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Radical History and the Early Republic
A new perspective on the cultural politics of Charles Brockden Brown
The novels of Charles Brockden Brown, the most accomplished literary figure in early America, redefined the gothic genre and helped shape some of America’s greatest writers, including Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. However, little has been said about the latter years of Brown’s career. While his early novels are celebrated for their innovative and experimental style, Brown’s later historical narratives are often dismissed as uninteresting, and Brown himself has been accused of having become “a stodgy conservative.”
Through a re-examination of these neglected historical writings, Mark L. Kamrath takes a fresh look at Brown’s later career and his role in the cultural politics of the early national period. This interdisciplinary study uses transatlantic historical contexts and recent narrative discourse to unveil Brown’s philosophic inquires into the filiopietistic tradition of historiography and increasingly imperialistic notion of American exceptionalism. It recovers a forgotten debate—and radical position—about the nature of historical truth and representation and opens up for contemporary discussion what it means to write about the past.
In Defense of the Constitution refutes modern critics of the Constitution who assail it as "reactionary" or "undemocratic." The author argues that modern disciples of Progressivism are determined to centralize political control in Washington, D.C., to achieve their goal of an egalitarian national society. Furthermore, he contends, Progressive interpreters of the Constitution subtly distort fundamental principles of the Constitution for the precise purpose of achieving their egalitarian goals. It is in their distrust of self-government and representative institutions that Progressivists advocate, albeit indirectly, an elitist regime based on the power of the Supreme Court—or judicial supremacy.
Key elements and issues in this transformation of the original republic into an egalitarian mass society are thoroughly examined.
George W. Carey is Professor of Government at Georgetown University and editor of The Political Science Reviewer.
Letter Writing and Communications in Early America
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.
During the mid-1790s, citizens of the newly formed United States became embroiled in a divisive debate over a proposed commercial treaty with Great Britain. Long regarded as a pivotal event in the history of the early republic, the controversy pitted pro-treaty Federalists against anti-treaty Jeffersonian Republicans. Yet as Todd Estes argues in this perceptive study, the year-long debate over the ratification of the Jay Treaty represented more than a clash over foreign policy between two nascent political parties. It also marked a significant milestone in the role played by public opinion in the young nation’s political culture. Drawing evidence from a broad range of sources—petitions and newspaper polemics, crowd gatherings, as well as rhetorical exchanges on the floor of Congress—Estes shows how both sides in the Jay Treaty debate mounted extensive and unprecedented campaigns to marshal popular support for their positions. Although many Americans initially opposed the treaty, the Federalists proved particularly skillful at courting the public and eventually prevailed over their opponents, just as they had won earlier battles over neutrality, democratic societies, and the Whiskey Rebellion. But the Republicans, Estes points out, learned from the experience, and in the long run they would become even more adept than the Federalists at shaping public opinion. Even at the time, amid the fierce political rhetoric and colorful street demonstrations that characterized the Jay Treaty debate, participants recognized that important changes were taking place. Not only did the dispute solidify party allegiances, it also legitimized and advanced popular involvement in the political process. While some welcomed the emergence of this new, more democratic political culture, Estes concludes, others were much more ambivalent.
American Citizen in a Revolutionary World
Poet, republican, diplomat, and entrepreneur, Joel Barlow filled many roles and registered impressive accomplishments. In the first biography of this fascinating figure in decades, Richard Buel Jr. recounts the life of a man more intimately connected to the Age of Revolution than perhaps any other American. Barlow was a citizen of the revolutionary world, and his adventures throughout the United States and Europe during both the American and French Revolutions are numerous and notorious. From writing his epic poem, The Vision of Columbus, to plotting a republican revolution in Britain to negotiating the release of American sailors taken captive by Barbary pirates, Joel Barlow personified the true spirit of the tumultuous times in which he lived. No one witnessed more climactic events or interacted with more significant people than Joel Barlow. It was his unique vision, his unfailing belief in republicanism, and his entrepreneurial spirit that drove Barlow to pursue the revolutionary ideal in a way more emblematic of the age than the lives of many of its prominent heroes. Buel is a knowledgeable guide, and in telling Barlow’s story he explores the cultural landscape of the early American republic and engages the broader themes of the Age of Revolution. Few books explore in such a comprehensive fashion the political, economic, ideological, diplomatic, and technological dimensions of this defining moment in world history.
In a landmark work, a leading scholar of the eighteenth century examines the ways in which an understanding of the nature of history influenced the thinking of the founding fathers.
As Jack P. Greene has observed, "[The Whig] conception saw the past as a continual struggle between liberty and virtue on one hand and arbitrary power and corruption on the other." Many founders found in this intellectual tradition what Josiah Quincy, Jr., called the "true old English liberty," and it was this Whig tradition—this conception of liberty—that the champions of American independence and crafters of the new republic sought to perpetuate. Colbourn supports his thesis—that "Independence was in large measure the product of the historical concepts of the men who made it"—by documenting what books were read most widely by the founding generation. He also cites diaries, personal correspondence, newspapers, and legislative records.
Trevor Colbourn is President Emeritus of the University of Central Florida.
Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism
Anthony Benezet (1713-84), universally recognized by the leaders of the eighteenth-century antislavery movement as its founder, was born to a Huguenot family in Saint-Quentin, France. As a boy, Benezet moved to Holland, England, and, in 1731, Philadelphia, where he rose to prominence in the Quaker antislavery community.
