History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage, Power At Play

Everything Old Is New, Again

Or, A Little Presentism Goes a Long Way

Historians like to think that even as we study the past, we’re doing something new. Bringing fresh light to unexplored recesses, listening, patiently, to quiet, pained voices – or, more aggressively, stripping away the accumulated decades-deep varnish of myths and flipping the table on complacent “just-so” stories about how we got into our present mess. And so on.

I’m no different. Part of the sales pitch for my own work (Hellloooo future employers and funders!) is that early American trade with Asia is understudied – and so, by examining at its sources we can not only learn more about the trade itself, but also overturn long-standing debates in “wider” fields (e.g. American early republic or antebellum history). This is should be a familiar tune to all of you, I’ve sung it enough…

But history, in its modern incarnation, is not a new field; these habits are old. Even (or perhaps especially) when it comes to studying early American trade with Asia.

Allow me to illustrate. In 1937, in his monumental study of the Jackson and Lee merchant families Ken Porter complains, at length, that the American China trade is too well known , romanticized, even – and that the trend in the extant literature is to obscure an equally important topic: U.S. trade with British India.*

It was the trade with the Far East which gave early American commerce its characteristic flavor, but although the early history of the China trade has been told and retold, the story of the trade with Calcutta and other ports in India remains un-recounted either in scholarly or popular form. [emphasis mine]

The very simplicity of the Canton trade, emphasized by the exotic and fantastic characteristics of its physical background, has made it a favorite theme for writers on American foreign trade. Far otherwise was the situation at Calcutta, a British port, where the lack of any such rigid monopoly as the co-hong or any exclusive policy toward foreigners, coupled with the undeveloped character of native industry, rendered the trade situation almost infinitely more complex. This complexity, which calls for a thorough analysis, has instead produced the effect of repelling investigators, who found in the background of Calcutta trade no such compensatory romantic elements as were furnished by the forbidden world of China. Anecdotes of Houqua, the great hong merchant, abound; but who has more than the name of his millionaire Caclutta contemporary, Ram Duloll Day? [Ramdulal Dey]
~Porter, Jacksons and the Lees, I:28, 52

And, for what it’s worth, Porter was right: at the time he was writing, the U.S. public and scholarly community had been inundated, for at least thirty years, with wistful remembrances, detailed annals, and historical examinations of the American China trade.** That itself was a retread: the China trade, and it’s romantic clippers and secret hongs and smuggling, was celebrated well in to the Gilded Age in travelogues, stories, poetry, and images. Indeed, Porter’s own work was part of a new resurgence of interest in the early history of US-Asia relations, prompted, in all likelihood, by near-term threats to American interests in the Pacific (<cough>WWII</cough>).

Alas, all this kvetching was for naught; not until our own fallen times has U.S. trade with India (as well as China) come under proper consideration (though much good work is being done now).

Porter himself appears to have lost interest – some uphill battles are not worth fighting, I guess? – and devoted the rest of his (extremely long) career to working on the African American experience on the U.S. frontier.

Even among professionals, our historical memory is only the length of a lifetime, if that – and so trends cycle, if not predictably so. This is true, I suspect, in all sub-fields, but certainly in early American history, where once again innovative work is being done by adopting perspectives that echo (at least superficially) those of earlier generations, though hopefully with the benefits that the treadmill of time has provided us.***

But part of that innovation is also a calculated forgetting. Speaking for myself, it would be impossible to write anything new, if I felt obligated to fully represent every quantum of prior work equally in my own scholarship — the accumulated weight of the dust alone would crush me.

Turns out that the the dead hand of the (professional study of the) past is just as easily shrugged off as the past itself; even necessarily so, I think. History, no less than the earth, belongs in usufruct to the living  – though perhaps we would do well to be better stewards of it than we’ve been with the land.****


*Kenneth Wiggins Porter, The Jacksons and the Lees: Two Generations of Massachusetts Merchants, 1765-1844, 2 vols., 3rd ed., Harvard studies in business history 3 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1969; orig 1937).

