Monday, January 30, 2006


Technology and war

On Page 97 of The Origins of War Prevention, a history of the British peace movement from 1730 to the outbreak of the Crimean War, Martin Ceadel makes the good point that technological progress has often been a double-edged sword in debates about war.

On the one hand, peace advocates have long pointed to the technological trappings of "globalization" as evidence that the world is becoming more interdependent and therefore more pacific. Early nineteenth-century pacifists like Elihu Burritt pointed to ocean steamships, telegraphs, and railroads as indisputable evidence that war was on its way out. On the other hand, defenders of war pointed to the same innovations as proof of the need for greater military preparedness. Steamships and railroads gave enemy nations a dangerous material advantage, which could only be reduced by turning these new technologies into the service of war. Ceadel offers a quotation from Richard Cobden, the advocate of trade and international arbitration, that captures this irony succinctly:
There is so much cant about the tendency of railways, steam-boats, and electric telegraphs, to unite France and England in bonds of peace uttered by those who are heard, in almost the same breath, advocating greater preparations against war and invasion, that I feel some hesitation in joining such a discordant chorus.
I suspect some future historian will find our own paeans to the Internet as a harbinger of globalization similarly "discordant." Here you have a person who argues that computers and laptops are drawing the globe into one world. There you have a person who argues that these same technologies place us in more danger because they can be used so easily by terrorists. The Internet would like to make the world to sing in perfect harmony ... except that it's also the place where pictures of hostages are posted and terrorist attacks are planned.

As a result, the very things that are supposed to be bringing us closer together--say, airplanes and cell phones--also function in political discourse as justifications for greater militarization and state consolidation, since now that any terrorist can use a plane or a cell phone as a weapon, we must supposedly devise new means of combat and arm ourselves for a new kind of war. Cobden was right, I think, to be suspicious of the claim that technological innovation tips the scales between war and peace one way or the other, even though (ironically) he certainly helped contribute to our contemporary sense that free trade and the shrinking of distances between countries are inherently liberalizing and pacifying forces.

Friday, January 27, 2006



"Admittedly, the economic needs of a society are bound to be reflected to some rational degree within the policies and purposes of public schools. But, even so, there must be something more to life as it is lived by six-year-olds, or by teenagers, for that matter, than concerns about 'successful global competition.' Childhood is not merely basic training for utilitarian adulthood. It should have some claims upon our mercy, not for its future value to the economic interests of competitive societies but for its present value as a perishable piece of life itself."

-- Jonathan Kozol (source)


"Nothing is more shameful for a man than to found his title to esteem, not on his own merits, but on the fame of his ancestors. The glory of the Fathers is doubtless to their children a most precious treasure; but to enjoy it without transmitting it to the next generation, and without adding to it yourselves, this is the height of imbecility."

-- Charles Sumner, "The True Grandeur of Nations" (1845)


"To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it. ... Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become."

-- James Baldwin, from The Fire Next Time


"There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity--the Great Depression, the Second World War, vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, 'Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end.'"

-- Kurt Vonnegut, from A Man Without a Country


"Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy."

-- Wendell Berry


Defining politics

I have been unable to keep up with blogs for the past couple of weeks, but I did notice an interesting discussion over at Cliopatria about what we mean by "political history." As Tim Burke's post suggests, defining "political history" raises the more basic question of how we define "political." That's a problem I have been mulling recently, although for narrower reasons than the ones raised in the Cliopatria debate.

In modern historiography on the American antislavery movement--my primary field of study--it is conventional to divide abolitionists into two broad categories: abolitionists who were "political" and abolitionists who were not. In making that distinction, historians mean that there were some antebellum abolitionists who were willing to roll up their sleeves and engage in formal "politics," whether by organizing antislavery parties, running candidates for local and national office, or forging cross-party coalitions. On the other hand, some abolitionists refused even to vote. For a variety of reasons, acolytes of William Lloyd Garrison believed that such formal participation in politics was sinful or unprincipled. As a result, radical Garrisonians are generally seen as the apolitical antitheses of abolitionists who joined the Liberty Party, the Free Soil movement, or the Republican Party.

Distinguishing Garrisonians from "political abolitionists" usually works as a heuristic device: historians need broad terms whose meanings can be at least temporarily bracketed, or else our subjects of discussion will always be moving targets. But debates among antislavery scholars still break out over just who counts as a "political" abolitionist and who counts as a "radical" abolitionist. (A really interesting debate along these lines took place on the H-SHEAR discussion list in November. Click here, scroll down to the bottom, and work up.) And sometimes it's important to point out how arbitrary and potentially misleading a designation like "political" can be.

