Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Complaint

Dear Richard H. Grove,

I have been assigned to read a portion of your book, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, and have a question for you. How would you define "chapter"?

The chapters of your book are a diverse species. They are the canis lupus familiaris of book chapters.

For example, chapter 4, "Stephen Hales and some Newtonian Antecedents of Climatic Environmentalism, 1700-1763," clocks in at a scant 16 pages.

Chapter 5, "Protecting the Climate of Paradise: Pierre Poivre and the Conservation of Mauritius Under the Ancien Regime" is a mere three pages short of 100.

When you have 100 pages worth of something to say on a subject, you need either an editor or a second book.

That is all,

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Geographic Revolution in Early America

This afternoon, I read chapter 3 of Martin Bruckner's The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (2006).

I was primed to enjoy this piece - I am completely on board with the argument that language, maps, and education are key to creating imagined communities. I agree that efforts to exert authority over people are often most effective when they are matters of education and acclimation rather than coercion. Furthermore, I find the subject matter (education, national identity, symbols, etc.) fascinating.

Still, I found this chapter less than satisfying. It's difficult to articulate exactly what bothered me, but I've come up with three criticisms:

  • The writing is disappointing. I suppose this is a subjective criticism and some might disagree with me, but the prose seemed deliberately opaque. Take this sentence as an example:
    Being sounded aloud, the place-name now signaled spatial demands, invoking territorial rights and borderlines for both readers and listeners.
    What does that mean? I'd like to say that the context provides an explanation, but it does not.

    Similarly, does anyone know what "direct prop" means? As in
    Examining Ralph Earl's portrait of Mrs. Noah Smith and her family, a closer look reveals that the nation's outline becomes the direct prop of the young man holding the geography book.
    I do not know what this means, and Google was unable to help me. Perhaps it is terminology from a theory with which I am unfamiliar (Prof. Bruckner is an English prof). The outline of North America is only partially visible in the painting - in fact, it is the only part of the world map that is hidden.

    Finally, for an essay on the power of language and symbols, the language is either remarkably careless or calculated to make points that don't stand up to scrutiny. For example, in discussing Americans' "eager[ness] to sever all representational ties with the formal imperial power," Bruckner describes English as "the very language of the oppressor." I'm not sure it is wise to call England "the oppressor" without a larger discussion about the implications of the term. After all, the white population of colonial America considered themselves to be Englishmen, and the degree to which any sort of "oppression" triggered the American Revolution is not a settled question.

  • Bruckner uses a lot of slight-of-hand logic to make his argument. In the introduction, he discusses both Federalist and Anti-Federalist objections to the language of the Constitution. Essentially, Federalists thought that language was inadequate to express the complexities of the proposed government, and Anti-Federalists thought that the language should be simple enough that anyone could understand it and it could not hide the document's true intent. After describing the controversy, Bruckner writes:
    The perceived linguistic crisis was resolved at least temporarily by the framers' shared culture of geographic literacy. When the time came to ratify the nation's founding document, the signers of the Constitution ceremoniously bypassed both the alphabet and the vexing ambiguity underlying the English language. As Robert A Ferguson has pointed out: "The signers of the Constitution appear neither in alphabetical order, nor by presumed importance or seniority, nor in haphazard fashion. They are grouped, instead, by state with the states themselves appearing in geographical order from north to south . . ."
    Do you see what he did there? He said the crisis was "resolved" and then presented evidence that does not prove it. How does the order of the signatures address concerns over the limits of language or the fear that the Constitution's ultimate goals were concealed by confusing wording? The geographic orientation is interesting and supports his larger argument in the chapter, but it doesn't resolve the problem he says it resolves.

    Bruckner does this several other times in the chapter. When explaining Noah Webster's frustration with "the inherent flexibility underlying all languages, the fact that linguistic forms do not always follow rules but evolve constantly and are shaped by individual oral applications, local habits, and social settings," Bruckner states:
    Webster resolved this dilemma by turning to the discourse of geography, in particular the spelling of place-names.
    Really? He "resolved" the problem of English's notoriously unpredictable spelling and ungovernable evolution? It would be more accurate to say that he "attempted to address" this dilemma or "sought to impose order," but Bruckner can't resist the grand statement. Such wild overstatements provide continuity between paragraphs, but they aren't good history.

  • Bruckner fails to ask many of the obvious questions. This irked me most of all. This post is way too long already, but one example will suffice: Bruckner makes the unassailable point argument that many people hoped to standardize American orthography and pronunciation during the early national period, but doesn't ask the next question: "What is the standard?" Did Webster compile local pronunciations and disseminate them, or did he hope to enshrine his own pronunciations as the standard?
Maybe I'm just being picky, but I was annoyed. I was ready to enjoy this assignment, but ended up filling up the margins with questions and corrections. Disappointing.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Happy Birthday, Samuel Sewall!

Samuel Sewall turns 356 today .

Sewall is probably best known as one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials. He later regretted his involvement and wrote a statement of remorse that was read aloud to the congregation of the Old South Meetinghouse in Boston in 1697.

I haven't read Eve LaPlante's sympathetic biography of Sewall, but I tend to agree with this reviewer: there is something special about a leader who is willing to admit his mistakes.

Sewall is also remembered for being an early opponent of slavery. His anti-slavery pamphlet, The Selling of Joseph was published in 1700, at a time when many of his neighbors (including Cotton Mather) were slave owners.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Misquoting Jesus

After recommending it to a commenter, I thought I should devote some time to Bart D. Ehrman's excellent book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005).

Ehrman is a former fundamentalist Christian who was educated at the Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, both conservative Christian schools. Ehrman devoted himself to studying the Bible and textual criticism, but as he learned more about the history of Christian scripture and studied the earliest manuscripts, he began to question his view of the Bible as an inerrant, inspired document. The main thesis of Misquoting Jesus is that the words of the Bible have been changed many times over the centuries, sometimes by accident and sometimes in the service of upholding orthodox interpretations.

Here is the page 123 sample:
Yet, even with our advances in technology and methodology, even with the incomparably greater manuscript resources at our disposal, our Greek texts of today bear an uncanny resemblance to the Greek text of Westcott and Hort. It would not serve my purpose here to enter a detailed discussion of the methodological advances that Westcott and Hort made in establishing the text of the Greek New Testament. The area in which their work was perhaps proved most significant is in the grouping of manuscripts.

One of the best things about this book is its accessibility. Ehrman is explicitly writing for a lay audience, and presents his argument clearly, but without being condescending.

Ehrman's personal story also makes his argument more compelling because it shows how clear the documentary record is. He was a firm believer in Biblical inerrancy, but the more he learned about the Bible, the more he looked into the manuscripts, the more ancient languages he learned, the more tenuous those beliefs became.

