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 Don N. Hagist’s “The Stamp Act Riots Heard ‘Round the World”

Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of attending a public lecture, “The Stamp Act Riots Heard ‘Round the World,” presented by Don N. Hagist at the Newport Historical Society. Hagist, an independent scholar, is the author of several books about the era of the American Revolution, including The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs; British Soldiers, American War: Voices of the American Revolution; and General Orders, Rhode Island: December 1776 – January 1778. He has also compiled four hundred advertisements in a volume that may be of particular interest to regular visitors here: Wives, Slaves and Servant Girls: Advertisements for Female Runaways in American Newspapers, 1770-1783.

For this presentation, Hagist set about exploring how the world heard about protests against the Stamp Act that took place in Newport, Rhode Island. To do so, he consulted American and British newspapers, demonstrating how local history telescoped out to tell a much larger story about the initial acts of resistance to Parliamentary authority and how protests in Newport were viewed on both sides of the Atlantic.

If we want to know about the reception the Stamp Act received in Newport, why not go to the Newport Mercury directly? Hagist deftly explained how changes in demographics and communications made reading newspapers in the eighteenth century much different than reading them in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Even a busy port like Newport was a small town compared to today’s standards, and keep in mind that newspapers were published once a week. There was little need for the local printer to provide extensive details about events that happened in town. Either local residents witnessed the protests against the Stamp Act themselves or they heard about them via word of mouth before the next issue of the local newspaper was published. Hagist explained that colonists consulted newspapers to learn about what was happening in faraway places, not their own neighborhoods. Indeed, news items were usually organized geographically, with items from London, the metropolitan center, and the English provinces appearing first, followed by news from other countries in Europe, then news from around the Atlantic world and the globe, and finally news from other colonies in British mainland North America.

As a result, the most extensive newspaper coverage of public demonstrations against the Stamp Act in Newport appeared not in the Newport Mercury but instead in publications printed in other cities. According the Hagist, the September 2, 1765, issue of the Newport Mercury, the first to appear after local residents made effigies, built a gallows, hanged and burned the effigies, and threatened the local stamp agent and forced his resignation in late August, mentioned these events, but not in nearly as much detail as the edition of the Boston Evening-Post, also published on September 2. (Here we see how printing a newspaper only once a week allowed for information to travel some distance and thus appear in print “simultaneously” as “the freshest advices, foreign and domestic.”)

The Boston Evening-Post devoted an entire column to providing extensive details about recent events in Newport. On the same day, the Connecticut Courant, published in Hartford, also offered coverage of the protests in Newport. Even though readers were treated to only half a column, this still exceeded the amount of detail in the Newport Mercury. In its September 6 issue, the New-Hampshire Gazette reprinted the coverage from the Boston Evening-Post. Printers continued a practice common in the colonial era: spreading news by borrowing generously from newspapers they received from their counterparts in faraway places. Reprinting news items verbatim was a standard practice, for all kinds of events and not just the protests against the Stamp Act.

Hagist then demonstrated that coverage of the protests in Newport crossed the Atlantic. The earliest report he found appeared in the London Chronicle on October 5, 1765, indicating that letters received from Boston included accounts of a “dangerous mob” in Newport. Over the course of the next month, an assortment of newspapers in London and other cities in Great Britain offered further coverage of the protests in Newport. This was news, but not “big news,” Hagist argued. One reprinting of the coverage from the September 2 Boston Evening-Post appeared between news from the continent and theater notices. Hagist explained that riots and other forms of political violence were much more common in the eighteenth century than today. Although we may think of the Stamp Act protests in Newport and elsewhere as exceptional, early modern newspaper printers and readers did not always think that they merited special attention.

Still, as time passed many London newspapers continued to insert items about the protests in Newport, sometimes rehashing information previously published when it came via a new source on one of the most recent ships to arrive at a port in England. The conclusion that Hagist reached next may have been the most surprising material for his audience: not everybody in London and the rest of England agreed that the Stamp Act was a good idea. Some sympathized with the colonists. British printers inserted the entire text of colonial charters in their newspapers so readers could decide for themselves if the traditional rights and privileges of colonists to govern themselves had been violated.

Hagist also offered one item of particular interest to me: an advertisement in which a London printer and bookseller announced that he sold about half a dozen pamphlets opposing the Stamp Act, each printed in Newport. This demonstrated both the flow of ideas and the flow of printed goods across the Atlantic. During the question-and-answer period I challenged Hagist on his interpretation of that advertisement, asking if he might have been too generous in asserting that such advertisements demonstrated any particular sentiment toward the colonists’ plight rather than opportunistic printers seeking to make a profit off of a political controversy. He acknowledged that the profit motive was indeed present, even a driving force, but argued that making a profit and engaging in an open exchange of ideas and rigorous debate were not mutually exclusive. (I’ve made similar arguments about a variety of advertisements featured here and that I have examined elsewhere, so it’s not surprising that his answer satisfied me.)

Hagist concluded, as I will now, with a brief summary of his presentation. Newspaper coverage of the Stamp Act protests in Newport was accurate. He did not find evidence of exaggerated rumors. The event, like other demonstrations occurring throughout the colonies, was major news in the American press. It was also considered news in Great Britain, but not accorded the same importance. It merely appeared alongside other news from the colonies, though over time it did spark additional debate in English newspapers. In general, coverage in British newspapers was remarkably balanced, defying modern expectations.

Over the past three months I have attempted to demonstrate that the content and appeals of many of the advertisements featured here were shaped by the events, especially continuing opposition to the Stamp Act, covered elsewhere in colonial newspapers. It’s necessary to examine the advertisements in the context of the news items in order to achieve a complete picture of how attempts to market various goods would have resonated with potential customers. Don N. Hagist’s lecture provided some of that context in a lively presentation that clearly engaged a standing-room-only audience at the Newport Historical Society last night.

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If you’d like to learn more about Don N. Hagist’s work, visit his blog:  British Soldiers, American Revolution.