poetic act is indistinguishable from the linguistic act in which the field is made ready for interpretation as a domain of a particular kind” (30). The problem is, if this means anything at all (and I have my doubts), it’s an issue that should be addressed by looking at the most advanced epistemology/cognitive science. Not by applying Northrop Frye’s literary theory and rhetorical ideas dating back to Aristotle.

Anyone who has read philosophy and still chooses to write history has either come to grips with these issues, or is trying to bamboozle people who aren’t aware of them. This is where White leaves himself a possible “out” by saying that “In order to figure out ‘what
really happened’ in the past…the historian must first prefigure as a possible object of knowledge the whole set of events reported in the documents. This prefigurative act is poetic [a term he uses interchangeably with “figurative”] inasmuch as it is precognitive and precritical in the economy of the historian’s own consciousness” (30-1). There’s an implication of naïve literalism in the beginning of White’s statement, as if historians (or at least un-enlightened ones) believe they’re finding “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” But worse, there’s a weird sense in which the history becomes the historian. A historian might hold a set of beliefs about the nature of knowledge in general and historical knowledge in particular, before beginning a given history. But that doesn’t make them “precognitive” or “precritical” for the historian; just for the particular work at hand. White doesn’t seem to want to be pinned down: are historians deliberate agents, using these tropes and devices consciously? Or are they the unwitting dupes of poetic prefiguartion?

White goes on to populate his three explanatory forms (emplotment, argument, and ideology) with four “modes” that combine in particular ways according to their “affinities” to create historiographical styles. Emplotment can take the form of Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, or Satire. White admits there are legitimate combinations (the Romantic Comedy or Romantic Tragedy) and others that are not allowed (the Romantic Satire), suggesting the “modes” may not all be of the same type. Argument can be Formist, Mechanistic, Organicist, or Contextualist, and ideology can be Anarchist, Radical, Conservative, or Liberal. The precise meanings of these terms as White uses them depend on extensive reference to Northrop Frye, Kenneth Burke, Karl Mannheim, and his own earlier articles. In some cases, notes go on for two or more pages in small type, but the categories still fail to seem definitive or convincing.

White associates these various modes with particular historians and philosophers of history, and also with the “tropes” of classical rhetoric: Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecodoche, and Irony. He reminds the reader of Nietzsche’s warning that “by such reductions…the phenomenal world can be populated with a host of agents and agencies that are presumed to exist
behind it” (35). It’s a warning that seems amazingly apt in this context!

I have to admit, I can’t stand this type of writing. I don’t see how it contributes anything to the content, and I suspect that it’s intended partly to browbeat the reader into accepting the argument in order to simply follow it. For example, White sneaks in a claim that “there are no extra-ideological grounds on which to arbitrate among the conflicting conceptions of the historical process and of historical knowledge…since these conceptions have their origins in ethical considerations, the assumption of a given epistemological position by which to judge their cognitive accuracy would itself represent only another ethical choice” (26). Ah, no.

The introduction concludes with a short sketch of nineteenth-century historiography, which White describes as a sort-of spiral of eternal return. The ironic stance of the Enlightenment (Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Gibbon) gives way to pre-romantic idealism culminating in Hegel’s organicism and Comte’s (organicist) positivism. This leads to mechanism in the form of Marx, and ultimately “the consistent elaboration of a number of equally comprehensive and plausible, yet apparently mutually exclusive, conceptions of the same sets of events” leads back to an ironic loss of confidence in the ability to know anything, “freeing…historical consciousness from the impossible ideal of a transcendentally ‘realist’ perspective on the world” (41).

That’s enough of that, I think. I’m not going to read the nearly 400 pages that separate this introduction from White’s concluding remarks in which he says that “if we wish to transcend the agnosticism which an Ironic perspective on history…foists on us, we have only to reject this Ironic perspective and to will to view history from another, anti-Ironic perspective,” because, in the end, it’s a moral or an esthetic choice. (434)

do think White calls attention to questions about the way “emplotment” carries implicit or explicit interpretation. I think there may even be something to the idea that we look for the archetypal stories and story-forms in history. Our culture, in this sense prepares us to some extent to see the world in a particular way. But I don’t think we need to be victims of this. Even if it was “precritical and precognitive” (which I don’t accept), we’re not uncritical, and we can be cognitive. So we can apply that thought and criticism to these questions, and examine them adequately.

I also don’t buy the idea that epistemological stances are essentially esthetic or moral in nature. Even in a world where reality is mediated by perception and conception (our senses and our mental training/language/etc.), some models of the world are more accurate than others. So it’s
not okay to embrace teleology or dialectical materialism just because it feels more comfortable or satisfies our yearning for beauty and meaning (or panders to our prejudices and justifies the status quo).

In the end, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a book like this. White continually says his analysis is formalist (in the sense he defines formalism in his theory) and ironic. But I suspect (not having read his narrative chapters) it’s actually organicist, with a generally upward/forward momentum. So I wonder, was he unaware of this? Or did he choose to hide it, as he chose to obscure so much else, in this maze of words?

Thomas Kuhn's Paradigms

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 3rd Edition 1996

Kuhn’s thesis is that scientific progress does not proceed cumulatively, as most people have believed. Instead, he says that it oscillates between stable periods of “normal science,” during which scientists elaborate and extend a single dominant paradigm, and revolutionary breaks, when an existing paradigm is abandoned in favor of a new one.

Kuhn rejects the belief that knowledge progresses by a series of “successive increments” (p. 2) which add to the accumulation of facts making up current scientific truth. He disputes the description of professional scientific life as an impartial empirical exploration, describing it instead as being guided and directed by paradigms which create the rules and standards for a scientific community. Sharing a paradigm allows this community to take the foundations of their field for granted, resulting in highly refined studies into the most esoteric and elaborate problems.

Kuhn describes “normal science” as “mop-up work,” which he describes as “an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies.” (p. 24) The “normal” scientist is “an expert puzzle-solver,” (p. 36), and the mark of a puzzle is the certainty of a single correct solution. This does not mean there is a single right solution in nature, just in the paradigm.

