Role Reversal

Something I wrote for an online Chinese History class:

There’s a kind of reversal exercise that is getting more common: it’s worth thinking about. What would American history and society look like if it were written the way that we write histories of other cultures? What would the history of the Civil War look like if we talked about it in terms of tribalism, religious sects, honor culture, caste systems, and magical thinking? What would an analysis of US history that took Puritanism or Methodism as critically as Chinese histories take Confucianism and Daoism? Remember: Harvard and Yale were seminaries until the 19th century; we still haven’t had a non-Christian president, and we added “In God We Trust” to the currency and “Under God” to the pledge in the mid-20th century. What if, instead of focusing on ‘pioneers’ and activists and breakthroughs towards a more perfect union, we focused on conservative and subversive forces and how each crisis revealed deep-rooted problems and how we failed to actually solve them most of the time?

Teaching the US Declaration of Independence in a World History context

Philly 2012 - Congress Hall - House DeskJoseph Adelman has a nice post on how he teaches the US Declaration of Independence in his early US survey — he reads it aloud; with the class standing, as in an 18th century church or town meeting — and I thought I might offer another perspective, since I use the same document in my World Since 1500 course.

For the last few iterations of the course, I’ve had students’ primary source readings focus on the rising tradition of rights in Western, then World, civilization.  So I have them read the US Declaration as part of a group, along with the English Bill Of Rights and the French Declaration Of Rights Of Man And Citizen. (Later in the semester, they read the UN’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights).  This is in the context of a discussion of revolutionary change, following one on the Western Enlightenment.

When we talk about the Declaration, it serves as focal evidence for talking about the American Revolution, and I talk about historiography. (I talk about historiography a lot in World History, as it turns out, but my favorite bits are this one on the US Revolution and the Fall of Rome, where the historiography just layers and layers….) There are many ways to see the US Revolution — I’m increasingly fond of the “creole” generational theory, myself, as it helps situate it in the context of the Latin American revolutions, and connects it to post-colonialism, a little — and I point out that there’s evidence for most of them right in the text of the Declaration itself.

In particular, I raise the question of just how revolutionary the American Revolution was. The famous preamble is a classic statement of Enlightenment principles about humanity and government, which suggests the power of new ideas and real change. The body of the document, though, lists grievances based, in large part, on the earlier English Bill of Rights, and the structure of the whole Declaration follows closely on that example, which suggests less revolutionary aims and more an attempt to conserve rights already in existence against changing circumstances. And, of course, I have to talk about the Seven Years’ War, the tax and mercantilist policies which were driving much of the tension between the colonies and the Crown, and the extent to which many of Founding Fathers were involved in import and export related businesses.

Philly 2012 - Liberty Hall - Liberty Bell - FrontI point out that the “all men” of the Declaration was limited in effect, and that the attempt to preserve the self-governance of the colonies against royal interference largely succeeded in the short term, as the states continued to govern themselves and only slowly to create coordinated or national policies. In this it was also conservative, rather than liberalizing. But the Constitution, when it came to be, embodied Montesquieu’s tripartite scheme, which is clearly foreshadowed in the complaints of the Declaration, and maintained an elected executive and legislature, a political experiment of the most ambitious sort. Well, ambitious if you discount the even more radical political experiments of the French, which began at that very moment, and the example of which helped to solidify some of the more conservative elements of American leadership.

I have little patience for those who would fetishize the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as written, turn them into an icon of secular faith in American Exceptionalism. But I’m always impressed, as I work through this material, with the way in which the intellectual and political resources of the moment were marshalled into the Declaration, and the tensions of the moment were balanced into an effective and productive evolving Constitutional system. But clearly my presentation cuts against the grain of American exceptionalism: the American Revolution shows clear evidence of Enlightenment thought, English civic tradition, post-colonial pride, economic competition, and a desire for social stability which meant that very little changed in most people’s lives as a result.

New Scholarship on the Enlightenment

Fascinating review of Jonathan Israel’s new scholarship on the European Enlightenment, in particular the influence of philosopher Baruch Spinoza by Robert Leventhal.

In particular, note the definition of the “Radical Enlightenment”:

1) philosophical reason as the criterion of what is true;
2) rejection of supernatural agency (divine providence);
3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual equality);
4) secular universalism in ethics anchored in equality and stressing equity, justice, and charity;
5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought;
6) personal liberty of lifestyle between consenting adults, safeguarding the dignity and freedom of the unmarried and homosexuals;
7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press in the public sphere; and
8.) democratic republicanism.

