U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Use and Abuse of Intellectual History: Reflections of an Early Americanist (part 3)

In last week’s post, the second in this series, I argued that much of early American historiography—the revolutionary period in particular—has suffered from an inadequate conceptual framework for analyzing power. While most intellectual historians did not afford struggles over power a significant role in their interpretations, most materialist historians overemphasized the category of class—at the expense of race and gender—as most instructive for evaluating power dynamics. Today I would like to evaluate what the suggestions made during the plenary session “What is US Intellectual History” might offer us in light of these shortcomings.

As I mentioned in my first post the idea of a “big tent” intellectual history had initially inspired me to write this series of posts. As I was mulling over this idea, I kept asking myself if the panelists in effect called for treating and engaging intellectual history as we do cultural history, and—if this indeed was the idea—what would be the point of distinguishing between the two. Many might rightly suggest that we need not overthink such things. Yes, intellectual historians seem to steer closer to what cultural historians are doing or vice versa, but that is just fine. No point in investing any extra analytical energy into this non-issue.

Though I sympathize with such sentiments, I do think there is some use in the distinction—insofar as it might help us discern between two important methodologies for illuminating the past. For cultural history and intellectual history each have a long tradition of shedding light on the past in particular ways. Though each tradition presents its share of flaws, I believe that each comes with its attendant strengths as well. I hope to make a compelling case that a combination of these two traditions might offer early Americanists a promising path forward.

As I confessed in my first post, I am a culturally minded type. One of the reasons for this orientation has been my first engagements with cultural history. I still remember the mesmerizing effect the great classics of cultural history had on me during my undergraduate studies; in particular The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Written more than 150 years ago, Jacob Burckhardt gave us what I still think is one of the greatest achievements in history writing to date and what has served for many generations of historians as the prototype for writing cultural history. Influenced by Hegelian philosophy, the book’s penetrating analysis of upper crust Italian culture sought to capture the zeitgeist of the period. It did so employing a methodology that would come to stand at the center of cultural history as a field—demonstrating that myriad, ostensibly disparate, cultural phenomena in fact resonate with one another. Indeed, I still believe that the defining trick in the field (and the most satisfying aspect of reading and writing cultural history) is to do just that. To show for instance, as Burckhardt did, that various works of art as well as contemporary political persuasions all manifested instances of germinal modern subjectivity.

While I view this version of cultural history as a synchronic engagement with history, intellectual history in my mind has been more associated with history of the diachronic variety. In so far as we can define a subfield by its trickery, I would like to suggest that the defining sleight of hand that intellectual historians pull off is establishing the historical agency of ideas. By tracing intellectual genealogies and explaining the various ways in which ideas informed people’s motivations and actions, intellectual historians offer us crucial insights regarding historical causality. I know I might get some push back on this, since this is after all an intellectual history blog, but for me the defining study in intellectual history was actually undertaken by the father of modern Sociology. I am referring of course to Max Weber whose The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was a counterpoint to Marxist assertions about the primacy of material explanations over ideational ones. Again, it might be my personal experience that has informed my views on intellectual history (upon reading it I remember thinking, this is historical argumentation at its best), but for me few works establish the vital, and often curious, role of ‘the ideational’ in history, as well as Weber’s famous thesis did.

So what does all this have to do with power or early American history you might reasonably ask?

As I mentioned towards the end of last week’s post, I think the major flaw of early American historiography is its relative neglect of the most crucial causal link that underlines the glaring narrative of the period. We know only too well how to celebrate white male suffrage and the advent of the ‘age of the common man.’ American historians have also engaged to a significant degree in scholarship of the heinous crimes committed against natives peoples, the African diaspora, and women—and we have not by any means satisfied these avenues of inquiry. But we have not done as much as we should to link these elements together.

Indeed, common white men have pulled off a remarkable feat. Not only did they delude themselves into thinking that the US was a democracy, but they have convinced the world at large of this—and to a large extent historians as well. During the first decades of the American republic’s existence white men established their dominant position in the polity by means of a powerful ideology. It seems to me that we do not yet fully understand that cultural process or that ideology. Particularly, we neither yet fully understand how whiteness and manhood functioned as cultural constructions, nor do we fully understand the genealogy and historical formulation of these categories. That we still refer to the early US as a democracy or to the Jacksonian period as the ‘era of the common man’ best demonstrates the state of affairs. And while, as I mentioned in earlier posts, recently historians have been increasingly exploring these questions, it seems to me that an ideational approach that employs a more culturally oriented analysis, which embraces synchronic and diachronic methodologies could help us cover this ground with better focus.