When it comes to ancient Christianity, I am just as much a lay reader as anyone else, and so not qualified to challenge Ehrman on any of his specific points. I did have one lingering question, though: Were the authors of the gospels truly creative authors, as Ehrman assumes, or were they compilers of oral tradition, as Dundes argues? The work of textual criticism is concerned with recovering (as much as possible) the original texts as authored by Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and the authors of the other books of the Bible. But were the people who wrote the Bible really "authors" in the creative sense? Most Christians would probably say no - in Christian tradition, the human writers were merely conduits of the divine word. Alan Dundes would also say no - the folklorist argues that the words codified in scripture were representative of multiple versions that were available in the oral tradition. But Ehrman argues for original human authors who may have felt they were inspired but who were, ultimately, creative. In some cases, this seems reasonable - for example, the Epistles were surely written by creative authors - but in others (accounts of the life of Jesus), Dundes' explanation is more convincing to me.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Little Family History

I recently received an email from a couple who had come across some information I posted on about my family history. They noticed that my paternal grandmother's family is from Celenza Valfortore in Foggia, Italy, and sent me a link to their Celenza Heritage website. I wanted to mention it here because it's always exciting to find referenced to your family history online. They have a whole page on Celenzani in Waterbury, CT, which is where my grandparents live. I sent the link along to my grandma - I hope she contacts them because she loves to tell stories about her family.

My paternal grandfather was born in Sassinoro in Benevento, near Naples. This is a picture of him when he was a baby. I love his dress! We have other photos of his babyhood, but they involve nudity and artful bunches of grapes, so I'll spare him the indignity. He must have been the most photographed baby in town because his father had gone to America for work and his mother liked to send him pictures.

My grandfather's father was born in Buenos Aires - we have a great photograph of his family from around the turn of the century, but I don't have a copy on my computer. In it, my great-great grandfather is wearing a huge, fur-trimmed cape, a rakishly cocked hat, and a luxuriant mustache. I'm not entirely sure how he ended up in Argentina - family legend says it had something to do with not wanting to serve in the Italian army. I'm also not sure whether having a great grandfather who was born and lived in Argentina makes me technically part Hispanic. I lean on the side of "no" since they were always ethnically Italian. Though, that does raise the question of how long you have to live somewhere in order to claim that ethnicity. When I was a teacher, I had a student whose family was German-Argentine, and the school categorized her as "Hispanic," right alongside the kid whose family spoke Nahuatl at home and (inexplicably) the Portuguese students. My point is that "Hispanic" is a broad and ill-defined category, but one to which I do not feel I belong.

My maternal grandfather is also Italian, though he and all his siblings were born in America. This is one of my favorite pictures of him. My Papa is the smiley one on the right, his older brother is on the left. Papa served in the Air Corps during WWII, serving as the radio operator with the 27th Troop Carrier Squadron in China-Burma-India. He has a hatful of medals, including a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

My paternal grandfather served too, but he was an officer and never went overseas. He stayed in the US and trained troops (including the 442nd Infantry) and was on a transport in the Pacific Ocean when the US bombed Hiroshima.

Papa's father was an immigrant and spoke mostly Italian, but his mother came over when she was two and was very proud of her perfect English. My mother is named after her, and I grew up with stories of her. She merits two pictures: the first (with her husband) too adorable to exclude, the second (mocking the baby - my mother - crying in her arms) more representative of her personality.

There is some question over my maternal grandmother's ethnicity. Her mother was definitely Irish, but her father (who died before she knew him) is more of a mystery. He definitely spoke French, and was born in Canada, and family legend has him belonging to a French-speaking Micmac community. Good historian that I am, I can't just accept that without further investigation, but I haven't done the necessary research, so I'll throw it out there with my reservations duly noted.

My Naunie and Papa on their wedding day in 1945. Aren't they cute?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Creationists at the Museum

This is incredibly disturbing.

As a once and future teacher, I find this both maddening and sickening.

The very worst part is at 2:04, when the creationist is asking the kids a ridiculous question and is expecting the kids to chant "no." The little girl at the front of the group starts to say "yes," then switches mid-vowel to "no."

Young Earth Creationism offends me as an historian, both on empirical and methodological grounds.

Empirically, a literal Biblical history does not conform to what we know about the ancient world. A strict Biblical timeline indicates that the Flood occurred in 2348 B.C.E and that the Tower of Babel incident took place around 2200 B.C.E. That really doesn't allow very much time for the Chinese to develop the distinctive society of the Shang Dynasty by 1600 B.C.E. (and this assumes that the Xia dynasty is entirely mythical, which is not likely). There is quite a lot of debate about when Native Americans first peopled the "New World," but the question is whether the migration happened 10,000 years ago or 15,000 years ago (long after the supposed Creation). I won't even get into the historical discrepancies between the Biblical account of verifiable dates during the life of Jesus (i.e. Herod's death, the dates of the Roman census, etc.). My point here is not to chronicle the many points at which the Bible diverges from the evidence we have about the ancient world. I only mean to say that the legends and metaphors of the Bible can not be nailed down to specific historical dates (poor choice of words?).

Beyond the empirical problems presented by both archaeology and the historical record, Young Earth Creationism offends my methodological sensibilities. I am no scientist, but historians' tools are distantly related to the scientists' tools (perhaps the same Phylum or Class - I'll let a biologist choose the best analogy). Historians aren't so big on the experiments, but we do build arguments based on available evidence. We then spend vast amounts of energy correcting, refining, extending, and synthesizing the work of others.

Creationists do not operate this way. They do not value evidence that contradicts the Bible, and they refuse to be skeptical about the Bible. A good historian is pathologically skeptical about even the most reliable source - we make our livings examining the biases of written records. Studying biology or geology while presupposing the infallibility of the Bible is like studying history while presupposing that English-speaking peoples are infallibly more intelligent, moral, and righteous than non-English-speaking peoples. You're certainly entitled to your views, even if they are batshit crazy, but that doesn't make them good history (or good science).

The thing that confuses me about Young Earth Creationists, Intelligent Design proponents, and the rest of the anti-evidence crowd is that they seem not to understand how the academy works. The people in this video and the people who run the Discovery Institute (no link - look them up on Google if you need to) believe that there is a vast orthodox conspiracy upholding tenuous theories. Don't they know that academics salivate over the tiniest flaw in their colleagues' work? Whole careers are built on exploiting minor differences in interpretation or correcting small errors in earlier published work. If someone really could supply evidence - solid, testable, plausible evidence - that evolution is a crock or that radiometric dating is hopelessly flawed, they would be embraced and feted by the scientific community. The reason that IDers and Creationists don't have a tremendous following among scientists is that they haven't presented plausible evidence, not because scientists are unwilling to challenge orthodoxy.

