U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Use and Abuse of Intellectual History: Reflections of an Early Americanist (part 2)

As I mentioned in the first part, these are the subjective reflections of one quite new to the field. I chose to strike a polemical and somewhat assertive note precisely since I feel inhibited to do so with regard to early American intellectual history, which I feel has become too sanctified a space. I would be grateful for any push back.

I’d like to pick things up where I left them at the end of the first post in this series, in which I hope I made a compelling case for assessing the use and abuse of intellectual history as applied to early U.S. history. As I implied in that post, by the 1990s revisionist approaches to early US history, compounded by a sense of saturation, had rendered intellectual history a somewhat antiquated subfield for early Americanists.

Back in the mid 1960s, when Bailyn recognized the significance of classical republicanism to the debates over British policies in North America leading up to American Revolution, he advocated employing a fresh conceptual approach for explicating the relationship between ideas and causality in history. The key term for Bailyn was ‘ideology,’ which he understood as a complex matrix of interrelated ideas, amounting to a prism through which people understand the world. Influenced by Clifford Geertz’s approach to the “interpretation of cultures,” this theoretical framework linked intellectual history with a wider range of texts and cultural artifacts as legitimate subject matter for intellectual historians of Early America. Indeed, Bailyn sought not only to take ideas much more seriously than progressive historians, but also to reconstruct the ideological landscape that lent them their particular historical meaning and function.

At the same time, in the field of early modern European history Quentin Skinner and JGA Pocock developed a similar approach to intellectual history, which was inspired by analytical philosophy, stressing language rather than thought (ideology).[1] Thus, when applying his considerable erudition to early American history, Pocock brought to the table the notion of “conceptual vocabulary,” as he explored the long intellectual genealogy that informed the American Revolution. In a later reflection on his and Skinner’s approach, Pocock explained their conceptual innovation: intellectual history “can better be written if we focus our attention on the acts of articulation and conceptualization performed by thinkers as agents in the world of speech, and on the matrices of language and rhetoric within which they are constrained to speak but which they modify by the speech-acts they perform.”[2] Together both approaches provided the conceptual scaffolding upon which Bailyn, Pocock, and their followers constructed what came to be called the republican synthesis. The combination of the two similar approaches also became the canonical conceptual approach for intellectual history in early American historiography.

To me it seems quite ironic that both Bailyn and Pocock, who so deftly unpacked the republican view of power as a corrupting influence, in their own analysis did not employ any conceptualization of power to speak of. In so doing, they committed what I believe is one of the most common shortcomings in the field of intellectual history—they took their texts a bit too seriously. Though their analyses did not take ideas at face value (as they had identified latent anxieties that underscored republican language/ideology) they failed to heed the one truism that any analysis of politics must come to terms with—namely, that politics always revolve around power. Had they done that, they would have realized what Gordon Wood and Pauline Maier, two students of Bernard Bailyn, were starting to realize at the time—that identifying historical motivation was trickier than they imagined; or, to put it differently, that the thought/language worlds that Bailyn and Pocock sought to illuminate were more varied and fraught with contradictions than they had accounted for.

Indeed, Maier and Wood in their respective studies about political events leading up to 1776 (Maier) and after 1776 (Wood), found that ideas and actions did not fit quite so neatly. Both realized that economic and class incentives and anxieties played a central role during the revolutionary period alongside anxieties about the corrupting influence of power. Moreover, they also noticed that ideas were in greater flux than their conceptualization of republican ideology could account for. In this vein, the two acknowledged the importance of the struggle between ‘the few’ and ‘the many’ (at times referred to both by contemporaries and scholars as the ‘people within doors’ and the ‘people out of doors’) and both scholars afforded not only the struggle for “home rule” but also of “who should rule at home”[3] a central role in their narratives of the revolutionary period. However, while Wood stood in opposition to the progressives, casting the founding events in a rather celebratory light, Maier walked a finer line that was closer to the view later taken by neo-progressive historians and from which the founding generation emerged with greater ambiguity. On a more personal note, I would add that Maier had always seemed more attentive to the evidence she found in the archives, while Wood seems a tad heavy handed and—especially in his later work—bent upon echoing the observations of De Tocqueville.

