Favorite teachable sources?

Ed’s last questions ask me to name two favorite primary sources and one favorite secondary source.
I’m going to cheat a little on this one! I like to teach with two kinds of primary sources: court records and political cartoons. Court records are marvelous because they give us a window into everyday lives and their little conflicts. They also allow the voices of the underclass—servants, slaves, and poor planters, to emerge, in the way that reading the letters, diaries, and other papers of the planter class do not. Consider this one from 29 January 1657/58, Northampton County, Virginia:

“Whereas I Jane Delimus having wrongfully scandalized and abused Mrs Ann Stringer ye wife of Capt John Stringer in saying and reporting that shee marked a sow of myne which I acknowledge to be false and untrue therefore I humbly desire her ye said mrs Ann Stringer to forgive and remitt my offence which I am heartely sory for.” [Volume 8, fol. 1]

There’s so much here to talk about: gender, status, the importance of livestock, even imagining the background that might help us make sense of what appears to be a petty dispute. I could drive an entire class period around this document.
Here’s one of my favorite American Revolution cartoons, by Paul Revere. If you thought the Quebec Bill didn’t matter, think again!
In terms of secondary sources, I think my absolute all-time favorite read is John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive (1994). This is the story of a young English girl, taken and held for ransom by French-allied Mohawks. When her family finally got the money to redeem her, there was a problem: Eunice Williams did not want to come home. Ah, the problems of colonialism…


Colonial Divisions?

Ed’s third question deals with differences between the colonial North and the colonial South. As he points out, textbooks often present the northern colonies, most notably the New England colonies, as religious, enchanted, and driven by consumer goods. The south is presented as a place obsessed with profit and with slavery. I think these divisions are largely artificial. The roots of this division are twofold: it stems partly from a temptation to read antebellum sectional divisions back on the colonial period, and partly from Jack P. Greene’s synthetic history of the colonial period Pursuits of Happiness (1988). In Pursuits, Greene argued that Americans have too long been taught that New England was the source of the United States’ political and intellectual heritage. Greene showed that New England was in fact atypical: its demographics and culture were wildly different from that of the mid-Atlantic, the Chesapeake, Carolina, and the Caribbean. New England was comprised primarily of families and it resulted in a self-reproducing population of English people almost immediately. No other English region in the New World was like that. Far more typical were the wild demographies of the Chesapeake, where migrants were comprised mainly of young single men and it took decades to create a self-reproducing English population. Greene, I think, was right on about New England’s atypicality, but his synthesis has led to other divisions between New England and everywhere else. I don’t find these particularly productive.

Take religion, for example. New England’s puritans were a pious lot, and the Chesapeake harbored England’s lawless and godless. New Englanders lived in an enchanted, supernatural world, full of devils and witches and  portents. In Virginia, damned souls made tobacco for profit (apologies to Edward Bond). It’s a common portrait, and it would make historians’ lives so much simpler if it were true. But it isn’t. Consider this document:

“Upon the first day of April my wife was washing a bucke[t] of clothes, and of a sudden her clothes were all besprinkled with blood form the first beginning to the rincing of them, at last in such abundance as if an hand should invisibly take handfuls of gore blood and throw it upon the linnen. Where it lay all of an heape in the washing-tub, she sent for me in, and I tooke up one gobbet of blood as big as my fingers end, and stirring it in my hand it did not stain my fingers nor the linnen: Upon this miraculous premonition and warning from God having some kinde of intimation of some designe of the Indians (though nothing appeared till that day) I provided for defence, and though we were but five men and mistrusted not any villainy towards us before: yet we secured our selves against 20 savages which were three houres that day about my house. Blessed be the name of God.”

You’d think that this prophetic bit of blood in the laundry came from New England, but if you thought that, you would be wrong. James Horn uses this document from Virginia in 1644 in his book, Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake (1994, quote on page 381), to introduce a chapter on religion and popular belief. Horn argues, quite convincingly and with plenty of evidence, that English society in the Chesapeake was highly religious, and not all that different from New England. Edward Bond, in his Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (2000) makes a similar argument: historians must take the religiosity of English people outside of New England seriously.

The same goes for New England and slavery. Slavery was not just the province of the colonial South and Caribbean. Slavery was legal in all colonies; New York City’s population was 40% enslaved by the middle of the eighteenth century. The great merchant houses of Newport and Providence were up to their necks in the African slave trade. And New England’s founding fathers, even the oft-admired Governor John Winthrop, were perfectly happy to trade in Indian slaves with the Caribbean. (How else would one dispose of captured survivors of the Pequot War? We’ll be hearing more from Linford Fisher on this shortly.) No one in New England or elsewhere was making abolitionist arguments. (Well, hardly anyone, but that’s a post for another time.)

