Blogs > Cliopatria > Pauline Maier on Political History

Jul 25, 2004 6:07 pm

Pauline Maier on Political History

Over the past year, I've written quite a bit on the assault against the teaching of American political, diplomatic, and legal history. The most recent instance came last week, when Brooklyn's president, C.M. Kimmich, invoked his powers under CUNY Bylaws to place on the department's personnel (hiring) committee a professor who had written him to denounce the department for even offering courses in"political history, focused on figures in power," classes she deemed appropriate only for"a certain type of student, almost always a young white male." Needless to say, no one whose scholarship even mentions the words"government" or"politics" need apply to Brooklyn for the committee's three-year term.

I had assumed, however, that the prime threat to political history came in the national period, and specifically the 20th century, where advocates of the race/class/gender trinity have focused most of their efforts. The first sign for me that this might not be the case came a couple of months ago, when I was interviewed for a US News article by Michael Barone on the declining attention devoted to the Founders among new hires in Revolutionary America. Gordon Wood and Lance Banning also commented on the trend.

This month's edition of Humanities, meanwhile, features a depressing presentation by MIT historian Pauline Maier on the declining attention to political history topics in the study of the American Revolution.

"Historians of early America," she notes,"are now more than ever anxious to avoid earlier emphases on the British settlers of North America," as a way of countering the myth of American exceptionalism. As a result, since"the most prominent participants in the American Revolution were white men of European descent who founded the American Republic believing that accomplishment marked a break from the patterns of European history and so was by nature exceptionalist," there has been a desire to de-emphasize the significance of the Revolution and the Constitution.

Maier cites Alan Taylor's American Colonies as an example of this new scholarship; as she tartly notes,"the American Revolution does not have a prominent place in Taylor's book. Consider the opening sentences of its final paragraph:

. . . the dominant colonial power on the Pacific rim became the United States, the hypercommercial nation founded by the Americans who won their independence from the British by revolution and war in the years 1775-83. Far from ending with the American Revolution, colonialism persisted in North America, but from a new base on the Atlantic seaboard.

"I spend half a term," Maier observes,"on events to which he gives half a sentence. To be fair, earlier in the book he devotes another page and a quarter to the Revolution, a fraction of what he devotes to the Plains Indians. There he notes that the Americans' 'empire of liberty' was for whites only and demanded the 'systematic dispossession of native peoples and, until the Civil War . . . the perpetuation of black slavery. . . .' The 'new American empire' also 'provided military assistance to subdue Indians and Hispanics across the continent to the Pacific.' In short, here the Revolution marks only a moment in which a onetime colony became a colonizer. That has little to do with the Revolution as the founding. It is simply a different story, one with little relevance for the one I teach, which focuses on the revolutionary origins of American government."

This"general movement against political history and the history of white men" has produced what Maier terms a series of"disjunctions": the enormous gap between"scholarly interests and those of the reading public"; younger historians abandoning the subject just as a wealth of new souurce material--modern editions of the papers of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and Madison, as well as the multi-volumed Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution--have been published; and a failure to recognize that"whether it is in fashion or not, schoolteachers have to cover political history: it is part of the basic knowledge students in the United States need, if only as part of their civic education."

In addition, the attraction of teaching the latest historical fad,"global history," rather than national history, comes with a cost:"more college graduates with no idea what Reconstruction is, or how the Constitution was written and why. If some historians are prepared to live with that type of historical illiteracy, other Americans are not. Traditional history, as the NEH We the People initiative demonstrates, has powerful advocates."

What is the long-term outlook for a revival of scholarly attention to political history? Citing Ellen Fitzpatrick's History's Memory: Writing America's Past, 1880-1980, Maier notes that political history long has survived challenges, because of its intrinsic importance to training a new generation of citizens, and she detects evidence"that political history as a whole is reviving."

I am less optimistic. Obviously, few college presidents will follow Kimmich's course and openly proclaim that it's OK to exclude applicants who study government institutions from jobs in History Departments. But, as Lance Banning noted in US News,

I don't know if I'd say that universities are deliberately discouraging the history of the Founding, but some individual historians certainly would; and there is certainly a sort of systemic problem. Academics, of course, are hired, for practical purposes, by majority vote of existing departments. Academics in general are as captivated by fads and fashions as any group I can think of, and the political, intellectual, diplomatic and miltary history of the Revolution and the Founding are decidedly out of fashion at the moment. Many history departments have little interest in hiring anyone who specializes in these sorts of interests, and a good many teachers of graduate students may well discourage such interests because they do not seem as attractive to hiring departments as studies in race, gender, identity and the like.

