We are not alone in the universe

For those following along with the Marlborough historiography discussion, this recent article from Slate may be of interest:

Why do popular histories of the War of Independence ignore modern scholarship? To quote from the article:

none of [these recent popular books on the American Revolution] seriously consider much of the latest research being done by historians across the country—which has a lot of new and relevant things to say. If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different?

What all these authors share is an antiquated focus on high politics and military battles, areas that contemporary historical research has basically forsaken as irrelevant to the greater questions the Revolution raises.“‘

The Whig Interpretation of History is alive and well.



10 responses to “We are not alone in the universe”

  1. Andrew Tumath says :

    Great. So not only is everything I know about Marlborough wrong, but everything I know about the War of Independence is wrong too? Blimey….

  2. Gene Hughson says :

    I think the quote is much too optimistic re: what people would tolerate in other fields of inquiry. In my work (software development) we lurch from one silver bullet to the next, each claiming to be the one true thing that will bring success. It’s just not very sexy to admit that, whether designing software or teasing out the truth about a set of events, there is no simple answer, no one formula. People want simple answers, whether they exist or not.

  3. JOHN CRONIN says :

    What has the rebellion by the 13 colonies got to do with the war of 1812? Please enlighten me.

  4. Erik Lund says :

    It’s an old, old story, I’m afraid. It turns out that the universe has unfolded just as it should have done in order to bring into being the exact social and political order that benefits me!* As it happens, I suspect that the divergence between history ,i>wie es eigentlich gewesen and history as taught is a far greater in the American case than in the Marlborough historiograpy.

    *Er, I mean, our nation. Yeah. That’s it. Our nation. Or true religion. The working class? Science? Look, I got a million of ’em, so I can go on listing them if you’d like.

  5. Gene Hughson says :

    Interesting example I ran into following links on the other post: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Economic_Interpretation_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States

    The link refers to a work asserting ‘the Constitution was therefore written by, a “cohesive” elite seeking to protect its personal property (especially bonds) and economic standing’.

    Later in the article it states:

    By the early 1960s it was generally accepted within the historical profession that …Beard’s Progressive version of the …framing of the Constitution had been decisively refuted. American historians came to see ….the framers of the Constitution, rather than having self-interested motives, were led by concern for political unity, national economic development, and diplomatic security.

    Is it too big a stretch to think that it could be a mixture of both (and not necessarily even a homogenous mixture from one delegate to the next)?

    • jostwald says :

      No, that’s far too big of a stretch. That would require counting and using fractions, even percentages. Historians aren’t so good at that. 😉

  6. Erik Lund says :

    I tried that whole “math” thing. Frankly, the learning curve seems way too steep to justify its alleged usefulness.

    When I semi-facetiously talked about the ideological character of dominant historiographies in my last post, I proposed a stark contrast between the two examples. “Great general” historiography is eternal victory in service of empire without end, Primordial, and worth engaging on that front.

    In the case of the American Revolution, I would suggest, we have a whole set of concrete facts, mainly about race, which Americans cannot confront. So as not to be any more cryptic than I have to be, I will summarise my not-uncontroversial position: in 1757, a very large proportion of the persons who would identify themselves as African and European Americans 1776 identified themselves as “Indians” instead. In the transition, there was a distinct lag between changes in self-identification and acculturation.

    It follows that against the larger picture of the Revolution and the first half-century of the Republic we need to set a microhistorical account of a population learning to be White American, and another one forced into becoming Black American.

    A historiography that Ignores or suppresses this social change is like the proverbial iceberg, with the difference that it has already punctured the hull of your ship. A great deal of energy is thus devoted to explaining away the water coming up the companionways. This is very different enterprise from one of writing the hagiographies of field marshals.

    In conclusion, Prince Eugen p0wns Marlborough. AEIOU!

  7. Ralph Hitchens says :

    Yeah, I haven’t yet got my hands on Leland G. Stauber’s _A Grand Mistake_ but hope to soon, & see what kind of case he makes. I’ve read a great deal about the American Revolution & believe we had a solid case for rebelling in the face of political emasculation. “Home rule” was still a concept that had yet to take root in the British Empire, and “taxation without representation” was nothing short of the truth. Of course the counter-argument boils down to that anecdote about Ralph Waldo Emerson or some other New England luminary, early in the 19th century, driving around in a carriage with a friend, who was arguing passionately that the Revolution was necessary, despite all the suffering it inflicted, and that America was a different and much better place than the British Empire. At this point Emerson (or whoever) pointed to the surrounding countryside, peaceful and prosperous, and observed that they had crossed the border into Canada some time earlier.

  8. jostwald says :

    Because I’m too modest to make this a separate post, I’ll post this here: the tendency to ignore academic scholarship lives on. To cite from a review of a recent book on Vauban:
    “But perhaps the most striking omission, given the book’s focus [on fighting], is of key works relating to Louis XIV’s army. While Falkner has clearly consulted John Lynn’s Giant of the Grand Siècle (1996), he has not looked at Guy Rowlands’s Dynastic State and the Army under Louis XIV (2002). While Falkner refers to Ostwald’s important recent contribution to Vauban studies, Vauban under Siege (2000 [sic-2007]), there is no real engagement with it, nor any radical questioning of what we might call the Vauban legend or myth. (Falkner’s account of the siege of Ath in 1697 might have benefited from Ostwald’s detailed account of that episode). It is difficult therefore to agree with the publisher’s claim that Falkner’s work ‘will add significantly to the understanding of Vauban’s achievement and the impact his work has had on the history of warfare’. These cavils apart, this is a very enjoyable read for those looking for a good, basic account of Vauban’s career and his role in the wars of Louis XIV and of fortification more generally.”
    Good news and bad news in the same quote. Ain’t that like history?

    • jegrenier says :

      So here I sit at IAD on an epic journey from Dublin to Colorado. As far as suggestions that it may have been comparatively better in the First British Empire than as an independent nation (warts and all), all I have to say is: see Ireland.

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