Review of T.H. Breen, “George Washington’s Journey to the Nation”

Last night I attended the penultimate presentation in the American Antiquarian Society’s Spring 2016 Public Programs series, T.H. Breen’s examination of “George Washington’s Journey to the Nation,” a lecture cosponsored by the Franklin M. Loew Lecture Series at Becker College. Breen recently published George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation (2016). I have not yet had a chance to read this book; I offer here a review and reactions to the lecture presented in Antiquarian Hall.

May 20 - George Washington's Journey
George Washington’s Journey

In his opening remarks, Breen commented that he particularly enjoys making presentations about his books because doing so gives him opportunities to share “all the wonderful aspects of the book.” Public lectures allow him to set the record straight in the wake of reviewers who misinterpret or miss the point of his work. What follows here may or may not miss the point, in Breen’s estimation, but it does seek to engage with the narrative he presented.

In researching George Washington’s Journey, Breen set out to trace a series of trips that the nation’s first president undertook during the first two years of his first term in office, journeys to all thirteen of the original states, from Georgia to the Maine frontier (then still part of Massachusetts), between 1789 and 1791. Washington made these journeys, Breen contended, as a means of bringing the federal government to “the people.” To a greater degree than other founders, according to Breen, Washington realized that the new republic would succeed or fail based on the attitudes of the people, the masses that were still organizing their thoughts about the meaning of the Revolution and attempting to figure out what they wanted the new nation to be. Washington realized that common men had replaced the quiet deference that existed before the Revolution with new modes of interacting in everyday life and raucous participation in local politics. All too often the focus was too local, privileging the needs of the individual states over the nation as a whole. More than once Breen reminded the audience that Washington favored a stronger federal government as a means of strengthening the nation, an aspect of the drafting, ratification, and implementation of the Constitution that all too many of the devotees of the founders seem unaware. Republican government was an experiment, one that Washington (as well as others in the founding generation) feared could fail. Washington worried for the economic stability and military security of the new nation. This made his journeys to the states – to the people – imperative. He understood “that the threads that bound the American people to a single political identity were fragile and untested.” To knit those threads together, he took the federal government to the people, in the form of his own person, to help those overly fixated on local interests realize that the nation amounted to more than the sum of its parts.

Breen made convincing arguments about the purpose and effects of Washington’s journeys, but I couldn’t help but feel that he overstated his case. A significant undercurrent that ran throughout his lecture could be summed up by the subtitle of his book: The President Forges a New Nation. (Yes, I understand that publishers, rather than the historians who write the books, often craft the titles in order to appeal to broad audiences. That being said, Breen’s presentation embraced the general sentiment of that subtitle.) Breen told a story in which the fate of the nation depended on a single individual, suggesting that without Washington’s itinerary through cities, towns, and villages in each of the states that the people in those separate states would not have coalesced as a unified nation. I question to what extent the president alone forged the new nation. I do not disagree that Washington’s journeys played an important role in knitting together geographically distant constituencies that had their own interests. I’ll incorporate this aspect of Washington’s presidency into the coursework and classroom discussion the next time I teach my course on the Era of the American Revolution and the Constitution.

Yet Washington did not singlehandedly unify the new nation. A variety of people, events, and factors also played significant parts in the process, including merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, authors, artists, and printers who promoted patriotic and nationalist consumer and visual cultures in the 1780s and 1790s. I do not object to acknowledging the purpose of Washington’s journeys throughout the nation, but I am cautious when doing so skates right up to hagiographical depictions of the first president by suggesting the survival and success of the republican experiment could be traced back exclusively to a single cause, one insightful leader who engaged with and made himself accessible to the people.

Breen stated that the Washington who made these journeys was a Washington that most people, even the most ardent fans of the first president, probably do not know. When considering the constellation of founders that served in Washington’s administration, the president sometimes recedes into the background. He was genial, but not usually depicted as a particularly daring risk taker or bold innovator when considered in the company of his more intellectual peers, especially Jefferson and Hamilton. Not as comfortable interacting with others in social situations as those men, Washington often seemed awkward in comparison and lacking their charm, despite his general amiability. The Washington who made himself accessible to the people, who made a point of traveling to visit them in their own towns, who insisted on staying in public inns (Washington slept here!) rather than secluding himself in the homes of the local elite and powerful, who interacted with men, women, and children throughout the nation, is a Washington perhaps unfamiliar to most Americans. Washington was a man among the people, not just a man of the people.