Maier likewise concedes that the new scholarly focus" can have different ideological assumptions. You know, I don't personally teach the westward movement as a rolling atrocity and I don't teach the Revolution as the background of a rolling atrocity. That's a big difference."

I'll be soothed when I see a department--like Michigan's--that has become totally dominated by advocates of the race/class/gender approach replenish its ranks with several political, diplomatic, or constitutional historians. I'm not, however, holding my breath.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 7/27/2004

I can't speak to the case of Michigan, but Diplomatic History was fading in popularity twenty years ago. The perception thatdiplomatic historians focus heavily on the American perspective and actions at the expense of understanding the other side of the relationships led to their "place" in departments going to experts in those other countries and cultures.

Whether that perception was fair, I do not know.

Robert KC Johnson - 7/27/2004

I'm using the descriptions that the professors offer of themselves. If Foner described himself on the Columbia website, I'd list him as a Revolutionary historian.

As I look through their website, I didn't see any Americanists who describe themselves as diplomatic historians and 11 who term themselves historians of US women's history and 7 of African-American. That strikes me as a significant imbalance, especially at a place like Michigan, which has such a rich tradition in diplomatic history.

Jonathan Rees - 7/26/2004


Why does someone have to be a historian of just one thing? There are people at Michigan who have seven or eight areas of expertise listed on the department web site yet if the word gender shows up anywhere you seem to insist on labeling them a US women's historian. Is Eric Foner a Revolutionary historian because he wrote a book on Tom Paine?


Robert KC Johnson - 7/26/2004

As I've said before, a department with 11 historians of US women's history and 7 of African-American history with not even one who does US diplomatic history can't be considered friendly to those who study US government institutions. When whoever the new chair at Michigan is--David, who is the new chair?--revives some sense of balance in their department, I'll be soothed. Like I said, I'm not holding my breath.

As to Oscar's point, I'd generally agree, but Maier's comment refers to texts that, in fact, do nothing more than interpret the Revolution as a background for atrocities. Even with regard to land policy, it seems to me that it also needs to be taught as diplomatic history--ala Dorothy Jones--and constitutional history--ala Stephen Middleton--in addition to a story of conquest.

I first encountered this issue (I follow Revolutionary historiography, but not closely) a few years ago, when a job candidate submitted a syllabus for a proposed US survey course that proposed spending more time on the Indians in 18th century New Mexico than the Revolution. At the time, this seemed to me absurd, but, as I've discovered, it reflects a view that has, at least, some backing within the academy.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/26/2004

And I do not know how it works at Michigan, but being a department chair is not *always* a reward.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/26/2004

Well, Johnson did say "dominated by", not "monopolized by". It's a reasonable interpretation that he was discussing numbers, though I guess one could hold that no view dominates a department if that view doesn't reside in the department chairman's brain.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/26/2004

I was waiting for the inevitable Salmanson reply. This was remarkably restrained, David! Congratulations.

David Lion Salmanson - 7/26/2004

Yeah, Michigan is so hostile to U.S. political history they made a political historian department chair.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/26/2004

If we choose Maier as an example of a political historian--and at her best she's a quality example--you can find the continuing problem with political history in the quote here: "You know, I don't personally teach the westward movement as a rolling atrocity and I don't teach the Revolution as the background of a rolling atrocity."

I agree with her to a point. I don't think one should reduce the history of the United States to its atrocities. But, what these other studies have made clear, is that conquest and atrocity were central to the way in which the United States expanded. To ignore that, or to reduce it to something of minor importance, is to fail as a political historian precisely because Americans at the time did understand it.

In America's land policy, beginning with the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, American leaders encouraged settlers to push the edges of the frontier by promising them equal status in the new nation and laying out a set of guidelines to that end.

In their politics, our forefathers (and foremothers) debated the degree to which treaties with Native Americans should be respected and the extent to which the desires of the American settlers along the frontier should be gratified.

In choosing, with occasional hesitations, to gratify those settlers by making the land obtained from natives available at a low prices, they furthered the nation's democracy and encouraged further conquest.

In short, the atrocities of the frontier belong at the core of our political history, along with, paradoxically, our yearning for freedom, our debates over how the nation should be governed, the questions of immigrant rights, and the rise of the new industrial and market orders.

As for the new popular political histories. I have not read many of them, but most seem to be quality works. However, they are generally biographical, and in biographies of Adams, or Clay, or Lewis and Clark, it is hard not to push the darker aspects of American history to the periphery, precisely because much of a biograpny must be focused on the ways these men perceived the world around them.

If this encourages lay readers to consider the nature or American actions on the frontiers unimportant, that is unfortunate. The founders knew better.