Anomalies between observations and paradigm-induced expectations are the first clues to the weakness of a particular paradigm. Kuhn says the difficulty of seeing anomalies is due to the conditioning of our expectations by the paradigm. Normal science produces sufficiently detailed information and exact enough expectations that discovery of anomalies is enabled. Insecurity caused by a growing preponderance of anomalies leads to a crisis for the existing paradigm. “Failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones.” (68)

The response to a crisis is not immediate abandonment of the paradigm. Falsifiability in Popper’s sense does not play a role; a paradigm is never released until a new one is accepted in its place. “Every problem that normal science sees as a puzzle can be seen, from another viewpoint, as a counterinstance,” (79), but some of these can ultimately be answered within the existing paradigm. Others point the way to new paradigms. “Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.” (90)(What are the implications for highly professionalized disciplines like history?)

Revolutions result when a scientific community rejects an existing paradigm in favor of a new one. There may have been several contenders, but only one paradigm can win without splitting the field into separate disciplines. The new paradigm comes to be recognized as better than the old one based on the set of criteria which (now) matter to the community. The relative importance of these criteria may vary between individuals and over time. But the result of accepting the new model is recognition of the failure of the old.

Adoption of the new paradigm changes the scientist’s perceptions, tools, and language in a way that makes his understanding incommensurable with that of the old-paradigm scientists. “Confronting the same constellation of objects as before and knowing that he does so, he nevertheless finds them transformed.” (122) Ultimately all experience is processed through interpretive structures (paradigms), so there is no “neutral observation-language” from which to judge the paradigms. The process works like a “gestalt-switch,” Kuhn says.

Scientific revolutions appear invisible because that is not the way we learn science. Paradigm choices are made, not based on “comparison of a single paradigm with nature,” (145) because nature cannot be
SEEN except through a paradigm. The paradigm cannot be accepted incrementally, it must be experienced. This is why there is no going back. It is not always clear that the new paradigm is more successful than its predecessor when the decision is made. There is an element of faith involved.

This model works in science because of its reliance on a single paradigm at a time, and its very detailed elaboration of that paradigm. There is an “evolutionary” element to the revolutions, in that the new paradigm must solve the outstanding counterinstances which caused the crisis (at least better than the old paradigm did), AND it must “promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem-solving ability” of the predecessor model. But there is NO implied evolution TOWARD any goal or truth, just a “process of evolution from primitive beginnings.” (170)

In the Postscript, Kuhn
REALLY improves on the clarity and complexity of the argument.

The term Paradigm is refined to mean: “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by members of a given community,” AND “the concrete puzzle-solutions which, employed as models or examples, can replace explicit rules as a basis for the solution” of scientific questions. (175) “A paradigm governs…not a subject matter but a group of practitioners.” (180)

“Crises need not be generated by the work of the community that experiences them and that sometimes undergoes revolution as a result,” Kuhn says. (181)

Kuhn elaborates a very detailed argument of how paradigms relate to human knowledge. This involves a “disciplinary matrix” which holds a group of sciences together and defines a “field” of science (182), “symbolic generalizations” which “look like laws of nature,” and are also definitions of the symbols (“the balance between their inseparable legislative and definitional force shifts over time” as the paradigm matures) (183). There are overarching “metaphysical paradigms”: “beliefs in particular models…[that] supply the group with preferred or permissible analogies and metaphors” (184), “values” such as plausibility, consistency, mathematical beauty, etc. Their relative hierarchy changes between scientists and over time. Because these are communities of teachers and students, the paradigm includes “exemplars” or “concrete problem-solutions that students encounter.” The “differences between sets of exemplars provide the community fine-structure of science,” and because they point directly to the way humans know anything, learning a particular set means a student has “assimilated a time-tested and group-licensed way of seeing.” (189)

In his discussion of knowledge, Kuhn says we are “tempted to identify stimuli one-to-one with sensations,” and that we “posit the existence of stimuli to explain our perceptions of the world, and we posit their immutability to avoid both individual and social solipsism.” (193) He says that paradigms, in their role as exemplars, allow us to “learn to see the same things when confronted with the same stimuli.” (193) This creates the unity of the scientific discipline (other disciplines might ask themselves if they can be this monolithic?)

“An appropriately programmed perceptual mechanism has survival value,” Kuhn says. “To say that the members of different groups have different perceptions when confronted with the same stimuli is not to imply that they may have just any perceptions at all.” (195) “What is built into the neural process that transforms stimuli to sensations has the following characteristics: it has been transmitted through education; it has, by trial, been found more effective than its historical competitors in a group’s current environment; and, finally, it is subject to change both through further education and through the discovery of misfits with the environment.” Because this is an embedded, invisible process, he calls this layer “tacit knowledge.” (196) This is the evolutionary psychology that links David Hume with the real world.

Kuhn continues: “interpretation begins where perception ends. The two processes are not the same, and what perception leaves for interpretation to complete depends drastically on the nature and amount of prior experience and training.” (198) This is a hidden element of paradigm use, which is not under conscious control. “There is no neutral algorithm for theory-choice, no systematic decision procedure which, properly applied, must lead each individual in the group to the same decision… Two men who perceive the same situation differently but nevertheless employ the same vocabulary in its discussion must be using words differently.” (200) So they need TRANSLATION. But: “To translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language is not to make it one’s own. For that one must go native, discover that one is thinking and working in, not simply translating out of, a language that was previously foreign.” (204) This is the CONVERSION EXPERIENCE, and Kuhn says it is necessarily one-way. “Translation may… provide points of entry for the neural reprogramming that, however inscrutable at this time, must underlie conversion. But neither good reasons nor translation constitute conversion…” (204) You know it when it happens.

Does it work this way in the social sciences? Kuhn seems to be proposing this as a theory of all human knowledge. The “notion of a paradigm as a concrete achievement, an exemplar” (208) gets past a lot of arguments about subjectivity, facts, and language. But “How does one elect, and how is one elected to membership in a particular community, scientific or not? What is the process and what are the stages of socialization to the group? What does the group collectively see as its goals; what deviations, individual or collective, will it tolerate; and how does it control the impermissible aberration?” (209) These are
BIG questions for me thinking about the academic discipline of history right now.

American Thinking Class

The Making of an American Thinking Class by Darren Staloff (1998)

This was a challenging text, which assumed a prior knowledge of the events of the Puritan period, and applied the formulas of what Staloff calls a post-revisionist approach that was heavily influenced by Marx and Weber.