Yes, this may be a new Washington that historians and the public may not have previously encountered, but the overall tone of Breen’s presentation – all the superlatives concerning the first president and his intentions for undertaking his journeys – does little to shift general perceptions of Washington. Overall, Breen seemed to reify Washington as exceptional and extraordinary. Certainly it must be possible to recognize Washington as the gifted and effective leader that he was, to honor his achievements and contributions to the nation, without implying that his actions were the only (or even the most important) factor in unifying the new nation. Breen tells an important and powerful story, but it is a story that would benefit from more context. It needs to be situated within other narratives and interpretations of the politics and culture of the first decades of the new American republic.

An Evening of Poetry at the American Antiquarian Society: Review of Citizen Poets of Boston

The American Antiquarian Society sponsors a robust series of Public Programs each fall and spring. I was especially interested in the most recent entry, last week’s “The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems” by Paul Lewis (English, Boston College), because it originated as a class project that relied significantly on digital humanities resources. Lewis was joined for the evening by Harrison Kent and Alexandra Mitropoulos, former students who worked on the project as undergraduates.

The title for the evening’s event came from the recently published The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820 (University Press of New England, 2016), an anthology of mostly anonymous poems published in literary magazines in the era of the Early Republic. The book, however, was not the original goal of the advanced undergraduate seminar that located and identified the poems; instead, it evolved out of an exhibition, “Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s Literary History.” Lewis and his students originally sought to examine “poems so bad they were delightfully amateurish” that still managed to make their way into print in the decades immediately after the Revolution and ratification of the Constitution, but their research took them in new directions as they discovered a treasure trove of forgotten and overlooked poetry that was good, interesting, and told local stories.

May 13 - Citizen Poets
The Citizen Poets of Boston

Lewis, Kent, and Mitropoulos explained that 427 magazines were published in the United States during the early national period. Most magazines incorporated at least some poetry as a standard feature, but many did so quite extensively. More than 30,000 poems appeared in those magazines. Lewis and his students were especially interested in Massachusetts (and primarily Boston, the center of magazine publication in the commonwealth during the period), combing through 59 magazines to identify and examine over 4500 poems.

This is a project that would not have been possible even a decade ago, at least not as a collaborative research project in an upper-level undergraduate seminar. It relied on intense archival work – digital archival work using the American Periodical Series and similar resources. The American Periodical Series includes digitized images of magazines printed from the colonial period to the turn of the twentieth century. Gathering digital surrogates for the original magazines together in one place eliminates several of the obstacles that researchers in earlier generations faced. Images of each page are readily available, making it unnecessary to travel to distant libraries and historical institutions. In effect, digital sources bring the archives to researchers, including students who otherwise would not have such extensive access to primary sources. (This assumes that an educational institution has the funds to purchase a subscription to the American Periodical Series and similar databases of early American primary sources. Many smaller colleges and universities do not, but that digital divide is a topic for another time. Still, I want to be clear that although digitized sources make new projects and pedagogy possible, unequal access means digitization is not a panacea.)

Lewis and his students were able to consult the 59 magazines printed in Massachusetts in the early national period relatively easily, though the project was still labor intensive even with the digital resources. As they identified and sifted through more than 4500 poems they decided to focus on poetry that revealed life in early Boston. Doing so required learning about publication and republication practices of the era. For instance, in efforts to fill their pages editors often inserted material copied directly from British periodicals in the absence of international copyright laws. Lewis and his students discarded those poems. They also discovered that editors frequently issued invitations to readers to submit their own poetry, invitations that anonymous poets eagerly accepted. Since magazine distribution was relatively limited during the period – most circulated primarily within the city of publication – these poems often revealed much about local culture in Boston. (Lewis suggested that other teams of scholars and students could pursue similar projects in Philadelphia, New York, and other urban centers.) In addition to inviting readers to submit original poetry, editors also solicited poems in response to other poems, creating conversations among readers from issue to issue. The anonymous poets often learned whether their work had been accepted or rejected in the pages of the magazines themselves; rather than communicating privately with these “citizen poets,” editors created a feature, “Acknowledgments to Correspondents,” in which they praised or disparaged the poems submitted to them.

