Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

A New Republican Order, Letter by Letter

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

A New Republican Order, Letter by Letter

Article excerpt

There are different ways of practicing history. Two years ago Richard Brown in his presidential address, "Microhistory and the Post-Modern Challenge," guided us through his career as a historian and in particular explained why he had "become a convert to microhistory, and an evangelical one at that." In 2003 Jack Rakove used the phrase "Thinking Like a Constitution" as his title and played off those words as "the closest analogue" he could find for his own work. I have set myself the task of complementing the presidential addresses of my two distinguished predecessors as I take the opportunity of this platform to reflect on the way that I have come to know and write history, and in particular the history of the early American republic. Like both Richard and Jack, therefore, I introduce my remarks with a brief statement on the methodology I have chosen to use, how I got there, and where it has led me.1

I began as an intellectual historian, trained in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history of science and the history of ideas. I was surrounded by wide landscapes painted on large canvasses, the epistemologies and theoretical assumptions of philosophers, sociologists, and philosophers of history like R. G. Collingwood, J. B. Bury, Arthur O. Lovejoy, Frank Manuel, and Ernst Cassirer. Their works spanned centuries chronologically at the same time that they dealt with such grand abstractions as the great chain of being, the idea of progress, history and freedom, or scientific history. These formidable intellectual historians made their mark before the pure "history of ideas" was being challenged and reconceptualized as the "social history of ideas" in the wake of pioneering work by Peter Gay, for example, in his two-volume The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, At the same time that I was reading intellectual history, completing a dissertation on the British philosopher David Hartley and the theory of the association of ideas in eighteenthcentury British thought, I was exploring a good deal of contemporary poetry, poem by poem, building up to an understanding of what poetry is. My taste in reading and my lens into the kind of history I wanted to write were radically shifting. I was paying careful attention to texts and the tales they could tell, "taking it apart to where / it all began."2

I was pulled back to reading I had done in an undergraduate course entitled "American Social and Intellectual History" and realized that diaries and letters as the stuff of history were sources I would never tire of. William Byrd's diary and Lester Cappon's edition of the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were two highlights of that year. When I spent several months working in a public record office in Reading, England, I uncovered some letters exchanged between Benjamin Franklin and David Hartley the younger, and this sparked in me a delight in the immediacy of manuscripts-the feel of the eighteenth-century paper, the insights gained from deciphering and recovering heavily deleted phrases or passages, the smudges, misspellings, the humanness of it all. From then on, reading other peoples' mail has been my own specialized version of microhistory-microhistory with a textual bent.3

Richard Brown observed that microhistorians "recognize that every event embodies a kind of existential moment in which the course of history intersects with individual action; and participants' past experiences shape their current perceptions, and their behavior."4 For me, every text embodies an existential moment, and what my colleagues and I do is uncover and refine those moments, teasing the larger significance from them but allowing them to continue to exist as moments. When added together the moments create a narrative, but the story cannot lose sight of the individual moments.

The chronological account of Thomas Jefferson and the narrative of the early republic that unfolds in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson come from the individual moments and the individual documents. …

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