Texts he refers to a lot: Perry Miller, Alvin Goldner (
The Dark Side of the Dialectic), George Conrad and Ivan Szelenyi (Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power), Larzer Ziff,

“Marxist outlaws have not surrendered the dialectic, but continue to probe and wander its dark side. Only those who can move without joining packaged tours of the world can afford such a journey.” (quoting Alvin Gouldner, 2) This is a great image. Of course, Marxists aren’t the only types of outlaws running off the beaten paths…

Staloff’s thesis is that Puritan Massachusetts was run by an alliance of intellectuals (ministers, the producers of culture) and intelligentsia (magistrates, who administered culture through politics). The basis of their shared power he names cultural dominance, which he says is built on four principles:
1. public recognition or ritual acceptance of leaders
2. leaders always agree publicly (avoid schisms)
3. public expressions of the dominant culture are “socially privileged” and single source
4. dissent is suppressed, as are unauthorized expressions of culture

Staloff’s history of the Bay Puritans is a series of challenges to, defenses of, and ultimately violations of these principles, resulting in the gradual undermining of the ruling party’s cultural dominance. Staloff doesn’t disparage the notion that the Puritan rulers, dissidents, and the laity had sincere theological differences; but he’s clearly not interested in them. He suggests at several points that he’s examining the true underlying causes of individual and group actions, even when the people involved were unaware of them.

The way the Bay Colony was established certainly lends itself to the type of self-conscious, premeditated construction of the state Staloff claims. The colony was, as he says, “Designed and staffed by a class-conscious and dissident educated elite.” (12) Staloff mentions events in England only briefly (although his historiographical appendix is mostly about English Puritanism), but reminds the reader that the Bay Puritans are (or at least may consider themselves) the radicals in an intercontinental movement (actually, Staloff lets his theory get away from him for a moment and calls them the “vanguard of the militant Protestant internationale”).

Staloff argues that the colony’s toleration of high-ranking dissenters like Roger Williams (who was treated with kid gloves at a time when lesser men were being “whipped, have his ears cutt of, Fyned £40, and banished…for uttering mallitious and scandalous speeches against the government and the church of Salem.” 21) was due to his status as a member of the intellectual ruling elite. Every attempt was made to reconcile Williams’ differences with the ruling consensus, to avoid the appearance that the fundamental truths on which Puritan society was based were open to a variety of interpretations. Anne Hutchinson was more easily dealt with, because she was a woman; the magistrates took much greater care bringing John Cotton (her mentor and the teacher of the Boston church) back into the fold.

John Cotton presented his fellow leaders with an ongoing dilemma. He argued for a more charismatic faith, where evidence of grace was somewhat disassociated from works (not as much as Anne Hutchinson believed, as it turned out). In a sense, Cotton was “seeing” the Puritans’ miraculous-biblical social basis, and “raising” them with claims of contemporary miracles (experiences of saving grace as a qualification for “saint” status). How could they deny him, and sustain their own claims? This would later prove their undoing, when Increase Mather took it too far and prophesied against the British authorities.

It’s interesting that these Puritan issues foreshadow later Massachusetts religious issues. The Edwards controversy in Northampton revolved around a charismatic minister, a revivalist message, and election by a claimed experience that was beyond the control of the regular hierarchy. The communion of saints was at the same time more exclusive and more democratic (or at least anarchistic, because it wasn’t based on the accepted tests of worth). In addition, Roger Williams’ call for disestablishment challenged the legitimacy of the state’s role in allying with a particular group of religious leaders. This issue reappears in the Ashfield Baptists’ fight to relieve themselves from taxes to support the Congregational church. And Cotton’s preference for at will offerings (in the richest parish in New England) over forced tithes reappears in Chileab Smith’s schism with his son Ebenezer over ministerial salary at the end of the 18th century.

The Antinomian dissent was apparently supported by many of the Boston merchants, but Staloff doesn’t make it clear how or why the “urban bourgeoisie” transformed their dissatisfaction with the “arcane economic policy” (40) of the inner party into Anne Hutchinson’s theological break with Puritan orthodoxy. Staloff seems unclear about who’s using whom in this passage. On the one hand, he agrees with Ziff that “so long as the doctrine itself was under attack, he stood by them, but when it became clear to him…that they aimed at a social revolution and were willing even to pervert doctrine to achieve it, he abandoned them.” But in the next paragraph, “Cotton attempted to use the Antinomians in the same fashion that Mao Tse-tung used the Red Guards in his struggle for absolute preeminence against the other members of the inner party elite.” (42) So which is it? Was Cotton a theological idealist, or a cynical political infighter?

By 1637, the Quakers had identified another danger to the Puritan regime. If the orthodox leaders allowed the existence of an “inner light,” then anyone could claim a personal revelation that was superior (or at least equivalent) to the Word as preached by the ministers. The Synod of 1637 identified and condemned it as Error #53: “No Minister can teach one that is anointed by the Spirit of Christ, more than hee knows already unlesse it be in some circumstances.” (45) This is obviously true as well of Cotton’s saints, but they weren’t pressing the point and Cotton was still one of the foremost ministers in the colony. Going after him and his flock would violate the second rule. And Cotton avoided violating “the ritual code of deference that surrounded the clergy and supported their system of cultural domination.” (first rule)(50)

Eighteenth century clerics might have justified their intrusions into politics based on Puritan traditions. “At the beginning of each annual Court of Elections, a duly appointed member of the ministry would preach a decidedly political and often factionally partisan election sermon to the assembled freemen.” (74) But as the civil and religious organizations began to drift apart, crossovers of magistrates (like Winthrop) into religious theorizing began to be resisted by the ministers. It seems to have taken much longer for the ministers to be judged as incompetent to hold political opinions (if it ever happened at all).

“Harvard College (named after Rev. John Harvard of Charlestown, who died Sept. 14 1638 leaving £1600 and a library of 400 books) played an indispensable role in supplying cultural cohesion and hierarchical control. The college collected a common cultural core which, through the ministers, would be exported to every settlement in the land. By 1660, there were 135 college-trained leaders among the second generation, of whom 116 were Harvard graduates.” (q Harry Stout, 94-5) (cf New England’s First Fruits) In addition, the college graduated magistrates for the General Court and teachers for the Latin schools, to prepare the next generation of Harvard men. The college’s 2nd president, Henry Dunster, was sacked for becoming a Baptist, but he was neither banished nor excommunicated, even though standard treatment of Baptists included floggings and heavy fines. Staloff attributes this to the fact that Dunster humbly complied with his admonitors. “Here lay the key to Puritan toleration and repression: orthodox unanimity was sought not as an end in itself but as a means to cultural domination,” Staloff concludes. (100)

In 1638, the church took its first steps toward establishment. The court ordered that “every inhabitant in any towne is lyable to contribute to all charges, both in church and commonwealth, whereof hee doth or may receive benefit.” (106) This is an interesting construction, clearly showing the author’s belief that church and commonwealth are two elements of a single society that everyone is responsible to keep up. The difficulty is that the strict covenant (and Cotton’s even stricter requirement for signs of “saving grace”) disqualified most of the population from church membership. The colony’s original inclusive churches had evolved into very exclusive communities of saints. So the involuntary assessment for their support amounted to taxation without participation. This foreshadows the next century’s difficulties with establishment, and helps explain the tradition that formed the clergy’s expectation of support from their flocks.

