Celebrating Professionalism, 1965

John Higham
History: Professional Scholarship in America

Novick characterizes Higham’s historiography as celebratory and Whiggish, and Higham acknowledges the validity of these points in his review of
That Noble Dream. In 1965, he explains, there seemed to be something to celebrate. Who knew the profession was standing on the edge of fragmentation? Sub-disciplines went their separate ways, post-modernists challenged what they believed was the naive epistemology of historians; instead of three acts ending in victory, we were left with four acts -- Higham’s self-congratulatory third act now seems like pride before the fall.

But there’s still a lot of good information in the book, and nearly fifty years later, it’s a primary source for historiographers wanting to understand the point of view of the profession in the 1960s. Higham celebrates the professionalism that set itself against an earlier, “patrician” style of history, as he sets out to trace the “reciprocal relations between this emerging [American Historical] Association and the existing world of amateur scholarship.” (5)

“College curriculums until the 1870s,” Higham says, “had room for very few history courses, and these were generally taught by professors primarily interested in the classics or in philosophy. As late as 1884 the four hundred American institutions of higher education had about twenty full-time teachers of history.” (4) A decade later, there were over a hundred. Professional historians’ began “cooperative action [to] establish and maintain their own standards of achievement instead of obeying some external authority.” (5) This “cooperative ethic,” Higham admits, “discouraged to some degree a quest for genius.” (6) The guiding light of professionalization, J. Franklin Jameson, expected “the insular and fraternal habits of professional association...to perpetuate the high level of mediocrity” that Jameson believed would (somehow) precede “truly great and profound work.” Higham adds that under the demands of teaching, the historian “does not easily hold to an extravagant and selfish idea of achievement.” (7) So much for professionalism fostering good work.

In contrast, Higham tells the story of the “amateur historian [who] cherished his independence.” His example is John Bach McMaster, “a self-made historian who secured a professorship...because he wrote an outstanding book, a scholar who was notably absent at the founding” of the AHA, and who showed his unprofessional lack of solidarity by opposing Carnegie pensions for retired professors. (7) “The amateur historian expected his work to survive or perish on its individual merits; he was little concerned about its status as a ‘contribution’ to some continuing collective inquiry...He chose his subject for its intrinsic interest and wrote either for his own satisfaction or for a public that would accept him on his own terms.” I don’t think I need to comment on this, except to say that Ayn Rand could have written these words for Ellsworth Toohey in
The Fountainhead.

It’s interesting, the central role Higham gives Jameson, as “the administrative genius of the historical profession.” (26) His “committee formulated a precise and extensive plan for coordinating professional scholarship in American history.” (22) This, much more than the economic focus of Beard and Becker, seems like Progressivism at work.

Notes & Books to check into:

Increase Mather,
Brief History of the War with the Indians in New England, 1676
Samuel Miller,
Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, (history of science, 1803)

Conquest of Mexico, 1843 (“appealed so widely that seventy or more American newspapers reviewed it within a month of publication.” 69. Of course, it was 1843.)

Historical articles in
The Atlantic Monthly and the Century.

“Henry Adams’ profound and scintillating History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (1889-91), sold a mere three thousand sets during the entire decade of the Nineties.” (70)

History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (1892-1906): “Each volume sold about two or three thousand copies in its first year in print.”

“Hiram Martin Chittenden, who spent his leisure as an Army officer in the Missouri Valley writing
The American Fur Trade in the Far West (1902).

“Even a scholarly work so controversial and contemporary in interest as Charles A. Beard’s
An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) sold fewer than eight thousand copies over a span of four decades.” (72)

“H.G. Wells’s
Outline of History, issued by a hesitant publisher at an exorbitant price in 1920, sold one and a half million copies--one copy for every twenty homes in the country--within twelve years.” (74)

“Albert J. Beveridge, a former United States Senator...had done an astonishingly successful four-volume biography of John Marshall (1919) before he retired completely from politics and surpassed all previous biographers of Lincoln in breadth of research and in critical acumen.” (75)

“Some of the principal attributes of scientific history first appeared in the work of a good many amateur historians, beginning perhaps with Richard Hildreth, whose six-volume
History of the United States was published between 1849 and 1852.” (92) Higham celebrates the home-grown nature of scientific history: few if any of the “amateur pioneers of scientific history studied abroad.”