While Leventhal praises Israel’s defense of Spinoza’s influence, he also says that

One can reasonably advocate all of the values and moral precepts Israel attributes to the Radical Enlightenment on pragmatic grounds and not be a metaphysical monist. In other words, we do not need to believe in Spinoza’s metaphysics to believe in democracy, freedom of expression, social justice, equality, fairness, and tolerance. We can, but do not need to, align historical truth with progressive values. We can, but are not required to, adopt a naturalist vision of science and philosophy to be thoughtful and moral citizens.


“A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (i.e. the fief) instead of a salary, which was out of the question; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and, within the warrior class, assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority-leading inevitably to disorder; and, in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State, of which the latter, during the second feudal age, was to acquire renewed strength.” — Marc Bloch, La Societe’ feodale. cited in Brown, “Tyranny of a Construct”

“a body of institutions creating and regulating the obligations of obedience and service-mainly military service-on the part of a free man (the vassal) towards another free man (the lord), and the obligations of protection and maintenance on the part of the lord with regard to his vassal. The obligation of maintenance had usually as one of its effects the grant by the lord to his vassal of a unit of real property known as a fief.” — F.L. Ganshof, Feudalism, cited in Brown, “Tyranny of a Construct”

“in political terms, feudalism is marked by a fragmentation of political authority, private possession of public rights, and a ruling class composed (at least originally) of military leaders and their followers.” — Joseph Strayer, “The Tokugawa Period and Japanese Feudalism,” cited in Brown, “Tyranny of a Construct”

feudalism The social organization created by exchanging grants of land or fiefs in return for formal oaths of allegience and promises of loyal service; typical of Zhou dynasty and European Middle Ages; greater lord provided protection and aid to lesser lords in return for military service.” (Stearns, et al., G-5)

“On the whole, European feudalism inhibited the development of strong central states, but it also gradually reduced purely local warfare. … kings could use feudalism to build their own power.” (Stearns, et al., 334)


Extra Credit Opportunity: Doomsday Math

Dr. Cynthia Woodburn of the PSU Math Dept will present “Apocalypse 2012?  What do Mayan Calendars and Mathematics Tell Us” this Thursday, Sept. 15 at 2:00 p.m. in Yates Hall 215

History is replete with examples of doomsday predictions; from an Assyrian clay tablet predicting the end of times in 2800 BC to Y2K to Harold Camping’s prediction that the world would end on May 21, 2011.  Another example is the claim that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012 corresponding to the world ending in an apocalypse.  Hollywood even jumped on the bandwagon with the disaster movie “2012”.  We’ll take a look at what the mathematics and calendars of the Mayans have to say about 2012 and the end of the world as we know it.

Students are encouraged to attend.

There will be cookies and conversation afterwards in Yates 210.

Extra Credit: Mathematical Napoleon

Dr. Cynthia Woodburn of the PSU Math Dept will present a colloquium entitled Napoleon and Mathematics: A Case Study of the Interplay between Mathematics and History
Abstract: Throughout the ages, there has been much interplay between mathematics and history.  Not only can the work done by mathematicians have an impact on history but mathematicians also can have their work influenced by their time and place in history.  We’ll take a look at one specific case where mathematics and history are closely intertwined which occurred in the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 2:00 p.m. in Yates Hall 215
Students are encouraged to attend.
There will be cookies and conversation afterwards in Yates 210.

Some thoughts on the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen

In no particular order

  • Context/Author: most people mentioned either the Declaration of Independence (and sometimes the English Bill of Rights) or the Enlightenment (Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu), but almost nobody mentioned both. Similarly, many of you mentioned Lafayette’s American sojourn but ignored the fact that he was an educated Frenchman to begin with, well-versed in philosophe writings.
  • Responses: The United States did, generally, welcome the Declaration, but it also reacted very badly to the radical turn of the Revolution, eventually passing the Alien and Sedition acts to criminalize revolutionary positions and restrict French immigration. The Haiti slave revolts were very worrying to the plantation states as well. But buying the Louisiana Territory when Napoleon needed cash to try to put down the Haitian revolt was a good deal.
  • Historical Use: Similarly, very few people noted that the Declaration was only operative for a few years, though the principles it establishes do influence later French governments. The effect of the Declaration was both minimal in the short term and extraordinary in the long term. History’s a funny thing, sometimes.
  • I’m still writing “weak paraphrase” on too many papers. Summarizing or condensing primary sources is a challenge sometimes: the temptation to quote extensively is strong. If you’re not using exact quotes with quotation marks, though, what you write needs to be your words, not a slightly modified version of the words you read.

Don’t forget: the document assignment for Japan’s Meiji Constitution is due Monday the 28th.

Hope you’re having a fun and productive break!