What If… Adams Fought in the Revolutionary War?

Patrick Spero and his Williams College class have been engaging in a fascinating and innovative coursework project this year – creating modern-style attack ads for contested presidential elections in the early republic. You can find a description of the project and some of the best videos here. Today’s post reflects some idle musings that riff off one of the comments Spero makes at the end of this week’s videos, relating to the ‘Revolution of 1800’.

Tyler Cole’s “His Merits” makes a stirring case for Jefferson, arguing that Jefferson is the only true patriot in this election. He begins by linking Jefferson to the Declaration of Independence. He intends this opening to do two things: remind the viewer of Jefferson’s revolutionary service and imply that, in 1800, it is time for a change of governments once again. … Tyler’s argument carried the day.

Jefferson’s patriotism, though, was of a certain kind – a vital political service, for sure, but one very different from the patriotism of many of his fellow countrymen. After all, Jefferson may have been an enthusiastic supporter for refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, but he preferred that others put themselves in the line of the tyrants’ bullets.

Of course, to create an attack ad based on Jefferson’s lack of military service would have been impossible in 1800, because John Adams had similarly spent his revolutionary war in debating chambers and diplomatic service. This set me wondering – what would have happened if it were a military man, like Alexander Hamilton, rather than a lawyer like Adams, who was the Federalist candidate in 1800?

I do not profess to have any definite answers here. After all, Anti-Federalists feared the rise of a military dictatorship as a result of the Constitution, and it’s certainly possible that had another general followed Washington as President, there would have been a public backlash against the anti-republican character of the new federal government. Attempts to raise funding for a federal army at the height of the Quasi-War also caused considerable controversy. At the same time, however, I have some difficulty in believing that those who served in the militia and the Continental Army considered political service to be equally valuable to the time spent in the field.

Military service was a memory of the medium term by 1800, however. Some prominent state leaders, like James Ross in Pennsylvania, were really too young to have served in the revolutionary war, and yet that did not threaten their ability to lead. Though many campaigns on a national and state level  would mention the candidate’s opinions in 1776, I don’t recall many making military service a big issue (though, at the same time, I have never read campaign literature with this is a major thought in my mind).

I have, however, done a cursory run through the Senate rolls at the start of Jefferson’s term of office. This suggests that Democratic-Republican Senators were considerably more likely than not to have served in the militia or the Continental Army (11-3); the reverse is true for the Federalists (6-8; 6 Senators were too young for military service to have been a realistic expectation). It’s a cursory glance, but I wonder if Jefferson was given cover by the fact that his party’s leaders seemed to have ‘done their patriotic duty’ at a time when Federalists were enjoying fancy educations and being called to the bar.

My suspicion is, though, that if there had been another military figure with even half the stature of Washington who had been equipped to run in 1800, Jefferson may have faced a more damaging critique than the slander thrown around in the 1800 election campaign. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

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Founding Failures

Having studied American history (and taken more than a passing interest in American politics and culture) for so many years, it no longer surprises me how frequently the founding generation is wheeled out to justify policy from politicians of all stripes. One thing that does consistently amaze me, however, is the extent to which minor incidents from many years ago can suddenly be blown up into huge political controversies.

This is a trope employed by politicians and news media alike. In the last couple of weeks, The New Republic has pored over Rick Santorum’s essays as a political science student at Penn State in the hope of gaining some insight into his political journey. (For what it’s worth, if I’m ever up before a tenure committee, I hope I’m not judged on my undergraduate essays). Similarly, Marco Rubio has come in for criticism for having converted from Mormonism to Catholicism when he was thirteen. I wonder what’s next? “OBAMA THREW TOYS OUT OF PRAM AGED TWO”?

I find this journalistic trope all the more puzzling given the aforementioned veneration of the founding generation. For almost to a man, the Founding Fathers most frequently cited today had fairly major blemishes on their political records prior to their successes in the revolutionary era. George Washington’s astute military tactics proved crucial in defeating the British in the War of Independence. Yet I often wonder whether a Continental Congress in today’s world would have promoted someone whose overenthusiasm and naivete helped precipitate a world war between French and British Empires?

Or take Thomas Jefferson, a man who before 1800 seemed to have a poor sense of political timing. To put it lightly, he didn’t cover himself in glory as Governor of Virginia. He lost his chance to shape the Constitutional Convention through his service in Paris. And as Secretary of State, he was rather overshadowed by the Hamiltonians. In a 24-hour news cycle, I’m not convinced that he would have been a credible candidate in a Presidential election.