Another reason I think it is necessary for Americanist intellectual historians to address this issue is that cultural historians have not delivered the goods nearly as well as they have in other fields. In American history in general and early American history more specifically, for some odd reason, the cultural turn did not impact the historiography as much as it did elsewhere. This to me is quite curious, for American historians seemed braced for the advent of the new cultural history as well as any other field. Some of the leading scholars of the1940s-1970s seemed ahead of the curve. Scholars such as John William Ward, Sacvan Bercovitch, Daniel Boorstin, and Alan Trachtenberg wrote in a vein not dissimilar from the scholarship that would be later labeled New Cultural History. And historians such as Rhys Isaac, TJ Jackson Lears and Richard Slotkin have followed in their footsteps. Nonetheless, American history did not produce as great a quality or bulk of cultural scholarship as, for instance, European historians have. Though I have much respect for the cultural scholarship of the historians mentioned above and many others, it has long been my impression that we don’t have cultural historians that have penetrated American culture as deeply as Lynn Hunt, Natalie Zemon Davis, Peter Burke, Robert Darnton, Carlo Ginzburg, Roger Chartier, and many more have in European history. At least not ones that we read, since much of the cultural work has been done in fields such as American Studies or English which historians too often ignore. Furthermore, as a field we are not nearly as engaged with anthropological, literary, or sociological theory to the extent that non-Americanist historians are. And I think this is even more stark when it comes to early American history.

On the other hand, in American history we have a stronger tradition of intellectual historians that employed theory, many of which I mentioned in earlier posts. There are many scholars whose fluency with theory suggests a greater capacity to engage with it, which as I mentioned I think could prove useful particularly for comprehending power dynamics surrounding the founding of the American republic. In short, I believe that reinvigorating early American intellectual history, albeit under a larger more democratic tent, is exactly what we need.

In my next and last post in the series, I plan to explore what engagement with theory might offer early Americanists.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Somebody needs to give a body to the elephant in the room and write a history of the U.S., starting with the Revolution, that puts corporate greed center stage.

  2. Eran, I am curious what you think about the two historiographical essays contained within Staughton Lynd’s Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution. In “On Turner, Beard, and Slavery,” and “Beard, Jefferson, and the Tree of Liberty,” Lynd is quite explicit at describing the historical sleight of hand performed by Jefferson and the Slave Power, I mean his fellow Republicans.

    Even during the height of historical debate concerning Republicanism and Liberalism during the 1980s, there were scholars working on just the subjects you wish. James and Lois Norton in their In Hope and Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860 does an excellent job providing a counterpoint to the master narrative of increasing political participation.

    I am also curious about what your opinion of the so called “New Political History” as contained within the 2004 compilation entitled Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic.

    I’ve enjoyed these pieces and look forward to your continued presence here.

    • Brian, Staughton Lynd is one of those scholars/activists for whom I have the utmost respect. He represents the course I would like to see myself and many more academics take. I think that his coupling of Slavery and the founding of the US was spot on and in some ways an exception to the critique I’ve advanced here of new left historiography. Nonetheless, I think that at times he too over sentimentalized common white folk.
      There are other exceptions, like Reodiger’s Wages of Whiteness and Saxton’s The Rise and Fall of the White Republic, and more recently Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash that tackle these problems head on, but I think we have just uncovered the tip of the iceberg so far.

  3. Early Americanists are, in some sense, the great bastardizers of theory, whether it’s Bailyn with Geertz, Progressives with historical materialism, or, more recently, historians of the early republic with Habermas and Anderson. However, I would argue that this ambiguous relationship with theory has proven quite fruitful. Early Americanists have a very long-standing tradition of using theoretical terminology without worrying about theoretical fidelity. In effect, they adopt the terminology and then re-define to fit their own needs (or, more generously, the needs of the field at the given moment). This is obvious to anyone who has read any of the New New Political History, in which the use of the term “public sphere” does not (and, indeed, cannot) refer directly to what Habermas meant by the term. If we can bring ourselves to forgive their infidelities, we can step back and realize that a number of very significant historiographical developments in the last century have come from this modus operandi. And I would suggest that is because it allows the consideration and employment of the core notion behind a theory without being so wedded to it that it forestalls historiographical development. If political historians of the early republic of the last two decades had not seized on the notion of a “public sphere” because Habermas’s original definition did not fit with the US of the early 19th century, we would have missed out on a body of political and cultural history that has made great strides in incorporating politics, race, class, and gender. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the critique leveled here at early American intellectual historians here is their lack of a more fully theorized approach, which has led to serious shortcomings in what early Americanists consider significant historiographical developments. For myself, I remain skeptical of the value of (and cognizant of the dangers inherent in) a fully committed theoretical approach to early America, one in which theory becomes methodology. Though, as ever, I wait to be convinced otherwise, and, therefore, I look forward to the final post in the series.

    • Hi Michael, I am all for bastardizing theory. I just think we don’t do it enough. And I agree, what we have bastardized has been useful.

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