For example, the dichotomy I have outlined above depends on defining a "political" strategy solely on the basis of whether it is an "electoral" strategy to win votes, gain office, and thereby shape policy. By this standard, to be sure, Garrisonians were not "political," since they would not vote or join parties. But why should the concept of "politics" be restricted to "electoral politics"?

That's one of the questions that animates Steven Hahn's A Nation Under Our Feet, which won a bucket full of awards in 2004, and which I finally had a chance to read last month. One of Hahn's central--and most provocative--points is that enslaved and recently emancipated people in the South "constituted themselves as political actors" and created a "distinctive African-American politics," and that they did so long before being declared legally free or obtaining the right to vote (p. 1). To call people who lacked legal citizenship "political" actors, Hahn argues, requires "a broad understanding of politics and the political ... that encompasses collective struggles for what might be termed socially meaningful power" (p. 3). This broad understanding does not exclude the traditional definition of the political arena as having to do with the electoral arena; Hahn's book follows his "political actors" from slavery through emancipation and into partisan politics during Reconstruction, so he does not mean to diminish the importance of electoral politics by arguing for the existence of what he calls "slave politics" (p. 3). But Hahn does argue that viewing "slaves, who had no standing in the official arenas of civil and political society, as nonpolitical, prepolitical, or protopolitical" prevents historians from understanding the kinds of political choices that freedpeople made once they were enfranchised and endowed with citizenship rights. The transition from slavery to freedom did not transform formerly apolitical slaves into political agents, but rather transposed struggles over power from one political arena into another.

It isn't possible to do justice to Hahn's broad understanding of politics here, but the main thing I want to point out is this: his broadening of the term "politics" is made possible by the fact that his subjects--enslaved people--had no access no electoral power. By definition, to call them "political" required shaking free of the idea that all politics are formal, electoral politics. And once free of that restrictive idea, Hahn is actually able to shed more light on the twists and turns of formal, electoral politics. As Hahn writes, the nature of his subject required him to "think much more deeply about the nature of politics and political practice, about how unfranchised and disfranchised people might conduct politics" (p. 2). The disfranchisement of his subjects required him to displace the centrality of "the vote" from his definition of politics.

But all of this prompted a (still poorly formed) question in my mind about the abolitionists: Why does the broadening of "politics" to include activities other than voting have to be limited to histories of the "disfranchised" or the "unfranchised"? Why can't we use Hahn's same basic insight to consider those abolitionists who voluntarily refused the franchise as fully political actors, not as "nonpolitical, prepolitical, or protopolitical"? And might that recasting of "politics" help us explain "antebellum politics" better, just as Hahn used his broadened understanding of politics to better explain the formal political history of Reconstruction?

If the answer is that non-voting abolitionists were not "political" because they could have voted but didn't, we are essentially reinstating the centrality of "voting" to politics and reading the unfranchised back out of our definition of "politics." If historical subjects can be fully "political actors" even though legally excluded from formal arenas of politics, then we should also be able to consider historical subjects who withdraw from electoral politics as "political actors," even though they are not legally required to do so.

In this post I can't fully develop why I think it might be useful to see Garrisonians as "political" abolitionists, too, even if they were "political" in a different sense from Liberty Party members and voting abolitionists. That's something I want to develop further in my own thinking about the Garrisonians. But it could be that the fruits of such a redefinition would be similar to the fruits of Hahn's approach--a richer explanation of formal political events that pivots on the complex relationship between political arenas.

To be sure, if we tried to think about Garrisonians as "political actors" as seriously as Hahn has thought about slaves and freedpeople as "political actors," we might still end up concluding that Garrisonians, unlike Hahn's subjects, had little impact on the twists and turns of formal politics. But at least that conclusion would be a synthetic proposition, rather than a tautological conclusion forced on us by an anemic definition of "politics." To presume, by definition, that Garrisonians had no impact on the political history of the Civil War era because they did not vote would be to make the same mistake as presuming that, by definition, slaves had no impact on the political history of the Civil War era because they did not vote--a presumption that Hahn has soundly challenged.

This post, I guess, is a long and round-about way of agreeing with something that I heard James Brewer Stewart say in his presidential address at the annual meeting of SHEAR this past summer. Stewart pointed out that historians of the antebellum period who consider themselves "political" historians rarely engage with those who consider themselves historians of abolitionism and reform, or vice versa. Michael F. Holt's recent brief book of the coming of the Civil War, for example, presents itself as a case for why a "dismissive view of political history is egregiously wrongheaded" (p. xii). But it, in turn, takes a dismissive view of the influence of abolitionists on politics. The book contains not a single reference to William Lloyd Garrison. It would be one thing if this sharp separation of "political history" from any history that would include Garrison was the result of a carefully reasoned case that Garrisonians had no influence on the actions of formal politicians. But I suspect the separation can be traced instead to an a priori distinction between "political" and "non-political" that settles arbitrarily on "electoral" activity as the defining feature of all "political" arenas.