Samuel Gorton was thrown out of Boston, and then out of Portsmouth (RI) for his heretical ideas. He went to Providence, but annoyed even the liberals there; so he went to Pawtuxit (Pawtucket). Massachusetts annexed Pawtuxit in 1642 to drive him out and secure the hinterlands from heresy, and Gorton bought land in Shawomet. “Gorton and his followers had purchased their land from Miantonomo, the sachem of the Narragansetts. Unfortunately, two of his subsachems who resided in the locality, Punham and Sacononoco, objected to the sale. In the spring of 1643, the two traveled to Boston to place themselves and their followers under the Massachusetts jurisdiction and thus regain control of the land…” (109-110) This is an interesting example, 32 years before King Philip’s War, of the natives interacting with colonial government as if they consider it legitimate.

After the Cambridge Platform, the “one-party regime” reached its peak. “The word was widely preached to forced attendance, the number of orthodox gathered churches grew, three intercolonial synods were held, remonstrants were imprisoned and heavily fined, Baptists were banished, and Quakers were flogged and executed. How much more Puritan could the Bay Colony be?” Staloff asks. The ministers were growing more distant from their people, evidenced by their correspondence. “Shall I tell you what I think to be the ground of all this insolence, which discovers itself in the speech of men?” Peter Bulkeley asked John Cotton. “Truly I cannot ascribe it to any outward thing, as to the putting of too much liberty into the hands of the multitude, which they are too weak to manage…” (115) Staloff says the laity’s loss of power in the church was partly balanced by a gain of some control over politics, as the deputies began disagreeing more frequently with the magistrates. The Halfway Covenant was the ministers’ attempt to regain control over the population, by bringing them back into the church that “saving grace” had disqualified them from.

The “saints” in the congregations resisted this change, because it devalued the position of the laity overall. A larger and generally less educated congregation increased the power of the minister, by widening the distance between him and his flock in terms of biblical knowledge and theological authority. But the distance between the people and their leaders continued to grow. The synod of 1646 authorized the General Court to pass laws regulating religious behavior. In addition to a number of finable offences, they decided “the death penalty was prescribed for blasphemy and, more pointedly, for any person who dared ‘reproach the holy religion of God, as if it were but a polliticke devise to keep ignorant men in awe.’…Failure to attend the ministers’ public exercises—‘the ordinary meanes to subdue the harts of hearers not onely to the faith, & obedience to the Lord Jesus, but also to civill obedience, and allegiance unto magistracy;--would draw a fine of 5 shillings for each such occurrence.” (125) Clearly, these measures were not adopted for no reason.

In 1657 the Quakers came and threw themselves into martyrdom, apparently interesting a lot of common people in the process. Staloff claims “the ultimate significance of the Quaker movement for the orthodox Bay regime was that it thus forced the magistrates and ministers to neutralize the danger of an unchurched majority that might easily be induced to support heterodox dissent.” The solution was to bring the people back into the church using the halfway qualifications. “Discipline was our great Interest,” claimed Increase Mather. (136) “The most important way in which the half-way covenant centralized church power was by devaluing lay consent,” (137) as well as the learning and emotional commitment required to qualify for membership. Of course, only full members could vote.

By the mid 1670s, the magistrates were using friendly clergy regularly to support their political agendas. The 1676 pre-election speaker, Harvard graduate William Hubbard, told his audience that those who called for “a parity in any Society, will in the issue reduce things into a heap of confusion.” (174) In other words, shut up and do what we tell you. The problem the people faced was, the messages from the pulpit were becoming more fragmented, as the clergy’s unanimity started to fray. Sometimes, the message was downright incredible, even for Puritans.

“Do not say that the Ministers of God cannot tell you why this Judgment has come,” Increase Mather told his listeners. Mather tried to reclaim the clergy’s authority over day-to-day secular events, by claiming to have prophesied King Philip’s War. He predicted further troubles for the colony, unless the people obeyed his directions for making peace with an angry God. A reforming synod was called in 1679, that adopted most of Mather’s proposals. Interestingly, it was Solomon Stoddard who turned the synod from requiring testimony of saving grace, to “a personal and publicke profession of their Faith and Repentance,” (181) which paved the way for the half-way covenant. Staloff’s chronology seems confused here (or more likely his narrative is just too convoluted), but I should look into the debates between Stoddard and the Mathers (Cotton and Increase), and follow the thread down to Stoddard’s grandson, Jonathan Edwards. (cf Mather, A Discourse Concerning the Danger of Apostacy, 1677)

Mather’s perpetual insistence on an immanent crisis wore his supporters out. By 1682, Mather was complaining that Satan attacked the people in his church, and “he causeth them to sleep at Sermons.” (182) Mather warned his listeners that “God himself is speaking to you…though by mortal men like unto your selves,” (183) and that not only the minister but the almighty was offended when they dozed off. But his sermons had strayed so far from any relevance with their lives that they were unable to stay awake for them.

The colony’s relationship with the British Crown also suffered from Increase Mather’s stubborn insistence on his own infallibility. When it became clear that the king wanted changes in the Bay charter, reflecting increased religious liberty and toleration of other sects, Mather declared that there could be no compromise. At the 1684 elections, Mather purged the “accommodationist” members of the Court, and prayed for deliverance. On Feb. 6 1685 after fasting and meditation, Mather claimed that “God will deliver New England!” Coincidentally (when did Mather claim his vision?), King Charles II died the same day.