**To give but a brief taste of the recent (c. 30 years) lit that Porter might have been frustrated with:

John Watson Foster, American Diplomacy in the Orient (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903); Frank Erastus Hinckley, American Consular Jurisdiction in the Orient (Washington, D.C: W.H. Loudermilk, 1906); Hosea Ballou Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, 3 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1910); Charles O. Paullin, “Early Voyages of American Naval Vessels to the Orient,” Proceedings 36, no. 2, United States Naval Institute (USNI) (June 1910): 428-463; Robert Ephraim Peabody, Merchant Venturers of Old Salem; a History of the Commercial Voyages of a New England Family to the Indies and Elsewhere in the XVIII Century, (Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1912); Robert Glass Cleland, “Asiatic Trade and the American Occupation of the Pacific Coast,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1914 I (1916): 283-289; Thomas Franklin Waters, Augustine Heard and His Friends, Ipswich Historical Society publications no. 21 (Salem, Mass.: The Society, 1916); Frederic William Howay, “The Fur Trade in Northwestern Development,” ed. H. M Stevens and Herbert E Bolton, The Pacific Ocean in History (New York, 1917), 276-86; Kenneth Scott Latourette, The History of Early Relations Between the United States and China, 1784-1844, Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 22 (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1917), http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000521723; State Street Trust Company, Other Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston; Being More Information About the Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston Who Played Such an Important Part in Building up the Commerce of New England, Together with Some Quaint and Curious Stories of the Sea (Boston, Mass: Walton Advertising and Printing Company: Printed for the State Street Trust Company, 1919); James Christy Bell, Jr., Opening a Highway to the Pacific, 1838-1846 (New York: Columbia University, 1921), http://books.google.com/books?id=uPRYAAAAMAAJ; Tyler Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia: a critical study of the policy of the United States with reference to China, Japan, and Korea in the 19th Century (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922); Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860, 1st ed. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922); Shü-lun Pan, “The trade of the United States with China” (Ph.D. diss., New York: Columbia University, 1924); Charles H Barnard et al., The Sea, the Ship and the Sailor; Tales of Adventure from Log Books and Original Narratives (Salem, Mass: Marine Research Society, 1925); Sydney Greenbie and Marjorie Latta Barstow Greenbie, Gold of Ophir; or, The Lure That Made America (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1925); George Granville Putnam, Salem Vessels and Their Voyages, III (Salem, MA: The Essex Institute, 1925); Robert Ephraim Peabody, The Log of the Grand Turks (Boston ;New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926); Charles Frederick Remer, The Foreign Trade of China (Shanghai, China: The Commercial Press, Limited, 1926); Kenneth Scott Latourette, “Voyages of American Ships to China, 1784-1844,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 28 (1927), http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000521723; Samuel Eliot Morison, “The India Ventures of Fisher Ames, 1794-1804,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 37 (April 1927): 14-23; George H Danton, The Culture Contacts of the United States and China; the Earliest Sino-American Culture Contacts, 1784-1844 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931); “Perkins and Company, Canton 1803-1827,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 6, no. 2 (March 1, 1932): 1-5; Basil Lubbock, The Opium Clippers (Boston: Charles E. Lauriat company, 1933); E. H. Pritchard, “The Struggle for Control of the China Trade during the Eighteenth Century,” The Pacific Historical Review 3, no. 3 (September 1934): 280-295; Eliot Grinnell Mears, Maritime Trade of Western United States,, Stanford business series (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1935); Chen Ching-Jen, “Opium and Anglo-Chinese Relations,” The Chinese Social and Political Science Review 19 (October 1935): 386-437; Amy Christine Carlson, “References to China in American Juvenile Periodicals During the Days of the Old China Trade, 1784-1844.”, 1936

And so on.

***I was having a conversation with a colleague just today about how it’s time to take the doughfaces seriously again! This is an ancient heresy of the worst kind, I tell you.

**** Said with all due obeisances to the lord master of Monticello, of course.

History and Historians, Power At Play, The Past is a Foreign...Something

Triumphant Return! Et L’Affaire Cronon

 

It’s Been A While

As Spring threatens to return, I find my thoughts turning once more (as do those of so many rapidly middle-aging historians) to blogging. I know, gentle readers, that I’ve left you without terrible puns and alliterative link dumps for far too long; the Goose Commerce thread in your RSS reader is, no doubt, covered in dust, mites, and then more dust. And, may I say: that’s disgusting.

