Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Lectiones: American Historiography


Stamp Act riots, Boston, 1765. Can't find a decent credit, but I think it's from Britain.

Reading a truly remarkable essay in The New Republic by William Hogeland, "Against the Consensus Approach to History" taking on the lofty historians after World War II who developed the myth of the revolutionary founding of the United States as a unified product of the Enlightenment and the belief in innate rights; in particular Edmund Morgan:

Throwing out elder historians’ prevailing focus on the founding generation’s self-interest (Clarence Alvord had said that George Washington became a patriot to defend speculations in Indian land) and on its class conflicts (Carl Becker had said that the Revolution was not only over British rule but also over the rule of elite Americans), Morgan sought to identify the grand principles that the revolutionary generation agreed on. “What the colonists had to say about Parliamentary power and about their own rights deserved to be taken seriously,” he explained later.

As the U.S. began to exercise new power around the world, Morgan set out to show that the protests in the 1760s and ’70s against the Stamp Act and other British policies offered slam-dunk evidence of a founding American consensus on principles of rights. Inherent to the American character, that consensus unified the colonists, he said, inspired the Revolution, and brought about the United States. In the larger context of his work, and the work of similarly minded colleagues, the lesson was that the founding American commitment to rights persisted in postwar U.S. commitments to modern liberal democracy.

I.e., something that sounds as if it had been designed by the CIA, in contrast to the more cynical and materialistic views, whether leftist or conservative, of the period from the Progressive Era to the New Deal (and views, I would add, that also recognize the diversity of the North American colonials, not quite the way we'd want to do it today with a focus on oppression and intersectional identity, but more compatible with that than the postwar picture).

That and the magisterial way Morgan and the others presented the picture, especially in their more popular writings, not as an argument between alternative interpretations, hardly an interpretation at all, but superior to an interpretation, an edifice of unshakable objective fact, which continues down to the present, in the work of authors like Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz:

In late 2019, Wilentz organized a letter, also signed by Wood and three other historians, criticizing The New York Times Magazine’s much-discussed 1619 Project, which frames slavery, racism, and Black Americans’ struggles for equality as the key drivers of American history. The signers said the 1619 Project ignored objective historical fact and was steeped in politically influenced bias. In early 2020, Wilentz followed up with an essay in The Atlantic whose title put the issue bluntly: “A Matter of Facts.” Because these objections to the 1619 Project were made not on the basis of a competing framework but on the basis of plain fact revealed by deep expertise, they struck many readers as insurmountable on their face.
But what Hogeland found, as he was researching his own writings on the Founding period, beginning with Declaration (2010), confronting Morgan's work with that of the previous generation's Lawrence Gipson—Gipson claimed that the colonists' arguments against the Sugar Act of 1764 and Stamp Act of 1765 were based on completely different principles from their arguments against import taxes, showing that they were really just pissed off about any taxation whatever, and Morgan tried to show that, to the contrary, they were high-mindedly concerned only with the wrong of taxation without representation—that Morgan in fact achieved this edifice with some extremely slippery maneuvering with the primary sources, explaining away the documents that didn't support him on contradictory grounds in his academic papers and simply leaving them out of his writing for general readers.

And something like this seems to have happened with the criticism of Nikole Hannah-Jones and the Times 1619 project as well, which is what made me want to spend time on it here: Wilentz's essay in The Atlantic ("A Matter of Facts") arguing against the Times project's contention that "preserving racial slavery was a prime motivation for declaring American independence" by asserting, for one thing, that nobody in the South paid any attention to the 1772 court decision of the Somerset case in London freeing an enslaved person in Britain on the grounds that chattel slavery had no support in English common law:

In fact, the Somerset ruling caused no such sensation. In the entire slaveholding South, a total of six newspapers—one in Maryland, two in Virginia, and three in South Carolina—published only 15 reports about Somerset, virtually all of them very brief. Coverage was spotty: The two South Carolina newspapers that devoted the most space to the case didn’t even report its outcome. American newspaper readers learned far more about the doings of the queen of Denmark, George III’s sister Caroline, whom Danish rebels had charged with having an affair with the court physician and plotting the death of her husband. 
Without mentioning that those were all the newspapers published in those states that year—a "total of six newspapers" is in fact 100%—not to mention the fact that colonists got their England news from the English papers, which of course discussed the case thoroughly. (And the queen of Denmark would have gotten plenty of clicks in any case, with that lurid story—I assure you far more Americans nowadays know far more about Harry and Meghan than they know about Schumer and McConnell, which isn't to say nobody's engaged in politics.)

There's no suggestion Wilentz deliberately distorted the story in this way; rather, he got all his information from one 1984 conference paper (which he failed to cite in the article) and assumed, because it seemed to back up his presuppositions, that that was all he needed to know, and then presented it, in this just-the-facts tone of objective superiority ("a matter of facts" indeed), as if there could be no possible questioning his rightness. And nobody reading it is likely to suspect that it's wrong (it's an extreme specialist in Revolutionary-era American newspaper publishing, Joseph M. Adelman, who got to the bottom of it and reported it in a blog post), and indeed, nearly everybody who read Wilentz's essay, or read about it in the newspaper coverage, assumed he was right and the controversial conclusions of the 1619 were proven wrong. But it ain't necessarily so!

It's that superior tone, created by Morgan and his colleagues in support of the liberal right side of the Cold War, liberal but authoritarian all the same, that's a problem. You can complain, too, with some justice, that parts of 1619 take an overly assertive "these-are-the-facts" tone, but with the difference that they're editorialists provoking an argument while the magisterial historian is trying to squash one on what seem to be more or less theological grounds, because the story of the Founding really is a religious one—it just doesn't usually say its name. Anyway read the essay.

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