The more I listen to and learn about the details of this EU-UK showdown, the more I can’t help but recognize the similarities between the situation created by Brexit and a similar occurrence during the late 18th century.
In 1776, the United States voted to obtain its freedom from the British Empire.
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.
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. 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.
 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"
 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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
Reading about the history of vast early America is great. But every so often I find it necessary to go out into the field and see the places I read about. This is, in part, how I came to spend last week in Sint Eustatius, the "Golden Rock" of the 18th-century Atlantic World.
This post begins a three-post series about Sint Eustatius, its history, and my visit to the island.
Historic Overview of Sint Eustatius
A small, volcanic island in the Lesser Antilles, Sint Eustatius (also known as Statia) stands in between the islands of Saba and Saint Kitts. Archaeological evidence suggests native peoples lived on Statia prior to the 17th century. However, when the French attempted to settle the island in 1629, they no longer lived on Statia.
French settlement of Statia lasted only a few years. The French feared Spanish attacks and they discovered that Statia lacks a natural source of water.
The Dutch found Statia uninhabited in 1636 and settled the island. They recognized the island sat at the crossroads of the trade winds and that it had a large, natural harbor with an easy anchorage that could accommodate up to two hundred ships. To overcome the island's lack of natural water, the Dutch built cisterns.
Under the Dutch, Statia grew in two parts: Lower Town along the shoreline and Upper Town atop the steep cliff where people built their houses, churches, and government offices.
The Dutch built Fort Oranje at the edge of Upper Town's steep cliff and designed it to protect both Upper and Lower Town. By 1701, it had four bastions. Despite its size and strategic location, Fort Oranje never proved capable of staging an adequate defense of the island because the Dutch West India Company never garrisoned enough soldiers on Statia to man it. As a result, the island changed hands between the French, English, and Dutch approximately twenty-two times, often with the exchange of only a couple of shots, between the 17th and 18th centuries.
When the Dutch settled Sint Eustatius, they planned to grow tobacco, cotton, and indigo. By the 18th-century they established sugar plantations. However, these cash-crop plantations proved to be secondary to the main source of Statia's wealth, the slave trade.
Statia's position at the crossroads of the African and American trades brought ships from all over the Atlantic into her large harbor. Duty-free trade supplemented the slave trade especially during times of European warfare. The Dutch often declared neutrality, especially during periods of warfare between the English and French. Dutch neutrality allowed all traders to freely trade in Statia.
Traders could find just about every type of good in Statia. This fact combined with Dutch neutrality caused Americans to sail to Statia in search of gunpowder, ammunition, and other war materiel during the War for American Independence. Historians estimate that as much as 50 percent of the patriots' war supplies came through Statia.
The American Revolution coincided with the peak of Statia's economic power; the days when those around the Atlantic World referred to her as the "Golden Rock." Two notable events occurred on Statia during the Revolution.
First, on November 16, 1776, the American naval vessel Andrew Doria sailed into Statia flying the new flag of the United States. As per custom, she entered the port by firing a peaceful, welcome salute. The Dutch soldiers in Fort Oranje were to supposed to fire a return salute, but they hesitated. They did not recognize the Andrew Doria's flag. The officer on duty inquired with Governor Johannes de Graaff about what action the men in the fort should take. As the welcome salute signified peaceful entry, de Graaff ordered his men to return the salute. The American press spun this customary salute by the Dutch as the first international recognition of the United States, the "first salute."
Second, in 1781, British Admiral George Rodney sailed to Sint Eustatius with orders to subdue the island so the Americans couldn't supply their war effort through it. Rodney sacked the island in February. His orders after subduing the island were to head to the Chesapeake to prevent the French navy from meeting up with George Washington's American army. Rodney defied his orders. He remained in Statia to plunder the island in an effort to satisfy personal debts and enrich himself. As a result, the French met up with the American army at Yorktown in October 1781.
Although the American War for Independence had contributed to Statia's wealth, the independence of the United States also contributed to Statia's decline. After gaining independence, the United States sought to trade in different ports and Statia never recovered from Rodney's plundering. Today, the island, with its population of approximately 3,000 people, is an official municipality of the Netherlands.
 No hard evidence exists for why the native inhabitants of Statia left the island. An exhibit in the Sint Eustatius History Museum offered two possibilities: first, native inhabitants left the island in fear the Spanish would raid their island and enslave them. Second, the Spanish raided the island and enslaved its native peoples sometime during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Over the last couple of years, I've read many blog posts wherein authors discuss their successes and struggles with turning their dissertations into publishable book manuscripts.