I suppose it is convenient to teach undergrads from the formula of difference, but I think a greater understanding of colonial English society emerges from thinking about similarity.  The divisions of the antebellum world shouldn’t be read onto the seventeenth and eighteenth-century past.

Patriarchalism? Paternalism? and also Indian slavery

My colleague and friend Ed Blum has asked me to write some entries for his course blog. For this one, he asked me to comment on excerpts from Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs (1996) and Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint (1998) that are reproduced, along with some primary sources, in the new edition of Major Problems in American Colonial History.

2. Patriarchalism? Paternalism? The scholarly conversation about the relationship between enslaved people and their owners.

I’m editing Professor Blum’s question a little here. In this post, I’ll address the conversation between Kathleen Brown and Phil Morgan. In the next post, I’ll talk about sectional divisions in early American history—what they mean, and what they don’t mean.

Eugene Genovese published his seminal, and justly famous, history of antebellum slavery Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made in 1974. Genovese used the concept of paternalism to explore the relationship between masters and slaves. For masters, Genovese argued, paternalism was a benevolent ideology that justified enslavement; masters thought of themselves as protectors and caretakers of their enslaved property. By embracing a paternalistic ideology, southern planters also believed they could blunt the increasingly powerful critique of slavery emanating from abolitionists in the north. Paternalism was, though, a site of resistance for enslaved people, who manipulated their masters’ ideological commitment to slavery to gain slightly better conditions. Genovese embraced a Marxist interpretation of slavery, arguing that the south was a closed, precapitalist system. Genovese’s Marxism also led him to focus on slave resistance.

Genovese’s emphasis on paternalism has continued, though without the Marxist imprimatur, in more recent antebellum historiography (for example, Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Inside the Antebellum Slave Market). Historians of early American slavery also read paternalism back into the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and I think that’s the conversation between Brown and Morgan. What isn’t clear to me from this discussion is the difference between patriarchalism and paternalism. Brown skates around this definitional issue on page 51, and I think her project is less about describing a transition from patriarchalism to paternalism and more about exploring how her “anxious patriarchs” tried to define their relationship with their dependents, whether those dependents were enslaved people, members of their family, or poor white planters. In the end, she sees paternalism as “one face of patriarchy” (58). Morgan’s piece echoes Genovese, I think, in the way that it emphasizes planters’ belief in reciprocal obligations between masters and slaves. Morgan urges readers to see that the planters’ worldview was real, though deeply flawed, and that it changed over the course of the eighteenth century—the greatest contribution of paternalism/patriarchalism might have been that it encouraged white unity. (As an aside, I will say my favorite recent work on eighteenth-century slavery and slaveowning is Rhys Isaac’s Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom.)
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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.

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Welcome to Sex, Lies, and Depositions

Since the good folks at Phi Beta Kappa were interested, I’m posting this! I’ve taught versions of the course before.

Prof. R. Goetz History 486 Spring 2011 (Office Hours Mon 10-12) rgoetz@rice.edu

Sex, Lies, and Depositions

(Microhistories of Virginia County Court Records)

Court records are fascinating sources for understanding the ordinary and extraordinary experiences of early Virginians. The surviving court records of Northampton County, Virginia are full of amazing stories of libel, slander, theft, attempted murder, fights, great escapes by servants and slaves, rape, and illicit sex. They are also full of the more mundane legalities of everyday Virginia life: petitions, suits for the collection of debt, probate of wills, and the registration of cattle brands. These seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century records are by far the best source for hearing the echoes of the voices of ordinary Virginians; nowhere else can historians find the words and experiences of planters, both wealthy and poor, indentured servants, African slaves, free blacks, and women, both married and unwed. In this course students will read in these records and produce a 20-25 page research paper based on a court case or set of court cases, learning as they work the historians’ craft of researching and writing about the past.

Required Readings:

• John Ruston Pagan, Anne Orthwood’s Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia (Oxford University Press, 2003).

• Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (Seventh Edition) (University of Chicago Press, 2007).
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Parson Weems and David Barton–Traveling Salesmen/preachers

I have a fondness for the absurd, and there are few things more absurdly enjoyable than the collected writings of Mason Locke Weems. Parson Weems, as he dubbed himself, was not actually a parson, but rather a printer, traveling books salesman, entrepreneur, and fabulist of the highest order. He had an eye for opportunity, making his name (though his fame was unaccompanied by fortune) by publishing his masterpiece, A History of the Life, Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (1800), a few weeks after his hero’s death. The good parson circumnavigated the southern United States peddling his biography of Washington—I say “biography,” but Parson Weems’s writing hardly meets the modern definition. Weems has the dubious distinction of being the originator of the story of little George chopping down his father’s prized cherry tree, and then owning up to his sin by piously intoning “I can’t tell a lie, Pa, you know I can’t.” Parson Weems made that story up out of whole cloth, as he did so many others about Washington and his other subjects (Francis Marion, Benjamin Franklin, and William Penn).
Weems had a habit of recreating the colonial and revolutionary American world for his readers, and he did it, I think, to show readers a lost world of religiosity and virtue, and to urge them to begin that lost world anew. Weems was a prophet of the past as well as the future, fashioning each to suit his vision of what America was and would be yet again.
Weems was much on my mind this morning, since my twitter feed and email inbox overflowed with the New York Times story about David Barton. Mr. Barton, the Times tells us helpfully, “is a self-taught historian who is described by several conservative presidential aspirants as a valued adviser and a source of historical and biblical justification for their policies.” I have long familiarly with Barton; he has been a thorn in the side of progressive educators in Texas for decades. (I myself am the product of public education in Texas.) Barton, autodidact and spiritual advisor, is also the founder of Wallbuilders, a dominionist organization whose goal “is to exert a direct and positive influence in government, education, and the family by (1) educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country; (2) providing information to federal, state, and local officials as they develop public policies which reflect Biblical values; and (3) encouraging Christians to be involved in the civic arena.” Barton sees the hand of God clearly in the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and in the country’s early history, and he also sees a present in which secularists and atheists are destroying the fabric of God’s kingdom on earth. In a well-publicized controversy last year, Barton was hired by the Texas State Board of Education as an evaluator of the state’s social studies curriculum; he billed himself an “expert reviewer” (though his formal education, from Oral Roberts University, is in religion) and offered factually, er, unreliable recommendations to increase schoolchildren’s knowledge of the virtue and religion of the founding generation.
I have long thought that Parson Weems, nineteenth-century fantasist, and David Barton have much in common. Like Weems, Barton criss-crosses the country selling his version of the past to all comers. Like Weems, Barton excels at cherry-picking quotes from the hallowed Founders, often folks like George Washington, to suit not the art of historical inquiry, but rather to bring about a future that matches the past—or the past as he remembers it to have been. David Barton’s American history is untainted by nastiness—it is a peaceful place, inhabited by industrious, pious, Christian white people who brought the light and wonder of God to the new world. In return, God granted them a biblical Republic and His protection—a protection that Barton darkly believes will soon be withdrawn if the United States does not change course. In this past, there was no violence, imperialism, slavery, or racism. Such blemishes do not become a vision of the past perfect.
Weems looked upon the past in similar terms, creating a history that would be a model for the future. Weems, writing about Washington’s virtue: “And truly Washington had abundant reason, from his own happy experience, to recommend Religion so heartily to others. For besides all those inestimable favours which he received from her at the hands of her celestial daughters, the Virtues; she threw over him her own magic mantle of Character. And it was this that immortalized Washington. By inspiring his countrymen with the profoundest veneration for him as the best of men, it naturally smoothed his way to supreme command; so that when War, that monster of Satan, came on roaring against America, with all his death’s heads and garments rolled in blood, the nation unanimously placed Washington at the head of their armies, from a natural persuasion that so good a man must be the peculiar favourite of Heaven, and the fastest friend of his country. How far this precious instinct in favour of goodness was correct, or how far Washington’s conduct was honourable to Religion and glorious to himself and country, bright age to come and happy millions yet unborn, will, we confidently hope, declare to the most distant posterity.”
David Barton might have written something like that, perhaps in a less flowery way. And Barton would have found a way to work supply-side economics into it, but the sentiment is the same.
Weems and Barton, prophets of the past and the future. Their concerns are the same, though separated by two hundred years: that the nation is losing its virtue, its religion, and its place in God’s favor. The “most distant posterity” they both fear, will lose God’s blessings and squander the Founders’ efforts. Yet that past remains a mystery for Barton, as it did for Weems. As Barton told the Times, “We haven’t had the time to read through even 5 percent of these things,” he said, opening a sheaf of 18th-century newspapers. “You never know what you’ll find.” And I wonder what would happen if Barton read, truly read, those newspapers. Is he prepared for what he might learn?