Unfortunately for Massachusetts Bay, James II suspended the colony’s charter and disbanded their government. The Dominion of Edmund Andros ended with the Glorious Revolution, but unlike Rhode Island and Connecticut, Massachusetts was not allowed to reinstate its previous government. Increase Mather negotiated a new charter, which was far less generous than the deal the other colonies got. Staloff concludes his account by observing that the “calumnies heaped on Mather perfectly symbolized the breakdown of cultural domination for which he had been largely responsible.” (188)

Crisis of the Standing Order

The Crisis of the Standing Order, Peter S. Field (Amherst: Univ. of Mass Press, 1998)

Field’s thesis is that the Standing Order self-destructed in a war between proto-Unitarian “Brahmins” and orthodox Congregationalist leaders. The Brahmin ministers represented the interests of their supporters, the Boston merchant elite, and developed a high literary culture to meet their needs. The orthodox establishment, seeing their influence and authority slipping, attacked the Brahmins in an attempt to retain their role as intellectual rulers of Massachusetts.

Field notes early on that Puritan practice banned ministers from holding secular office, so their authority rested entirely on their leadership role in the intellectual life of their society. (1) He says the ministers of the “Standing Order gained cultural authority in direct proportion to society’s uncoerced adoption” of their ideas. (2) It’s ironic that the story of the orthodox fight to retain control in Mass is filled with their (futile) attempts to coerce. It’s not until they’ve completely hit bottom that Lyman Beecher convinces them to try revivalist persuasion. But then, they weren’t interested in reaching the middle class until the Brahmin ministers stole the upper class from them.

He cites an early 20th c. article on
“The Revolt Against the Standing Order” I should probably read. And like Staloff, he builds on a foundation of Weber (Economy and Society), which I should probably read soon too.

Field proposes a “social history of intellectuals,” that treats the idealism of intellectual historians with a big dose of skepticism (if not cynicism), while retaining a focus on intellectuals as not only agents, but as a class (which he observes is missing from Marxist analysis. As a “new-class” theorist, Field argues with Weber that “ownership of the means of production is not the sole measure of the social division of labor.” (5) He seeks to undermine the “belief that intellectuals are heroically engaged in the disinterested pursuit of truth,” but it’s unclear to me whether he proves his case. Jedediah Morse is a really nasty guy in Fields’ story, but I’m not sure he’s insincere.

What is clear is that the increasingly public disagreements between the orthodox clergy and their urbane, polished, and increasingly rich adversaries made it clear to anyone paying attention in the early decades of the 19th c., that the ministry was filled with partisans. This devolution of the Puritan edifice into competing sects eliminated their claim to cultural dominance and divine inspiration. It’s incredible to me that Morse managed to survive the Illuminati hoax with any credibility at all – and that might be a topic for further study.

The fight over the Hollis Professorship of Divinity in 1805 begins (in a rare moment of physicality) with the completion of the West Boston Bridge, Nov. 23rd 1793. The orthodox leaders fight viciously, but lose control of Harvard. But did they have it before? Field mentions that David Tappan’s pupils are among the brightest lights of the new Brahmin ministry. Is he finding an abrupt change where there was really a slow evolution? Similarly, Field says no reasonable Federalist believed Morse’s Illuminati story. So what was going on? Who were the orthodox ministers talking to (besides themselves)? Were they carrying public opinion? At what point did the Brahmin elitist ministry lose touch with regular people? Or was it ever in touch with them? Certainly not through the Athenaeum or the Anthology. And what about western Mass? Revivalism began there in the 1790s, long before Beecher moved to Boston.

Field passes quickly over the first Great Awakening, saying it was a great threat to the Standing Order but not how. He places the ministers firmly on the side of the revolutionists (and says that until the Committees of Correspondence, they were nearly the only conduits of information, 26), which again illustrates a Boston-only focus. Most of the western ministers were Tories until they had no choice, and some remained Loyalists. Maybe highlighting Chauncy, Mayhew and Thacher gives Field an origin of orthodox ministers’ view of their role in politics. But in the Puritan colony, this would have been taken for granted. Its survival after the revolution is the issue.

Field mentions several items that don’t fit smoothly into his interpretation, like the fact that Joseph Hawley brought a bill to the General Court in 1777 to disestablish the church, but “he could not muster enough support even to bring it to the floor for a vote.” Field credits the clergy with defeating the 1778 Mass Constitution, but doesn’t provide any context (
but he refers to this). William Gordon, chaplain of the Court, got himself fired for criticizing the constitution in the papers, and thirteen ministers attended the convention as delegates of their towns. Where were these towns, and what was the agenda of the ministers? Lots of western Mass towns instructed their representatives to block the constitution if possible; but not over religion. How did religious objections stack up to civil ones? Field doesn’t discuss.

According to Morison, there were “At least twenty-nine towns [that] distinctly stated their opposition to Article 3” establishing the church. Hawley said: “it is far from indisputable, and positively denied by many, viz, That it is the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons to worship, &c….It is inconsistent with the unalienable rights of conscience, which rights are certainly unalienable, if mankind have, (as the first article avers they have) any such rights.” (38)

Field doesn’t really deal with the gradual shift of attitudes
observed by some at the time, and he credits the revolution with imposing a “limited moratorium on theological controversy” (52). He does outline the family ties between the proto-Unitarians and the merchant elite, and makes a good case that theirs was “as much a social as a religious enterprise.” (80) In fact, this seems to be the chief complaint of the orthodox. John Thornton Kirkland married the daughter of George Cabot; William Ellery Channing married Ruth Gibbs; Harvard professors Andrews Norton and George Ticknor married the daughters of Samuel Elliot; and Edward Everett married the daughter of Peter Chardon Brooks, the first millionaire in Boston.

Field says the wealthy Bostonians left politics when the Federalists were defeated, and set about establishing high culture. But his chronology wanders back and forth from the 1790s to 1808 and beyond. This seems to undermine his claim that these groups were acting as self-aware, unified classes when they battled over the Illuminati in 1798 or David Tappan’s Hollis chair in 1803-5. Field says “Almost to a man, Brahmin ministers had begun to eschew the kind of active participation in politics entailed in…election-day sermons and fast days.” (91-2) But is that chicken or egg? Their patrons, the Boston merchants, were disaffected with politics after 1800. They weren’t looking for their ministers to rub their noses in their defeat. The Brahmin ministers might have faced a different set of expectations if Jefferson had been defeated.