Now, being a good little historian, I have to add the obvious caveat: many people have presented theories that turned out to be true but were not immediately accepted. The difference is that they built and tested their theories based on evidence. They challenged orthodoxy by proposing new theories that conformed to the empirical data they collected in their experiments. Just because the scientific community has not immediately accepted all good theories does not automatically make Creationism or ID scientifically plausible.

I will be among the first to criticize science for naturalizing political and social arguments. Scientific authority is often employed for non-scientific purposes, and science has been at the forefront of professionalizing, medicalizing, and naturalizing authority for morally questionable purposes. The list of atrocities backed by science is not as long as the list of atrocities backed by religion, but that is mostly a function of science's relatively recent divergence from religion as an organizing explanation for the universe. Still, Creationism is odious because it exploits people's ignorance rather than engaging in responsible conversations about the limits of scientific knowledge.

Video via Pharyngula.

*Update: I would like to add that I agree with the many commenters over at Pharyngula who have pointed out that the reporter's math is pretty bad. Clearly, a person who lives to be 800 does not have children during year 800. The Bible says that Noah was only about 500 years old when his children were born, so the reporter's math is clearly off.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Midwife's Tale

I'm on break this week, but I'm hoping to get a jump on next week's readings.

One of the Tuesday seminar books is A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

This is one of my all-time favorite books. Ulrich combines excellent writing, detailed research, and sensitive interpretation in all of her writing. Her earlier work, Good Wives, is one of the most useful and level-headed books I have read, and her later work, The Age of Homespun, is also a favorite. A Midwife's Tale is so stunning because the source material is so intimidating, but Ulrich manages to read it with incredible nuance and insight.

Here is the passage from page 123:
July 8, 1790. "At ditto. Attended etc etc." Martha was present, Though she gave no details when the jury heard the case of Thomas Meloney, charged with cohabiting with his sister Joannah and murdering an infant born of her body. Their father deposed that the two were indeed brother and sister, and that "they have Lived in one house together Ever Since Johannah had her first Child," that she now had three children, but that "I don't know who was the father of them children." The old man signed his testimony with a mark.

Friday, March 21, 2008

She's (No Longer) a Witch!

I'm at my parents' house today, hanging out and watching basketball. Go Huskies!

This morning, I was reading the Hartford Courant and came across this piece about clearing the names of the men and women executed for witchcraft in Connecticut in the 17th century.

Several descendants of the accused testified in front of the state legislature, asking that their ancestors be exonerated. Fair enough.

The commenters on the Courant's forum are being pretty vicious. Some are decrying the enormous waste of tax dollars (do non-binding resolutions really cost much?), others think the legislature ought to be focusing on more important issues (a few hours to right a wrong is excessive?), and others are going straight for the misogyny aspect, calling the descendants (including the 14-year-old girl who spearheaded the project) lesbians, witches, and money-grubbing hags.

Poster "Nothing better to do" writes,
These two have nothing better to do?? This is a useless issue that should not have even began as a school project. So 8 and 9 generation later this is going to do what for who??? Or is this going to turn out to be a money maker by having these two sue???And what about witches today??? Oh wait, I forgot....freedom of "religion". And then we'll mix in a little "women's rights" movement verbage so all the bases will be covered. Bake at 350 degrees, and wala!!!! You end up with a huge waste of people's time!!!!

"Rick" from Windsor says,
Wait a minute ... if Lawlor equates James Tillman and these ladies' ancestor, is he saying we now owe them money? Let's see ... Tillman got $5,000,000 for wrongful imprisonment. Five million, owing since 1662, at 2.5% interest would be $25.7 trillion. Good luck collecting, ladies!

"Wollfy" from Austin, TX opines,
And how much of our tax dollars will be wasted on witchcraft...too much is the answer. I'll solve it for them....ok they were not witches, done. next

Funny, isn't it, how the mere mention of justice for women brings out the trolls. It's an easy joke, but I can't resist the urge to turn a mirror onto "Nothing better to do." "Rick" seems not to understand the difference between bringing a civil suit to court and testifying before a legislative committee that is considering a non-binding resolution. Does "Wollfy" pay many taxes in Connecticut? What is so offensive about the legislature spending a few hours exonerating people who were wrongfully executed?

Part of the problem seems to be that the Avery family (descendants of accused witch Mary Sanford) describe their spiritual beliefs as "pagan." The article did not indicate that anyone was arguing that 17th-century witches were actually witches - rather, the families were arguing that the women were not guilty of the crime for which they were executed. Since witchcraft accusations in the 1600s generally included the assumption that female defendants were guilty of sexual intercourse with the devil and suckling his imps, it's fair to say that they were probably innocent. That's not good enough for the howling mob on the internet, though. They are supremely offended because their time and money is (not really) being wasted. How dare these women patiently ask for official recognition that their foremothers did not deserve to be executed? When did it become legal for women to speak in public anyway? Bitches.

John Adams on HBO

I haven't seen the miniseries yet because I do not get HBO - I'll have to wait for the DVDs.

In the meantime, let me direct you to several excellent commentaries on the subject:

Boston 1775 has an ongoing series of commentaries.

Slate addresses the actors' anachronistic teeth.

Jill Lepore reviews the miniseries for The New Yorker.

I am especially appreciative of Boston 1775's piece, "What John and Abigail Really Saw" because it points out that John Adams was really at Henderson Inches' house on the night of the Boston Massacre. I have a particular stake in this bit of trivia because Henderson Inches had married Sally Jackson (the subject of my undergrad thesis) on February 22, 1770, and John Adams' presence at their house helped me piece together the chronology for my thesis.

MHS Panel

Last night, I attended a panel discussion of John Murrin's paper, "Self-Immolation: Patterns of Historiography in the Coming of the American Revolution" at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I did not have a chance to read the paper before hand (because the MHS charges $25.00 for papers), but Murrin's main point seems to be that there has not been substantial academic work on the origins of the American Revolution in the past 30 years because each of the dominant schools of thought burned itself out.

The panel was made up of John Murrin (Princeton), Pauline Maier (MIT), Woody Holton (U of Richmond), and Brendan McConville (BU). McConville mostly agreed with Murrin's premise, but Maier and Holton did not (Holton rather strenuously).

Some of the important points from the evening:
One of Professor Murrin's complaints was that many colleges no longer teach the American Revolution. I'm generally skeptical of this type of claim, and was glad whenLisa Wilson (Connecticut College) pointed out that many colleges teach the Revolution as part of a larger course, often in a comparative framework. She gave some examples of courses with titles like "Atlantic Revolutions" that cover the French, Haitian, and American Revolutions, or survey courses that cover the period 1763-1815 with the Revolution as the centerpiece.

