The Post and Telegraphe

My Fresh Take on the Declaration

Last year, the Declaration Resources Project at Harvard published a feature with twenty-four historians re-reading the Dunlap broadside edition of the Declaration of Independence and then offering brief remarks in their experience. It makes for compelling reading, as scholars who have read and taught the Declaration sometimes for decades come at the document with new eyes.

The project director, Danielle Allen, and staffer Emily Sneff then invited others to share their own thoughts. So here I am.

By way of preface, I read the Declaration two or three times every year, usually because I’m teaching it. In that context, I usually approach it structurally, thinking about how to break down the Declaration’s component parts for students and contextualize the document in the historical moment of 1776. I also try to remember the places that are most likely to trip up students: words that we’ll need to define (the first of which is usurpetion), how to handle the litany of grievances, and how to read it out loud. What I don’t usually do—despite the suspicions of some—is sit down and read the Declaration for fun. Having now done that, here’s my 250-word fresh take.

What were they thinking? It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s the question I start with when I’m being least cynical about the past. What did Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Congress think as they drafted the language that they surely knew would either lead to self-government or the gallows? What could average Americans have thought listening to the document read in their town square, or seeing it in the pages of a newspaper?

I suspect that for Jefferson and Congress, they sensed that many Americans would feel trepidation about the prospect of independence. The Declaration counters that impulse with an air of finality. Here are all the issues that brought us to this place, it says. Declaring independence is just common sense (if I may invoke another 1776 publication). And of course the Declaration wasn’t the place the debate independence; that moment was over. But it projects far more certainty and finality in its language than was or even could have been the case given the circumstances of the war in July 1776.

We often think of the Declaration as forward-looking, presenting natural rights and offering a beacon for future generations. But reading it with the 1776 audience in mind underscores its focus on the past. Indeed the Declaration offers nothing for the future but the “Lives, [] Fortunes, and [] sacred Honor” of the delegates. The prospect of independence must have been exciting to many. But many hearing or reading the Declaration for the first time must have thought, “What’s next?”

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Novelty and Historical Arguments

I’ve spent much of this summer working on revising my book manuscript based on readers’ reports (huzzah!), which has meant lots of editing, re-reading, new reading to catch up on scholarship since I sent the manuscript to reads a year and a half ago, a little research, and writing a few new sections. My students can tell you that I’m among the minority who find editing exhilarating—one of my favorite parts of the writing process is to pull out my pen (blue, Pilot, 0.5 mm) and work on text to make it better. Unfortunately, like many, I find writing on a blank page or screen to be excruciating, and that’s where I’ve been getting stuck. I’ve had particular difficulty with sections where I need to narrate an event or series of events for which I’m not making any new claims in my book, but which nonetheless need to be part of my story.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a section about the printing trade and the debates over ratifying the Constitution of 1787. Several historians have addressed the issue in one way or another, and they are nearly unanimous: printers liked the Constitution and hated the idea of circulating arguments against it. Pauline Maier has a chapter in her wonderful book, Ratification, on the press debates in the fall of 1787 about whether to publish anti-ratification essays, Saul Cornell addresses the issue in The Other Founders, and those are just two of the most obvious pieces of scholarship. I agree with the assessment of these scholars because the evidence is overwhelming.

For some reason, that has me stuck (and did in graduate school with the dissertation as well). Part of it would seem to be that this is my own personal hang-up, working on the theory that everybody has at least one. It also stems, I think, from the emphasis in graduate school on making new claims, on contributing to the historiography. It tends to obscure that sometimes as a writer one needs to narrate something familiar in order to connect from one new idea or claim to another. In the case of ratification, I have some contributions to make, largely that I think the debates and the overwhelming lean towards the Constitution demonstrates the culmination of the processes I’m arguing were developing over the previous twenty-five years. And that’s not nothing, especially because I want a strong note on which to end the book.

The problem arrives in how I tell that story. I haven’t uncovered new evidence, and thanks to the editorial project on the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, I’m not sure anyone will. So I’m working largely with the same evidentiary record as Cornell, Maier, John Alexander, and others. And the most important story—the account of that debate about publishing antifederalist essays—appears in each of their books. So I sit down to write and feel like I’m just rehashing.

At some point, I need to finish this book (if you don’t believe me, ask my editor, or my wife, or my kids, or all of my friends…). So I’m trying to remind myself of a few things. First and most important, there’s overlap between the people who will read my book and those who have read other scholarship on ratification. Many won’t have read anything else, though, and so the story is new to them. And as a corollary, even people who are deeply familiar overall with that scholarship may not remember the specific story. Second, ratification is part of my story so it needs to be in there, one way or the other. I can hem and haw and make a Hamlet-hash out of my drafts, but when the book is between covers, ratification has to be the end of chapter 6. Finally, I remind myself what one of my committee members told me in graduate school: not everything you say in the book has to be new. And moreover, you can and should leverage the familiar in order to connect how your new argument is part of a larger conversation. (Sometimes it also helps me to write a blog post about the problem.)

Having said that, it’s time to get back to chapter 6 and ratify my newfound motivation with writing progress.

This is just like that time when…

Like many historians, I awoke this morning and recoiled when I opened Twitter and stumbled into an New York Times op-ed piece entitled, “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” The author, a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that he is concerned by what he believes is “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.” He then offers examples of such analogies, and suggests that instead historians should address a variety of “historical processes” that led to the current day. I found the essay frustrating (and judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I’m not alone in that feeling among historians), but set it aside to go about my day.

But the essay has stuck with me for three reasons, so here I am to respond. First, the headline (which was almost certainly not written by the column’s author), which is delightfully ironic in placing the construction “X Shouldn’t Be Pundits” at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in Punditville, USA (i.e., the New York Times opinion page). Second, the essay employs a series of straw men. Somewhere out there, the author assures us, are historians making “facile analogies” between the politics and personalities of 2017 and Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Huey Long. Sure, I’ve seen a few of those pieces, and so have you, but they are far from the majority of work that historians have done in the past six months. Even when I have seen essays that employed analogy, they were rarely “facile.”

It’s particularly useful here to note that Temkin is wrong in one of his examples, in which he claims that C. Vann Woodward avoided analogy in his classic study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. One scholar quickly found evidence that Woodward had specifically said that he did use analogies, and in direct reference to Strange Career.

So historians are using analogies, but there’s a very good reason for that: analogies are in the air. I hesitate to generalize broadly at the risk of committing the same sin I just condemned, but anecdotally I can offer from the classroom and public talks in the community that one of the more common frames people use to ask questions is, “so is X like Y?” Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, but it’s an impulse that seems common (at least among my own students and the audiences I encounter). In my own case, I demur on questions too much about the late twentieth century, since it’s far outside my research specialty. However, I will engage on most analogies that deal with the Civil War or earlier, and use what’s offered in the question to work towards an effective answer. As Woodward notes in the tweeted quotation, analogies aren’t meant to capture direct comparison, but rather a way to set something familiar side by side with something less so.

Prof. Temkin wants historians to engage the public and offer factual and nuanced portraits of the past. I agree. But especially when speaking outside the profession, whether in an essay for a news publication, at a public talk, or in the classroom, that means we need to start with where our audience is and work from there. And many of them are working from analogy.

Fall 2017 Book Orders

Below are the required texts for my courses for the upcoming semester. For students, please note that these texts will be on reserve at Whittemore Library, and that I do not permit the use of electronic editions.

HIST 120 American Lives

HSTA 304 The American Revolution

HSTA 306: Historiography of a Field

As part of our discussions this semester, we have spent significant time discussing the evolution of the field of the history of the early American republic. Over time in every field, interests shift as historians begin to ask new questions, revisit old ones, open up new archival sources for study, and so on. For historians and history students, it is critical to be able to trace these transitions in order to better situate both the individual books and articles we are reading and figure out the contours of the field over time.

One of the best ways to understand the direction of a field is to examine its flagship journal. Fortunately, one exists for the topic of this course: the Journal of the Early Republic (JER), which began publication in 1981.

For this project, each student will be assigned six consecutive issues from JER to examine. These will be assigned at the beginning of class on April 14. For your assigned year, you should do the following:

  1. Review the articles ONLY (you are not responsible for the Book Review section, Notes & Documents features, or Editor’s Notes) for each of the six assigned issues. We will discuss how to do so in class on Friday, April 14.
  2. For each article, assign it from one to three major topical categories. There will be a pre-circulated list available, but you may also add your own categories.
  3. Maintain a bibliography in a Word document that lists the author, title, and issue of each article, as well as the topics you have assigned to it.
  4. In the joint Google Docs spreadsheet, enter your data into the established template as demonstrated by 8am on Friday, April 21
  5. Draft a reflection of 600-800 words (excluding footnotes) about your review of the assigned issues. You should consider some of the following:
  • Do you see any commonalities in the types of sources that these authors are using? The ways they frame research questions?
  • Are there any differences between what you reviewed in this journal volume and other texts you’ve read in this and your other history courses, for example, the methodology you considered in answering the above, or how they approach certain concepts, such as race, class, and gender?
  • In examining these specific issues, what surprised you?
  • How would you compare the topics covered in your issues to those found across those examined by other students in the course?

You can find the journal through the Whittemore Library website via JSTOR and Project MUSE.

In this assignment, we will work collaboratively to model the topics covered in JER going back at least twenty years. That is, you will share the results of your survey of the assigned year in a Google Docs spreadsheet so that we can compile and analyze data and discuss trends and changes. This will be our topic of study on April 21, so you must submit your topics by 8am that morning in order for us to have a successful discussion.


  • The assignment is due in two parts.
    • Part 1 (topics in Google Sheets) is due on Friday, April 21 by 8am. We must have all the data entered by then in order to discuss it as part of our class session that day.
    • Part 2 (reflection) is due via by 5pm on Friday, April 28 (NB: use Lastname_JER.docx as a filename template).
  • Citations should be in Chicago Manual of Style format.
  • Any reflection uploaded after 5:00pm on the due date will be assessed a late penalty of 5 points per day. No reflections will be accepted after 5:00pm on Friday, May 5.