Despite such concessions made by Bailyn’s students, to historians inspired by the rise of the new left the republican rendering of the revolutionary period did not sound compelling. Going to the archives with Marxist convictions that struggle for power between classes and material conditions must have had their usual due mark, they found just that. Unlike the progressives before them however, this time they brought with them a methodological approach that stressed meticulous historical research and a drive to illuminate the lives and motivations of common folk. Indeed, the scholarship of neo progressives has brought to light a wider scope of the struggle over “who should rule at home,” and a much grimmer view of the founding of the American republic.

Nonetheless, in my opinion, the conceptualization of power neo-progressives employed—though better defined and more persuasive—suffered (and still suffers) from intrinsic flaws that led them to miss the obvious. To put it a bit dramatically—but not unlike Marx might have put it—the specter of Marx seems to haunt leftist historiography. The view employed by new social historians regarded the struggle over material resources as the most fundamental conflict of the day. And while it was and always will be true that material conditions are a crucial power axis, in the case of American history it significantly deflected historians’ attention from the most oppressive and enduring legacy of the American Revolution—namely, the continued exploitation and subjugation of the majority of Americans by white men. In other words, though as always in history we must investigate the intersections between power axes to understand the full scope of power dynamics, cultural capital rather than material capital proved more fundamental in the specific case of the revolutionary era.

Take for instance two of my favorite recent neo progressive books and some of the best reads in revolutionary era history that I had in a long while, Woody Holton’s Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution and Terry Bouton’s Taming Democracy: The People, the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution. Both books do a great job of uncovering the impressive resistance of rural Americans to the gentlemen class. They also do an excellent job of tracing the webs and economic incentives of eastern seaboard elites. However, both are interested primarily in the affairs of white rural men, who in my opinion got quite a good bargain out of the revolution when all was said and done.

It is perhaps no coincidence that neo progressives gravitated towards who Marxists have too often regarded favorably as the potential revolutionary classes–white common folk. It also reflects the notoriety of the new left (which was dominated by white men) for its treatment of race and gender as mere epiphenomena. And though increasingly historians are coming around to wrestle with this lacuna, I would argue that any critical leftist approach to this period must first devise a better theoretical framework for comprehending power dynamics; one that would be more attentive to socially constructed categories and come to terms with the most profound abuse of justice during this period. Despite my deep regards and debts to the work of neo-progressives, I believe that leftist historians have been complicit in obfuscating the most glaring narrative of the American revolutionary period. We have not yet fully acknowledged that the project of forging a white man’s democracy and the subjugation of everyone else were one and the same.

This is where it seems to me a rejuvenated effort in early American intellectual history could be of great use.

[1] See for instance,Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory, 8 (1969), p. 2-53.

[2] J.G.A. Pocock, “The Machiavellian Moment Revisited: A Study in History and Ideology,” The Journal of Modern History, (March 1981), p. 50.

[3] As Carl Becker famously put it in The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York 1760-1776 (1909).

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think you are largely right, this is a very thoughtful series of posts, and thank you for them (although I don’t think there really is any such thing as the republican synthesis, or if there is that it plays out in quite the way that you have it here, but that is another matter and another time).

    I would just want to say that intellectual historians, legal historians, and political theorists in the fields of the history of political thought and legal studies are doing what you call for, if I do not misunderstand. The work of Craig Yirush, Aziz Rana, Alison LaCroix, Andrew Fitzmaurice, Ken Macmillan, Lisa Ford, to say nothing of the work of James Tully and Christopher Tomlins on political thought and jurisprudence all seem quite aware of issues of violence, class, state power, empire, and settler colonialism (as is the work of Pocock, it seems to me) and in many cases they are driving the conversations on these issues for other fields. The work of David Armitage comes to mind here, as does the work of Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf on Jefferson in particular. I can’t speak for the politics of these people (not all of them anyway), but would you not agree that at the very least, we have evidence that intellectual history is doing a lot more heavy lifting than the many early americanists congratulating themselves for not doing (or even reading) it give it credit for?

