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). 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.” 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” 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.
 See for instance,Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory, 8 (1969), p. 2-53.
 J.G.A. Pocock, “The Machiavellian Moment Revisited: A Study in History and Ideology,” The Journal of Modern History, (March 1981), p. 50.
 As Carl Becker famously put it in The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York 1760-1776 (1909).