“Theology,” said Joseph Stevens Buckminster, “is the subject upon which much of our genius and learning has always been employed, and not seldom wasted.” (97) It’s funny, in a sort-of “Emperor’s New Clothes” way. The merchants and their make-believe ministers made a show of religion to please the society they lived in and advance their own social standing. What a shock to the orthodox, who thought it was something else entirely. Fifty years from the “visible sainthood” of the New Lights to the Anthology’s editorial policy of “useful knowledge and harmless amusement, sound principles, good morals, and correct taste.” (97)

It is a sound point, though, that Boston was different from the rest of the state because its churches were NOT supported by taxes, they were all voluntary (a legacy of John Cotton?). As a result, those who contributed more expected to be treated accordingly, even if they were not “members” on the basis of a conversion experience. But Field doesn’t explain how the half-way covenant mitigated the requirements for membership, or what effect that had. And again, Field admits on p. 143 that John Adams wrote to Morse that the ideas he complained were recent and Unitarian had been around for 65 years.

Field remarks that there were two distinct responses among the (nearly 100%) Federalist ministers. The Brahmins retreated from politics; the orthodox went nuts. Of course, the orthodox couldn’t retreat, because the Brahmins had already claimed that hill. Who were their constituents? What was their market? But by 1820, even Morse’s own parish tired of his “engagements in, and encouragement of controversies [and] indiscriminate distribution of contradictory pamphlets and tracts.” (146) They replaced him, and he accused them of being “obviously Unitarians.”

In a letter to Oliver Wolcott Jr. (July 13 1798), Morse went so far as to declare it was “necessary to exterminate [their] dangerous enemies,” the Boston clergy who disagreed with them and refused to knuckle under to Morse’s self-appointed authority. (150) In his biography of Harrison Gray Otis, Samuel Eliot Morison says “neither Otis nor any other prominent Federalist subscribed to the [Illuminati] theory.” While they’d tried to support Morse’s attacks on the republican plot, Federalist papers like the Columbian Centinal and Chronicle were nervous about their own credibility. “Embarrassed by his recklessness, they shut Morse out.” (150) Maybe part of the problem ministers like Morse were having is they believed they were living in an earlier world; where the clergy was not only the only source of information about the outside world for most people, but the prestige of the clergy virtually guaranteed that whatever the pastor told his flock would be believed. Newspapers, pamphlets and broadsheets of the revolutionary era definitely widened the average person’s view of the world. But maybe the biggest damage was done by ministers like Morse, who showed themselves to be petty, partisan, and worst of all, miserably wrong.

The Yale connection to all of the orthodox leaders is too good to pass by. Timothy Dwight demands a closer look. I need to get Speaking Aristocracy, to give myself at least one chance to see a positive portrayal of Yale and its presidents. In addition, the careers of the presidents of Amherst, Dartmouth and Williams will probably have some surprises in them. Griffin, who Knowlton talked with a couple of times while living in Adams, seems to be up to his elbows in controversy in the 1800s and 1810s.

Morse’s Panoplist claimed to be the “antidote” (153) to the wickedness and infidelity spewed by the Anthology. Morse wasted little time in calling for ministerial examinations to insure creedal uniformity. Without rigid enforcement of correct doctrines, he said, “liberty, free enquiry [and] private judgment [were becoming] instruments of infidelity, and a fair mask, under which apostasy from Christianity and hatred of all goodness have disguised themselves.” (159) I wonder about this type of language. Who is he talking to? Hatred of all goodness? These are other Congregational clergymen he’s talking about, and the people who fill their churches every Sunday. Not some crowd of blood-drinking Satan-worshippers. Field doesn’t really explain who the audience for this type of rhetoric is, or how effective it was. Without that context, it just seems absurd.

The Andover Seminary’s creed, which all faculty had to swear and renew every five years, pledged “unswerving opposition , ‘not only to Atheists and Infidels, but to Jews, Papists, Mahomatans, Arians, Pelagians, Antimonians, Arminians, Socinians, Sabellians, Unitarians, and Universalists.” (168) So basically, they hated everybody. The Brahmins “deemed the doctrinal hairsplitting of the orthodox distasteful, uncharitable, and anachronistic.” (171) William Ellery Channing called the creed part of Andover’s “espionage of bigotry.” (167)

Field points out that the “growing class nature of Massachusetts society may not have been the efficient cause, but it was certainly a necessary cause of the crisis…” (183) He says the older (and increasingly female) communicants were less prosperous than their neighbors, implying that the time required to achieve their high level of religious devotion cut them off from worldly success. There’s a good chance these people may have “believed that the shrinking number of public confessions signaled a serious decline in religiosity” in Massachusetts, as Field says. He doesn’t show this, and it’s an area for possible research. (In general, Field ignores the audiences of the clerics he writes about, which is unfortunate) During the Dorchester conflict (when Codman refuses to exchange pulpits with Brahmins as his parishioners want), the orthodox minister’s enemies are described as being “exceedingly fond of amusements.” (197) Field points out this statement points to an underlying class conflict, but again he doesn’t describe how it was received. The ultimate secularization of the church occurs in this conflict, when wealthy parishioners demand a say in the church equal to their contribution. This is democracy! And exactly what the orthodox have been fighting all along.

Field points out the irony of ultra-conservative Boston elites fighting for liberal, democratic ideals in their churches. (204) But maybe he’s missing the point. Maybe the Brahmins’ position was like the Baptists’ during the revolution: they weren’t really against estabishment and authority, they were against someone else having it over them. But the irony resolves itself, when the 1821 Dedham decision rules that the assets of the church belong to the parish, not the saints. At that point, the orthodox seem to realize Morse and his crew have done them no good. Morse seems to disappear very rapidly from the picture, to be replaced with Lyman Beecher. Beecher tells them that establishment is against their interests, because they’re the outsiders. So, having nothing left to lose, the orthodox finally embrace their “age-old populist rhetoric concerning the ungodliness of the wealthy and the dangers of materialism,” (205) creating what Field calls “the American Religion.”

Abandoning establishment allowed the orthodox to go after the middle class people who’d been drifting toward Baptist and Methodist sentiments. The ministers swallowed their pride and embraced revivalism, holding 116 in Mass in 1831 (232). 81 “churches” (ministers and communicants) were “exiled” by parish revolts by 1833, according to a study made by the orthodox and presented to their General Association of Massachusetts Ministers. (229) Is this the meeting Mason Grosvenor attends, which prompts him to go after “infidelity and licentiousness” in Ashfield? The 1832 meeting of the General Association of Massachusetts Congregational Ministers was held in Northampton and dealt extensively with temperance. Where was the 1833?

The 11th amendment to the Mass constitution, disestablishing religion, went into effect January 1 1834. This fits perfectly with the issues in Ashfield, and may explain some of the undercurrents and tensions behind them.