  2. Thanks so much for these fine reflections, Eran. Given my deep fondness for the neo-Progressives (and the fact that I studied under Holton as an undergraduate), I really wanted to dismiss your complaint out of hand. Nonetheless there’s alot to it. Fine point: I wouldn’t call Bouton a neo-Progressive; Taming Democracy reads much more like a populist over a Marxist treatise (which might better account for its “whiteness”). Bigger point: I’d love to hear your take on Gary Nash, who’s body of work seems sensitive to ideas (Great Awakening theology) and to race and gender. I wouldn’t know anything about runaway slave-turned-Sierra Leone Governor Thomas Peters if not for Nash’s Unknown American Revolution (nor, for that matter, would I know half as much about Abigail Adams the speculator if not for Holton’s Bancroft-winning biography). At any rate, I’m enjoying this series and can’t wait for your next installment.

    • Thanks for this corrective.
      I got nothing on Gary Nash. His body of work has touched upon so many important issues. He is most certainly an exception to everything that I said. I probably should have mentioned that.

  3. Thanks for your reply. It seems that I need to better acquaint myself with legal studies of the period.
    I agree, I have a sense that early Americanists tend to be enamored with archival baptisms of fire and view research that focuses on published materials–like much of intellectual history, or cultural scholarship for that matter–as not worthy enough. Also there is no engagement with theory which I think is hurting us too.

  4. Eran, thanks again for another interesting post. I’m not quite sure what taking ideas “too seriously” might actually look like, since almost all of the dominant historiography you refer to hasn’t taken them seriously enough. I would push back in this sense: you suggest that it’s ironic that Bailyn and Pocock failed to conceptualize power as the basis of an historical analysis of ideas that were in some important measure about power. I think there is no irony here at all, since neither Bailyn nor Pocock were primarily interested in motives (which, perhaps you think they should have been), but in the analysis of patterns of thought as structuring maps of political reality. The question was not whether ideas in some sense “caused” political action (I think Pocock was quite explicit about this), but about the substance of the terms in which historical actors saw the world, what they thought they were doing. By framing the problem in this way, rather than in terms of “causality” or agency, they shifted the problem of historical interpretation away from a kind of instrumentalism in which the debate would be over causes, means, and ends, to a problem of understanding conceptual frameworks. In this post, you seem to be turning the difference between intellectual historians and the social historians you refer to as neo-Progressives as a difference between idealist and materialist explanations, when that way of thinking is, in fact, the neo-Progressive one. One of the things (among many others) that the school of republican ideology was reacting to, I think, was the kind of easy metaphysical dualism of Progressive historiography, with its claims about “reality” vs. ideas; the demystifying tendency of the Beardian tradition, which dismissed ideas as masks for interests, or smokescreens, appeared to these historians to represent a failure of the historical imagination, a failure to understand the highly contingent and particular languages and ways of understanding of past actors. The accomplishments of the generation of intellectual historians you refer to here came about precisely because they avoided positing a realm of autonomous power embedded in social relations as an arena in which ideas were to be understood. Your critique of the absence of power in intellectual historical accounts, which in some form is a critique that has been being made for the last 35 years at least, would be more persuasive if it didn’t seem like you were saying, in effect, “yeah, ideas are important and all, but when it comes down to it, they’re ‘just ideas’, and we need to look where the real action is–and that’s not ideas.”

    I mentioned some work in my comment on your last post that I think continues to show a significant role for intellectual history in early American historiography. Here are some others I would consider equally significant: Holly Brewer, Chris Beneke, Sarah Knott. I am less familiar with the authors mentioned in mecrow’s comment above, with the exception of Tomlins; more titles to add to my reading list!

