I moved to Boston in July 2011 and I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s a beautiful city and for a history buff it really does feel like I am a kid in a candy store. That said, I’ve lived two lives since arriving here and I am now wondering if it is time to give in and embrace this thing called the American Revolution. Over the past year I’ve halfheartedly explored a few potential Civil War research projects that are centered here in Boston. They include a regimental history of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and a Civil War biography of Governor John Andrew. Both are projects that would, no doubt, be interesting to explore and I have no doubt they would be embraced by both scholarly and popular audiences.
The problem is that beyond a few trips to the archives I can’t seem to maintain my excitement level. I walk to the archives or wander through the city and I am distracted by a very different history. Downtown Boston is defined by the sights/sites and sounds of the American Revolution. There is no escaping this and since I have always viewed history as a way to connect to my surroundings I want to know more. This includes not only the physical landscape, but the community of people who are involved in its interpretation and maintenance. Continue reading
Word came earlier today that David Barton’s publisher has pulled his most recent book on Thomas Jefferson. Barton is best known as the evangelical Christian, who has built a career on uncovering or reclaiming the truth about America’s founding and Founding Fathers from the community of secular and liberal historians. Barton claims to be a historian. Over the past few years he has amassed a growing following who embrace his interpretation of the role of Christianity in the lives of individual Founders and in the establishment of this nation. Barton enjoys support from a wide range of public figures and is now the official court historian for Glenn Beck. So what happened?
First, it is important to note that Barton’s published works have been scrutinized from the beginning by professional historians, but to little avail. What made the difference in recent days is the growing resistance from fellow conservative Christian historians and scholars, who are actually trained in the field. It’s a growing list, but I would start here and for a critique of Barton’s book, Jefferson’s Lies, I recommend John Fea’s 4-part series.
On the one hand it is unfortunate that it took fellow conservative Christian historians to finally bring about the removal of this book from stores since their religious and political views have nothing to do with the strength of their arguments. Their arguments stand or fall based on how they read the relevant evidence cited by Barton as well as the strength of his interpretation. Barton is not being attacked because of his personal beliefs, but on his skill or lack thereof as a historian. Anyone who spends enough time reading these rejoinders will conclude that there are serious flaws with Barton’s work. In the end Barton claimed to be offering the general public a corrective to those evil secular/liberal historians without taking the essential step of engaging the relevant historiography. While Barton may not understand this his publisher certainly does.
So, what does this have to do with the Civil War? First, Barton and Beck recently tried their hand at doing some Civil War history and as you might imagine the results were pretty abysmal. More on point, however, it is important to keep in mind that we have plenty of David Barton-types in our own community. Check out any number of titles from Pelican Press, for example, and you will find the same flawed approach to doing history. Authors rail against what they see as a liberal/secular bias among professional Civil War historians and other writers, but when it comes to actually engaging their arguments they are silent. Either they are unfamiliar with their publications or they are simply incapable of engaging the arguments.
Let’s face it, the study of history has become so incredibly politicized that we’ve forgotten that the discipline involves the mastery of certain skills that can be learned in any number of places. Without getting into another tired discussion of who is and who is not a historian, we can at least say that one’s claim to the title stands or falls on the quality of the work produced. What we now can say with confidence is that Barton is no historian.
Today was a good day for the discipline of history.
Every year as I prepare my classes I rediscover my love for the history of the American Revolution. Like the Civil War, the Revolution enjoys a wide range of talented scholars and popular writers, who continue to crank out thought-provoking studies many of which I end up incorporating into my class lectures. This year was no different. Here is a list of the books that I’ve read over the past few months or hope to complete at some point soon. I know many of you have an interest in the period so I am curious as to what you’ve read recently or are looking forward to reading.
- Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (Yale University Press, 2010). I am just about finished with this book and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Carp does an outstanding job of placing the event within the context of the British Empire as a whole. He analyzes the local social and political scene in Boston as well as the choice of disguise and the consequences of the act.
- Julie Flavell, When London Was Capital of America (Yale University Press, 2010). I love books that force you to take a new perspective on familiar people and events. I recently heard that David McCullough’s next book will attempt something along the same lines.