I don't mean to single Holt out here; abolitionist historians are often guilty of taking for granted the same kind of definition, and then allowing it to constrict the kinds of questions they ask about the political history of the antebellum period. The lesson of all this musing, at least to me, is to aspire to a flexible and expansive definition of politics (a la Hahn) that would somehow be able to place Garrisonian abolitionists and Liberty Party operatives within the same frame of reference. The political actions of both might be better illumined by an analysis of the relationship between their different spheres of action. In other words, defining politics broadly might help us understand politics (as narrowly and traditionally defined) better.

It's important to end on that note, given the fact that I started by linking to that debate over at Cliopatria. Sometimes it seems like the defenders of traditional "political history" think any attempt to shift attention from electoral politics or redefine "politics" to include actors "from below" is a threat to or lack of respect for traditional political history. Take Holt, for instance. In the preface to the aforementioned book, he writes that
among my fellow academic historians ... American political history has become an object of scorn. Eager to celebrate the "agency" of those without formal governmental power, they denigrate the significance of past public policies, deny that everyday Americans paid serious attention to politics, and deride historical analysis of the actions of governmental officeholders as decidedly old hat, elitist, and inconsequential compared with more faddish interests in seemingly any group except the white male politicians who exercised formal political power in our past.
I know there is a long history of professional politics (!) that stands behind a paragraph like this, and which causes Holt to identify certain analytical concepts like "agency" with "faddish" interests. No doubt there have been some historians in the past who have "deride[d]" analysis of "white male politicians" or looked down their noses at historians of "formal political power." But books like Hahn's make me hopeful that we can begin to forget those old wounds. If "American political history" has been made an "object of scorn" by some in the past, the solution now is not to dig deeper trenches between "political history" and the history of "those without formal governmental power." Instead, the solution is to begin to put those two histories together, as I think Hahn has done and as I think historians of abolitionism should begin to do.

And as historians begin to move towards a consensus that that is the solution to the slights (real or perceived) that "political historians" have received in the past, hopefully we will also approach a point where the celebration of the political "agency" of actors like slaves or Garrisonians does not immediately send a signal of scorn for the importance of "formal" political actors. As Hahn shows so well, expanding the definition of politics can actually be seen as an expansion of the hegemony of "political history," newly defined, rather than as an attempt to reduce its importance or deride its practicioners.

Monday, January 16, 2006


More than one dream

"Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Along with this has grown an inordinate worship of bigness. ... Not a few men, who cherish lofty and noble ideals, hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different. Many sincere white people in the South privately oppose segregation and discrimination, but they are apprehensive lest they by publicly condemned. Millions of citizens are deeply disturbed that the military-industrial complex too often shapes national policy, but they do not want to be considered unpatriotic. Countless loyal Americans honestly feel that a world body such as the United Nations should include even Red China, but they fear being called Communist sympathizers. A legion of thoughtful persons recognizes that traditional capitalism must continually undergo change if our great national wealth is to be more equitably distributed, but they are afraid their criticisms will make them seem un-American. ... How few people have the audacity to express publicly their convictions, and how many have allowed themselves to be 'astronomically intimidated'!

"Blind conformity makes us so suspicious of an individual who insists on saying what he really believes that we recklessly threaten his civil liberties. If a man, who believes vigorously in peace, is foolish enough to carry a sign in a public demonstration, or if a Southern white person, believing in the American dream of the dignity and worth of human personality, dares to invite a Negro into his home and join with him in his struggle for freedom, he is liable to be summoned before some legislative investigative body. He most certainly is a Communist if he espouses the cause of human brotherhood!

"Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.' To the conformist and the shapers of the conformist mentality, this must surely sound like a most dangerous and radical doctrine. Have we permitted the lamp of independent thought and individualism to become so dim that were Jefferson to write and live by these words today we would find cause to harass and investigate him? If Americans permit thought-control, business-control, and freedom-control to continue, we shall surely move within the shadows of facism [sic]."

-- Martin Luther King Jr., in "Transformed Nonconformist," Strength to Love, pp. 23-24.


Fun with maps

If you have not seen the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection before, that's a problem you need to fix. I have just recently become aware of it myself, and I have been finding it very useful.

The collection contains high-resolution images of maps from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; they are beautifully rendered, yet surprisingly easy to download and view. After searching for maps by country, province, or keyword, you can zoom in and out on particular areas, see detailed information about the original publication of the map, and save selections to your computer. (The maps are all provided under a Creative Commons license. You can read more about Rumsey and the collection in the July 2003 issue of Common-Place.)