Professor McConville had a rather strange complaint: he seemed incredulous that any graduate student or young professor could call himself/herself an Early Americanist without knowing the literature of the American Revolution. I suppose that's fair enough if he meant that all Early Americanists should be familiar with the basic arguments, but it seemed that he was asking for more than just general knowledge of the historiography. I say it was a strange complaint because it seems odd to expect that 17th-century specialists would also be experts on the Revolution. Are 19th century historians often asked for their opinions on Watergate? Should specialists in the Early Republican era be equally knowledgeable about the Gilded Age? I'm not saying that the American Revolution isn't important - heck, all American historians of all periods should be conversant in the historiography. But I think it is dangerous to expect that "Early American" means "Revolutionary Era." There is always the danger of teleology when you try to read later events into earlier eras. I disagreed with McConville because I think it is perfectly appropriate for an Early Americanist to be only passingly familiar with the Revolution and its literature. In fact, it is more appropriate for a 17th century historian to ignore the Revolution than it is for a 19th century historian to do the same.

There was an extended conversation about the pedigrees of today's historians, with McConville arguing that the neo-Progressives (Wood, Nash) did not turn out many graduate students who went on to work on the Revolution, and Holton arguing that that is untrue. For example, McConville is himself a student of Gordon Wood and Holton is a student of neo-progressive Peter H. Wood ("the wrong Wood," as he calls himself). There seemed to be consensus that grad students generally shy away from the Revolution or focus on non-political and non-military aspects of the period. To this, I say, "So?" I'm certainly interested in the era, but I have drifted backward toward the 17th century because the late 18th seems so crowded and difficult to break into. Besides, I have very little interest in the ideology of republicanism, so any work I do on the late 18th century will not be the kind of history these guys were asking for. I was surprised that they were upset that more grad students don't work on the period: from my perspective, it is incredibly crowded, and I'd like more breathing room.

Also, I met J.L. Bell, author of Boston 1775, which is one of my favorite blogs.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Best Poor Man's Country

This week's 17th century seminar book is actually an 18th century book: The Best Poor Man's Country: A Geographical Study of Early Southeastern Pennsylvania by James T. Lemon (1972). We try to do a week on each British colony that existed during the 17th century, and this week's focus is on Pennsylvania. There are three people in the class, and we generally each read a different book and summarize it. That way, we cast a wider net.

An excerpt from page 123:
In 1800 the functions of towns were much the same as in 1700, as was the orientation of the economy. During the preindustrial era in this rural society, most towns acted as central places for exchanging farm commodities for those of other counties. Yet urbanites contributed their skills to the economic, political, and social organization of the region.

This is the first time my 123 excerpt has been begun at the beginning of a paragraph that was exactly 3 sentences long.

This book has too many problems for me to be enthusiastic about it. Most obviously, Lemon's dismissal of ethnic differences among Pennsylvania's colonists is problematic. I'm willing to concede Lemon's main point, which is that colonists made their own decisions about settlement and agriculture rather than conforming to William Penn's plans (as well as his secondary point about the farmers' market orientation). Still, I think that his celebration of individualism was just as unhelpful as the peasant model he seeks to overturn. At several points, he is forced to acknowledge that it seems strange to speak of pervasive individualism in a region best known for its communitarian groups, but he never offers a satisfactory explanation for how those impulses were complementary/conflicting/compatible.

Britons: Forging the Nation

This week's topic in my Tuesday seminar was Religion, and we read the section on Protstantism in Linda Colley's Britons: Forging the Nation (2005).
The show-piece was Edinburgh New Town, its center designed by James Craig in 1767 as a celebration of British patriotism, and as an assertion of Scotland's and the city's importance in the Union. Prince's Street, George Street and Queen Street intersected with Hanover and Frederick streets, thereby paying tribute to George II, his immediate family, his father, and his dynasty. And while St. Andrew's Square commemorated Scotland's own patron saint, it was balanced - in Craig's initial plan at least - by another square named after St. George.

That's a fine selection, but my favorite quote was this one, describing Britons attending performances of Handel's Protestant oratorios: "[T]he men and women Wagner saw listening so intently were indeed engaged in an act of faith. Only what many of them were worshipping was Great Britain, and indirectly themselves" (32).

I liked this book much better than the Frey and Wood, but that may just have been that it was better organized. And I like a well-organized book. This one had subheadings, topic sentences, and a bang-up conclusion at the end of the chapter:

Protestantism meant much more in this society than just bombast, intolerance, and chauvinism. It gave the majority of men and women a sense of their place in history and a sense of worth. It allowed them to feel pride in such advantages as they genuinely did enjoy, and helped them endure when hardship and danger threatened. It gave them identity. There were other powerful identities at work, of course. A sense of Protestant unity did not always override social class, anymore than it overwhelmed the profound historical and cultural divisions between the English, the Scottish, and the Welsh. But to the questions: Who were the British, and did they even exist? Protestantism could supply a potent and effective answer, perhaps the only satisfactory answer possible. Great Britain might be made up of three separate nations, but under God it could also be one united nation. And as long as a sense of mission and providential destiny could be kept alive, by means of maintaining prosperity at home, by means of recurrent wars with the Catholic states of Europe, and by means of a frenetic and for a long time highly successful pursuit of empire, the Union flourished, sustained not just by convenience and profit but by belief as well. Protestantism was the foundation that made the invention of Great Britain possible.

Good writing!

She argued her case well, and I found myself convinced. Still, in order to afford Protestantism the power she does, it becomes almost unrecognizable as a religion. Colley's point that religion and national identity were inextricable is well taken, but it makes me wonder just how people experienced their Protestantism. What makes someone a Protestant? Is there a minimum level of ritual participation required? Is it something personal that only God can know? How did people define themselves as Protestants? What did they feel were the minimum requirements?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Puritan Watch

Also via Pandagon. Cotton Mather would not be pleased to know that today's youth conjure an image of him only when grasping for words to describe the latest sex scandal.

The Ten Types of Republicans

I found this on Pandagon. Poetry for our time.
Four stars. I can't give it five because of its use of "irregardless."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ride with the Devil . . .

. . . is the worst movie I have seen in a long time.
I had to watch this clunker for my Civil War class. It was long, boring, and had horrible dialogue. Tobey Maguire was particularly bad. And that's all I have to say about that.

Except that I can't let it go when someone is wrong on the internet.
I noticed something on the IMDb entry for Ride with the Devil that I can't let slide. There is an entry under "goofs" that notes the pockets on Jewel's "skirt":
Anachronisms: Civil-war era skirts did not have even one in-seam pocket, let alone two. Fancy Chatelaines were used to hold purses and other items by the wealthier women, and the poorer classes made do with cloth pockets suspended from a strap that was pinned to the waistband. Flat surface pockets came in after the closing of the civil war.
I'm something of a costume Nazi myself, and it is my opinion that those pockets were on Jewel's apron, not her skirt. Apron pockets are perfectly appropriate for the Civil War era. This only bothered me because the poster on IMDb went on about chatelaines, implying some knowledge. And he/she failed to mention the fairly egregious necklines.

