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“History is what we choose to remember”*…

In the mid-1940s, Edmund S. Morgan, a mild-mannered young historian, was teaching at Brown and making a name in the quiet field of early American studies. Having published a slim, well-received collection of essays on the New England Puritans, he might have seemed the very model of the unassuming scholar at the outset of a modest career, satisfied to refine the work of great forebears in a narrow field. That wasn’t Edmund Morgan. The Second World War was over. The United States was developing an energetic vision, which would come to fruition in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy, of its new global leadership role. In keeping with that vision, Morgan launched a bold new interpretation of the nation’s founding.

Throwing out elder historians’ prevailing focus on the founding generation’s self-interest (Clarence Alvord had said that George Washington became a patriot to defend speculations in Indian land) and on its class conflicts (Carl Becker had said that the Revolution was not only over British rule but also over the rule of elite Americans), Morgan sought to identify the grand principles that the revolutionary generation agreed on. “What the colonists had to say about Parliamentary power and about their own rights deserved to be taken seriously,” he explained later.

As the U.S. began to exercise new power around the world, Morgan set out to show that the protests in the 1760s and ’70s against the Stamp Act and other British policies offered slam-dunk evidence of a founding American consensus on principles of rights. Inherent to the American character, that consensus unified the colonists, he said, inspired the Revolution, and brought about the United States. In the larger context of his work, and the work of similarly minded colleagues, the lesson was that the founding American commitment to rights persisted in postwar U.S. commitments to modern liberal democracy.

The impact of this interpretation was by no means limited to the late 1940s and the 1950s. Historians who built out what Morgan largely began—what became known as the consensus approach—turned early American history into a booming field and made big names for themselves. Born about a century ago, in Morgan’s generation, were Douglass Adair, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter, Forrest McDonald, and Bernard Bailyn. Born in succeeding decades were Pauline Maier, Gordon Wood, Carol Berkin, Sean Wilentz, and Akhil Reed Amar, among others. As dissertation advisers for scores of scholars, many of them have held great sway in their profession.

Even more striking is their success in shaping conceptions of the American founding widely held among the American public. That power and some of its complications were seen in recent controversies involving two of the younger members of the group (though not young anymore), Wood and Wilentz. In late 2019, Wilentz organized a letter, also signed by Wood and three other historians, criticizing The New York Times Magazine’s much-discussed 1619 Project, which frames slavery, racism, and Black Americans’ struggles for equality as the key drivers of American history. The signers said the 1619 Project ignored objective historical fact and was steeped in politically influenced bias. In early 2020, Wilentz followed up with an essay in The Atlantic whose title put the issue bluntly: “A Matter of Facts.” Because these objections to the 1619 Project were made not on the basis of a competing framework but on the basis of plain fact revealed by deep expertise, they struck many readers as insurmountable on their face.

That’s how consensus history works. Anyone hoping to explore the depths of America’s not-so-consensus-filled past will run into this presumption, on the part of widely respected scholars, of their superior objectivity as a basis for higher authority. The roots of that presumption can be found in the approach launched by Edmund Morgan about 70 years ago…

William Hogeland (@WilliamHogeland) explains how not to learn about the American past: “Against the Consensus Approach to History.” Eminently worthy of reading in full (soft pay-wall).

* “In fact, the past is not history, but a much vaster region of the dead, gone, unknowable, or forgotten. History is what we choose to remember, and we have no alternative but to do our choosing now.” -Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis

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As we ponder our past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1653 that a Dutch settlement on the southern tip of Manhattan Island was incorporated as New Amsterdam. It became the seat of the colonial government in New Netherland… and in 1664, after the English took over from the Dutch, New York City.

The Castello Plan, a 1660 map of New Amsterdam (the top right corner is roughly north). The fort gave The Battery its name, the large street going from the fort past the wall became Broadway, and the city wall (right) possibly gave Wall Street its name.

source

Happy Groundhog Day!

What’s in a (sur)name?…

From National Geographic:

for larger, interactive version, click on the image above, or here

A new view of the United States based on the distribution of common last names shows centuries of history and echoes some of America’s great immigration sagas. To compile this data, geographers at University College London used phone directories to find the predominant surnames in each state. Software then identified the probable provenances of the 181 names that emerged.

Many of these names came from Great Britain, reflecting the long head start the British had over many other settlers. The low diversity of names in parts of the British Isles also had an impact. Williams, for example, was a common name among Welsh immigrants—and is still among the top names in many American states.

But that’s not the only factor. Slaves often took their owners’ names, so about one in five Americans now named Smith are African American. In addition, many newcomers’ names were anglicized to ease assimilation. The map’s scale matters too. “If we did a map of New York like this,” says project member James Cheshire, “the diversity would be phenomenal”—a testament to that city’s role as a once-and-present gateway to America.

 

As we ruminate on roots, we might recall that it was on this date in 1654 that the Portuguese issued the Capitulation Protocol, giving Jewish and Dutch settlers three months to leave Brazil.  Approximately 150 Jewish families of Portuguese descent fled the Brazilian city of Recife, in the state of Pernambuco.  By September, twenty-three of these refugees had established the first community of Jews in New Amsterdam (now, of course, New York City).

These “Sephardim” (Jews of Spanish-Portuguese extraction) had followed a tortured path. In December 1496, following Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spanish example, King Manuel I of Portugal had expelled all Jews from Portugal, driving many to flee to more tolerant Holland.  From there, some migrated to Pernambuco, a colony of the Dutch West India Company in modern-day Brazil. That community flourished until the Dutch eventually surrendered Pernambuco to the Portuguese– and the Sephardim were again forced to flee.

After being driven ashore in Jamaica by Spanish ships, twenty-three members of the community, along with a group of Dutch Calvinists, made their way to New Netherland (New York)– another colony run by the Dutch West India Company.  Even then, the trials were not past: Peter Stuyvesant governor of New Netherland, feared that the indigent newcomers would burden the colony; but when he motioned to eject the Jewish newcomers, the Company (many of the shareholders of which were Jewish) refused his petition… and the wanderers found a home.

Accuratissima Brasiliæ tabula
[Inset of Pernambuco.]
by Hendrik Hondius, 1630
(source: Library of Congress)

 

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