Who were these citizen poets? Lewis and his students explored the democratizing effects of publishing poetry by anonymous authors in the literary magazines of the Early Republic. Although most of the authors cannot be identified definitively, many were surely women. Quite possibly some were non-whites. Anonymous publication allows – then and now – for imaginative readings of the identity of those citizen poets since their gender, race, and class remained hidden. The “citizen” in citizen poet accordingly refers to anybody who chose to participate in the conversations and debates pursued in verse rather than the more narrow confines of who was eligible to vote in the early national period. Poetry elicited broad civic participation as a variety of readers made contributions to public discourses. For instance, provocatively misogynistic poems generated responses. Lewis and his students documented poems and “anti-poems” that responded to each other over the course of several issues. Many poems expressed the hopes and anxieties of various Boston residents as they contemplated their role in early American society, including a poem about a young seamstress preparing for her marriage. She hoped that her husband would sometimes “let me wear the breeches.” Whether written by a woman or not, this poem indicates that everyday Bostonians grappled with the social roles and political rights of women in the era of the Early Republic.

Lewis and his students underscored that these forgotten poems reveal lively, open, and engaged interactions among readers. They offer glimpses of everyday life – relationships between men and women, labor and occupations, politics, family life, entertainment and pleasures – that might seem foreign to modern readers. In that regard, the poems in The Citizen Poets of Boston are a valuable resource for scholars, teachers, and students. However, I am just as interested in the process: the methodology that made that anthology possible. Using digitized sources to pursue such an extensive project helped to make possible a model of professor-student collaborative work that fulfilled some of the best ideals of scholars incorporating their own research into the classroom to create richer educational experiences. The digital revolution helps to make possible a greater array of “hands-on humanities” projects that engage both scholars and students and ultimately yield significant results.

Review of David and Ginger Hildebrands’ “Ballads from Boston”

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend “Ballads from Boston: Music from the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Collection,” an interactive performance and lecture by David and Ginger Hildebrand from the Colonial Music Institute. I was especially interested in this concert (part of the American Antiquarian Society’s slate of Spring 2016 Public Programs, free and open to the public) because I have worked with digital humanities curator Molly O’Hagan Hardy on other aspects of the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project. In particular, my students from Assumption College have participated in transcribing about two dozen of the ballads to make them keyword searchable and thus more accessible to both scholars and general audiences. This collaborative community service learning project began last fall in my Revolutionary America course and continued this spring in my Public History course and an independent study for a student completing a capstone research project for the Peace and Conflict Studies minor.

My students and I take some pride in helping to make the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project more accessible to multiple audiences, but the work we have done differs significantly from the way in which David and Ginger Hildebrand have made these early-nineteenth-century ballads accessible. In addition to their performance last Friday, they have recorded approximately thirty of the ballads, which are now available on the Broadside Ballads website. In my view, this transforms the entire project. As a scholar, I have approached the ballads from a print culture perspective, but the Hildebrands underscore that these broadsides were not just material texts. Those words on the page were meant to be sung aloud and heard by early Americans. They had melodies that would have been readily recognized, even if the words were not familiar. They were part of the soundscape of Boston and other cities and villages in the early nineteenth century. I’ve noticed in recent years that historians and scholars in related disciplines have increasingly consulted graphic arts materials in efforts to better recover and represent what America looked like in eras before photography. Except for musicologists, we have not (yet) given the same attention to what early America sounded like at various times before recording technology. The work undertaken by the Hildebrands helps to remedy that.

May 6 - Hildebrands
David and Ginger Hildebrand performing at the American Antiquarian Society.

As for the concert, the Hildebrands selected seventeen ballads to perform, though they did not move directly from one to the next. Instead, they offered remarks, context, and explanations for each of their selections before performing each on period instruments (including a harpsichord, a hammered dulcimer, and a violin), while dressed in period clothing. (This was a feast for the eyes as well as for the ears.) They provided background about historical events mentioned in the lyrics and traced the origins of many of the melodies. Many of the ballads had twenty or more verses, so they judiciously selected the most important for telling a story or giving the audience a taste.

