Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 November 2018
Gordon Wood stoked a strong response from his fellow early American historians in 2015 when, in the pages of the Weekly Standard, he accused the Omohundro Institute of Early American History, publishers of the prestigious William and Mary Quarterly, of abandoning interest in the development of the United States. “A new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be,” Wood argued. “That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it.” Wood blamed the shift away from the nation on historians’ interest in such issues as race and gender: “The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation's past has had to turn to the history books written by nonacademics who have no PhDs and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.” Of the William and Mary Quarterly, Wood concluded, “without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.”
Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Modern History Colloquium at Louisiana State University, the Early American Seminar in Seattle, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, the Society for US Intellectual History, and the Missouri Regional Seminar on Early American History. I thank Tim Breen, Andrew Burstein, Leslie Butler, Seth Cotlar, Lisa Ford, Paul Halliday, Vicki Hsueh, Nancy Isenberg, Richard R. Johnson, James T. Kloppenberg, A. Ricardo López-Pedreros, Kenneth Owen, Jeffrey Pasley, Joshua Piker, Sophia Rosenfeld, Leonard J. Sadosky III, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and Alan Taylor for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts. Angus Burgin and Modern Intellectual History’s editors provided substantive feedback. I, of course, take full responsibility for the perspective offered here.
1 Gordon S. Wood, “History in Context,” Weekly Standard, Feb. 2015, at www.weeklystandard.com/history-in-context/article/850083.
2 Christopher Minty, “Finding Its Way: Gordon Wood and the William and Mary Quarterly,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, 9 Sept. 2015, at https://earlyamericanists.com/2015/09/09/gordon-s-wood-and-the-william-and-mary-quarterly; Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “Gordon Wood on Bernard Bailyn: American Religious History and ‘An Honest Picture of the Past’,” Religion in American History blog, 6 March 2015, at http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2015/03/gordon-wood-bernard-bailyn-and-american.html; Kevin Levin, “Gordon Wood, the Politics of History and the History Classroom,” Civil War Memory blog, 23 Feb. 2015, at http://cwmemory.com/2015/02/23/gordon-wood-the-politics-of-history-and-the-history-classroom; Eran Zelnik, “I Am a Presentist—and So Is Gordon Wood,” U.S. Intellectual History Blog, 18 Feb. 2015, at https://s-usih.org/2015/02/i-am-a-presentist-and-so-is-gordon-wood; John Fea, “Gordon Wood Is Still Relevant,” The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog, 18 Feb. 2015, at https://thewayofimprovement.com/2015/02/18/gordon-wood-is-still-relevant.
3 Josh Piker, “Getting Lost,” Uncommon Sense, The Blog, 21 Jan. 2016, at https://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/getting-lost, original emphasis.
4 For some context see Andrew Hartman, “The Culture Wars Are Dead: Long Live the Culture Wars!”, The Baffler 39 (May 2018), at https://thebaffler.com/outbursts/culture-wars-are-dead-hartman.
5 Fraser, Nancy, “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History,” in Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (London and New York, 2013)Google Scholar, 223, makes a similar point concerning feminist politics: “Unambiguously emancipatory in the era of state-organized capitalism, critiques of economism, androcentrism, étatism, and Westphalianism now appear fraught with ambiguity, susceptible to serving the legitimation needs of a new form of capitalism. After all, this capitalism would much prefer to confront claims for recognition over claims for redistribution.” See also Jeremy Adelman, “What Is Global History Now?” Aeon, 2 March 2017, at https://aeon.co/essays/is-global-history-still-possible-or-has-it-had-its-moment. On questions of these kinds see also Dinner, Deborah, “Beyond ‘Best Practices’: Employment Discrimination Law in the Neoliberal Era,” Indiana Law Journal 92/3 (2017), 1059–1118Google Scholar.
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9 Thus Pompeian, Edward P., “Mind the Global U-Turn: Reorienting Early American History in a Global Context,” Journal of the Early Republic 36/4 (2016), 715–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar, argues that historians of global supply chains are uniquely suited to understand the workings of the early modern Atlantic world. If what matters is exchange, what topic is better suited to understand it than economic history? Although Pompeian is aware of the risk that such work might become “the handmaiden of today's globalization or global capitalism” (ibid., 748), he nonetheless concludes that the benefits of transcending national historiographies are worth the risk. His essay demonstrates, despite his protestations, how deep the ideas of neoliberal economic globalization today are to the emergence of histories of vast early America.