Unknown Revolution

The Unknown American Revolution by Gary B Nash,
2005: popular history, by UCLA professor who specializes in women, Native and African Americans in history. The book reflects this focus, and yet still seems to dwell excessively on the names you’ll find in any old-fashioned political history. I grabbed a bunch of things that pertain to my interests, and added a bunch more books he refers to, to my queue of titles.

Nash mentions that George Lippard was called out for embellishing his histories with legend or things he just made up. He defended his attempt to personalize the story, saying that official history or the “thing that generally passes for History is the most insolent, swaggering bully, the most graceless braggart, the most reckless equivocator that ever staggered forth on the great stage of the world.” (xxvi) You can’t really argue with that…

The Great Awakening, in this treatment, is “a search for new sources of authority, new principles of action, new foundations of hope.” (quoting William G. McLoughlin, 8) “The Awakeners preached that the old sources of authority were too effete to solve the problems of the day, too encrusted with tradition, self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and intellectualism to bring a sense of hope and faith to a generation that was witnessing the transformation of the world…” (8) In what way was their world transformed? All the listed problems would have been equally recognizable to infidels – is it really a reaction of people who want to remain religious, to outside critiques?

George Whitefield’s message was that “God did not work through the elite corps of learned clergy and their aristocratic allies. Rather…through the inner light…The message was one of social leveling, for it put all people on one footing insofar as the conversion experience was concerned.” (8-9) This argument was also played out (the levelers lost) in the English Civil War, and countless other times in Christian history. It explains how Jonathan Edwards could be socially democratic and theologically ultra-conservative, because the evidence of grace had to be based on some measure, if not on material success.

“Virginia’s ruling class had another reason to fear and oppose religious enthusiasm: It held great appeal for the enslaved.” (10)

Ethan Allen: New York attorney general John Tabor Kempe won a court victory over the Hampshire Grants. “Allen later wrote that Attorney General Kempe took him aside in a tavern the night of the court decision and tried to get him to convince his farmer friends to leave the area or recognize that they had new landlords. Said Kempe—at least in Allen’s recollection—“We have might on our side, and you know that might often prevails against right.” Allen claims he replied, “The gods of the hills are not the gods of the valley,” indicating that the New England farmers would not give up their lands without a fight.” (110)

“The New York Riot Act, which Allen promptly called the ‘Bloody Act,’ specified that an assembly of three or more persons with ‘unlawful intent’ would be subjected to the provisions of the law, which included capital punishment for infractions such as destroying fences and outhouses and burning haystacks. With the Continental Congress about to assemble in Philadelphia, Allen defiantly wrote to [Governor] Tryon that ‘We shall more than three, nay more than three times three hundred, assemble together if need be to maintain our common cause” and promised that “Printed sentences of death will not kill us…We will kill and destroy any persons, whomsoever, that shall presume to be accessory, aiding or assisting, in taking any of us.’” (111)

cf Thomas Young Reflections on the Disputes Between New York, New Hampshire, and Col. John Henry Lydius, 1746

“The Baptist religious revolution of the 1760s was far more subversive than the Presbyterian revivalism of the 1740s and 1750s because it challenged gentry values and their social order more sharply and reached even lower into the social order for its recruits. It was all the more subversive because almost all Baptist preachers were unschooled farmers or artisans—men drawn from ‘Christ’s poor.’” (147-8) cf Israel Williams’ tirade against Chileab and Ebenezer Smith of Ashfield and their church.

“Vermont’s constitution went farther than Pennsylvania’s in several respects: it provided unrestricted manhood suffrage without even a taxpayer qualification; made all judges elective; gave special protection to debtors; and declared all slaves free, without compensation to their owners…The abolitionist principal received real application when Yale-trained David Avery arrived in Bennington to assume the pulpit of the Congregational church in 1779. There he found that his congregation refused to commune with him because he owned a female slave. Encouraged by Ethan Allen, the woman sued for her freedom.” (282)

“New York’s legislature went so far as to threaten to withdraw from the war against England unless Congress took ‘speedy and vigorous measures for reducing them [the Vermonters] to an obedience.’” (282)

“In many respects, the New York constitution was the most conservative passed by the states…it lacked a bill of rights… Ira Allen, Ethan’s youngest brother, carried the constitutions of New York and Vermont from town to town in the Green Mountains region in 1777, inviting the citizens to compare them carefully…Forty towns in the region endorsed Vermont’s constitution while rejecting New York’s as perversely undemocratic.” (282-3)

“In no other state did ideas about the people as the foundation of all political authority ebb away so quickly in the face of a resurgent conservative view that favored strict limits on popular power.” (291)

Theophilus Parsons’ Essex Result was a criticism of the [already ultra-conservative] draft for the Mass constitution, claiming it didn’t do enough to protect the wealthy against democracy. (298-9)

“Reconvening to count the votes in early June 1780, the convention declared that the requisite two-thirds of the voters had given their approval…they had a constitution. But it was not a constitution that they had actually approved. Of 290 towns returning votes…only 42 accepted it without amendment…nearly half of them rejected the constitution because it strangled the voice of the people at large in favor of a government controlled by the elite…The constitution, wrote [Joseph] Hawley violated ‘the natural, essential and inalienable right’ of every freeman to vote and hold office.” (302-3)

John Hancock was elected governor. One of his first acts was to receive the resignations of two militia captains, Samuel Talbot and Lemuel Gay, who had been disenfranchised by the new Mass constitution’s property requirements in the course of fighting in the Revolution. Their small farms had dwindled while they were away fighting. They said “We can no longer with truth encourage our fellow soldiers, who are so poor as to be thus deprived of their fundamental rights, that they are fighting for their own freedom; and how can an officer possessed of the generous feelings of humanity detach any of them into a service in which they are not interested.” They refused to lead men to fight for “a form of government…that appears repugnant to the principals of freedom.” (304-5)

How do historians possibly excuse Robert Morris?

Intellectual Origins

The Intellectual Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy: Republicanism, the Class Struggle, and the Virtuous Farmer by Douglass G. Adair (New York: Lexington Books, 2000), 1943 Yale dissertation.

Adair was apparently a legendary professor, who mentored a generation of historians. I first ran into him in the introduction to Daniel Sisson’s published dissertation. Sisson pretty much lifted his thesis, it turns out, from Adair’s introduction. But Adair was much more careful in his statement than Sisson turned out to be in his extrapolation of it.