Many of the melodies continue to be popular (or at least recognizable) today, but most dated back earlier than the nineteenth century. The Hildebrands explained that the best way for a new song to become popular was to set it to a familiar tune that most people already knew. In that way, melodies had lives of their own that extended across years, decades, and even centuries. Sometimes they were updated or adapted, but they were transmitted largely intact across generations. Performers added their own touches, but these usually amounted to variations on standardized melodies. The Hildebrands described this as honoring melodies again and again because everybody knew them (and certainly not plagiarizing them in the way we might assume for similar practices today). This reminded me of the common practice among printers of reprinting material directly from other newspapers in their own publications. Our concept of “stealing” the intellectual and creative labor of others has shifted in the two centuries since the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads were printed. (This does leave me with several questions about copyright in the early nineteenth century.)

While the melodies had variations, so did the lyrics. I was not the only scholar who had my laptop open so I could follow along with the original ballads via the Broadside Ballads website as the Hildebrands performed them. I noticed that they sometimes made minor changes to the lyrics. Although the Hildrebrands did not indicate this was the case, I imagine that the men and women who sang these ballads in the early nineteenth century would have done the same. The lyrics offered a general outline for any particular song, but the preferences and creativity of performers further shaped them. I imagine that regional differences may have emerged as well, much like modern summer campers have very similar repertories for singing in dining halls and around campfires. The words and melodies are largely the same, but small differences create distinct performances from camp to camp. I found this helpful when thinking about the aural aspects of the ballads. From a print culture perspective I am very conscious to quote each ballad exactly as it appeared on the page (and require students to do so when transcribing them, down to misspellings and missing letters), but the lyrics, like the melodies, were likely altered to suit the tastes of the performers in the nineteenth century, just as the Hildebrands play with the lyrics today.

Given that this project was created to explore advertising, marketing, and consumer culture in early America, I must include the final stanza of “The Times.”

So here’s a true song for them that will buy,

And I’ll leave it to yourselves if I’ve told you a lie,

The like of my song you have not heard many,

The price is but small, you may have one for a penny.

The Hildebrands explained that even though Isaiah Thomas made arrangements with Boston printer Nathaniel Coverly to purchase all of the ballads that came off the press in his shop, most ballads were either sold by booksellers or peddled in the streets. These “verses in vogue with the vulgar,” as Thomas described them, were the popular culture of the day. Peddlers called attention to their wares by singing the ballads, not just announcing that they had them for sale. In fact, some melodies familiar today are vestiges of songs street peddlers sang in London three centuries ago. In the final verse of “The Times” the man or woman hawking the ballads on the street did what is today called “breaking the fourth wall” by departing from the story being told in order to engage and interact with the audience. Passersby had benefited from a few moments of free entertainment. What better way to show their appreciation – and continue to derive pleasure from the ballad – than by purchasing one of their own for just a penny?

From the very first ballad, “The Frog and Mouse,” I found myself tapping my foot. For others, especially “How the Glass Stands” (which, according to legend, Alexander Hamilton sang the night before his fateful duel), the Hildebrands’ performance revealed ballads much more haunting than the text suggests on its own when read silently. I plan to continue working on the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project with my students, but I will approach the project in new ways as a result of the Hildebrands’ performance and recordings. (Indeed, the recordings will be an important teaching tool in their own right.) I’ve gained a new appreciation for the way Bostonians and others would have experienced them in the early nineteenth century.

Announcement: Adverts 250 Linked via American Antiquarian Society

The Adverts 250 Project is now listed among the Digital Humanities Projects Using AAS Materials on the American Antiquarian Society‘s website.

The vast majority of eighteenth-century sources in America’s Historical Newspapers (distributed by Readex) derive from the AAS’s collections.  Although I use digital surrogates to pursue this project, it would not have been possible without the curatorial, preservation, conservation, and cataloging work of the AAS and their willingness and enthusiasm in pursuing digitization projects to make their collections more accessible to scholars, students, and the general public.

Many thanks to the American Antiquarian Society for supporting the Adverts 250 Project!