    • Thanks for this push back. I think there is actually a lot that we agree on. I certainly think ideas are not “just ideas,” since every action is in some way informed by ideas. Some amount of thinking stands behind every action. In that sense, I guess, I’m more of an idealist than a materialist. However, the problem I have with many of the republicanism, or liberalism historians for that matter, is that they started the very important process of illuminating thought/language worlds but did not complete it. In order to fully understand people’s conceptual frames of reference we must place them in a dialectical relationship with their surroundings, as Bailyn and Pocock started to do. The problem for me is that they stopped short of the most crucial aspect of that dialectical relationship–the way these ideas functioned in the struggle over power in their respective societies. I think both historians started the process of not taking their texts at face value, which is what I meant when I said “too seriously,” but didn’t interrogate their texts armed with the conviction that they must have participated in the struggle over power in the societies in which they were produced.
      I guess when it comes down to it I don’t think one can do intellectual history without motives and actions. They are embedded in the very process of constructing the prisms through which we view the world. I don’t think ideas exist in any meaningful way autonomously of people’s structure of emotions, for instance, which leads them to various forms of wishful thinking. I kind of agree with Zizek on this, the crux of ideology is obfuscation. In order to understand this process we must flesh out the contradictions embedded in every ideology in the context of people’s struggles, the most important of which is the struggle over power within society. There are certainly other struggles, such as the struggle that Bailyn and Pocock illuminated to deal with anxieties over the stability of one’s society. People employ ideology to deal with the struggle to come to terms with death (one of the main functions of religion) and many more. But the struggle for power is almost always at the center. Certainly when it comes to political ideology.

      • Thanks for an interesting perspective over the republican historiography.

        I’m wondering if you could clarify the role you see for intellectual historians. Are you suggesting that there is an objectivity (as used by Thomas Haskell) that is lacking on the part of intellectual historians if certain insights, through their unique historical “interrogations,” are not brought to the surface?

      • I was commenting on this section:

        “The problem for me is that they stopped short of the most crucial aspect of that dialectical relationship–the way these ideas functioned in the struggle over power in their respective societies. I think both historians started the process of not taking their texts at face value, which is what I meant when I said “too seriously,” but didn’t interrogate their texts armed with the conviction that they must have participated in the struggle over power in the societies in which they were produced.”

  5. Mark, I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Haskell’s notion of objectivity. But I’d be interested to know more. I hope in my next and last post in the series to formulate exactly what I would like to see more from intellectual historians. I guess at bottom I would like for intellectual history to help us better understand the machinations of power that stand behind people’s epistemology.

    • This is from Haskell’s review of Peter Novick’s study of objectivity and American historians, That Noble Dream:

      “The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers. All of these mental acts—especially coming to grips with a rival’s perspective—require detachment, an undeniably ascetic capacity to achieve some distance from one’s own spontaneous perceptions and convictions, to imagine how the world appears in another’s eyes, to experimentally adopt perspectives that do not come naturally. . . .”*

      I was just wondering if the “they” in the statement, “but didn’t interrogate their texts armed with the conviction that THEY must have participated in the struggle over power in the societies in which they were produced,” was referring to people in the past who were consciously struggling to retain/gain power (or, maybe, unconsciously acting out the goals/objectives of a hegemonic existence). Did I read that right?

      I find Gramsci’s cultural hegemony interesting for these discussions because any talk of “motives and actions” implies a model for understanding what motivates people to act. I find that the most compelling monographs in intellectual history acknowledge the ironic and unintended consequences surrounding human behaviors and cultures.

      *Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity Is Not Neutrality(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 148-149.

      • I’m not sure that objectivity is what I personally find lacking, but rather a useful theoretical framework, like Gramsci’s idea of hegemony, which indeed influenced many of the new left historians. However, I’m not certain that Gramsci would be the most useful for the particular problem of explicating the power struggles in the early republic.
        I would probably go with Bourdieu.

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