In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America

In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America

In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America

In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America

Synopsis

In My Power tells the story of letter writing and communications in the creation of the British Empire and the formation of the United States. In an era of bewildering geographical mobility, economic metamorphosis, and political upheaval, the proliferation of letter writing and the development of a communications infrastructure enabled middle-class Britons and Americans to rise to advantage in the British Atlantic world.

Everyday letter writing demonstrated that the blessings of success in the early modern world could come less from the control of overt political power than from the cultivation of social skills that assured the middle class of their technical credentials, moral deserving, and social innocence. In writing letters, the middle class not only took effective action in a turbulent world but also defined what they believed themselves to be able to do in that world. Because this ideology of agency was extended to women and the youngest of children in the eighteenth century, it could be presented as universalized even as it was withheld from Native Americans and enslaved blacks.

Whatever the explicit purposes behind letter writing may have been—educational improvement, family connection, business enterprise—the effect was to render the full terms of social division invisible both to those who accumulated power and to those who did not. The uncontested power that came from letter writing was, Konstantin Dierks provocatively argues, as important as racist violence to the rise of the white middle class in the British Atlantic world.

Konstantin Dierks is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Excerpt

We covet old letters as special windows into the past. Sometimes they reveal the private lives of public figures: a political giant like John Adams or a literary lion like Herman Melville. At other times they bring us in touch with ordinary people who experienced extraordinary events, such as soldiers in the American Civil War. Reading letters from the past is a way of escaping the lifeless parade of historical dates one learns in grade school. We can instead witness history from the “inside,” full of the kinds of uncertainties and fallibilities we find in our own lives in the present. No matter how technologically advanced our modern world might seem compared to the past, there is something gratifying in reading how people once fretted about their family or grumbled about their work, just as we do in the present. and it is especially vivifying to read the letters of ordinary people who did not fully comprehend the magnitude of their own unfolding moment in history—even as it suddenly somehow became “historic” through, say, the outbreak of war or the advent of a new technology. So might we, in our own ordinariness, be eyewitness to historic change in our time.

So I have been told, anyway, whenever I self-interestedly asked people why they enjoy reading letters from the past. There is unabashed narcissism, of course, in this kind of fetishizing of ordinary people, and private life, and mundane experience: all taken to be more meaningful to the future than could ever be realized at the time. Yet in our haste to immerse ourselves in the mystery and magic of old letters, an essential historical question is rarely asked. There is not only the importance we assign to such letters—as we witness “historic” events through the eyes of the people experiencing them firsthand—but there are also the meanings they assigned to the writing and conveying and reading of letters. What did people in the past imagine that letter writing could do in their lives? It was certainly not to enlighten us in the future. How much did letter writing enable them to apprehend the world around them, and how much did it enable them to take action in that world? How much, in other words, did letter writing enable people to imagine themselves making history, not just witnessing it?

These questions were crucial in the eighteenth century because letter . . .

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