Don’t forget Theodore Roosevelt’s
The Winning of the West (1889-96)

“All of the leading historical journals ignored
Main Currents in American Thought, presumably considering it outside their purview.” (198) Really? Say that again, slowly.

Popular history

Ian Tyrell
Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970

It was probably unfair of me to read this book immediately after Novick. It’s a much dryer study, with much less personal detail. Tyrell focuses mainly on the official life of the AHA, which makes this much less interesting for me. But a few things did stick out, like the “rapid rise of agricultural history, with the formation of the Agricultural History Society under AHA auspices in 1919 and a specialized journal in 1927.” (31) Tyrell connects the advancing fortunes of ag. history with a Progressive interest in country life, which seems reasonable, but probably bears repeating just because it is so obvious.

Another area Tyrell calls attention to, that I should look deeper into, is the influence of book clubs on American readers. By the late 1920s, he says there were nine major American book clubs, led by the Book-of-the-Month Club (1926) and the Literary Guild (1927), “serving over 100,000 readers each by the 1930s.” (45) Tyrell also mentions the History Book Club -- it might be interesting to look at its history and the books it promoted over the years.

See also,
American Heritage, ed. Bruce Catton, Henry Pringle, and Mark Sullivan, whose multi-volume Our Times was said by Nevins to have “probably done more to interest people in American history than anything else written in our generation.” (49) Marquis James won the 1937 Pulitzer for a study of Andrew Jackson (I should review award lists, too), and Harpers editor Frederick Allen wrote Only Yesterday. Carl Sandburg wrote extensively on Lincoln, and newspaperman Walter Millis wrote Road to War: America, 1914-1917. Then of course, there’s Claude Bowen. Popular history has its downside, too.

Yale professor Allen Johnson said “there is little point in writing history that will not be read.” (57) He edited the fifty-volume
Chronicles of America series, which Publishers Weekly claimed sold “tens of thousands” in the 1920s by “intensive subscription sale.” (57) Tyrell also says Charles and Mary Beards’ Rise of American Civilization (1927) and America in Midpassage (1939) “served a generation as textbooks in colleges and high schools.” (61) I wonder how long the use of the Beards’ texts in schools continued, after they began to lose their preeminence in professional circles?

That Noble Dream

Peter Novick
That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession

Novick provides an insider’s view, through correspondence and personal papers, as well as published material, of the development of history as an American academic profession. This is very helpful to me right now, as I’m working out a historiography for my oral exam fields. He also addresses the issues of professionalism, audience, the historian’s role in society, and (of course) objectivity, in ways that are very interesting and seem quite fresh, even two decades after the book’s publication.

Novick begins his introduction (aptly titled “Nailing jelly to the wall”) by saying “Historical objectivity” is a “sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies.” (1) Following philosopher W. B. Gallie, Novick calls objectivity an “essentially contested concept,” and the same might be said for the other concepts he explores. The interesting thing about these controversial concepts, though, is that the fact they are contested isn’t an unfortunate effect of change, or a flaw in our understanding. These concepts exist to be contested. They aren’t answers, they’re questions.

Novick describes a myth of objectivity, which he says includes assumptions about the “reality of the past...a sharp separation between the knower and known, between fact and value, and , above all, between history and fiction.” (1-2) Truth, according to this “objectivist” point of view, is “not perspectival. Whatever patterns exist in history are ‘found,’ not ‘made.’” (2) This mythical objectivity is important, he says, not only because “it has served in sustaining the professional historical venture” (3), but also because of the “numerous...assertions by historians that without such faith they would see no point in scholarship, and would abandon it.” The main issue here, for me at least, is that when you really follow this trail all the way to its source, you end up in a religious universe where there are
patterns in history because there is a divine plan. I’m not saying it’s impossible to call yourself an atheist and believe in materialist determinism. I’m saying that Marxist teleology is religion too.

e pluribus unum in the myth of historical objectivity,” Novick says, “promised to resolve the contradiction [between many points of view and “reality”], through a unitary convergent history which would correspond to a unitary past.” (5) I don’t see why we can’t agree that there’s a single reality, though, and also accept the proposition that it’s unknowable -- both because of its ridiculous complexity and because our own consciousnesses are limited by our experience, environment, and (yes) language. And I don’t think you would have to be brought up with quantum mechanics or postmodernism to “get” this -- it seems like David Hume would be all you’d need.