But awake! Or at least, don’t delete. I’m back! And plan to post at least weekly here until I lose interest again.1

So, to business…

As I’m sure you’re aware, the newest shiny debate in PastLand is L’affaire Cronon, aka the Wisconsin Republican party’s bizarre attack on one of my favorite authors, William Cronon (Mr. Nature’s Metropolis). The AHA has a full roundup on everything you need to catch yourself up

There’s been a lot of commentary, obviously, but for my own purposes the most interesting include those smart things said about the wider legal context of this attack at the egregiously inappropriately-named AmericanScience blog: Part 1, Part 2.

As for what the heck Cronon himself is up to, the best read I’ve seen so far is what Ben Schmidt, professional history’s own Nate Silver, has said over at the wonderful and informative Sapping Attention. I agree with all that Schmidt says2 : seems like the deliberative democracy shoe, consciously consensual and wholly impractical, is what fits.

While I admire Cronon’s position – especially given that he is ascending to a the highest honorific position within the guild, usually not a place that one achieves by making political waves – I can’t say that I agree with his theory of politics. I side with Martin Van Buren: we need parties, and partisanship, to make the system go; playing the center (ideologically, philosophically) is a fool’s game. Conflict is a feature, not a bug: because people just disagree, that’s why.

Which still leaves us with the problem of establishing and policing standards of discourse: so maybe Prof. Cronon has the right idea after all.

In any case, I look forward to making more of these uninformed comments in the future! Now back to actual work for a change.


Image: law_keven, “Do you think he’s alive???…..” Flickr, CC License

1.) Hey, if I’m nothing if not realistic.

2.) Save the bit about Changes in the Land being the better book: it’s good, but clearly, Nature’s Metropolis is in every way more interesting.

Our Glorious National Heritage, Power At Play

Apparently, Not Too Large for an Insane Asylum

Or, The South May Rise Again, But Irony Is Dead, Dead, Dead

Mark Frauenfelder, “South Carolina Now Requires ‘Subversives’ to Register”, BoingBoing, 8 February 2010.

The cost is five dollars.

I do believe that the good people of South Carolina owe themselves something to the tune of $3.5 million, at least if they’re going to be honest about this.

Here’s the relevant section of the legal code.

Power At Play, The Past is a Foreign...Something

Boisterous Despotism

Or, which organ do you thump and twang on?

Passion flower

Since Thomas Jefferson has recently graced the august web pages of the New York Times I thought it might be of interest to share some thinking I’ve been doing on of his more famous predictions.

In The Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson at one point ponders what the American system of slavery means for the ideals of the Revolution, and the formation of individuals reared as masters. Though he ends on a hopeful note, the passage is not a cheerful one:

“There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. … The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.
….
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? … Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever… I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust…the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

~Thomas Jefferson, “Query XVIII: Manners,” in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

Jefferson wrote that in 1781, towards the end of the critical days of the Revolution; it was first published in English in 1787. The key point, I think, is that he highlights the dangers to political liberty that flow from American slavery. Those raised to be masters become passionate, wrathful despots; and despots can’t long maintain republican liberty.

This ambivalence on the fate of liberty in a nation supported by slavery came to mind, in a more personal dimension, as I was paging through two diaries the other day, one by a northerner, George Templeton Strong, and one by a southerner, James Henry Hammond. (1)

In many ways these men, though contemporaries and elites, could not be more different. What really struck me, though, in paging through each of these diaries, was how much happier Strong seemed to be, at least compared to Hammond.

You can see the difference even in the way they each begin their diaries. Strong hit the ground running, with a minimal amount of introspection, detailing how he registered for his sophomore year at Columbia. Hammond, on the other hand, left us a pathetic confession:

Columbia, S.C. 6 Feb. 1841
I begin this diary from almost purely selfish motives – Alas how few things do any of us do from better ones. “I want a friend.” Circumstances…have combined to prevent me from having a friend to whose sympathetic bosom I could confide anything. …

Strong populates his pages with notes about his day’s work, his observations of his friends and family, and lots of humor:

February 29, [1836] MONDAY. I have taken up my pen again after an interval of two months, caused partly by my ardor for laziness and partly by my ardor for science, exemplified in blowing up my hand. Memorandum. Never to pound chlorate of potassium and sulphur together again without thick gloves and never to pound them at all when I can help it. …

He took special delight in nerding out on, and playing, the new pipe organ he had commissioned, which, because it took up his entire parlor, he nicknamed “Goliath”:

