Violence in the Early Republic

Dueling pistols of Burr and Hamilton (Courtesy of NY Historical Society)

Dueling pistols of Burr and Hamilton (Courtesy of NY Historical Society)

This week’s readings for History 117 include two fascinating accounts of violence.

First, there is the story of the most in famous duel in American history. In 1804, the Vice-President of the United States killed the former Secretary of Treasury.  Historian Joanne Freeman uses this incident as the starting point for a sophisticated analysis of politics in the early republic.  She provides a new way to understand the behavior of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, both as by-products of their age but also as men striving to demonstrate their independence from convention.  Students in History 117 should read Freeman’s article carefully and be prepared to summarize how she describes the nature and history of dueling in America.  They should also be able to explain what chain of events and circumstances led to the Burr-Hamilton duel and why Hamilton, in particular, was conflicted over the proper course of action.  Finally, students should ask questions about the way the article characterizes the principle of honor in early nineteenth-century America.  Students may want to consult a helpful website from PBS on “The Duel.”  See especially a good timeline, helpful summaries of key people and events, and excerpts from the Code Duello.  The New York State Historical Association has posted the entire Burr-Hamilton duel correspondence here.

GougeSecond, students will encounter a practical orgy of violence in an article by Elliott Gorn on the rough-and-tumble fighting culture of the backcountry South.   Students need to be able to answer the question, what was gouging and why was it significant?  Why would Americans, especially white men in the southern backcountry, engage in such behavior and what does it suggest about the culture?  How does the culture of rough-and-tumble fighting compare to the social dynamics of Chesapeake horse-racing that Tim Breen described earlier in the semester?  Students should also consider how Gorn weaves the story of the southern backcountry into the narrative of the coming of the Civil War.  Does he offer a persuasive interpretation of male behavior for that era, or any era in American history?


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Founding Mothers

Martha Ballard’s diary, September 11-25, 1787

The same week in September 1787 that the Framers “delivered” their Constitution to the American people, midwife Martha Ballard was busy caring for and delivering real babies in Hallowell, Maine.  To the right, one can view an image of her diary from that very week.  Compared to James Madison’s notes of the Constitution Convention, this journal might seem insignificant, but it better represents the lives and concerns of the four million Americans who resided in the country at that time.  Most of them, whether male or female, could probably relate more easily to the terse, businesslike entries in Ballard’s diary than to the fierce but often abstract political debates over sovereignty, republicanism and governance that the Framers were having in Philadelphia.  Students in History 117 should read historian Laurel Ulrich’s account of Martha Ballard’s life and ask themselves if Ulrich has explained the case for remembering this particular midwife.  What do we learn from this account of medical care in the early republic?  How can we explain Martha Ballard’s place in a survey of American history?  And finally, what do we need to know about ordinary lives in order to better understand the context of the past?  Students should also experiment with the Do History website devoted to Martha Ballard and her story.  See especially the transcription engine and the Magic Lens.  Also, a good reference website is available from PBS “American Experience,” which did an episode about Ballard a several years ago.

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Carlisle Versus the Constitution

Saul Cornell’s article “Aristocracy Assailed” uses Carlisle, Pennsylvania as a setting for an examination of Americans who opposed the new U.S. Constitution.  These Anti-Federalists are now sometimes forgotten, but their views have endured in critical ways.  Students should be able to explain the worldview and values of Anti-Federalists such as William Petrikin.  They should analyze the Carlisle Riot and decide what it means and question why it is not remembered in the town today.

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Washington’s Greatness

Washington (By Gilbert Stuart, 1796)

George Washington (By Gilbert Stuart, 1796)

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “every hero becomes a bore at last” (See his essay “Uses of Great Men,” 1850).  Gordon Wood employs this famous line in his chapter on George Washington’s greatness as way to help us understand how Americans have come to take the once-revered “Father of Our Country” for granted.  He argues that Washngton’s greatness remains misunderstood and under-appreciated.