Even that most urbane of revolutionaries, Benjamin Franklin, lost his political antennae for a while in the 1760s. How else can we explain his support for instituting royal government in Pennsylvania just as the imperial crisis started brewing? Lest we forget, Philadelphia’s most contested election took place in 1764, resulting in Franklin being turned out of office (having previously been elected to the Assembly despite being in London).

My point, then, is fairly simple – people are human, and they get things wrong. The context of policies change, people learn from their mistakes. In some ways, it would be far more frightening to expect rigid ideological consistency through the course of a lifetime. Gordon Wood’s excellent article, asking if there is a ‘James Madison problem’, quite rightly makes the point that a political career spanning 30 years is hardly likely to cohere tightly, no matter how much we might find that useful if we want history to serve presentist purposes.

The title of the post is a deliberate wordplay. In one sense, it suggests that the leaders of the revolution may have been considered failures in today’s political climate, even as they made understandable missteps and about-turns as they grappled with the immense challenge of turning principles of popular sovereignty into stable institutions of government. But in another sense, it suggests that these ‘failures’ were also crucial in the Founders’ political development. The right to be wrong, and the freedom to experiment, and the ability to learn from mistakes, are crucial in the personal development of us all. When political debate prevents people from changing their mind or explaining context, we are all the poorer.

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To whom were Loyalists loyal?

Over on H-OIEAHC, there’s been a fascinating discussion of how best to discuss Loyalism when teaching the American Revolution. This has been of particular interest to me, because I’ve just come through that part of my own Revolution course. I will cross-post my thoughts over on the H-Net list, too, but here are some preliminary comments. I’m picking up especially on Michael McDonnell’s observation that “a sizable proportion of the population could neither be called ‘loyalist’ nor ‘patriot’.”

The problem inherent in discussing the phenomenon of political identity during the revolutionary war seems to be that which McDonnell hits on – there is simply too great a part of the population that doesn’t fit into neat categories. More to the point, there is no easy way of overcoming this difficulty of labeling. The most ardent patriots deemed anyone who did not give enthusiastic support to the war effort as inherently suspect. On the other hand, those who most ardently desired reconciliation with Britain took any sign of hesitation towards Independence as proof of the superiority of their own side.

In short, even if we look for a contemporary definition of ‘loyalism’, we’re not going to find much more than a complicated mess. That’s a problem that’s also reflected in the historiography. While there’s been a recent increase in writings looking at those who remained loyal to Britain, there are limits to the populations that they study. Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles, for example, looks at those who left America to remain in the British Empire – but while the book sheds important new light on the limits of the Revolution, it also (by definition) draws a tight line around loyalism. Clearly, many who may even have actively supported the British during the war did not leave America.

That leaves a quite troubling question: if we are talking about ‘loyalists’ who ultimately did not end up living as subjects of the British Crown, who were they loyal to?

In my teaching, I address this question as one of political mobilization. Like Joe Adelman, I also use Ed Larkin’s Common-place piece, ‘What is a Loyalist?’, and start off discussion by asking my class which definition of loyalism they find most compelling. This is a useful exercise, because you can always throw in complicating examples. One ‘Loyalist’ not mentioned in the discussion so far has been Tench Coxe – how do we account for someone who so prominently switched sides, twice?

The main thrust of teaching this is to emphasize the importance of the experience of war. To my mind, a lot of the seeming oddities of the politics of the 1780s are much better explained once placed in the context of an angry soldier population who view many of their fellow citizens as having benefited from the blessings of Independence without the sacrifice.  This leads, in some ways, to a conclusion that though we can tell the experience of the revolutionary war was far more complicated than the patriot-loyalist binary suggests, a division between ‘patriot’ and ‘non-patriot’/’reluctant patriot’ has a very real political meaning in the 1780s. This also complicates notions of equality and citizenship – and, by framing it in terms of wartime mobilization and political identity, I think it helps link the experience of war to the politics of the years of the Articles of Confederation.

