The Power of History & Historians

My study of history has become meta. In an effort to manage my research project on the Articles of Confederation, I committed to thinking and writing about one piece of the historical puzzle I'd like to solve: How did the Articles of Confederation become the United States' forgotten constitution?

My strategy for answering this first question involves investigating the history of the early histories of the American Revolution and early United States. At the moment, it's a two-part investigation:

Part one: See whether the early histories mention the Articles of Confederation and if so, what they have to say about it.

Part two: Attempt to better understand why the historians who authored these early histories wrote them the way they did. How did their methodology help determine the inclusion, exclusion, and interpretations of the Articles?

This second part has led my study of history to become meta.

History as Identity

I'm fascinated by American identity. Americans don't have just one identity, they have many. At one level they are American: members and citizens of the United States. At another level Americans are regional. Americans aren't just Americans, they're New Englanders, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, Californians, Texans, Southerners, Midwesterners, etc. And you can further subdivide these regional identities into smaller cultural groups.

My scholarship is driven by a desire to figure out how Americans can be at once the same and yet so very different. How do Americans navigate and negotiate their identities as members of local cultural groups and regional communities--identities that often stand at odds with each other across cultural and regional lines-- to also include a national, American identity that unifies them?

History stands as a BIG part of the answer to that question. History builds and sustains nations and people. It's an important part of the glue that holds people and culture together. Along with other humanistic fields such as language and literature, history helps disparate people build and sustain a national identity. History is so important to national identity that the European Union is funding the work of historians to create a national, European history.[1]

In the United States, we've had a nationalistic history from the start and it developed for three reasons:

1. In the 18th-century, Americans and Europeans viewed history as practical. History served as a tool that demonstrated how philosophical teachings worked on the ground, in real life.

2. Early Americans turned to history to explain the American Revolution and War for Independence. How did thirteen colonies rise up and improbably defeat Great Britain? Americans who lived through the events had a hard time understanding the answer to this question so they turned to history to work out and explain what had happened.

3. Early historians used history to affect their agenda: Encourage the next generation to take a stand a build a nation.


The Power of History & Historians

Early historians of the United States used the past to shape the future. They shaped the future of their nation by depicting Americans' stand against Great Britain as a united one and by stressing the need for Americans to unite and remain united as they built their new nation. The historians' projected a clear message: Victory in the War for Independence demonstrated that when Americans stand united they can achieve great feats and accomplish the improbable, like defeating the greatest imperial army and navy in the world.

Early historians achieved their message by glossing over and omitting the thousands of Americans who remained loyal to Great Britain and the thousands more who tried to maintain a neutral position during the Revolution. They also largely passed over the infighting and squabbling that took place within Congress and among the different states, which one can clearly see if they explore the history of the Articles of Confederation.

The selective history of these early historians has had great staying power. The idea that Americans stand united more often than they stand divided is a myth. But it's a powerful myth that helped explain the Revolution and heal the nation after its violent and divisive war.

I have a lot more work on early American histories and historians to do. But my first foray into this small study makes a convincing case that history and historians are powerful. The historians who wrote the first histories of the American Revolution and United States recognized that a people without a common past cannot be a people with a common present.[2] So they took it upon themselves to give their fellow Americans a common history, a history that would propel them forward to build a new nation and hopefully a better future.



[1] Historians Alix Green (University of Central Lancashire), Markus Putsch (European Parliament), Betty Koed (U.S. Senate Historical Office), Louis Kyriakoudes (Albert Gore Research Center, MTSU), and Paul Pittman (U.S. State Department, Office of the Historian) discussed the need for and the efforts of the European Union to develop a national history to keep the union from collapsing at the 2016 National Council on Public History annual meeting in Baltimore, MD. The title of the panel: "Europe at the Crossroads? Navigating History and Memory at the Sharp Edge of Policymaking"

[2] Milton Klein, "Clio Ascendant: The Writing of American History in the Eighteenth Century," New York History, Vol. 68, No. 1 (January, 1987), pgs 4-26, pg 17.

With Digital Content Creation, the Tortoise Will Win the Race

I don't get SnapChat. Why would you spend time creating content that people can only access for a limited period of time? I shared this musing on Twitter and enjoyed exchanges that culminated in the fact that I'm old.

