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Chapter 1 European and Colonial Traditions At the very center of the professional historical venture is the idea and ideal of “objectivity.” It was the rock on which the venture was constituted, its continuing raison d’être. It has been the quality which the profession has prized and praised above all others—whether in historians or in their works. It has been the key term in defining progress in historical scholarship: moving ever closer to the objective truth about the past. Anyone interested in what professional historians are up to—what they think they are doing, or ought to be doing, when they write history—might well begin by considering “the objectivity question.” —Peter Novick, That Noble Dream (1988) If Brown, as his contemporaries assert, had a capacity for “fancy” and “imagination ” yet “patiently enquired . . . read, reflected, examined and compared, opposing facts and arguments,” it is worth investigating what exactly such traits meant in Brown’s time and how they relate to the idea that he “seemed more to write in the style of an historian of past ages, than the recorder of those passing occurrences that tincture our public councils, and embitter the charities of domestic life.”1 For, if as his contemporaries suggest, Brown, who was raised as a Quaker, was not merely reporting or describing passing events, then he was, it would seem, instead bringing a degree of philosophic candor and analysis to those events, especially in terms of cause and effect. Such analysis or pursuit of truth amid conflicting circumstances and evidence invites inquiry into what political, cultural, philosophical , and even familial forces shaped Brown’s concept of history and enabled him to think and write “in the style of an historian of past ages.” That is, in addition to clarifying what was meant by historical “objectivity” in Brown’s time, inquiry into the cultural milieu of his era illuminates the ways Brown’s historiography related to, and was eventually at odds with, a providential 3 Kamrath text.indb 3 3/2/10 1:25:56 PM 4 remembering the past or filiopietistic tradition of historical writing that privileged assumptions of providential design and, often, national destiny. Brown’s affiliation with “an historian of past ages” or a generation of historians whose own methods of historical representation arguably anticipate elements of late Enlightenment historiography raises provocative questions about the evolution of modern “objectivity,” and more recent claims at the end of the twentieth century about the final arrival and practice of a “bottom-up” history, historical self-consciousness or constructionism, and “truth”—issues I also examine in later chapters. If, as Novick suggests, the “idea and ideal of ‘objectivity’” is indeed at the center of modern historiography, it is useful then to examine those traditions as Brown inherited them and to try and discern how Brown himself negotiated the “the objectivity question.” For if representing the past objectively as possible is the “continuing raison d’être,” it is also one of the primary criteria by which not only Brown’s contributions but also those of other historians should be measured. While it is beyond the scope of this study to comprehensively reassess whole generations of historians, in the case of Brown, I want to argue, scholars of American historiography have inaccurately recorded and judged the experimental historiographical efforts of Brown’s era. Indeed, filiopietistic principles and practices Brown engaged—and ultimately broke away from—are illustrative of the period’s ideological deep structure and construction of the past. Brown’s freethinking, Quaker engagement with history forces us to rethink assumptions and clichés about early American historiography, and, equally as important, truth claims about historical consciousness associated with the rise of modern history writing. As Eileen Ka-May Cheng argues about antebellum historiography that focused on the American Revolution, “modern historians have not advanced beyond their early nineteenth-century predecessors as much as they would like to think they have.” These early historians “anticipated many of the concerns of modern historians and the sophistication and complexity of their ideas about truth.”2 European History In considering how classical historians approached history, Harry Elmer Barnes importantly remarks that while the birth of historical writing is often associated with Greece and Homer’s poems, the qualities of objectivity and analysis usually associated with historical inquiry and representation can be traced to the emergence of “speculative Ionic philosophy.”3 The beginnings of “free thought and critical philosophy” emerge in fifth-century Ionia, where Greeks such as Hecataeus identified two...


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