I've enjoyed, sympathized with, and benefited from these posts because I too have been trying to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript. However, there's one type of post on this subject that I haven't yet seen: How to know if your dissertation is just a dissertation.
This thought has been churning in my mind for most of this year.
Is My Dissertation A Book?
By all accounts, I should be able to turn my dissertation into a book.
I was fortunate and privileged in my graduate education. I attended a good, funded doctoral program where I worked with one of the best historians and writers in the profession. Ever practical in his outlook, my advisor does not direct his students' dissertations, he directs first drafts of their books.
This means my dissertation never had a literature review. Most of the references I made to other scholars occur in my notes, not the main text. And while not perfectly written, my dissertation conveys its ideas with clear writing and active verbs.
This is not to imply that I wrote a dissertation ready for publication as a book. My dissertation has some serious flaws.
First, it purported to trace how the people of Albany, New York created first Dutch, then British, and finally American identities. That's a false claim. My first chapter provided a very brief overview of Albany and its people during the Dutch and early English periods. Chapter two begins in 1750.
Second, chapter four implies that the fighting of the War for Independence ended right after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. In reality, fighting carried on in vengeful, civil war-like manner until 1784. Albany and its people played a big role in this fighting. Chapter five begins in the 1780s.
Third, I didn't think broadly enough when I framed my dissertation. My work speaks to an important local and small piece of the historiography. However, the events, politics, and interactions I explored and interpreted could have added valuable insight to the larger story of American and United States history, but they don't because I didn't frame and situate them properly.
Plus, there are instances when I did not consider my sources carefully enough. Further consideration would have changed parts of my argument.
These are all flaws that I can fix, and in some cases, I've already fixed them. If I had to guess, I would say that my book manuscript needs somewhere between 6-12 months worth of work before I could send it to a publisher for consideration.
So why have I been thinking about the question "how do you know if your dissertation is just a dissertation?"
Is My Dissertation Just a Dissertation?
One year ago this week, I shelved my book manuscript. I didn't want to put it aside; I was making great progress. However, good issues and problems due to the quick growth of Ben Franklin's World had piled up and required my attention before they hurt the podcast. I made the decision to set aside my book project and work on the podcast full-time for a month or two.
Here we are one year later. I've made almost no progress on my book since I set it aside. My lack of progress is not for lack of trying. What I thought would be a one or two month leave of absence turned into a six-month hiatus.
I attempted to return to the project in February. I wasn't sure where I wanted to jump back in, so I took chapters one and three with me on a week-long, distraction-free retreat. Chapter one is a new chapter. The binder I took with me consisted of an outline for the chapter and the research I needed to write it. Chapter three is an old chapter that needs some slight reframing and good editing. I thought having two different chapters in two different states of being would allow me to pick and choose how I wanted to wade back into my project.
I didn't make much progress. I tried for hours and days to get back into my project. I tried free writing, editing on my computer, editing with pen and paper, the Pomodoro technique to encourage short bursts of progress, and long walks to generate ideas and think my material through--nothing worked. 18th and early 19th-century Albany, places which had once seemed so familiar to me now seemed like foreign countries.
Because I'm stubborn, I've been trying on and off to get back into my project as time has allowed. It's been six months since February and I haven't made much progress.
Part of my inability to get back into my project could be that my podcast work doesn't allow for more than a few hours of book time a week. (Some weeks it doesn't even allow for that.) Therefore, dedicated focus has been a problem. Subject-matter fatigue could be another factor. I've been working on this project since 2004.
Regardless of what is causing my block, it's time to stop being stubborn about it. It's not productive and it's not fun. I've decided to stop trying to force myself to work on the project. I'm moving on.
I'm starting work on my next long-term research project: The Articles of Confederation. Over the last year and a half, I've been mining footnotes and steadily accumulating books about the subject. No one has undertaken a serious study of the Articles since Merrill Jensen in 1950.
In the current historiography, the Articles appear as one of the most maligned aspects of the Revolution. Many scholars treat them as a mere stepping stone to the Constitution of 1787. I intend to look at the creation of this government within the context of the American Revolution. I'm curious about how the Continental Congress drafted them, what regional issues accelerated or hindered their drafting, and whether their creation and ratification fostered a sense of national identity.
I'm really excited about my new project. But saying "hello" to the Articles of Confederation means I need to say "goodbye" to Albany, at least for now.
Will I return to this project and see it into the great book I know it could be? I wonder.
I hope the opportunity to read and think deeply about a different aspect of early American history will somehow reconnect me with Albany.
But it may turn out that my dissertation was just a dissertation.