I may be a first-year millennial (I did in fact graduate high school in the year 2000), but I'm a member of the "Oregon Trail" part of the generation. The part that embraces new technology and still appreciates what came before it. I'm also a member of a profession that still lauds the book as the ultimate form of scholarly production. Books vary in quality, but they all take time to produce.

In the world I grew up in and the world I work in, it takes time and energy to produce content and preserve memories. These ideas and experiences shape the way I think about digital content and how it should be produced. They also make me a tortoise living and running in a hare's world.


The "Hare Approach" to Content Creation

In comparison, "real" millennials and "post-millennials" have grown up using smartphones, tablets, apps, and hardware, like Snap's Spectacles, to easily create digital content. As a childhood friend pointed out, "now, basic content creation is nearly effortless." You can create content and preserve a memory in seconds.

We live in a world full of digital content, but most of it's created quickly and it's not very good: bad blog posts, blurry photos, mundane status updates, and shaky videos. This mediocre content clogs the internet and means something only to those who created it and to those who understand the context of its creation.

Thinking about SnapChat within the context that content creation should be easy and effortless is when SnapChat started to make sense to me: The social app caters to people who want to create fast, effortless content. And thinking about SnapChat in this light has allowed me to appreciate how Snap may be doing our digital world a great service by making low-quality, hastily created content available only for a short period of time. Less clutter means more space for the great stuff to shine.

But what does the idea of creating fast, easy content on-the-go mean for the future of content creation? Has my belief that historians and other digital content producers should expend effort to produce high-quality, well thought out content become outmoded?

Should I morph into a hare?

I don't think so, at least not yet.

The "Tortoise Approach" To Content Creation

If my ideas about content creation were outmoded then Amazon, Netflix, HBO, and now Apple wouldn't be investing HUGE sums of money in the production and curation of high-quality, niche programs like Game of Thrones.

All of these companies are producing high-quality shows unlike anything you can see on a traditional network to draw people to their subscription-based, digital content libraries. And if you're like me, you enjoy programs like Game of Thrones more than the programs on network television because of their production value. They involve many characters, have huge story arcs, and contain great special effects (hello, real-looking dragons & dire wolves). These high-quality shows also aren't beholden to the traditional time clock of network television-- episodes don't have to adhere to 30- and 60-minute time slots.

And premium digital networks aren't the only ones investing time and money into highly-produced content. Masterpiece Theater produces shows of similar quality for PBS. Think Downton Abbey, Victoria, and Poldark. They have less special effects than a show like Game of Thrones, but they all have high-quality production.

It's also interesting to compare the types of content networks are producing. HBO produces content like Game of Thrones and TrueBlood to appeal to fantasy lovers. People accustomed to good stories and who have a track record of paying for merchandise, books, games, and content. Masterpiece Theater's main goal is to drive people to support public broadcasting. They mainly produce mysteries and history-inspired programs. People who like history tend to enjoy culture, are civic-minded, and they have a track record of donating money to support the work of organizations like PBS and NPR.

Video-based content companies and companies that service digital video apps aren't the only companies investing in high-quality, digital content. So are traditional news outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR.

The New York Times and The Washington Post have publicly declared that they are redoubling their efforts to produce well-researched, long-form articles to differentiate themselves from other news outlets. They're banking on the fact that high-quality content will drive ad sales and subscriptions. They've also started audio divisions to lead people to their print content and to advertise their areas of expertise-- The Washington Post specializes in political podcasts; The New York Times produces podcasts about culture and they just released The Daily, a podcast that focuses on a big news story and leads you to its printed or digital newspaper.

NPR is also investing money in high-quality podcasts. The powerhouse networks that feed a lot of content to the national NPR network-- WBUR (Boston), WNYC (New York City), and WBEZ (Chicago)-- all have podcast and mobile divisions to produce apps like NPR One and great shows like Modern Love, Death, Sex, & Money, and Serial. Further, NPR-trained talent has started a whole host of new venture-funded podcast companies like Gimlet and Pineapple Street Media.

These new digital audio companies were founded to produce high-quality, on-demand audio content. Their funding models are based on three ideas:

1. High-quality, intellectually-driven content attracts listeners that advertisers will pay a premium to get access to because host-read podcast ads aren't yet regulated by the FCC, which means ads don't have to sound like ads, and the listeners the intellectually-driven content attracts tend to have disposable incomes.

