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The Lamp of Experience Cover

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The Lamp of Experience

Trevor Colbourn

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.

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Legitimating the Law

John Phillip Reid is one of the most highly regarded historians of law as it was practiced on the state level in the nascent United States. He is not just the recipient of numerous honors for his scholarship but the type of historian after whom such accolades are named: the John Phillip Reid Award is given annually by the American Society for Legal History to the author of the best book by a mid-career or senior scholar. Legitimating the Law is the third installment in a trilogy of books by Reid that seek to extend our knowledge about the judicial history of the early republic by recounting the development of courts, laws, and legal theory in New Hampshire. Here Reid turns his eye toward the professionalization of law and the legitimization of legal practices in the Granite State—customs and codes of professional conduct that would form the basis of judiciaries in other states and that remain the cornerstone of our legal system to this day throughout the U.S. Legitimating the Law chronicles the struggle by which lawyers and torchbearers of strong, centralized government sought to bring standards of competence to New Hampshire through the professionalization of the bench and the bar—ambitions that were fought vigorously by both Jeffersonian legislators and anti-Federalists in the private sector alike, but ultimately to no avail.

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Let This Voice Be Heard

Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism

By Maurice Jackson

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.

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Liberty and Order

Lance Banning

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.

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Liberty on the Waterfront

American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution

By Paul A. Gilje

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.

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The Madisons at Montpelier

Reflections on the Founding Couple

Ralph Ketcham

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.

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Many Identities, One Nation

The Revolution and Its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic

By Liam Riordan

The richly diverse population of the mid-Atlantic region distinguished it from the homogeneity of Puritan New England and the stark differences of the plantation South that still dominate our understanding of early America. In Many Identities, One Nation, Liam Riordan explores how the American Revolution politicized religious, racial, and ethnic identities among the diverse inhabitants of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. Attending to individual experiences through a close comparative analysis, Riordan explains the transformation from British subjects to U.S. citizens in a region that included Quakers, African Americans, and Pennsylvania Germans.

In the face of a gradually emerging sense of nationalism, varied forms of personal and group identities took on heightened public significance in the Revolutionary Delaware Valley. While Quakers in Burlington, New Jersey, remained suspect after the war because of their pacifism, newly freed slaves in New Castle, Delaware, demanded full inclusion, and bilingual Pennsylvania Germans in Easton, Pennsylvania, successfully struggled to create a central place for themselves in the new nation. By placing the public contest over the proper expression of group distinctiveness in the context of local life, Riordan offers a new understanding of how cultural identity structured the early Jacksonian society of the 1820s as a culmination of the American Revolution in this region.

This compelling story brings to life the popular culture of the Revolutionary Delaware Valley through analysis of wide-ranging evidence, from architecture, folk art, clothing, and music to personal papers, newspapers, and local church, tax, and census records. The study's multilayered local perspective allows us to see how the Revolutionary upheaval of the colonial status quo penetrated everyday life and stimulated new understandings of the importance of cultural diversity in the Revolutionary nation.

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Mercy Otis Warren

Selected Letters

Mercy Otis Warren Edited by Jeffrey H. Richards and Sharon M. Harris

This volume gathers more than one hundred letters-most of them previously unpublished-written by Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814). Warren, whose works include a three-volume history of the American Revolution as well as plays and poems, was a major literary figure of her era and one of the most important American women writers of the eighteenth century. Her correspondents included Martha and George Washington, Abigail and John Adams, and Catharine Macaulay.

Until now, Warren's letters have been published sporadically, in small numbers, and mainly to help complete the collected correspondence of some of the famous men to whom she wrote. This volume addresses that imbalance by focusing on Warren's letters to her family members and other women. As they flesh out our view of Warren and correct some misconceptions about her, the letters offer a wealth of insights into eighteenth-century American culture, including social customs, women's concerns, political and economic conditions, medical issues, and attitudes on child rearing.

Letters Warren sent to other women who had lost family members (Warren herself lost three children) reveal her sympathies; letters to a favorite son, Winslow, show her sharing her ambitions with a child who resisted her advice. What readers of other Warren letters may have only sensed about her is now revealed more fully: she was a woman of considerable intellect, religious faith, compassion, literary intelligence, and acute sensitivity to the historical moment of even everyday events in the new American republic.

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The Mind of Thomas Jefferson

Peter S. Onuf

In The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, one of the foremost historians of Jefferson and his time, Peter S. Onuf, offers a collection of essays that seeks to historicize one of our nation’s founding fathers. Challenging current attempts to appropriate Jefferson to serve all manner of contemporary political agendas, Onuf argues that historians must look at Jefferson’s language and life within the context of his own place and time. In this effort to restore Jefferson to his own world, Onuf reconnects that world to ours, providing a fresh look at the distinction between private and public aspects of his character that Jefferson himself took such pains to cultivate. Breaking through Jefferson’s alleged opacity as a person by collapsing the contemporary interpretive frameworks often used to diagnose his psychological and moral states, Onuf raises new questions about what was on Jefferson’s mind as he looked toward an uncertain future. Particularly striking is his argument that Jefferson’s character as a moralist is nowhere more evident, ironically, than in his engagement with the institution of slavery. At once reinvigorating the tension between past and present and offering a new way to view our connection to one of our nation’s founders, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson helps redefine both Jefferson and his time and American nationhood.

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Mongrel Nation

The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Clarence E. Walker

The debate over the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings rarely rises above the question of "Did they or didn’t they?" But lost in the argument over the existence of such a relationship are equally urgent questions about a history that is more complex, both sexually and culturally, than most of us realize. Mongrel Nation seeks to uncover this complexity, as well as the reasons it is so often obscured.

Clarence Walker contends that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings must be seen not in isolation but in the broader context of interracial affairs within the plantation complex. Viewed from this perspective, the relationship was not unusual or aberrant but was fairly typical. For many, this is a disturbing realization, because it forces us to abandon the idea of American exceptionalism and re-examine slavery in America as part of a long, global history of slaveholders frequently crossing the color line.

More than many other societies--and despite our obvious mixed-race population--our nation has displayed particular reluctance to acknowledge this dynamic. In a country where, as early as 1662, interracial sex was already punishable by law, an understanding of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship has consistently met with resistance. From Jefferson’s time to our own, the general public denied--or remained oblivious to--the possibility of the affair. Historians, too, dismissed the idea, even when confronted with compelling arguments by fellow scholars. It took the DNA findings of 1998 to persuade many (although, to this day, doubters remain).

The refusal to admit the likelihood of this union between master and slave stems, of course, from Jefferson’s symbolic significance as a Founding Father. The president’s apologists, both before and after the DNA findings, have constructed an iconic Jefferson that tells us more about their own beliefs--and the often alarming demands of those beliefs--than it does about the interaction between slave owners and slaves. Much more than a search for the facts about two individuals, the debate over Jefferson and Hemings is emblematic of tensions in our society between competing conceptions of race and of our nation.

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