Novick quotes Isaiah Berlin, who he says follows Hegel in describing the history of thought and culture as “a changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets.” (quoting
Concepts and Categories, 7) But while this may be true in the overall history of ideas, in historiography (and to some extent in Novick’s story) it frequently seems that differences of emphasis are mistaken for disagreement. Or that people motivated by the requirements of the profession magnify small differences in order to make space for themselves in an ongoing historiographical dialogue.

“There appears to be a residual great man theory of historiography,” Novick says. (9) He later adds to this, that there’s also a residual Whig Interpretation in historiography. While this may be true, it also seems clear that relatively few people in the history of the profession have attempted grand syntheses or new overarching interpretations, and have been noticed and read by many people. So these historians deserve a featured place on the “family tree.” In fact, part of my job, I think, is understanding the slight difference between the list of historians who were read by lots of people, and the ones now believed significant by historiographers. Luckily, Novick points out many of the popular “amateurs” in each period.

In his introduction, Novick mentions the choices he had to make in writing, to balance accurate representation of historians‘ positions with a more generalized discussion of their place. He suggests that “what one loses in the ability to unpack the nuances and complexities of individuals‘ thought, in ‘doing them justice,‘ one may gain in the validity of generalizations, and appreciation of the variety of contradictory currents within the profession, and their interaction.” (9) It might also be true that, since many of the historiographical arguments involve the selective misinterpretation of historians‘ positions and the setting up of straw men, a less deep approach to their ideas might be entirely appropriate. But then, at what point does historiography devolve into Peyton Place?

Novick seems aware of this issue at some level. He claims that “the philosophical stakes are very high” for historians (especially on the objectivity issue); and yet he acknowledges that as historians we are aware that “protagonists are in fact often disingenuous in their arguments, are following hidden agendas, and are expressing views shaped by ‘extra rational’ factors.” (11-12) The question he raises, of course is, do we apply this same close criticism to ourselves? I’d suggest that in several areas, including overstating changes, imposing periodization, and reintroducing substantially similar interpretations using arcane new vocabulary, historians bow to the demands of professionalism in ways their (amateur) predecessors never needed to do.

So is historiography, then, an artifact of professionalism? Would the tree be simpler if we tried to strip away the artificial arguments, and focused on really substantial changes in interpretation? Would this be a worthwhile task?

Novick begins his story in 1884, with the founding of the American Historical Association , and the “amateur historians whom the professionals sought to replace.” (21) It’s interesting that George Bancroft, who is normally grouped with the amateurs, was in Berlin in 1867 (25). And Novick’s claim that Americans completely misunderstood Leopold von Ranke, is a hoot. Far from being an objectivist, Novick says, Ranke “was a thoroughgoing philosophical idealist, at one with Hegel in believing the world divinely ordered.” (27) Even Ranke’s famous dictum, that history should be written
wie es eigentlich gewesen, is complicated by the fact that at the time Ranke wrote that, eigentlich “also meant ‘essentially,’ and it was in this sense that Ranke characteristically used it.” (28) And in any case, by the time the Americans arrived in Germany, Ranke had retired, “and no American had sustained firsthand contact with him.” (29) So much for the solid origins of the objectivity myth.