To begin, Wood claims that “Washington’s greatness, lay in his character” (34).  Students in History 117 should be able to explain what the author means by this claim.  What were some of the key elements of Washington’s “character” and how did they distinguish him from other notable peers that we have already studied in-depth such as Adams, Franklin, and Paine.

One test of Washington’s character by Wood’s estimation was how he treated his slaves. The historian provocatively calls the owner of Mount Vernon “a good master” (39), and details the story of Washington’s famous ambivalence about slavery.  How do you react to this interpretation? How does this characterization appear in light of the recent controversy over the Economist magazine’s aborted review of Edward Baptist’s new book on slavery and capitalism?

Another test of Washington’s character came with his seeming ambivalence over holding power.  Wood offers a series of fascinating insights about how the great founder approached his various “retirements” from public life and how he navigated sometimes-complicated episodes challenging his legendary disinterestedness.  Summarizing these episodes, Wood quotes from scholar Garry Wills who once observed that Washington, “gained power from his readiness to give it up.”  Students in History 117 should be able to explain the meaning behind this shrewd line. The essay covers much of Washington’s career but assumes that readers already know the details of Washington’s role as the commanding general of the Continental Army.  If you need background on that part of the story, and perhaps a refresher on the chronology of the Revolutionary War, here are some helpful resources (some of which we will also discuss in class):

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The Age of Paine?

Tom Paine

Tom Paine

Gordon Wood does not hold back the praise when it comes to Thomas Paine.  He labels Common Sense (1776), Paine’s fiery Revolutionary pamphlet as “the most radical and important pamphlet written in the American Revolution” (209).  He goes even further in extolling the virtues of Paine’s later masterwork, The Rights of Man (1791), which he calls, “one of the most important works of political thought in the history of the Western world” (212).  Yet Paine died in obscurity and has never been fully accepted in American culture as one of the great Founders of the country.  John Adams simply hated him.  He called Paine a “mongrel” who led a “career of mischief” (206). And that’s the polite stuff.

John Adams

John Adams

Students in History 117 have been assigned two chapters from Wood’s collection of essays, one profiling Paine and the other profiling Adams.  Both chapters focus heavily on their respective writings –most notably Paine’s Common Sense and Adams’s Defence of the Constitutions (1787).  They are utterly different in both style and substance.  Yet each represents the mature work of important Founders.  Students should be able to summarize the main differences in the political philosophies of the two men.  They should try to explain why Paine was more popular at first, but why Adams proved more enduring.  Part of the answer lies in appreciating some of the key terms that Wood introduces in his long chapter on Adams.  Students should be familiar with each of these ideas and their significance for the evolving American Revolution:

  • Republicanism
  • Bicameral
  • Independent Executive
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Benjamin Franklin, Image vs. Reality

Franklin's "retirement" portrait (Feke, c. 1748)

Franklin’s “retirement” portrait (Feke, c. 1748)

Today, Benjamin Franklin is often used as the ultimate symbol for the American can-do spirit and for the practical wisdom that comes from someone who rose from practically nothing to become successful.  Yet Gordon Wood shows in his chapter on Franklin that the great American was far more mysterious than his legend implies.  To begin, during his own lifetime Franklin was often considered more European than American.  Students in History 117 should be able to explain why that appeared to be true in the eighteenth century even though it has been largely forgotten today.

Students should also consult Franklin’s famous Autobiography which was written in several stages between the early 1770s and late 1780s, and then was first published as a book in French, rather than English, after his death in 1790.  Only later, during the nineteenth century, did Franklin’s memorable life story come to be considered an American treasure.  You can read more about the complicated history of the Autobiography from a helpful online exhibit at the Library of Congress.

Wood’s chapter on Franklin covers several periods in the great man’s life, including his rise from Boston apprentice to “retired” Pennsylvania gentleman, the colonial crisis (while he was in England), and the Revolution (while he was serving mainly as a diplomat in France).  Students who want to watch Prof. Wood deliver a version of this essay in a lecture setting, can view him below (full viewing will take about one hour):

Gordon Wood: The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.