The logical conclusion of this is that ‘loyalist’ is a term that obscures more than it helps, given its connotations of continued subjection to the British monarch. That seems to trivialize the choice of those who remained in America – yet as other participants in the discussion have pointed out, these were decisions that frequently tore families apart. Similarly, for a number of reasons, those who did remain were later able to participate fully, actively, and significantly in the development of the republic. That’s why, ultimately, I take the approach I do – to emphasize that the Revolution was not a shared experience, and that the development of an American national identity was a far more complicated and contested process than a ‘patriot/loyalist’ narrative would suggest.

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Teaching Localities

Over at Darren Reid’s blog, Mark Cheathem has some interesting things to say about the concept of the ‘Age of Jackson’. In particular, he notes that his students in Tennessee look at the 1820s and 1830s very differently from his former students in New England.

At my current university, the Early Republic course is entitled “Jacksonian Democracy,” which I find a bit limiting. (I prefer “Jacksonian America,” which speaks of more than politics, but changing a longtime course title is a more difficult process than one might imagine.) That course title works at a Tennessee university, because many of our students are state residents and have some awareness of Jackson and The Hermitage. When I taught in New Hampshire, I chose the course title “Republicanism, Democracy, and Expansion, 1789-1845,”

As I finalize my syllabi for next quarter, I have been reflecting on whether teaching in Ohio means that I should give a particularly midwestern flavor to my courses. Teaching a course on Native Americans in the fall quarter, I noticed a particular interest among students when discussing the Shawnee, Mingo, and other nations in the Ohio Valley. Teaching just miles from Point Pleasant, this perhaps isn’t surprising. As I go back over my lecture notes and reading lists, I’ve been reminded of this positive response, and I’m trying to adjust accordingly.

What, though, is the purpose of teaching a course on any aspect of early American history? One of the animating principles in my research and teaching is that the past is complicated. Another is that the key story of American political development is the struggle to fuse together the competing interests of a variety of very different localities. So what is important and crucial in Ohio may be anathema in Georgia or Maine.

The important contributions of comparative and transnational history also have to be considered here. In teaching the survey course, for example, I emphasize the importance of the international context in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, or in the formation of the federal government. Often, this is a necessary counterweight to the use of personal pronouns when writing about the American founding – it is harder to think of something as “our” history when being asked to view events from an outside perspective.

Yet what is the purpose of teaching history if it is not to make students more informed about the world around them? That requires an understanding of local events as much as it does international ones – after all, most Americans did not experience the Revolution as a transnational event, but rather a troubling and fraught local one. That’s even without mentioning the importance of a sense of place in understanding the past (I know my understanding of the Revolution was transformed by walking the streets of many of the major East Coast cities). A notch in favor of a local emphasis.

That case is bolstered by another key objective in teaching – the ‘transferable skills’ of critical thinking and analytical writing. The challenge of teaching history lies in striking a balance between gaining new factual knowledge, and being able to interpret it accurately. Clearly, the higher the baseline of original knowledge, the less time that needs to be spent giving out factual information. It’s much easier to explain Native American warfare when referring to locations close to the home towns of my students!

And yet there is an uneasiness I find in gearing my course too closely in that direction. It seems like it tends towards easy familiarity and safe answers, rather than challenging students to step outside of their usual terms of reference. In terms of my classes next quarter, my hunch is that Native American history will be sufficiently unfamiliar that a concentration on the Ohio Valley will help compensate for some of the novelties and difficulties of the course. For the Early Republic, a wider view will be necessary – to emphasize just how heterogeneous a polity the newly United States really was. Yet at the same time I wonder – if it engages students more readily, is greater localism in teaching material that much of a curse?


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Commemorating the War of 1812

It’s amazing what happens when you take a day to get some lecture writing done. I turned my back from social media for a day, and I return to find a fascinating discussion on Twitter about the War of 1812. The discussion was subsequently picked up on the blogs of Joe Adelman and Dael Norwood. The key question was whether there should be greater support for commemorations of the bicentennial. This blog post is going to offer a couple of facetious suggestions as to why there should be public commemorations of the War of 1812. Of course, in making these suggestions, I’m also demonstrating exactly why there isn’t a clamour for commemoration. But here goes:

1)      The most stellar careers are never universally successful.

When we think of James Madison, we’re most likely to think of the Father of the Constitution. The worthy student of politics who invested so much of his time and energy to minute the Constitutional Convention. The author of some of the best writing on political behavior ever committed to paper. The democrat whose determination ensured the adoption of the Bill of Rights even when many of his contemporaries had moved on.