Besides, costume details are the least goofy of the goofs. I think the pistol battle at 100 yards in the opening half hour was probably more unlikely.

And that really is all.

Come Shouting to Zion

Today, I am reading Come Shouting to Zion: African-American Protestantism in the American South and Caribbean to 1830 by Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood (1998).
Page 123:

What exactly was the difference that so frightened white observers? Perhaps it was the often extravagant and unrestrained nature of black worship, which implied a view of the world that was wholly different from that which whites were prepared to accept. Long after shouting had become institutionalized and ritualized as part of the structure of conversion, black shouting could still incite fear and awe in whites witnessing it for the first time, as when, for example, the local preacher at Hites Chapel, on the Berkeley Circuit, "got the lacks to shouting, and some of the whites run.

This is a work of comparative history. I especially appreciated its examination of the limited success of early Catholic missionary efforts in West Central Africa and its exploration of African syncretism and adoption of the elements of Christianity that they found most useful to their needs.

I was a little disappointed by the chapters that I read (1 and 4). For a work of comparative history to work well, it must be impeccably organized so that the reader doesn't get confused about what is being compared. Come Shouting to Zion is all over the place.

In the chapter on African beliefs, Frey and Wood jump around promiscuously from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century and back again, from Gambia to Angola to the Gold Coast without much differentiation. After reading this chapter, I had some idea of the general trends whereby Africans of different nationalities incorporated aspects of Christianity into their own belief systems, but I had no idea about the sweep or development of these trends. Frey and Wood are specifically critical of anthropologists' inability to see cultural change, but I found a mashup of 400 years' history without even the most basic timeline to be less than helpful.

A similar problem haunts chapter 4. In discussing the "First Awakening" of Protestant Christianity among enslaved people in the Americas, Frey and Wood jump from Maryland to Georgia to the Danish Virgin Islands, and from Methodists to Baptists to Presbyterians without a good overarching structure.

Perhaps it is just my ignorance of these subjects (which is substantial), but a 40-page chapter with no subheadings, no double line breaks, and no definition of terms makes a comparative history incredibly confusing. I don't know if this is worth bringing up at my seminar tomorrow - it may sound like a ticky-tacky complaint, but I think it is a valid concern since we will be discussing the efficacy of comparative history.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment

Today's installment of the 123 meme is brought to you by Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England by David Hall (1989). I was disappointed to find that this book does not have an acknowledgements section - for once, I was interested.
Page 123:
Hence the questions Roger Clap remembered people asking of each other in the 1630s: "How shall we go to Heaven? Have I a true grace wrought in my heart? Have I Christ or no?" Hundreds gave their answers to these questions as part of the process of becoming a church member. Early on, the procedure was established in most congregations that those who wished to become members must "make ther faith & holynes visible" by something more emphatic than taking part in the rite of baptism.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Black Majority

Oh my! It's been days and days since I blogged about a book. Fear not: the required reading marches on.

This week, I am reading Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion by Peter H. Wood (1974).

Excerpt, page 123:
Similarly, the alligator, a freshwater reptile which horrified Europeans (since it was unfamiliar and could not be killed with a gun), was readily handled by Negroes used to protecting their stock from African crocodiles. These same slaves were inevitably knowledgeable about the kind of marsh and cyprus swamp which their masters found so mysterious. From the start they tended, along with local Indians, to dominate the fishing of the region, for Englishmen, while capable of hauling nets at sea from an ocean-going vessel, were not at home in a dugout canoe.

I thought that this was actually a fairly impressive book, given that it was written before 1974. Wood argues for the intelligence, agency, and rationality of slaves in South Carolina. He also pays a surprising amount of attention to meaning making (ex: Did black slaves die from malaria less often than whites? Maybe slightly less often, due to inherited sickle cell resistance. But the fact that whites thought that blacks died less often is more important than the reality.).

Wood is clearly a student of Oscar Handlin - he posits a fifty-year period of flux and possibility before South Carolina's plantation system kicked in with full force. He describes a process of creative cultural achievement that makes black slaves actors and innovators rather than passive objects traumatized by the middle passage.

Like any book, this one has a few problems. I think Wood's use of the term "pioneers" to describe the first generations of black slaves in South Carolina is problematic because it obscures the coercion that went into bringing Africans to America and then forcing them to work. Wood's lack of attention to gender, religion, economics, etc. are also flaws. But, again, these are not fatal flaws given that his analysis was pretty groundbreaking for its time.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

America's Historical Documents

I was poking around on the National Archives website yesterday and came across this interesting page. The archivists have posted high-quality scans of twenty of the most important documents in the collection, including the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.

A few of the documents are a bit more interesting. My favorite is the cancelled check for the purchase of Alaska.
The Apollo 11 flight plan is also intriguing - I love the little cartoony spacecraft. So cute!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pilgrims Heart Balloons

Today's edition of 17th Century Watch:

Governmental Protection

On Sunday, I got into a heated discussion with my dad over this article.
A brief outline: Arelia Taveras, a lawyer from New York, is suing several Atlantic City Casinos, claiming that they should have noticed that she had a gambling addiction and cut her off when it became apparent that she was playing for days at a time without leaving the tables to shower, eat, or sleep. In all, she lost about $1,000,000 and embezzled money from her clients in order to continue gambling. She was disbarred and has to pay back the money she stole, as well as $58,000 in taxes, etc.

My dad's point was that people sue for many reasons, but "a quick buck" is not really one of them. Lawsuits are drawn-out, costly, and there is a very small chance of actually getting any money in the end. Rather, many suits, such as the infamous McDonald's coffee cup case, are useful for getting industry to reform when government has not imposed specific regulations. Congress may not spend much time on regulating the temperature of fast food coffee, but Stella Liebeck's suit spurred the industry's self-regulation, and now they no longer serve drinks that are capable of causing third-degree burns. Even when the industry does not regulate itself, civil suits often start the ball rolling on public opinion and eventual legislation, as with the suits against cigarette companies. Those plaintiffs rarely win, but they give the issue an airing in court and force judges and juries to rule on the evidence and suggest areas for possible regulation.

I agree with these points. There is no need for massive tort reform. Most rubbish suits get thrown out, as they should. It is vitally important that consumers and citizens be able to bring civil litigation when they are injured by corporations because withholding your business, while noble, doesn't do very much. You're still going to lose because the corporation has so many lawyers and so many resources, but, with luck, your issue will get some attention and a state legislator in Vermont or Oregon will make your concern into a bill, and in 100 years, everyone will be incredulous when they hear that in 2008, it was perfectly legal to let children ride on the schoolbus without a seatbelt.

But there is another issue that I couldn't get my dad to acknowledge. In part, I am writing this post because I've been thinking about it a lot and maybe I can be a bit more articulate now.