Novick makes a strong case that it is not often a complete idea that drives debate, but what he calls “dominant vulgarizations” of important ideas. (34) As an example, he points out that although Darwin believed (at least privately) that “all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” (in a 1861 letter to Henry Fawcett)Darwin dissembled in “the very first paragraph of
On the Origin of Species,” and “As Darwin triumphed, so did crude reductionism--the doctrine that Darwin, privately, mocked.” (35-6) These ideas entered history through men like Albert Bushnell Hart, who “like most other readers of Darwin, accepted at face value Darwin’s claim to have ‘worked on true Baconian principles’ and, in his AHA presidential address, urged historians to follow his example.” (38)

To some extent, Novick shows that the transition from amateur to professional historians was facilitated by a change in literary tastes narrative styles. “Sir Walter Scott,” Novick says, “was, by a wide margin, the most popular an imitated author in early nineteenth-century America.” (45) By the 1850s and 1860s, Flaubert and Zola had “introduced the objective, the omniscient, the impersonal, and the self-effacing narrator.” (40) “Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman each...employed the organization of the stage play” in one of their works. (45) The older historians’ “combination of the ‘intrusive’ authorial presence, the explicit moralizing, and overt partisanship, made their work unacceptable to the historical scientists.” (46) The question is, were these really significant differences in content?
Substantial changes in interpretation, or just a change in the fashion of forms?

The “criteria of a profession,” Novick says, are “institutional apparatus (an association, a learned journal), standardized training in esoteric skills, leading to certification and controlled access to practice;” in other words, a monopoly. (48) But in spite of the historical profession’s attempts to institute a monopoly, “much of the most distinguished historical work continued to be produced by those without Ph.D.’s or professorships.” (49) Examples include J.B. McMaster,
History of the People of the United States; Ellis Oberholtzer, History of the United States Since the Civil War; James Schouler, History of the United States Under the Constitution; James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. The “Pre-professional historians,” Novick says, “had offered their wares in a classically free market.” (53) Professionalism’s “visible hand” not only directed historians toward more inward-focused and specialist writing, it also made “provision for those of mediocre talents.” (54) The professionalization of history not only shifted power from the reading public to the “bureaucratic organization” (63), it also promoted the idea of historians “bringing their stones to one great building and piling them on and cementing them together” (quoting Karl Pearson, 56) “Almost anyone, properly trained, could mold a brick,” Novick says. “If the maxim of the free market is caveat emptor, the slogan of the profession is credat emptor.” (57) I think I remember Arthur Marwick using almost those exact words in a passage designed to inspire young historians; so I guess these issues are still alive.

Cf. Robinson’s
“History for the Common Man”

Novick also calls attention to how much historiography owes to current events. “Prewar [WWI] confidence in progress generally,” he says, “and progress in scientific knowledge in particular, was a powerful limitation on the critique of historical objectivity.” (105) The disillusionment the Great War caused “was particularly acute for historians, since it was ‘their’ man in the White House, one of Herbert Baxter Adams’ s first Ph.D.’s, who had betrayed their hopes.” (130)

As the story continues, writers outside of professional history continue to be important. “A survey of professional historians conducted shortly after World War II solicited opinions on the best interwar historical work. Of those most often named, a number were by non-historians (e.g., Perry Miller, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks).” (178) In contrast, Schlesinger and Fox’s twelve-volume
History of American Life was considered “a stillbirth...history with the politics left out.” But a “substantial popular market for historical writing” emerged during the interwar period, served by “amateurs” like Frederick Lewis Allen, Claude G. Bowers, Matthew Josephson (who were journalists), Albert J. Beveridge (a politician), Carl Sandburg (a poet), James Truslow Adams, and Van Wyck Brooks...H.G. Wells’s Outline of History sold more than a million and a half copies in the United States,” against AHR editor J. Franklin Jameson’s American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (less than a thousand) and John D. Hicks’s Populist Revolt, which “took seventeen years to sell fifteen hundred copies.” (193)

Cf. Becker, “Every Man his Own Historian,” 1931
Cf. Beard, “Written History as an Act of Faith,” 1933 (both AHA presidential addresses)
Cf. Nevins,
The Gateway to History, 1938, attacking Beard, and Beard’s response in review of Nevins’ book.
Cf. Nevins, “What’s the Matter with History?”
Saturday Review, 4 Feb 1939.