2. If you have enough high-quality content, listeners will pay to access a back catalog like a subscription network. (These paid-subscription models are just starting to appear and will become more visible as these networks add to their content catalogs.)

3. Big companies recognize the value of high-quality content and are willing to pay networks to create custom content for them--like Open for Business by eBay, produced by Gimlet, and GE's podcast The Message, produced by Panoply.


Why the Tortoise Will Win in History Content Production

Tortoises like me live in a hare's world. We look slow and outmoded in the way we produce digital content. But our goals are different from those of the hare.

In my case, I want to create content that resonates with people, that creates wide awareness about history, and that cultivates a sentiment within society that history and the work historians do is worth supporting. I'm, in fact, running a tortoise's race. So my ideas aren't outmoded, they're timely and they make sense.

I believe there is a place for the hare's content. Photos and images created quickly with smartphones are fun to produce and share. However, the hare's content won't build a lasting audience. Within the last decade we've seen Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram content producers who quickly built massive audiences only to watch those audiences dwindle and leave as new apps and social networks came out and interests changed. The quick and easy content they produced entertained only for a limited time.

History has staying power. People will always be interested in history because it helps us grapple with the big, existential questions of who we are and how we came to be who we are. This is why historians have always invested time and energy into producing content that lasts: books, articles, museum exhibits. And this tried-and-true method of investing time and effort in the content we produce should also be our approach in the digital world.

We should embrace the hare, borrow everything from its technological toolbox that will help us communicate history, and then adapt these tools to amplify our work. Because just like in the analog world that came before the digital world, quality work will rise to the top, be consumed by more people over time, and will last-- just like tortoises, which live an average of 200 years versus hares, which live an average of 5.5 years.


The National Archives and America's Founding Documents

Have you heard of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? It's also known as the frequency or recency illusion. It's the phenomenon when you hear or see something unusual and then hear and notice that something repeatedly.

Last week, I noticed that the earliest histories of the American Revolution virtually omitted the Articles of Confederation. Now, I see the omission of the Articles from nearly every place where I would expect to read and find more information about them, like the National Archives' website.[1]

The National Archives holds, conserves, and preserves the founding documents of the United States. When you visit its website, a menu bar at the top of the homepage prominently displays a link to "America's Founding Documents."

Screen shot of National Archives' Homepage

Click the link and you will find pictures for and links to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

National Archives, "America's Founding Documents" webpage

The Articles of Confederation is conspicuously absent from the page.[2] In fact, it isn't even a sidebar or bottom-page link away. In this digital representation of "America's Founding Documents," the Articles of Confederation doesn't exist.

The National Archives houses the original, signed copy of the Articles of Confederation. But to find its digital copy, you have to search for it. And the first link you will find, "Welcome to," takes you to a completely different website, which has a far inferior display and web view for documents compared to the Archives' "America's Founding Documents" page.[3]

Articles of Confederation as displayed on ""


Archives and History

Archives shape the way we view and interpret history. It's something Jennifer Morgan and Peter Drummey reminded me of during our conversations for the "Doing History: How Historians Work" podcast series and something Karin Wulf talks about in her tweets and blog posts.

The National Archives plays a large role in how we view our nation's written record and what we view as historically important in that record. According to its interpretation, the Articles of Confederation is not a significant document. Therefore the document is hard to find on the National Archives' website--a casual browser would not find it--and the Archives has omitted it from the digital pantheon it created to highlight "America's Founding Documents."[4]

Of course, I disagree with the National Archives.

The Articles of Confederation is one of "America's Founding Documents." In fact, it shares the same lineage as the three documents the National Archives includes within its "Charters of Freedom."


The "America's Founding Documents" Family Tree

The Second Continental Congress agreed to draft articles of confederation on the same day it moved to draft a declaration to declare the colonies' independence from Great Britain.[5]

The fact that the Articles of Confederation placed too much sovereignty in the states caused the Constitutional Convention to convene and draft a new constitution in 1787. The Articles of Confederation directly informed the Constitution of 1787.