Be warned that this is where the post begins to get nerdy. [Ed.--Wasn't it already nerdy? Yes, but I am about to kick things up to another notch of nerdiness.] Having ready access to 19c maps has recently helped me to visually track the European travels of one of the characters in my dissertation, Henry Clarke Wright. (The proto-blogger?) In the 1840s Wright spent several years in Europe, lecturing on abolitionism, "non-resistance," and free trade. Most of his time was spent in the British Isles, but in 1844 he spent about seven months on the continent.

Wright's visit was supposed to be recuperative. After coming down with a cough on the lecture circuit in Ireland, his friends there convinced him to travel to Graefenberg in Austrian Silesia, where an obscure farmer named Vincent Priessnitz had established a hydropathic "water cure" spa. A typical day of the "cure" involved a quick succession of hot and cold immersion baths, after which patients often wrapped themselves in towels that had been buried in the snow overnight. After six months of that, Wright headed back to London via Austria, Prussia, Switzerland, and Belgium.

Along the way, in addition to touring Waterloo with a veteran of the battle and haranguing locals of various nationalities for their submission to Old World tyranny, Wright bumped into two of Metternich's children with their tutor on a Danube steamboat and heard a performance by Johann Strauss. All of this was reported--at great length--in Wright's dispatches to the Boston Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison's antislavery newspaper. (You can read more about the very eccentric Wright in Lewis Perry's 1980 biography.)

The Rumsey collection made it very easy for me to trace Wright's route both to and from Graefenberg. Although I have not yet been able to locate Graefenberg itself on a map, several of the maps in the Rumsey collection included many small stops mentioned in Wright's journals and letters, along with markings for contemporary roads. I do know that Graefenberg was about 70 miles south of Breslau. Wikipedia says it is present-day Jeseník.

Below is a full color clipping I took from an 1842 map by John Arrowsmith, followed by a black and white copy with my marking of Wright's circuit, which took him through Berlin, Olmutz, Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Zurich, Geneva, Cologne, Aix la Chapelle, Brussels, and Ostend.

Click on the maps to enlarge them. And remember that there are many more where these came from here.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


New digital history blog

There's a new blog called Digital History Hacks that has been started by William J. Turkel, a colleague of Rob's at the University of Western Ontario.* The blog is off to a great start with this post, which makes the case for teaching young historians to use the Internet properly, critically, and to their advantage. I've posted before on the promise and peril of using keyword searches for historical research, but I'm looking forward to more posts from Dr. Turkel on these subjects. (Thanks to ClioWeb for the tip. I also discovered a lot of new blogs thanks to ClioWeb's recent link to staff blogs at the CHNM.)

I especially like Turkel's suggestion that most historians, whether they realize it or not, are adept at "spidering" and "scraping." It would demystify what search engines do if historians were to realize that we do the same kinds of processes all the time (by following footnotes, for instance). It's not that searching online represents a leap in kind from the type of research we already do, it simply makes that research more efficient, accessible, and speedy. I also think Turkel raises some interesting pedagogical possibilities: could it be that before long, the facility of our students with search engines will make it easier for us to teach them that "following footnotes" is kind of like "spidering," instead of the other way around?

Speaking of pedagogical possibilities, Turkel also points to this very helpful guide on "How to Read a Book" by Paul Edwards, which does a much better job at what I was trying to do in my post on How to Skim.

* By the way, Rob's taking nominations for the next History Carnival.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Back home

I've returned from Philadelphia, where I was unable to attend this, but where it was great to meet people! Congratulations, too, to the well-deserving winners of the Cliopatria Awards.

I might as well predict now that things will be slow around this blog for the next several months, at least until I defend my dissertation in late March. That prediction can't come as a surprise to anyone who has visited this space in the last several months either. I have several ideas for posts, and it usually helps me work more effectively when I'm writing here occasionally, so I will not be entirely absent. But I also realize I need to conserve and focus my intellectual energy on the home stretch of my program.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


Light blogging

Blogging has been light again, both because I just returned Monday from about ten days of holiday travels and because I'm preparing to leave tomorrow for the Annual Meeting of the AHA in Philadelphia. (See here for information about meet-ups with history bloggers.) In lieu of a more substantive post, though, here are two must-reads:

First, on a serious note, Kwame Anthony Appiah's eloquent and thought-provoking essay on cosmopolitanism in the Times magazine. I'm looking forward to Appiah's new book, out later this month.(Via Ralph.)

Second, on a less serious note, this. (Thanks, Tony.)

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