Why do I study Early American History?

My friend Ed Blum asked me to write several posts for his course blog. He likes to bring other historians into his class discussions, and for some strange reason he wants me to comment on early America.

His first question for me is weirdly autobiographical. What drew me to the study of early American history?

1. What drew you to the study of early America?
When I went to college, I was going to double-major in political science and Spanish, take the foreign service exam, and disappear into the diplomatic service somewhere in Latin America.

Obviously, that isn’t what happened in the end. How I came to be a history and German double major instead is largely the result of a series of accidental discoveries. My first semester I realized I really didn’t like political science. It seemed so divorced from historical context. I loved my history courses though. I took Latin American history and European history, and I loved every minute of those classes. So fine, I would be a history major.

During my sophomore year, I took Jim Leamon’s Colonial New England class, and I think it was the witchcraft that hooked me. We read Boyer and Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed, one of the early examples of how careful social history could transform our understanding of an event that looked from a distance to be an episode in group insanity. We then read Carol Karlsen’s Devil in the Shape of a Woman, which transformed the explanation for events at Salem in 1692 again, explaining witchcraft accusations through the lens of gender. I was hooked. I loved the competing historical explanations for one of the most inexplicable events in American history. (Since I took that course in the fall of 1997, historians have written yet MORE about Salem, most notably Mary Beth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare, which put Anglo-Indian violence front and center in the story of Salem, so compelling historical arguments continue to emerge.)

I didn’t think I would be a professional historian until I wrote my senior thesis. My college had a thesis requirement; that is, all students had to produce a piece of substantial original research in order to graduate. My senior thesis focused on the previously unstudied diary of a Revolutionary war soldier named William Dorr. Dorr kept a diary of Benedict Arnold’s ill-fated invasion of Quebec over the winter of 1775-1776. As I got into my research, I was faced with an unpleasant and puzzling discovery: there were several other diaries kept by soldiers during the invasion of Quebec, and they were ALL THE SAME. I was dealing with a sophisticated group of plagiarists. As I worked on the thesis, I struggled to explain why these soldiers’ diaries were alike, even down to the maps they drew. My search for a valid historical explanation led me to several different archives, before I ended up in Revolutionary War pension records. And there the answer presented itself: in the absence of good record keeping on Arnold’s march, survivors later had difficulty obtaining pensions. Providing evidence of service in the form of a diary helped them get money in their old age. I now think the most reasonable explanation for the diaries being exactly the same is that one soldier had kept the diary, and then he shared it with others who copied it as evidence of service on pension applications. Solving this mystery was so stimulating that I decided I wanted to do history professionally.

Of course I went to graduate school thinking I was going to continue working on soldiers’ diaries. That isn’t what happened. Instead I got wrapped up in Hening’s Virginia Statutes, a collection of laws from seventeenth-century Virginia. I began to notice that within these laws, the words “white” and “Christian” and “black” and “heathen” were used interchangeably. I wanted to know why, and I never worked on soldiers’ diaries again.

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