The Articles of Confederation also informed Madison's Bill of Rights. For example, Article 2 of the Articles of Confederation states that "Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled."[6]

Amendment X of the Bill of Rights: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."[7]


Project Direction

The ultimate goal of my research into the drafting and ratification of the Articles of Confederation is to produce a multimedia/multi-platform book. In the poetic words of Robert Frost, I have "miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep"; I am years away from realizing this goal.[8]

One of the mistakes I made with my dissertation was I waited too long to start writing. Therefore, I'm thinking about writing an article. I have so much research to conduct for this project. Pursuing an article would both direct the directions I go in my research and ensure that I start writing sooner rather than later.

I have two article projects in mind. One article would explore the omission of the Articles of Confederation from histories of the American Revolution. I imagine the article would investigate the early histories of the American Revolution, why the Articles do not fit neatly within those nationalist interpretations of American history, and how the historiography of the Revolution has rarely looked back at the Articles since those early histories.

The second article would be to explore the settlement of the boundary between New York and Massachusetts. The article would explore issues over western land, cultural differences, and how Article 9 of the Articles of Confederation operated. I've wanted to write this article since grad school and I already have a fair amount of the research for it in my files. But I'm not sure I should write it. The article would deal with issues that affected the drafting and ratification of the Articles of Confederation, but it's not a piece I see fitting within a multimedia/multi-platform book focused on how the Second Continental Congress drafted and ratified the Articles.




[1] Alan Taylor's American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, is one place I expected to find the Articles of Confederation mentioned and it appeared. Taylor devoted three pages (pages 337-339) to summarizing the Articles  and the challenges the Second Congress experienced in drafting and ratifying them.

[2] The Articles of Confederation are also absent from the National Archives online gift shop. For the record, I would purchase a facsimile of the Articles to hang on my wall if one existed.

[3] A bit more searching and you will find the National Archives' wonderful high-resolution images of the signed copy of the Articles of Confederation.

[4] The National Archives also omits the Articles of Confederation from its physical pantheon to the United States' founding documents: the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.

[5] Richard Henry Lee's Resolution, June 7, 1776.

[6] It's important to note the importance of Article 2. It appears after Article 1, which states "The Stile of this confederacy shall be, "The United States of America." Transcript of the Articles of Confederation, OurDocuments.Gov.

[7] U.S. National Archives, "The Bill of Rights: A Transcription."

[8] Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Why the Omission? Exploring the Articles of Confederation in Early Histories of the Revolution

I've been digging into the earliest histories of the American Revolution. Specifically David Ramsay's The History of the American Revolution in Two Volumes (1789) and Mercy Otis Warren's The Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805). Ramsay's history contains 667 pages, Warren's history 700 pages.[1] In all of those pages, Ramsay devotes almost two pages to the Articles of Confederation, Warren a single, short paragraph.[2]

What does it mean that the first historians of the American Revolution--a man and woman who lived through and experienced the event--devoted so little time and space to the United States' first constitution?

In fairness to Ramsay, he does summarize why the Second Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation: "the act of independence did not hold out to the world thirteen sovereign states, but a common sovereignty of the whole in their united capacity. It therefore became necessary to run the line of distinction, between the local legislatures, and the assembly of the states in Congress." (332) He also reflects on the powers granted to the "assembly of states in Congress" by the Articles of Confederation.

David Ramsay

As Ramsay recounts the powers the Articles of Confederation granted to the new national congress, he also reflects on why aspects of the confederation government proved weak: The new government did not have the power to regulate trade because Americans had so little experience trading with foreign powers on their own; the framers of the Articles didn't know they needed the power to regulate trade. The confederation government lacked a "power of compulsion" [power to tax] on the states because "the system of federal government was...more calculated for what men then were, under these circumstances, than for the languid years of peace, when selfishness urusped the place of public spirit, and when credit no longer assisted, in providing for the exigencies of government." (333)

Ramsay may have included the Articles of Confederation in his history, but his account is short and it doesn't attempt to describe the debate, conflict, and compromise that informed the drafting and ratification of the Articles of Confederation.

Why do these early histories lack details about the Articles of Confederation and how they came to be?

I can think of some possibilities:

Both Ramsay and Warren relied on the papers and correspondence of friends as source material for their histories. Did they largely omit the drafting and ratification of the nation's first government from their histories because their friends and correspondents weren't those who had participated in the drafting and ratification of the Articles? It's a possibility, but one I don't think will turn out to be the case.