Not a bad list of achievements, by any means. But his record as President was far more in keeping with his small physical stature. Though obsessed for many years with preventing British attacks on American shipping and the impressment of seamen, his policies were disastrous. The Embargo of 1807 did little to affect Britain, though it did destroy the New England economy. The War of 1812, meanwhile, was a struggle from the start, with the New England states unwilling to commit militia. The absence of a national bank, whose charter had recently expired, made the war hard to finance. Not the record you’d hope for from a ‘war President’. Public attention to Madison’s executive career would be a salutary reminder that even the wisest of men aren’t able to achieve great things all the time.

2)      There are limits to what governments are able to achieve in terms of policy, even in the realm of international relations.

The History Channel would like us to remember the War of 1812 as a ‘Redeclaration of Independence’. Yet to suppose that the War of 1812 is remembered in Britain as a defeat would be to stretch the imagination beyond belief (in other words, Americans, get over yourselves). It’s no accident that, as Dael points out, it is the Canadians who want to commemorate the war. After all, they did the really cool stuff, especially in burning down the White House.

The broader point is that for all that the US was able to claim victory at the Battle of New Orleans, the ‘victory’ (such as it was) had little to do with achieving the original aims of the war – to prevent British abuses on American naval power. Whether in embargoes on trade or in fighting, the federal government was unable to achieve its foreign policy aims. Government cannot always provide a direct solution to problems, no matter how great the resources it is prepared to use.

3)      Public protest has always been a feature of American politics – even during times of war.

New England really did not like the War of 1812, or ‘Mr Madison’s War’, as they termed it. Let me restate that – they really, really didn’t like the War of 1812. They disliked it so much they went so far as to call a secret convention at Hartford to discuss changing the constitution to make sure that it could never happen again.

Of course, New England had the curse of bad timing. By the time they made their meeting public and went to Washington to seek constitutional amendments, the war was over and the country was celebrating the glorious triumph of Old Hickory in New Orleans. Consequently, the Federalists were all the more easily portrayed as unpatriotic and looking after number one, and never seriously competed on a national level again.

Yet I find it remarkable that such vehement dissent was tolerated. One of the key principles of my own research is that conflict is inherent in politics – and that this conflict can be inherently productive. In today’s world, I think it would be productive for both sides of the political divide to realize that protest and opposition has always been present in American history – even at times when the future of the nation was at stake. The opposition of the Hartford Convention failed – but it demonstrates there were real alternatives to Madison’s leadership. The outcome of the war (and the war-making powers of the Presidency) were by no means set in stone.

4)      The outcome of events is often contingent on other, distant, uncontrollable events.

It is one of the famous ironies of history that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war ended. That didn’t make things any better for those killed, of course – but there wasn’t enough time for news of the Treaty of Ghent to reach the US before hostilities commenced. Why did peace come at this time? Well, because the USA was tiring of the war, and Britain was tiring of diverting resources to protect Canada when it really wanted to give Napoleon a good whipping instead. Without understanding an international context, the events ending the War of 1812 simply do not make sense. It’s a point that has been made by other authors in the past – but especially when it comes to military matters, small, seemingly insignificant factors can assume signal importance. Remembering the War of 1812 was a sideshow in a war convulsing the major world powers of the time would be another useful reminder that history sometimes requires a broader purview than investigating a narrow locality.


The War of 1812 ultimately demonstrates that history is not an uncomplicated victory march. It is, in some ways, the lack of memorable events which makes the war itself worth commemorating. War is not a glorious, pre-ordained victory march. Nor is it necessarily best characterized as a valiant struggle carried by self-sacrificing troops. It’s messy, there are winners and losers, and it reminds us of the limits of human actions. Salutary lessons, I submit, and worthy of wider reflection.

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Handwriting and Examinations

This story from the Daily Telegraph, which claims Oxford finalists are little better than A-Level students, strikes me as a little over the top. Though examiners’ reports are typically well written, they are also an opportunity to vent on frustrations that have built up over a month of demanding work for the examination board. Spelling or factual errors that are seen once a week in a set of tutorials appear far more serious when you’ve been ploughing through thousands of scripts in quick succession.

There is one point, though, that is worth further consideration.

“Handwriting was so poor that “scripts from dyslexic candidates proved a welcome relief because they were typed,” one added.”

