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TheCanadian Review of American Studies, Volume 11,No. 3, Winter 1980 SocialHistory, Local Studies andthe Institutions of Early America BruceC.Daniels, ed., Town and County: Essai•s on the Structure of Local Government mtl;eAmerican Colonies. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1978. 279 + xiv pp. BruceC. Daniels, The Connecticut Town: Growth andDevelopment, 1635-1790. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1979. 249 + xii pp. RichardP.Horwitz, Anthropology Toward Histo,y: Culture and Work in a 19th-Century Maine Town. Middletown,Conn,: Wesleyan Unversity Press, 1978. 197 + xiiipp. Eric G. Nellis Thestudy of the "social history" of colonial America has had a checkered historyof its own. As recently as 1965,Jackson Turner Main could remark accurately that "there has been no systematic description of the social structure... of colonial society." Yet, despite the truth of Main's comment, therehas been a long and often lively tradition of social history in American scholarship.It was at least as old as the 1880's and had grown in volume andfrequency over time, influenced to some extent by the social ideas of Progressivism.And the rise of modern sociology had suggested that there mightbe models for a social history of early America. But as a distinct fieldof study, the latter remained loosely framed and the scholarship of socialhistory was often idiosyncratic in contrast to the increasing sophisticationof the social science schools of the twentieth century. By definition, this colonial social history dabbled with but did not embracethe more formal concepts and rigorous methodologies of the new socialsciences. In fact, social history had no formal identity and only a casualnominal one. It might include examples as diverse as Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, or Alice Earle's chatty Home Life in Colonial Days, or even the cranky retrospections of some Marxist colonial labor studies, such as David Saposs' contribution to J.R.Commons' History of Labor. Occasionally these kinds of studies were 328 Eric G.Nellis suggestive of new approaches to the American past; but generally, social studies of colonial America possessed no binding theoretical or practical coherence and displayed little capacity for reinterpretations of familiar historical questions or for revealing new problems. By the 1950's,however. "social history" had been assimilated into colonial historiography andhad even achieved its own sub-heading in some bibliographies. But, as practiced in America, it was little more than an ill-defined specialty operating inthe shadow of the established historiographical modes. It was seen to include anything that was not categorically political, intellectual or economic history. It was sometimes also "cultural" history. It was known as social histon but it was hardly sociological. 1 • American colonialisits also had a long association with local historyperhaps an older legacy than that of social history. But if colonial social history had failed to yield a definitive historiography, then local history was even farther from the status of a "discipline" and farther still from the changing standards of contemporary academic scholarship. Unlikesocial history, however, local history was easy to identify: it dealt exclusively with specific communities and avoided abstract theories; and most local historians were not academics. Usually they were enthusiastic and often learned amateurs who belonged to a tradition that had flowered in the self-conscious towns of post-Revolutionary New England. From that base, devoted antiquarians had compiled local histories for virtually every community-state, county, town, village and parish-in the nation.2 This staggering production was largely a process of civic nostalgia, seldom addressing itself to a theory of the effects of the "community" on American history, but collectively suggesting a "sense" of community identity among Americans. It was a "Middle-class" phenomenon, a local industry that produced unstructured compendiums of local events and personalities; it was partly descriptive but mostly anecdotal and genealogical; often these local histories were couched in boosterism and self-congratulation. Based on these criteria, its reputation was repugnant to the academic standards of professional historians, and the study of local history was largely avoided. It appeared to be everything that scholarly enquiry was not. Thus, until quite recently, local history had lain beyond the pale of scholarly historiography. Yet ironically there had been early and hopeful stirrings of a systematic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 327-345
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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