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Founders and Enlightenment

John Dickinson

Gordon Wood titles the introductory chapter of his book Revolutionary Characters (2006) as, “The Founders and the Enlightenment,” because he believes that the Age of Enlightenment helps define the worldview of the American republic’s “founding” generation.  Wood begins his analysis, however, by sketching out a brief history of how these founders have been portrayed in revisionist scholarship over the years.  Wood’s point in this survey of the “de-bunking” literature is to emphasize how in his opinion the Founders have been too far removed from the Enlightenment context which helped shape them.   This chapter is most useful for students in helping to define those period terms which Wood believes are essential for understanding the Founders and their worldview:

  • Civilization
  • Gentleman
  • Disinterestedness
  • Character

Wood’s explanations for these terms are sophisticated but clear.  However, throughout the book, he also makes numerous references to events in the colonial crisis that might confuse some students.  Reviewing the following entries in the Digital History textbook should help:

Ultimately, Wood’s book will use a series of biographical essays about eight Founders to illuminate the essential qualities of their generation, but one Founder whom he mentions in the Introduction but then largely omits from the story is none other than our own John Dickinson.  We will talk about Dickinson as a representative figure in class on Tuesday by paying special attention to an excerpt from his well-known “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” (1767-68).

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Abortion in Puritan New England

In “Taking the Trade,” Cornelia Hughes Dayton narrates a chilling tale of two young eighteenth-century Puritans and their Connecticut families as they plunge deeper and deeper into a moral catastrophe.  The story challenges almost all of the assumptions students have about Puritan culture, but Dayton deftly uses the case involving Pomfret residents Sarah Grosvenor and Amasa Sessions to illustrate a culture in transition.  In this case, student should think about how individual actions by ordinary figures can reflect wider changes in social norms or cultural values.  Those who need additional background on Puritan culture, should seek out a succinct outline provided online by Donna Campbell, a professor of American Literature at Washington State University.  To view some key resources and even some of the actual documents in the Grosvenor-Sessions legal proceedings, see these links below from a now-defunct website created by Woody Holton, Cornelia Dayton, and Jessica Linker:

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Nathaniel Bacon and Chesapeake Culture

Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg

A fascinating article by T.H. Breen about gambling in colonial Chesapeake offers students in History 117 an opportunity to consider how social activities might reflect political agendas.   Breen’s careful analysis of the habits and customs that lay behind the massive betting on horse racing  in the colonial Chesapeake region help explain how seemingly casual sporting encounters  illustrated forms of political control.  Students should try to figure out what they think about this type of interpretation involving what anthropologists sometimes call “deep play,” and they should be able to explain what kinds of questions such an approach might raise.  To help understand the article in all its complexity, here are some helpful background or context links:


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Taking on Thanksgiving

pilgrims-and-indians-and-turkeyThanksgiving myths?  Say it ain’t so!  Yet for Thursday’s class session, students in History 117 are reading a short, insightful article from John Humins who explains the complicated political and diplomatic intrigue behind the scenes of the first Thanksgiving in 1621.  When Pilgrim separatists arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they thought they were settling in Northern Virginia.  In some ways, they found a similar dynamic with Wampanoag Indians as John Smith and the Jamestown settlers had discovered several years earlier with the Powhatan Indians.  In other words, as foreigners they were originally sized up as pawns in the political and imperial battles of the indigenous populations.  Humins focuses his attention on the tensions between two Indians:  Squanto and Massassoit.  Students should be able to describe each figure and explain the reasons why tensions developed in their relationship. They should also be able to discuss the behavior and motivation of Pilgrim figures such as William Bradford, and Miles Standish  (both featured in the Humins article).For those who need more of a primer on the general background, they should consult the following sections from the online US History textbook by Digital History:

Founding New England

Pilgrims Arrive


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