This dissertation was unpublished forever, but the list of borrowers of the original document at Yale is supposedly a who’s who of history, at least in the minds of the borrowers. Many of Adair’s grad students seem to have found hints and ideas in it that they were able to pursue in their own studies.

Adair begins by situating his study as a post-Beard analysis of Jefferson and Madison’s political ideas. He asks whether something more should be added to Beard’s economic analysis, to explain why, although Hamilton and Madison’s economic ideas were “practically identical,” Madison, “the great antiparty philosopher of the Constitutional Convention, went into opposition and helped organize a highly effective party with Jefferson—supposedly Hamilton’s direct antithesis in economic doctrine”? (9-10)

The answer, Adair says, is that Jefferson and Madison shared a political outlook informed by the classical traditions going all the way back to Aristotle. Hamilton was also a student of the classics, Adair says; but his scholarship was shallower, and he failed to adapt what he learned in the ancient texts to the conditions in early America. He was too much of an idealist.

This is an interesting argument, and intuitively it’s very satisfying. Elite education in the eighteenth century was classical, and all three men (and John Adams, and the rest of the members of the Constitutional Convention) had a shared language. Adair makes his case that the founders didn’t just come up with their political philosophy by watching their neighbors in the Virginia piedmont, as some Turner-influenced historians apparently claimed. But the question of specifically how each man was able to adapt this shared classical heritage into their various plans for the American republic is left largely unanswered.

Adair leans heavily on the Scottish philosophers, especially David Hume, as progenitors of the founding fathers’ world view. He lists the books Madison studied under (Scottish) John Witherspoon at Princeton. In addition to Leibniz, Newton, and Descartes, Madison read Shaftesbury, Locke, Hume, Hutcheson, Mandeville, and Adam Smith. (26) The inclusion of Smith suggests the Republicans were not the economic illiterates that supporters of Hamilton make them out to be. Fisher Ames described Madison as “a thorough master of almost every public question that can arise, or he will spare no pains to become so.” (28) In a note, Adair mentions that by the 1850s, the prominence of continental political classics in school curricula was decreasing, resulting in an observed decrease in references to the ancients in political speeches. (31) But all evidence suggests Madison and Jefferson (and their serious contemporaries) arrived on the scene at the peak of classical scholarship.

Adair says Jefferson’s most powerful influence was Aristotle, and that the hope that a class of virtuous yeomen could stabilize a republic was lifted directly from the Politics. He describes Shay’s rebellion as a debtors’ revolt, echoing an interpretation based on politically motivated contemporary sources (like Knox’s letters to Washington). Leonard Richards’ recent study of the members of the rebellion contradicts the traditional story. Adair says the “ominous event” (quoting Madison, 61) sent the founders rushing back to their shelves for answers in “Thucydides, Xenophon, and Aristotle.” Maybe this was part of the solution…but maybe it also limited the effectiveness of the final solution. The two missing pieces of Adair’s puzzle seem to repeatedly be: how did regular people react to all this classically-inspired politics, and how accurately did the founders really understand their situation, before they fit it to the models written by the masters two millennia earlier?

Adair hints at the possibility of over-applying classical analogies, but only among Jefferson and Madison’s adversaries. Hamilton is described as brilliant, but with a shallow understanding of the classics (76). Adams’ use of Thucydides account of the sedition at Corcyra in his Defence of the Constitutions of the United States is shown to be not only “the most tenuous” of analogies (65), but also to miss the point that Shays and his rebels were behaving symbolically rather than trying to take over the State of Massachusetts. Adair argues that because the principals of the debates believed these analogies significant, we should consider their relationship to the events. This is probably true with respect to Adams’ paranoia, and may be an approach to assessing not only the strengths (as Adair suggests), but the weaknesses of the founders’ vision.

Gouverneur Morris’ posthumous opinion of Hamilton is quoted at length, and probably contains the seeds of a book or two:

Our poor friend Hamilton bestrode his hobby to the great annoyance of his friends, and not without injury to himself. More a theoretic than a practical man, he was not sufficiently convinced that a system may be good in itself, and bad in relation to particular circumstances. He knew well that his favorite form [monarchy] was inadmissible, unless as the result of a civil war; and I suspect that his belief in that which he called an approaching crisis arose from a conviction, that the kind of government most suitable, in his opinion, to this extensive country could be established in no other way. (77) (from)

“For nearly a generation American political thinkers had shared Locke’s exclusive concern,” Adair says, “with curbing the powers of kings. But now in the summer of 1787, the Convention delegates were almost unanimously agreed that the people themselves presented an additional problem.” (109) And perhaps the delegates’ nearly unanimous opinion highlights yet another problem. Ironically, after arguing that Beard ignored politics and ideas, Adair blames Hamilton for economic policies that “divided the American people into sharper cleavage than had existed since 1776.” (114) The reduction of the Confederacy’s problems to Hamilton’s national financial schemes, and the reduction of Hamilton to “a victim of his Plutarch and his Tacitus,” is the book’s greatest weakness. (Adair even quotes Woodrow Wilson: Hamilton was “a very great man, but not a great American,” to which a previous reader wrote in the margin, “TOSH!”)

Adair says Hamilton’s reductive mistake was his assumption of class struggle, that ultimately “faction [would] pivot entirely upon the conflict of haves and have-nots.” (120) Madison saw past this Hobbesian error after long review of his classics, Adair says, and “challenged the basic postulate upon which the ancient mixed government depended for its justification; and in so doing he exploded the justification for a permanent will in the community to keep the immutable strife of the few and the many within bounds.” But he never really says what those other elements of factionalism were, or how Madison proposed to keep them in check or play one against the other to stabilize his system. This is where a look back at Turner, who Adair threw out in the preface, might be helpful. Both Jefferson and Madison had experienced the frontier, and when the Louisiana Purchase was completed Madison breathed a sigh of relief and added a generation onto his expectation for America’s survival. (160) But Madison did the math, and decided that by 1930, Americans would “necessarily [be] reduced by a competition for employment to wages which afford them the bare necessities of life. The proportion being without property…cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its right to be safe depositories of power over them.” (161) “It would be impossible to base a republican government on a minority, without creating ‘a standing military force, dangerous to all parties and to liberty itself.’” Madison’s classics apparently held no answer; he simply hoped when the time came “the wisdom of the wisest patriots” in a future generation would pull them through (from “Notes on Suffrage” written during the Virginia Convention of 1829-30).