Something I’ve noticed, both in invigilating and marking scripts over the last couple of years, is the effect of the increasing reliance on computers in producing written work. The speed at which students can write in exams appears to be slower than was the case even in my generation. I can look around half an hour into an exam, and I’ll almost certainly find a number of students shaking their arms to relieve the pressure of writing.

Similarly, I suspect that my expectations for the amount of writing possible in an hour are quite different from those of my students. Not in the sense that teachers always have higher expectations, but in the sense that students these days are simply not equipped to write that quickly by hand.

I’ve been wondering what is the right way to respond to this. There is a value to closed-room examinations – real life demands an ability to recall information and think clearly under pressure. But the value of a written exam diminishes if you can’t expect sufficient depth in an answer. Allowing for someone to write 15 words a minute in a 50-minute midterm gives about 750 words to play with. That’s long enough to stretch candidates and get a good idea of a candidate’s ability – in other words, it’s just long enough that it’s hard to bluster.

But what if the expectation should be 10 words? 500 words might also be enough to screen the good from the very good. It may, on the other hand, mean it’s easier to hide significant gaps in knowledge. Yet there are also practical constraints on how long an examination can be – often defined by university policies. And the less comprehensive an exam, the tougher it is to reward the good students, or to encourage a real depth of learning.

I’m not sure what the answer is here. It seems impractical to expect students to learn to write quickly in an increasingly digital world. Yet there is a value to handwriting over typing in exams (the greater speed of typing, for example, will encourage students to rush through their answers even more than they do at present). How should I account for this in my teaching?

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Reflections On My First AHA

This time last week, I was in the Windy City, along with several thousand professional companions, for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. It was my first experience of the AHA – a rite of passage for budding professors, given its intrinsic connection with the job market. For not unrelated reasons, the conference is widely regarded as something of a slough of despond; those who attend either worried sick about their impending interviews, or alternatively tired out from a grueling schedule of quizzing job candidates and meeting colleagues in other departments. Indeed, the issue seems so acute that it even warranted attention at the Annual Business Meeting – how can the conference make the first memory a better one?

I’m happy to report that my experience was very different from the common stereotype. Indeed, the weekend was enjoyable from start to finish – from the moment I set foot in the Sheraton to catching the shuttle to Midway airport, I seemed to do little other than run into people I knew. The opportunity to catch up with so many friends and acquaintances, old and new, was tremendously pleasant.

Another selling point of the conference from my point of view is the opportunity to attend panels and papers well outside of my specialties. This is not to say that there weren’t panels related to my work I’d have enjoyed attending (most annoyingly, this panel was scheduled for after my departure!) – but at the same time, my chances to hear the latest research on Early America are numerous. Travelling to SHEAR is an expense I can justify in a way that I simply can’t for, say, a digital humanities conference. This approach certainly paid dividends – the panels on digital history, in particular, provided me with a lot of food for thought as to how I can integrate new technology into my own teaching, research and writing.

That said, I wonder whether the long waiting time between the call for papers and the conference itself works as well as it could. Indeed, I wonder whether rethinking the whole notion of accepting panels for the conference could do with an overhaul. Especially for those interviewing, the conference is something of an exhausting experience, and paying attention to read-out papers in windowless conference rooms becomes difficult after a while (particularly as speakers invariably overrun their time slots and the comment becomes a fourth or fifth paper). I know that by Saturday afternoon my concentration levels were dropping. Encouraging roundtable discussions or more participatory formats may be a good idea – after all, the strength of the AHA lies in the number and variety of people it brings together. Why not allow a more free-flowing conversation, rather than keeping things in such structured form?

A perhaps more flippant suggestion for making the conference experience more pleasant might be the consideration of its timing and its location. January, especially early January, is not an easy time for travel.  I would have been to an AHA meeting before had the timing been more convenient for someone travelling across the Atlantic. Similarly, despite the unseasonably good weather, surely the heavy chance of snowfall at many AHA locations also affects the experience?

So I will conclude with a tongue-in-cheek suggestion. The AHA meeting is essentially the Super Bowl for the historical profession. Why not adopt a similar principle to the Super Bowl in choosing host cities – that is to say, take average temperature into consideration? The meeting is so large that moving from hotel to hotel is an integral part of the conference experience; the ability to wander outdoors is also a great antidote to too much time in hotel lobbies blasted full of hot air (by a/c systems, I hasten to add!). So why not overload the rotation with places like San Diego, Miami, and New Orleans?

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