December 16 [1840] … Post and I thumped and twanged on Goliath to our hearts’ content. I’m pleased with it on the whole. The dulcinia and hautboy are unsurpassable, and the diapasons and flute are very good, quite good enough for me…

Hammond, on the other hand, manages to record even public celebrations with a mixture of hypochondria and condescension:

[Columbia] 28 June [1842]
This is the day of the celebration of the opening of the R[ail] Road. It is to be a much larger affair than I expected. … I am very sick of it and wish I was at Silver Bluff [his plantation]. I have a dull pain in my right side. It is my liver thumping my ribs. … I expect to take no part but must be there. I hate a crowd. …

Partly, this difference in tone – continued, I might add, throughout the entirety of each of their diaries – might be attributed to Strong’s youth; in the 1840s, Strong was in his 20s, still a young man on the make; Hammond, on the other hand, was in his 30s and 40s, and with personal and public responsibilities – and ambitions – that weighed heavily upon him.

But I think the difference runs deeper, and actually has to do with the social and political environment in which each lived. Strong was a young Whig lawyer living in the bustling (and highly flammable, in his account) metropolis of New York. Hammond was one of the richest men in South Carolina, a plantation owner and major politician. Strong defined himself by his refined taste, his wit, and his work ethic. Hammond defined himself by his mastery and power.

That Hammond’s role as master defined him is clear from his diary, and clear to his biographers.(2) By all accounts – including his own – he was the narcissistic, passionately wrathful despot that Jefferson feared slavery would create. One of his biographers calls him, with justice, “a tough-minded son of a bitch,” elaborating further that:

By his own testimony we can judge him flawed. He owned hundreds of slaves, who died off at a great rate. Almost alone among the planter aristocracy, he clearly documents his proclivity for sexually exploiting his female slaves. In addition he debauched the young, the very young daughters of a fellow planter, his brother-in-law, a despicable practice then as now and certainly very dangerous then, when the code duello was still in fashion.
~The Secret and Sacred, viii, xvi

Aside from all the damage that Hammond inflicted on others – not a short list – slavery rotted him from the inside, even as he regarded slavery (and famously so) as a natural and organic part of a just society. He could never be carefree and happy like Strong; his power would not allow it.

This is not a perfect illustration, of course. These are but two individuals, and rare ones at that, for their intensive detailing of their daily lives. But from all my other reading in the archives of urban Northern capitalists and Southern planters, I think it is a pattern that repeats widely in this era.

I think it gets at a larger truth, the truth Jefferson knew, but never could bring himself to act on: liberty and slavery cannot coexist without consequences, even for those that benefit most from the coerced labor of others.


Image Cite: Nganguyen, “Passion fruit flower,” Flickr, CC License

(1) Allan Nevins and Milton H. Thomas, ed. The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Vol. 1: Young Man in New York, 1835-1849 (New York: Macmillan, 1952)

Carol Bleser, ed. Secret and Sacred: The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, a Southern Slaveholder (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)

(2) One of the best works on Hammond is the work of Harvard’s current current president: Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 1982)

Ivory Towers, Power At Play

Roll for Initiative, Doctorate

Or, Do PhDs roll Twenties?

Dice

Wow. This L.A. Times story — a version of this much better reported year-old piece by Scott Jaschik at InsideHigherEd — describes a colossally bad idea on which ETS (Educational Testing Service) is trying to sell graduate admissions deans.

Put very briefly: ETS has come up with an additional form for graduate school applicants (and paying customers of the GRE) to give to their recommendation-letter writers. The form asks recommenders to rate the applicants on “a scale of 1-5” on their abilities in “knowledge and creativity, communication skills, team work, resilience, planning and organization, and ethics and integrity.” (1) These ratings are then put through some kind of algorithm to produce a “PPI” score (Personal Potential Index), which purports to measure the applicant’s “non-cognitive” qualities. These, in turn, will supposedly enable admissions folks to determine whether or not the applicant is likely to complete graduate school, like, ever. (Only 57% of admitted students actually do, you see).

I won’t get into all the ways that this is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. But to quickly run down a few objections: don’t most schools already require similar rating forms in their grad applications? how can “knowledge,” “creativity,” or “planning” be non-cognitive? how would a prof. know about a student’s “resilience,” anyway? does ETS have data that backs up the correlation between PPI and grad school success?

(Other arguments against this are left as an exercise for the reader).
Continue reading “Roll for Initiative, Doctorate”