- Woody Holton, Abigail Adams (Free Press, 2009). Holton goes furthest in exploring Abigail’s role as the caretaker of the family’s finances during John’s many absences. I know that Joseph Ellis recently published a book on John and Abigail, but the reviews have not been good.
- Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton University Press, 2010). You can read this in one or two days. It compliments Carp’s study nicely. As much as I found Lepore’s focus on the modern Tea Party movement to be interesting, I was much more surprised by earlier appropriations of the event.
- Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (Simon and Schuster, 2010). I’ve not had a chance to read this, but if it is as good as her study of the Declaration of Independence it’s going to be a real treat to read.
- Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (Knopf, 2010) Taylor proves once again that there is an aesthetic quality to solid research that is beautifully written.
Today I decided to kill a few minutes by browsing a bit at my local bookstore. To my surprise I noticed a new book by Jill Lepore, who happens to be one of my favorite historians. Her latest book is titled, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History. Of course, I bought it and I am glad I did. It’s a quick read and Lepore does a wonderful job of illustrating the various ways in which the Tea Party Movement is using (and often abusing) the past for their own present purposes. Early on she introduces what she describes as historical fundamentalism:
Historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past-”the founding”-is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts-”the founding documents”-are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible. (p. 16)
Along the way I’ve learned that the term ‘Founding Fathers’ wasn’t coined until 1916 by Warren G. Harding in his address to the Republican National Convention. And I was surprised to learn that in 1798 John Adams signed an “Act for the relief of sick and disabled Seamen”. Both state and federal officials were, as a result of the legislation, permitted to tax shipmasters in order to construct hospitals and provide medical care for merchant and naval seamen.
As a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Maryland I concentrated on philosophy of history. While much of the literature in this sub-discipline continues to address questions first formulated at the height of the Logical Positivist Movement, I was much more focused on empirical questions that were more closely connected to actual working historians. So, I wasn’t weighed down with the problem of objectivity or causation; rather, I was interested in how historical debates evolve and how various competing interpretations are evaluated within the historiography. As I was thinking about a possible thesis topic my adviser suggested that I utilize a case study to help ground my thinking. I received permission to take a graduate level history seminar and ended up registering for Prof. Ronald Hoffman’s seminar on the American Revolution. The first evening was a real eye-opener as I stared at a syllabus that outlined about 1,000 pages a week. The first week included all of Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Compared to a philosophy seminar the amount of reading was overwhelming and I even thought about dropping out. Somehow I managed to make my way through just about all of it only to show up for the second session having learned that few people actually read it. It turns out that some graduate students simply go through a number of book reviews. I certainly can understand and empathize with such a decision and I will admit that on occasion I did take the easy way out, but I am so glad that I didn’t that first week. Wood’s book was a revelation to me. The book is clearly the product of a creative and analytically sharp mind. This was a Revolution that was completely new and full of questions and issues that I had never thought about before. Most importantly, it made me want to understand much more about the Revolution and the Early Republic.
The seminar provided me with a thorough grasp of the various schools of thought beginning with the earliest histories of the Revolution through the Progressive, neo-Progressive, Whig, and neo-Whig interpretations. I must have read at least twenty books, not to mention the many journal articles. The seminar taught me how to think about the process of writing history and how interpretations evolve over time and why. Since then I’ve retained my interest in this period of American history and, specifically, the work of Gordon Wood. My hardbound copy of The Radicalism of the American Revolution is held together with a rubber band and his short survey of the Revolution is used in my own survey classes. With that in mind, I must admit that today I snuck off campus to pick up Wood’s new book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. The book is part of the Oxford History of the United States, which makes Wood the ideal author. Like the rest of the books in the series, this is a thick one numbering 700 pages, but I suspect that it is going to be a page turner like everything else he has written.
If I sound a bit over the top than you will have to excuse me. Now seems like a good enough time to admit that most of my heroes are intellectuals. I make no apologies for that. I place a great deal of value on people who are not afraid to use their minds and who enrich my own life by forcing me to think harder about a host of issues. Gordon Wood has managed to do that consistently over the years and I suspect he is about to do so again.