The issue I have is that I believe that government regulation has to be primarily about providing access to information and choice, but then not restricting those choices. This is where I differ from my dad. He thinks it would be perfectly ok to make cigarettes illegal full-stop. I don't think so. I do think that cigarettes should come with pictures of diseased lungs on the pack, a red-letter warning marking them as addictive should be on a tape you have to break to open the pack, you should have to be 21 to buy them, they should cost $10.00 in school-supporting taxes, and you should not be able to smoke in a place where other people (including waitresses and bartenders) might be exposed to your second-hand smoke. Arrest anyone who gives/sells tobacco to a minor, by all means. But if all the information is available to you, and you still decide to smoke, I don't think that the government can tell you that you can't. The same goes for marijuana.

What I am saying is that the government has a responsibility to protect you by ensuring that you have information and access to alternatives, but it cannot protect you from your choices, even if those choices are self-destructive.

(Caveat: This is often an unrealistic standard. Even if you have all of the information in the world, corporations will find a way to use their money and power to screw you over. In fact "all information" should probably be amended to "the best and relevant information" because a deluge of useless and confusing information can be just as bad as no information at all. Even more problematic is the question of access to alternatives. Even if you know you should be eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, if you live in a neighborhood where access to fresh food is restricted or you can't afford to buy fresh foods, you are not really making a free choice. Lack of access is the same as coercion.)

One of the reasons I believe this is that the government's "protection" is often no protection at all, especially when the bodies that they are "protecting" are female or belong to people of color.

A good example is coerced cesareans. I'm not talking about women who are pressured by their doctors and insurance companies to have c-sections — I'm talking about kicking, screaming women being strapped down and cut open by court orders. If the government decides that a doctor knows better, even if he/she is violating your religious principles or going to extraordinary lengths to "save" the life of your 22-week-old fetus, the fact that you don't want to have your body cut open becomes irrelevant.

Remember Angela Carder, the woman who was killed by a court-ordered cesarean in 1987? Carder was pregnant when she found out that she had cancer. She asked to be treated for her cancer, even though the chemotherapy might have hurt her 26-week-old fetus. The hospital decided that they wanted to do an emergency cesarean at 26 weeks, even though Angela was weak and sick and dead-set against it. The hospital got a court order to perform the cesarean. The baby lived 2 hours, Angela lived for 2 days.

The ACLU tells the rest of the story:
Court-ordered c-sections are a particularly egregious abuse of state authority because this surgery tends to be carried out on society's most vulnerable, powerless women. In 1987 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study of court-ordered c-sections that revealed that 81 percent of the patients were low-income women of color.
These are women who have all the information they need in order to make a good decision. They are not stupid, they are not evil, and they are not cackling witches who want their babies to die. In fact, they have more information than the government does: they know their own religious convictions and they may have a different way of looking at their lives and the lives of their families. Where the government sees "live mother," a woman may see "mutilated me." Where the government sees "live baby," a woman may see "severely disabled child in perpetual pain." The evil is in restricting the free choice, whether a corporation is restricting your free choice by manipulation or the government is restricting free choice more directly.

There are tricky scenarios. Do I think heroin should be legalized? I guess it comes down to whether heroin users are making a free choice. Addiction is a form of coercion, so I'd say they aren't, and that the government can ban a substance that is clearly addictive to most of the people who use it. The difference between the heroin addict and the gambling addict is just a matter of degree: heroin is addictive to almost everyone who uses it, and people who aren't addicted don't use it. There are plenty of people who can gamble without becoming addicted, so there is a less compelling case for a comprehensive ban.

It's not all blood and guts, though. What about me? I am of that fought-over species, the "woman of child bearing age." There may be evidence that tuna and other large fish contain an unhealthy amount of mercury, which can be stored in the body and possibly cause birth defects. Should the government prevent me from eating sushi? Or should they provide me with this information and trust me to be an adult and make an informed choice for myself? I don't mean to be dramatic, but it is incredibly insulting to be told by the government that I should consider myself as perpetually "pre-pregnant." It would be even worse if they decided to protect me from myself and ban me from all Japanese restaurants.

What about the bill recently introduced into the Mississippi state legislature that would prohibit restaurants from serving obese people? Clearly, this has zero chance of passing, but it's an interesting question: can the government protect you from your choices, even if those choices are bad for you?* Again, I'm all for choice: require that restaurants put the calorie counts right on the menu. Make McDonalds give a bajillion dollars per year to Jump Rope for Heart. If a restaurant's business practices are unnecessarily harmful — using harmful ingredients when they could be using healthier ingredients, restricting access to healthy food in low-income neighborhoods, etc. — nail the bastards. But don't put a judge between me and the onion rings. I have the right to hurt myself as long as I know what I'm getting myself into.

So back to the gambling suit. I say, post the odds of winning on every game, let gambling addicts voluntarily ban themselves from casinos (the casinos already do this), provide information about gambling addiction, hell, require that every casino keep a team of behavioral scientists on staff to monitor behavior on the floor and identify potential problem gamblers. But don't make gambling illegal. And if people are offered information and help and choose not to take it, don't hold the casino accountable. The government doesn't always know best, and it has to respect choices when those choices are made freely, even if the choice seems like a poor one. If the government holds the casino responsible for Taveras' gambling problem, they are restricting her personal choice and denying her personal responsibility. Maybe that's not so bad in this case, but what about when the government restricts other personal choices? If she can prove that gambling really is like heroin, or at least get people to start down that mental path, fine. But the people must always be wary of the government trying to protect them too much, especially while the people who govern are drawn from such a small group of the governed.

As for the original question: should Arelia Taveras be allowed to bring this suit against the casinos? Of course she should. If it were meritless, the judge would have tossed it out in short order. Just because she has very little chance of winning doesn't mean it won't do some good.

Also, how nerdy is it that my dad and I argue about torts?

*Clearly, eating is not bad for you. The gambling addict doesn't have to go to the casino, but everybody has to eat. Are fat people supposed to go cold turkey and just live off their fat reserves until they reach a socially-acceptable weight?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

17th Century Watch

Bringing you the latest news on the 17th century in the modern media, this is 17th Century Watch (cousin to Puritan Watch).

The most recent sighting comes from Slate Magazine, where we learn that Governor Eliot Spitzer used the alias "George Fox" when he was spending thousands of dollars on call girls.
Spitzer's choice of pseudonym was kind of rude. The real George Fox is a somewhat hallowed figure in the annals of Christian faith. He founded the Religious Society of Friends (aka the Quakers) in England during the mid-17th century.
Disappointingly (to me), the article has been updated to make clear that Gov. Spitzer was really impersonating this George Fox (a friend), not this George Fox (a Friend).

Even better, the name of the hotel where Gov. Spitzer met his dates was "The Mayflower."