The Beards’
Rise of American Civilization, 1927, sold over 130,000 copies. (240)

Re: approaching the past without preconceptions: “Hoping to find something without looking for it, expecting to find final answers to life’s riddle by resolutely refusing to ask questions--it was surely the most romantic species of realism yet invented, the oddest attempt ever made to get something for nothing.” (quoting Becker, 1921, 254) Novick calls attention to the “conservatism inherent in unadorned factualism. ‘The mere fact,’ Becker had written...’if you allow the wretched creature to open its mouth, will say only one thing: I am, therefore I am right.’”

In the Cold War, the story just gets so nasty and spiteful that it’s difficult to find any real historiographical issues at stake. The public apparently didn’t sympathize, and “best-sellerdom in history was preserved for amateurs like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland, and Barbara Tuchman,” all of whom the professionals despised. (372)

Cf. Bulletin 54 of the Social Science Research Council:
Theory and Practice in Historical Study: A Report of the Committee on Historiography.

In the end, I’m not convinced that the Objectivity Question is the most pressing one for historians, or even the central issue of
That Noble Dream. The relevance question, which Novick also substantially deals with, seems to be a stronger through-line for this history of History in America.

There’s a lot of great material in here -- much of it comes in the form of behind the scenes looks at the personalities, animosities, and occasionally friendships of historians, as shown in their letters and private writings. From time to time these revealing moments are seen in articles or AHA presidential addresses, but most of them are private. Once or twice I wondered whether a particularly racist or otherwise obnoxious personal aside was necessary to my understanding of the issues, but on the whole it’s a very useful insider’s view of the profession.

Novick’s close attention to these personal details went a long way to impress on me the relative smallness of the historical community (at least in terms of its “players”), and of the short duration of American historiography. The profession only really got going at the beginning of the twentieth century. So I’m a fourth generation American
and a fourth-generation historian.

The other thing Novick did to my idea of American professional history was to convince me of its incredibly personal nature. For example, Oscar Handlin, who clearly had a longer than average career, appears throughout the book. Handlin appears in so many different guises: early on, as a young Jewish historian thankfully allowed to enter the profession; then, in the 1940s, as a consensus critic of the progressives’ “Bulletin 54” (392); and finally as the Pulitzer-winning author of
The Uprooted, announcing that he had “learned to live with relativism.” (607) Novick mentions that critics of The Uprooted (1951) called it “engaged...personal, value-laden.” Somehow, he fails to mention that it completely abandons even a semblance of objectivity.

Handlin described
The Uprooted as an epic, and acknowledged that he “did not find it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation” (The Uprooted, 308). This is an interesting statement, coming from one of the stalwarts of what Novick calls objectivism. Handlin’s use of novelistic techniques like interior monologue (of Italian immigrant women, no less!) in The Uprooted suggests a position closer to the one characterized for ultra-relativists like Hayden White, than for “hyperobjectivists” like Handlin, who are supposed to find “correspondence of a representation with its object...in the small pieces which together form the record” (quoting Truth in History, 608).

I wonder if Handlin’s narrative choices were based on his ideas about the (largely popular?) audience he addressed in
The Uprooted? Variations in historians’ philosophies and techniques may have been related to their ideas of their audiences, in ways Novick didn’t stress. Carl Becker, for example, seems to focus a good deal of thought on “the history that common men carry around in their heads” Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker, 61). But more to the point of That Noble Dream, I think the inconsistent and shifting positions of Handlin and others in Novick’s account suggest a contingency based not only on changing American politics and culture, which Novick addresses, but also the shifting needs of careers and personal reputations. On that score, Novick is less forthcoming, but provides some very suggestive pointers.

Presentism & Politics

Jesse Lemisch
On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession

Lemisch provides an interesting historiography of 1950s and 60s professional history, as seen from the left. The Cold War dominates the picture, and the consensus school is portrayed largely as a response to the demands of the present. Lemisch names names and traces influences. This is a valuable essay.

Funny that the Consensus historians accused the Progressives of presentism, but failed to notice how much their own history was informed by their concerns about "Reaction," the Cold War, and anti-communism. But in general, I'm not finding these labels to be too useful. Seems like they obscure more than they reveal. More on that soon...


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.


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.