Citizens Unchanged


From Shade and Brown’s articles, it seems that until recently the common man and the working class at large has been neglected by both the political elites and historians of the last 50 years. Political leaders preferred that the citizenry remain uninformed and the historians preferred to look at the political leaders as representatives for the citizenry. I see a connection here. As Brown points out, the commercial sector has become the most powerful factor in molding political and social opinions. Perhaps the newest political history is a way to better understand the “pseudomodern” present by trying to understand the significance of the disconnect between the populace and decision makers. The emphasis here is on what the people do when their representatives aren’t asking for their opinions.

I felt that Brown’s article provided an excellent end to our discussions on early American politics. It sobers us up to remind us that we aren’t so different from the citizens of yesterday and we still grapple with similar problems in a new world. In conjunction with his argument, I liked the question posed by Michael, which was “Are we Davidson students informed/critically minded to be able to choose public officials wisely?” There are many things that I can excel at where students of other schools couldn’t because of Davidson’s curriculum. However, I don’t believe most of us are truly informed enough because politics are so broad and complex. The same goes for people back in the day. They had their politicians to simplify their options the way the commercial media has done for us.

Just as we began talking about race and gender near the end of the course, Shade talks about how it should figure into the newest political history near the end of his article. The new political history had emphasized ordinary politics in these narratives. With the newest histories being written from the perspective of the disenfranchised people, we can better understand how race and gender factor into politics today.

The Turning Tides of Political History

Both Shade and Brown write their pieces in a way that demonstrates the growing complexity of both American history and politics – on through charting the development of American political history and the other through the analysis of “informed citizenry” in the United States. While I agree with my colleagues that Shade’s “Déjà Vu All Over Again” was undoubtedly dense, I think it sheds important light on the development of American political histories and how a “New New Political History…provides hope for the revitalization of American political history (404).” While arguing that the newest form of political history emphasizes “culture” and is largely devoid of any “quantification of their analyses,” Shade illustrates this newest political history also incorporates previous political histories (400-401). Through his analysis of several works contained in Beyond the Founders, Shade makes clear that the newest political history is not a definitive departure from the traditional or even the first New Political History. Rather, it takes some of the strategies employed by the previous histories – for example, Pasley’s traditional and neo-Progressive characteristics in his work – to emphasize different perspectives of a similar historical narrative (397). I think that Shade sees this amalgamation of qualities from earlier political histories as the aforementioned “hope” he sees for the future of American political history.

In reading Shade, I also agree with Michael that Shade’s commentary in many ways reflects what we have done throughout this course. While beginning the class with a very traditional view of political history, we have become cognizant of political history even in the “public sphere,” a quality Shade states is shared by almost all the newest political historians (398). In the past few weeks as we have incorporated religious history, women’s history, and the history of black Americans, we have crafted ourselves into New New Political Historians and explored the nuances American politics for different members of society, as well as the way these nuances limited or shaped political voices.

I also found Brown’s “Looking Backward” and engaging piece of scholarship as I reflect on this semester. Most interesting was his argument about the development of the “commercial sector” as the “most powerful educator and molder of informed citizenry” in the United States (203). I thought his argument about t the commercial sector becoming a “crude demagoguery” was most effective because it lifted some of his criticism off of American citizens and onto government officials. He claims that there is a fear that government officials have become “too responsive” to the messages conveyed by the commercial sector as opposed to moral institutions like the church (204). Thus, public officials are reinforcing the creation of an uninformed populace by succumbing to its uninformed demands. One criticism I have of Brown is that he finds that “comparisons across time” of an informed citizenry “cannot be definitive” (202). While I comprehend his argument, he concludes that throughout American history, there has not been a monolithic definition of an “informed citizenry” (205). In order to convincingly demonstrate this claim, Brown would have had to embark on some form of comparison of interpretations – much like Shade did in outlining American political history – of an informed citizenry in American history. It seems contradictory that instead, Brown casts doubt on the very grounds upon which he establishes his argument. With this in mind, Brown ultimately writes a very powerful and pertinent piece that calls into question the current state of American informed citizenry and challenges the populace to change political culture.

Policy and Politics

Planet Money, one of my favorite NPR productions, is a weekly podcast which looks at some of today’s economic issues. In one episode, they decided to figure out some of the policies on which economists from across the political spectrum tend to agree. Here’s the link to the blog post about it: They even made a fake candidate to advocate these ideas, and a fake political ad. We do not see many of the positions that they advocate in mainstream politics, from either the Democrats or the Republicans, because they tend to be highly unpopular. Yet, they are the solutions on which economic experts agree.