Mercy Otis Warren

Could it be that the absence of the Articles of Confederation in these histories speaks to the fact that there was so much going on with the War for Independence that Americans were too distracted to care or notice the ratification of their first national constitution on March 1, 1781? This could be true, in part. I know from my work on the Revolution in Albany that on the ground most people were more concerned with survival than with the activities of a faraway congress.

Or perhaps the reason why Warren and Ramsay devoted so little time and space to the Articles of Confederation is that both published their histories with nationalistic goals and after the ratification of the Constitution of 1787. In fact, Ramsay purposely waited to publish his history until after the states had ratified the Constitution.

Ratification of the Constitution complicated the history of the Articles of Confederation, especially for the nation's first historians. Both Warren and Ramsay's histories feature chronological accounts of the Revolution. Their histories read as "this event happened and then this event happened and then this event happened" with splashes of commentary thrown in.

Both historians strove to use early American history as a way to unite the new nation. They recognized that Americans needed to form an identity apart from Great Britain and British traditions. They attempted to unify their fellow Americans by writing histories that the new nation could be proud of. Sure the United States failed throughout the course of the American Revolution, but Americans learned from their mistakes and overcame the odds to secure their independence. These histories have political and moral points and these points are supposed to be uplifting.

As Ramsay's brief attempt to incorporate the Articles of Confederation into his history demonstrates, the Articles don't fit neatly within the framework of these early nationalist histories. The story of the Articles highlights conflict and dissension. States and regions argued over whether the state or national government should have supreme sovereignty; how lands should be divided and governed; how citizens and states should be taxed. It took three years, lots of compromise, and the threat of a British invasion of Maryland for the states to unanimously ratify the Articles and put the constitution into effect.

In 1805, the story of the Articles was ill-timed. It contained too much discord to recount at a time when Americans were still trying to unite behind the Constitution of 1787. No one yet knew if the Constitution of 1787 would persist and whether the United States would survive as an independent country. This uncertainty would have made it difficult for these nationalist historians to grapple with the history of the Articles of Confederation.

Regardless of why Ramsay and Warren largely omitted the Articles of Confederation from their histories, the fact that they largely left the constitution out of their histories leaves me to wonder if it's their omission that has caused it to be absent from so many subsequent histories of the American Revolution and early United States.



[1] Warren, Mercy Otis. The History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. Edited by Lester H. Cohen. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1988; Ramsay, David. The History of the American Revolution in Two Volumes. Edited by Lester H. Cohen. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1990.

[2] If you're curious, Warren had this to say about the Articles of Confederation in her one paragraph: "A solemn confederation, consisting of a number of articles by which the United States should in future be governed, had been drafted, discussed, and unanimously signed by all the delegates in congress, in the month of October, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-six. This instrument was sent to each legislature in the thirteen states, and approved and afterwards ratified by the individual governments. After this, the congress of the United States thought proper to appoint commissioners to the court of France, when fortunately a loan of money was negociated [sic] on the faith of the United States, and permission obtained for the reception of American ships of war, and the sale of prizes that might be captured by them, and carried into any of the ports of France." pg 198. Note that Warren gave the wrong date. Congress signed the Articles of Confederation and sent them out to the state legislatures in November 1777, not October 1776.

Notes from the Field: Sint Eustatius, the "Golden Rock," Part 3

My last two posts, covered the history of Sint Eustatius and what it was like to visit the "Golden Rock." After finishing these posts, it occurred to me that I have no idea where to put my pictures of the "goats of vast early America." That's just as well. They probably deserve their own post anyway.

Statia has a sizable population of wild goats. They climb the cliffs of the island and eat not just weeds, but the Statians' gardens.

Our funniest "goat" moment took place the morning of our Upper Town tour. It rained that morning and when we went inside Fort Oranje to meet our guide, we found many goats huddled inside the fort under the awning of the Tourists' Office.

At first glance it really seemed like the goats were just waiting for the office to open.

Goat reading a plaque with information about the "First Salute"


Goat families "waiting" for the Sint Eustatius Tourist Office to Open



Goat carefully eyeing the tourist taking its photo

Goats on the cliff along the Bay Path Road munching on plants


Goat jumping a Statian fence to enter a garden


Goats gleefully in a Statian garden after jumping a fence