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In My Power

Letter Writing and Communications in Early America

By Konstantin Dierks

Publication Year: 2011

In My Power tells the story of letter writing and communications in the creation of the British Empire and the formation of the United States. In an era of bewildering geographical mobility, economic metamorphosis, and political upheaval, the proliferation of letter writing and the development of a communications infrastructure enabled middle-class Britons and Americans to rise to advantage in the British Atlantic world.

Everyday letter writing demonstrated that the blessings of success in the early modern world could come less from the control of overt political power than from the cultivation of social skills that assured the middle class of their technical credentials, moral deserving, and social innocence. In writing letters, the middle class not only took effective action in a turbulent world but also defined what they believed themselves to be able to do in that world. Because this ideology of agency was extended to women and the youngest of children in the eighteenth century, it could be presented as universalized even as it was withheld from Native Americans and enslaved blacks.

Whatever the explicit purposes behind letter writing may have been—educational improvement, family connection, business enterprise—the effect was to render the full terms of social division invisible both to those who accumulated power and to those who did not. The uncontested power that came from letter writing was, Konstantin Dierks provocatively argues, as important as racist violence to the rise of the white middle class in the British Atlantic world.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii

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pp. xi-xviii

We covet old letters as special windows into the past. Sometimes they reveal the private lives of public figures: a political giant like John Adams or a literary lion like Herman Melville. At other times they bring us in touch with ordinary people who experienced extraordinary events, such as soldiers in the American Civil War. Reading letters from the past is a ...

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pp. 1-8

In 1803 a New York City intellectual published a book innovative for taking a century-long view of historical change. In his "retrospect of the eighteenth century," Samuel Miller trumpeted a growth in commercial activity, a rise in the middle-class standard of living, and a proliferation of printing presses, bookstores, schools, and newspapers in the United ...

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Chapter 1. Communications and Empire

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pp. 9-51

We tend today to speak of "empire" and "globalization" in the abstract, as entities of such a monumental scale that they impact on the lives of everyone in the world. They have come to constitute the fundamental condition of our modern world. When we consider people living in that world, we tend to position them as responding in some small way to ...

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Chapter 2. Letter Writing and Commercial Revolution

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pp. 52-99

To assert that the Atlantic economy was in the process of commercializing in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is not to claim that commercialization began at that moment. Indeed, the origins of commerce have been claimed for many eras of human history, so that rather than pinpointing any putative origins, the more significant task is ...

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Chapter 3. Migration and Empire

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pp. 100-140

The eighteenth century saw an Atlantic world in motion—a transit of peoples on an unprecedented scale. Most dynamic in the British Empire were the North American colonies, magnets for immigration that consequently underwent a comprehensive transformation from scattered, sparse outposts to continuous, dense settlements. Colonial ...

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Chapter 4. Letter Writing and Consumer Revolution

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pp. 141-188

American culture has long been plagued by the resilient myth that it is a classless society, that social distinctions do not matter, that economic opportunity is somehow universal, that nearly everyone—no matter how rich or poor—is essentially middle class.1 As unhelpful as this myth is for comprehending the inegalitarian social structure of the present-day ...

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Chapter 5. Revolution and War

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pp. 189-234

William Goddard did not singlehandedly cause the American Revolution to happen. He twice lobbied the Continental Congress that declared American independence from the British Empire, so he came into contact with the so-called Founding Fathers, but he was not one himself. A newspaper publisher who like so many other American ...

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Chapter 6. Universalism and the Epistolary Divide

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pp. 235-280

We know that the men attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 intended the United States Constitution to minimize the possibilities of democracy.1 This was perhaps no surprise, given the abiding influence of mainstream British political culture on American life as well as the fresh trauma of revolution, rebellion, and war. The ...

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pp. 281-285

Driven by electronic technology and multinational corporations, the "communications revolution" of the late twentieth century quickly took on the shape of a global-scale system. We can now easily see the computers in our offices and homes, but we rarely imagine, say, the thousands of miles of undersea cables that carry Internet traffic around the world, ...

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Afterword: The Burden of Early American History

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pp. 286-290

Is it ever possible to leave the dark side of history behind, to lodge it safely in the past? A classic version of this conundrum was voiced in 1960 by the historian C. Vann Woodward in The Burden of Southern History. He argued that the American South was disabled from joining the triumphal historical narrative of the American nation because it was trapped ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 291-292


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pp. 293-346


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pp. 347-356

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pp. 357-358

I owe gratitude to sundry institutional and personal support that has made this book both possible and pleasurable. I have accrued debts to the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, the Bibliographical Society of America, the Bibliographical Society (United Kingdom), the Newberry Library, the Rothermere American Institute and ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201758
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221817

Page Count: 376
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies