The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down: Historiann wings it to NYC

It’s a wonderful town! I’m looking forward to my trip to New York, as I haven’t been there in thirteen years.

Tell me what you think: Frank Sinatra or Gene Kelly? I’m a Kelly girl, myself. (We’ll just leave the unfortunate Jules Munchin out of this contest.)

See you at NYU next Tuesday for lunch, and at the Columbia Early American seminar that evening. I’m very much looking forward to my visit, which was coordinated by Zara Anishanslan at the College of Staten Island, Eric Herschthal at Columbia, and Nicole Eustace at NYU. (Eric has been writing for Slate lately–have you seen his latest on Governor Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment? I especially liked his commentary this summer about why popular histories of the American Revolution ignore the current scholarship. He writes:

These pop histories make arguments I haven’t seen scholars of the Revolution make in years. Implicit in all of them is the notion that the founders’ professed ideas of liberty and equality truly rallied colonists to their cause. It’s a comforting thought, but one that flies in the face of the latest research. For most of the war, the majority of colonists probably wanted nothing to do with the conflict, an argument emphasized at a recent Penn conference of leading scholars. Battlefield successes and Britain’s heavy-handed tactics may have boosted the patriots’ appeal, but it’s misleading to call their cause genuinely “popular.” To gain supporters, local patriot leaders often relied on fear and intimidation, not appeals to hearts and minds. In most towns, for instance, patriots created vigilante groups, called Committees of Safety, that forced colonists to take loyalty oaths, swearing to turn in anyone deemed suspicious. During the war, in other words, colonial America may have felt more like the Soviet Union than a free and open republic.

See you Tuesday!

See you Tuesday!

Ah, but Eric: who wants to chuck that book into Dad’s Christmas stocking? Most Americans prefer to hear the same twice-(or two-hundred times) told tales, fairy tales that reassure them that men were once virtuous, that the Revolution was for liberty, that God was in his Heaven, and that women, children, and enslaved people knew their places and hewed to them cheerfully. As John Adams wrote in the late spring of 1776 at the same time he was on the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, “Depend upon it, sir; it is dangerous to open So fruitfull a Source of Controversy and Altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the Qualifications of Voters. There will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State.”

Whaddya think this is–a democracy or a truly representative republic? Fuhgeddaboutit! See you in the big city. I’ll be wearing my cowgirl boots and a smile.

7 thoughts on “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down: Historiann wings it to NYC

  1. It *was* a messy Revolution, wasn’t it? “Messy” became sort of the operative buzzword at that Penn conference last Spring. Popular culture loves messy from the stage of some three day music festival out in the countryside, but messy and memory? A different story. Pop culture prefers gauzy for that.

    New Yorkers sort of had some things to say about democracy yesterday, so the air over Morningside Park may be a little bit fresher and sweeter next week. Bummed that I can’t be there, but you know what to do up there, Historiann. Can we haz pod-cast?


  2. Joseph J Ellis (the “Vietnam Veteran” himself) should be ASHAMED. His books are nothing but cash grabs. Face it, the Founding Generation has been elevated to the status of god-men … perfect beings … and conservative readers just eat that stuff up. Current scholarship?? Why, it’s all written by a bunch of LIBERALS!! Who needs that stuff anyway……….


  3. There are two things I like remind my students in the intro level classes:

    1) What do we call the losers of the American Revolutionary War? – Canadians. The defeated Tories lost everything (including their oh so sacred private property!) and had to skip the country.

    2) Civil Wars are always a struggle of the weak against the weaker. (If one side was dealing from a position of political or social strength they would have been able to impose their will on the minority.)

    I don’t teach American history, so I usually make these comments in the context of teaching the Russian Civil War and the Wars of the Yugoslav Secession. So the Revolutionary War/Soviet Union comparison is worthy of further consideration.


  4. Matt: well now, some late eighteenth-century Canadians were Canadians all along, but you are right that Canada (really Nova Scotia) absorbed a number of obscure loyalists, black and white. In Nova Scotia today, they’re very proud of the “black loyalists” in particular who came to their province to make a life in freedom, although new scholarship by Amani Whitfield at the University of Vermont shows that there were several black Nova Scotians who were in fact kept in some kind of unfreedom or bondage.

    A number of loyalists also just moved to Maine, which was a fringy part of Massachusetts until 1820, and a much wilder frontier in many respects than Nova Scotia. In Laurel Ulrich’s prizewinning book A Midwife’s Tale, Many people skip over or don’t remember the fact that Martha Ballard’s husband was a loyalist, which is why they found themselves starting their economic lives over again on the Kennebec River in their 50s (!) They were ridden out of their southern Massachusetts town on a rail by the winners.

    That fact alone is one of the most depressing in the whole book, and it only gets more depressing to me the older I get.

    Mary Beth Norton has returned to writing about loyalists, and there has been a revival in loyalist scholarship lately. I’m eager to see what MBN comes up with in particular–she’s brilliant at excavating & resurrecting fascinating stories from the archives.


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