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20 See also Lang, “Globalization.” It is worth noting that Rodgers would not use the term “neoliberalism” because he worries that it (a) encompasses too much, and (b) lacks political value beyond elite academic contexts. See Rodgers, “The Uses and Abuses of ‘Neoliberalism,” Dissent, Winter 2018, at www.dissentmagazine.org/article/uses-and-abuses-neoliberalism-debate.
21 Rodgers, Age of Fracture, 188, 196–98.
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29 The phrase is from Sylvia Frey, “Causes of the American Revolution,” in Vickers, A Companion to Colonial America, 508–29, at 511. Interestingly, these new narratives are no less focused on the Revolution than was previous scholarship, but the meaning of the Revolution is best understood as a cathartic moment implied from the beginning.
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34 Joshua Piker, review of Pekka Hämäläinen, The Commanche Empire, William and Mary Quarterly 67/2 (2010), 379–82, at 382.
35 Benton, Lauren and Ross, Richard J., “Empires and Legal Pluralism: Jurisdiction, Sovereignty, and Political Imagination in the Early Modern World,” in Benton and Ross, eds., Legal Pluralism and Empires, 1500–1850 (New York, 2013)Google Scholar, 1–18, at 2. See also Benton, Lauren, “AHR Forum: Law and Empire in Global Perspective,” American Historical Review 117/4 (2012), 1092–1100CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Benton, “Historical Perspectives on Legal Pluralism,” Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 3/1 (2011), 57–69; Grasso, Christopher and Wulf, Karin, “Nothing Says ‘Democracy’ Like a Visit from the Queen: Reflections on Empire and Nation in Early American Histories,” Journal of American History 95/3 (2008), 764–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Recent examples include Beverley, Eric Lewis, “Frontier as Resource: Law, Crime, and Sovereignty on the Margins of Empire,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55/2 (2013), 241–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
37 On this point see, as examples, Piker, Joshua, “Lying Together: The Imperial Implications of Cross-cultural Untruths,” American Historical Review 116/4 (2011), 964–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hsueh, Vicki, Hybrid Constitutions: Challenging Legacies of Law, Privilege, and Culture in Colonial America (Durham, NC, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hulsebosch, Daniel J., Constituting Empire: New York and the Transformation of Constitutionalism in the Atlantic World, 1664–1830 (Chapel Hill, 2005)Google Scholar; Piker, Joshua, Okfuskee: A Creek Indian Town in Colonial America (Cambridge, MA, 2004)Google Scholar; Benton, Lauren, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900 (New York, 2002)Google Scholar. Hsueh, Hybrid Constitutions, emphasizes the importance of looking at on-the-ground practices over constitutional rhetoric, but she also recognizes that “while some accommodation between colonists and indigenes was possible because of features such as discretion, adaptation, and negotiation, it was also the case that accommodation did not prevent exploitation and coercion” (ibid., 124). This point is made clear in Rushforth, Brett, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the pluralism of the law see also Tomlins, Christopher L. and Mann, Bruce H., eds., The Many Legalities of Early America (Chapel Hill, 2001)Google Scholar. It is worth noting that nation-states, no less than empires, are composed of “irreducible pluralities,” according to Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2000)Google Scholar, 179.
38 DuVal, Independence Lost, xvii. In contrast, Adelman and Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders,” 839, remind us that even in the borderlands, political institutions exerted an autonomous force: “Cross-cultural brokering and conflict shaped but did not determine the patterns of coexistence. In the end, Old World conflicts and eighteenth-century warfare provided the decisive markers for hinterland processes.”
39 Paul Halliday, “Laws’ Histories: Pluralism, Pluralities, Diversity,” in Benton and Ross, Legal Pluralism and Empires, 261–77.
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48 Kumar, Visions of Empire, 475. To Brown, Undoing the Demos, 20, under neoliberalism, the collective political rule of citizens in a democracy “transmutes into governance and management,” something that recent scholarship concludes empires are particularly well suited to achieve compared to democracies.
49 Burbank and Cooper, Empires in World History, 459. Although, “from a different perspective,” Jean L. Cohen writes in “Sovereign Equality vs. Imperial Right: The Battle over the ‘New World Order’,” Constellations 13/4 (2006), 485–505, at 491, “the sovereignty-based model of international law appears to be ceding not to cosmopolitan justice, but to an imperial project of dominance and indirect control of key ‘peripheries.’”
50 Lennox, “Geography of Interactions,” 437.
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