In transforming Quaker antislavery sentiment into a broad-based transatlantic movement, Benezet translated ideas from diverse sources—Enlightenment philosophy, African travel narratives, Quakerism, practical life, and the Bible—into concrete action. He founded the African Free School in Philadelphia, and such future abolitionist leaders as Absalom Jones and James Forten studied at Benezet's school and spread his ideas to broad social groups. At the same time, Benezet's correspondents, including Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, Abbé Raynal, Granville Sharp, and John Wesley, gave his ideas an audience in the highest intellectual and political circles.
In this wide-ranging intellectual biography, Maurice Jackson demonstrates how Benezet mediated Enlightenment political and social thought, narratives of African life written by slave traders themselves, and the ideas and experiences of ordinary people to create a new antislavery critique. Benezet's use of travel narratives challenged proslavery arguments about an undifferentiated, "primitive" African society. Benezet's empirical evidence, laid on the intellectual scaffolding provided by the writings of Hutcheson, Wallace, and Montesquieu, had a profound influence, from the high-culture writings of the Marquis de Condorcet to the opinions of ordinary citizens. When the great antislavery spokesmen Jacques-Pierre Brissot in France and William Wilberforce in England rose to demand abolition of the slave trade, they read into the record of the French National Assembly and the British Parliament extensive unattributed quotations from Benezet's writings, a fitting tribute to the influence of his work.
Liberty and Order is an ambitious anthology of primary source writings: letters, circulars, debate transcriptions, House proceedings, and newspaper articles that document the years during which America’s founding generation divided over the sort of country the United States was to become.
The founders’ arguments over the proper construction of the new Constitution, the political economy, the appropriate level of popular participation in a republican polity, foreign policy, and much else, not only contributed crucially to the shaping of the nineteenth-century United States, but also have remained of enduring interest to all historians of republican liberty.
This anthology makes it possible to understand the grounds and development of the great collision, which pitted John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others who called themselves Federalists or, sometimes, the friends of order, against the opposition party led by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and their followers, in what emerged as the Jeffersonian Republican Party.
Editor Lance Banning provides the reader with original-source explanations of early anti-Federalist feeling and Federalist concerns, beginning with the seventh letter from the “Federal Farmer,” in which the deepest fears of many opponents of the Constitution were expressed. He then selects from the House proceedings concerning the Bill of Rights and makes his way toward the public debates concerning the massive revolutionary debt acquired by the United States. The reader is able to examine the American reaction to the French Revolution and to the War of 1812, and to explore the founders’ disagreements over both domestic and foreign policy. The collection ends on a somewhat melancholy note with the correspondence of Jefferson and Adams, who were, to some extent, reconciled to each other at the end of their political careers. Brief, elucidatory headnotes place both the novice and the expert in the midst of the times.
With this significant new collection, the reader receives a deeper understanding of the complex issues, struggles, and personalities that made up the first great party battle and that continue to shape our representative government today.
Lance Banning (1942-2006) was Professor of History at the University of Kentucky, where he had taught since 1973, and was the 2000/2001 Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. He was also coeditor of the University Press of Kansas series “American Political Thought” and the author of many articles, essays, and books on the American founding and first party struggle, including three award-winning books: Jefferson and Madison: Three Conversations from the Founding, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology, and The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic, the latter two of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution
Through careful research and colorful accounts, historian Paul A. Gilje discovers what liberty meant to an important group of common men in American society, those who lived and worked on the waterfront and aboard ships. In the process he reveals that the idealized vision of liberty associated with the Founding Fathers had a much more immediate and complex meaning than previously thought.
In Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution, life aboard warships, merchantmen, and whalers, as well as the interactions of mariners and others on shore, is recreated in absorbing detail. Describing the important contributions of sailors to the resistance movement against Great Britain and their experiences during the Revolutionary War, Gilje demonstrates that, while sailors recognized the ideals of the Revolution, their idea of liberty was far more individual in nature—often expressed through hard drinking and womanizing or joining a ship of their choice.
Gilje continues the story into the post-Revolutionary world highlighted by the Quasi War with France, the confrontation with the Barbary Pirates, and the War of 1812.
Reflections on the Founding Couple
Restored to its original splendor, Montpelier is now a national shrine, but before Montpelier became a place of study and tribute, it was a home. Often kept from it by the business of the young nation, James and Dolley Madison could finally take up permanent residence when they retired from Washington in 1817. Their lifelong friend Thomas Jefferson predicted that, at Montpelier, the retiring Madison could return to his "books and farm, to tranquility, and independence," that he would be released "from incessant labors, corroding anxieties, active enemies, and interested friends."
As the celebrated historian Ralph Ketcham shows, this would turn out to be only partly true. Although the Madisons were no longer in Washington, Dolley continued to take part in its social scene from afar, dominating it just as she had during Jefferson’s and her husband’s administrations, commenting on people and events there and advising the multitude of young people who thought of her as the creator of society life in the young republic. James maintained a steady correspondence about public questions ranging from Native American affairs, slavery, and utopian reform to religion and education. He also took an active role at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-30, in the defeat of nullification, and in the establishment of the University of Virginia, of which he was the rector for eight years after Jefferson’s death. Exploring Madison’s role in these post-presidential issues reveals a man of extraordinary intellectual vitality and helps us to better understand Madison’s political thought. His friendships with figures such as Jefferson, James Monroe, and the Marquis de Lafayette--as well as his assessment of them (he outlived them all)--shed valuable light on the nature of the republic they had all helped found.
In their last years, James and Dolley Madison personified the republican institutions and culture of the new nation--James as the father of the Constitution and its chief propounder for nearly half a century, and Dolley as the creator of the role of "First Lady." Anything but uneventful, the retirement period at Montpelier should be seen as a crucial element in our understanding of this remarkable couple.