I imagine that George Fox and William Bradford are having a scowling contest in heaven.

Monday, March 10, 2008

NCAA Vasectomy

I like it.

Song of America

I should be reading, but instead, I am listening to "Song of America," the musical review of American history produced by Janet Reno.

I have mixed feelings about it.

First, there is the question of selection, which other reviewers have covered in depth. In a nutshell, this compilation is highly selective, as any broad compilation must be. Still, the argument of breadth does not excuse the many substantial omissions (unionization? Latinos? Civil Rights Movement? Asian-Americans? The 17th century?).

Second, is the question of definition. Is this a compilation of the history of American music or is a history of America in music? If the former, the interpretive stylings of some of the artists become inexcusable. If the latter, it is hardly comprehensive.

The promotional material for this album touted its usefulness as a teaching tool, and I think that many of the selections would be wonderful for classroom use, but others are too distorted by reinterpretation. Does Harper Simon's breathy, rocked-up "Yankee Doodle" convey an authentic moment? One could argue that they are recapturing some of the song's original risque-ness by presenting it this way, but I'm not that impressed. Why play the "Stars and Stripes Forever" on a mandolin? There aren't enough folksy, acoustic strings on this disk already? One brass band would kill you? I had to look at the credits to find that the song sung by Joana Smith was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The casual listener could be forgiven for mistaking it for Ann Margaret's version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The version of "John Brown's Body" (featuring kazoo solo) is inching close to the Barron's book that claims that John Brown was himself a slave in terms of travesty.

I don't mean to be a bitch about it - many of the selections are both great listening and updated without being eviscerated. I especially enjoyed "Peg and Awl," "Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat," "Rosie the Riveter" (A saxophone! Novel!), and "The Great Atomic Power."

But I probably would not be writing this review at all if the poor, misguided souls who produced this album had not included the bar-none worst song ever crapped out of modern Nashville: "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning." My hatred for this song once inspired me to write a 20-page paper for a class on war and the media. Unfortunately, the restrained academic voice necessary for writing a research paper did not allow me free rein, so I'll say it now:


For those of you fortunate enough to have avoided this steaming pile of sanctimonious, sentimental schlock, some background info is necessary. After deciding that the country had not suffered enough after September 11, 2001, Alan Jackson managed to crystalize an entire nation's ignorance, smugness, narcissism*, and jingoism into a single song. One might consider it something of an accomplishment if it weren't so infuriating.

After imagining the activities of regular Americans as they reacted to the terrorist attacks (weeping, praying, and "go[ing] out and buy you [sic] a gun" among them), Jackson urges us to abandon any attempts to understand what happened. Instead, we should retreat into the egotism of modern feel-good Christianity:
I'm just a singer of simple songs,
I'm not a real political man.
I watch CNN, but I'm not sure I can tell you
The difference in [sic] Iraq and Iran.
But I know Jesus and I talk to God,
And I remember this from when I was young
That Faith, Hope, and Love are good things He gave us
And the greatest is Love.

Yeah, it's probably not important to think about America's place in a world that includes countries that are not America. Offer up some platitudes and "burst out in pride for the red, white, and blue," because that's the kind of deep thinking that will preserve our Constitution and guard against unilateralism in this stressful time.

Even the title is supremely offensive. Does the world stop turning for any tragedy? Even an era-defining tragedy? Why should the world stop turning for America? I don't think it paused for Hiroshima. The genocide in Rwanda was the equivalent of four World Trade Centers falling every single day, day after day for 100 days in a row. Did your world blip for those children?

This song (and its horrifying popularity) is a real blow to my hope that anyone can ever have any historical perspective. Can we even have contemporary perspective? I guess not, and it's probably foolish to hope so. Still, I have to believe that there is value in striving, and that's tough when this song is willful ignorance with tambourines and spangles. It's musical Young Earth Creationism. It could make an atheist believe in Satan.

"I have that exact platitude-a-day calendar at home. It's how I know that beauty comes from within."
- Veronica Mars

*Note: While typing this post, I inadvertently invented a new word: arcissism. I like it and will incorporate it into my regular vocabulary from now on.


Thirty hours until husband returns from business trip: interminable.

Twenty-four hours to finish reading for Tuesday seminar: impossible.

Convenience Store

I just had an interesting interaction with the cashier at the local convenience store.

I bought a bottle of water and a pack of gum for a total of $2.04.

I gave the cashier $3.00, and he handed me $2.04 in change. I returned the change, explaining that the cost was $2.04, but I had only given him $3.00. He took the money and, inexplicably, handed me a single dime. I corrected him again, this time being more explicit, explaining that I was expecting 96 cents. He handed me 96 cents in addition to the dime I was already holding. I gave him back the dime. He looked confused.

When I worked as a cashier, I had to reconcile my cash drawer with a printout from the register at the end of every shift. I would be interested in seeing his reconciliation form.

Also, they didn't have the kind of gum I wanted.

All-around fail.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800

I'm reading The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (2002) for my Tuesday seminar. It's a collection of introductory essays with titles such as "Economy," "Race," and "Religion." This week's readings include "Gender" and "Class." Page 123 falls in the middle of the "Gender" essay by Sarah M.S. Pearsall:
The inherited nature of chattel slavery meant that intimate matters of sexuality and reproduction were put into a distinctive socio-economic framework. It also meant that slavery descended through the mother, creating an anomalous and unfortunate matrilineality in the British colonies. Slave women suffered from sexual attention from owners.

The essays are decent - someday, I may use them when I teach a class. That's about all I have to say, though.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Rough Day

I didn't get much reading done yesterday because the universe had it in for me.

My plan for today was to drive home to my parents' house after my 17th century reading group meeting on Friday afternoon,
but it wasn't that easy. When I walked out to my car, I found that it had a large gash down the passenger's side - one that I certainly did not remember from the day before. Based on the following evidence, I concluded that the person who parks next to me must have scraped it while pulling out:

1. The scratch was not there yesterday.

2. The scratch runs along the door, tire, hubcap, and back of the wheelwell in a straight line, indicating that the car was parked in its present position when it was scratched.

3. There was paint between the doors and doorjambs on both the front and back doors. This paint would have come off when
we opened the doors if the scratch were old.

4. The guy who parks next to me drives a small, gray Saab or Volvo that is low to the ground. The scratch is both low and gray.

Complicating factor: the guy who parks next to me is my landlord.

He was not home, so I couldn't ask him what happened, and there was no note on my car. I later realized that there might be a note in my mailbox, but I was already on the road home when that thought crossed my mind. I didn't want to wait until he came home because I was anxious to get to my parents' before it started raining/getting dark, and I also didn't want to destroy the wheel alignment and paint shavings.

So, I called the police and filed a report. A police officer came over to the house, checked out the damage, called it in, and gave me a file number. He also said he would swing by later and see if there was damage on the other guy's car.

Then, I called my insurance company and filed a claim there. Unless I can prove that someone else scraped the car and that it wasn't my fault, we have a $2,000 deductible for repairs. Unless my landlord tells me he did it, I don't know how I would prove that he did. It also could have been someone else (though I have never seen anyone else park in the spot next to ours).

I kind of felt like I was overreacting, but I didn't know what else to do. I'm not angry or anything - I just wanted everything to be properly documented.

Eventually, I got on the road - at 5:30, rather than my planned departure time of 3:30. After lots of traffic, I was within 15 miles of home when I came up behind a giant head-on collision that was blocking both lanes of the only road that goes to my parents' house (it was raining and dark by this time). So, I backtracked to my aunt and uncle's house (the accident was about 2 miles from their house) and hung out there for an hour or so. They weren't home, but I used their phone to call home. I finally got home around 8.

So it was an adventure-filled day, but not very reading-friendly.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The 17th Century Rocks

While poking around on the internet today, I came across this YouTube video based on Flogging Molly's "Tobacco Island":

Now, being an insufferable know-it-all, I must quibble a tiny bit with Flogging Molly - Barbados was primarily a sugar island, not a tobacco island. Still, you inserted references to sugar cane, Cromwell, and Irish enslavement without making the song un-dance-to-able, so kudos on that.

But to the person who made this video, I would advise another once-over of Barbadian history. While Barbados was one of the first English colonies to make extensive use of African slave labor, this song is clearly referencing the deportation of thousands of Irishmen by Cromwell's puritan forces during the aftermath of the English Civil War.

A search on YouTube for "Cromwell" was actually surprisingly fruitful. I recommend this one:

A Factious People

I'm spending a lazy day going through A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York by Patricia Bonomi (1971):
But by late 1734, it was becoming increasingly apparent that despite these gains in popular party strength it would be impossible to topple Cosby from power so long as he retained the support of his patrons at Whitehall. It was in London that the real decisions about Cosby's future and Morris's displacement as chief justice would be made, and the Morrisites recognized that a more forceful presentation of their case was essential. Besides, many of the problems which had taken shape during the turbulent months since Cosby's arrival touched upon broad questions of constitutional relationships within the empire, and the colonists sensed, correctly, that their point of view was not well understood at home.

Too much politics for my taste - I only perked up during the chapters that were about patterns of settlement and land ownership. Any discussion of the intricacies of 18th-century elections puts me right to sleep.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Colonial New York: A History

I prefer Hogwarts: A History, but I will have to content myself with Michael Kammen's Colonial New York: A History (1975):
His summons would almost seem to be an ultimatum: "Elect and make choice of two proper and fit persons to repair forthwith to this city, empowering them as your representatives to consult, debate and conclude all such matters and things as shall be thought necessary for the supply of this government in this present conjuncture, of which you are not to fail, as you will answer the same at your peril." Surprisingly, there was no response to this decree; whether the reason was apathy or fear of treason and subsequent retribution we do not know. Leisler issued new writs on April 8, and this time an assembly was elected.
Zzzzzzz. When I have to read a book like this one, I am thankful that time will pass whether I get through it or not, and that no matter how painful my Thursday seminar may be, it will end eventually.

My favorite passage:
"Here in 1649 a group of Connecticut Indians attacked the tiny settlement and massacred Phoebe Halsey, the wife of Thomas. Her ghost is said to hover still over the house and its charming herb garden" (38).
I am intrigued by the idea that one can "massacre" a single person, but it's really the "charming herb garden" that gets me. Who ever said antiquarianism is dead?

Monday, March 3, 2008

American Slavery American Freedom

Today, I am reading Edmund S. Morgan's seminal work, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.
Page 123:
But it is not unlikely that he had already transferred much of what he owned to his wife and children in order to circumvent the litigation that a substantial will often produced. It seems evident that while the Virginia Company was failing in London, a number of its officers in the colony were growing rich. In order to do so, they not only rendered less than faithful service to their employers; they also reduced other Virginians to a condition which, while short of slavery, was also some distance from the freedom that Englishmen liked to consider as their birthright.
Given how often this book is cited and how much I enjoy Morgan's writing style in general, I was expecting to enjoy this book, but so far, it isn't going so well. I just finished chapter 3, entitled "Idle Indian and Lazy Englishman." The central premise of this chapter was that everyone in the 17th century was just too damn lazy to feed themselves. The Native Americans were in a perpetual state of near-starvation because the men couldn't be bothered to lift a finger, except during the periodic wars that "relieved the Indians' habitual idleness" (57). The English weren't much better: according to Morgan, "England's listless laborers" and wasteful agricultural practices stifled economic growth.

The strange thing is, Morgan seems to contradict himself on these very points. Speaking of Native American men's responsibilities, he notes:
He could make canoes, weapons, and [fishing] weirs without losing his dignity, but the only other labor he ordinarily engaged in was clearing fields for planting . . .
Morgan goes on to discuss Native American men's labors as hunters, warriors, and housebuilders. I would also add some amount of childcare in the form of teaching young boys to perform adult male tasks, as well as the apparently not-work of diplomacy, religious leadership, and politics. Still, Morgan concludes that Native American men were habitually lazy and that "nearly every activity that could be designated as work at all was left to the women" (52). The above tasks excepted, I guess.

Again, the Englishmen fare little better (curiously, Morgan is all but mute on the subject of English women's work). Despite the fact that they engaged in "milking cows, hedging, ditching, thatching, and a hundred other tasks," the average English agricultural worker was basically a layabout. Morgan's point that many English laborers were underemployed because cereal crops do not require much attention after they are sown is well taken, but I still think he underestimates the average Englishman's day. Unless Edmund Morgan is willing to concede that reading and writing about events that happened 400 years ago is probably not vital to the nation's economy, he should probably refrain from calling a wood-chopping, cow-milking, field-planting, house-building, sheep-herding, rye-threshing, ox-driving, fence-building, ditch-digging, manure-spreading agricultural worker lazy.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

New York Burning

Today, I am reading Jill Lepore's New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (2005). Actually, I'm reading a single chapter - chapter 5: "Water" - for my Tuesday seminar. Unlike many historians, who write books by smooshing together discrete essays, Lepore writes beautiful narratives. This makes for great reading, but lousy read-one-chapter-in-the-middle.

Anyway, here's page 123:
Horsmanden's role in the investigation can be uncovered, by careful reading and by placing the Journal alongside other evidence, like Horsmanden's letters and the surviving court manuscripts. But Horsmanden himself did his best to bury it. He had every reason to hide.

See? I appreciate suspense that doesn't involve wondering how many clauses the author can string together.

Professor Lepore teaches a course on historical writing, but she was on leave this past fall. I'm going to try to take it next time around.