In Brown’s “Epilogue,” he asks several important questions, which center around the issue of an educated population, informed enough to make important policy decisions to guide the nation. The most interesting question, centers around “the democratic idea that citizens informed on the merits of a particular issue should organize to elect officials to do their bidding, not to serve as guides and guardians” (206). Though I believe that idea to be a great ideal for society to aim for–the governance by bureaucrats who only do the bidding of the electorate–I also believe it to be an implausible goal. Elected officials often have to make decisions that they were not elected to make; not only that, but those officials rely on experts who spend their careers studying the issues in question. Can we really expect the citizenry of this nation to be educated and informed enough to make the decision, in aggregate, for the official? Are not they swayed, as the official is, by the testimony of experts?

Furthermore, I agree with Brown that talk radio, television and the hegemony of the commercial sector obfuscate the decisions from which the electorate chooses. Middle and working classes tend to use elites as heuristics for their decision making, agreeing with those who resonate with them most deeply, often on an instinctual level. As much as they might claim that they believe in certain policy decisions, they are most likely regurgitating an opinion foisted upon them by their favorite self-described comedian (read Rush Limbaugh). The Planet Money policy proposals will mostly never be achieved, because right and left wing ideologues are too busy criticizing and nit picking speeches, or trying to decide who won a presidential debate. The media is part of the commercial sector, and they are, as Brown argues, both serving and shaping consumer desires. Most politically conscious citizens do not want to discuss policy, they just want to be upset about what the other side did.

In the end, 300 million people informed well enough to make good policy decisions is not a feasible goal. Elites have always made and will always continue to control policy. As Brown concludes, and I agree, people must look for those “sterling qualities” of “learning, judgment and integrity” in their public officials, and hope that those officials can discern the best policy choices.

Alex argues that the media limits the electorate’s ability to become educated and informed on political issues. Unfortunately, I believe that this influence is an inevitable outcome of the commercial sector’s desire to influence and control the populace. Yet, we would likely fare no better under a more socialist system, since state controlled media doesn’t seem to work any better at informing people. Perhaps NPR is the model for the future, an entity funded mostly by the donations of the people. In the spirit of our nation, media by the people, for the people.

Two Realities

In “Epilogue” by Richard D. Brown, he examines the necessity and importance of an informed citizenry. He transitions between expressing sentiments that the US is destined for a future where the current, ignorant generation will ruin the country and the idea that the people in our society are actually prepared to run the country, despite our cynical notions of modern intellectual America. It is interesting to see the transformation his paper undergoes in regards to quotations (heavy in the beginning) and conclusiveness (not so much at the end).

He begins with they typical condemnation of modern America as a “Nation of Nitwits”, harnessing a common bleak perception of the country’s future in the hands of our youth who apparently are scholastically inferior to their predecessors. He touts a “cultural illiteracy” as the potential downfall of the nation as there will be no one to administer the country and its values if they do not have the adequate the education to prepare them for such a role. Brown then turns to the idea that “American workers are in the world’s upper echelon for productivity” which he ascertains must count for something in a world where time is money and the measuring stick for nations is GDP not happiness or any other type of immaterial determinant. At this point, his credibility wanes as he uses sweeping phrases such as, “most people recognize that American society…” Which type of people is he referencing? Is he going for an international perspective or is he just focusing on the self-awareness of Americans? I am not a fan of ambiguous writing among historians especially when it is a means for an argument.

There seems to be a bit of a contradiction in his argumentation when he claims that Americans during America’s early republic were “comparatively well informed because they read newspapers and books and paid closer attention to political contests than they do.” He asserts that people at this golden age prioritized academic pursuit and knowledgeable pursuits in favor of the frivolities that modern Americans indulge in. He later claims that the people in that age however were often manipulated by politicians who thought “people want information and are constantly liable to be misled.” It is a reversal from his previous theory that Americans centuries ago were sufficiently educated to make decisions for the government and posterity. Apparently, politicians were pretty “dirty” figures, as he labels them, centuries ago as well.

This week Michael wrote about how the “talking heads” of society are put on a pedestal for the common man in contrast to the early America. I agree that the concept of individual common citizens making up their mind without the intervention of a politician would be liberating. The need for a sovereign electorate free from the entrapments of modern media and what Brown mentions as “talk radio” inhibit the populace’s ability to educate themselves and form their own opinions without interference from an outside source. The modern world does pose many distractions which may factor into Brown’s fear of the future.



Call to Action

Richard D. Brown’s “Epilogue-Looking Backward: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry at the end of the Twentieth Century” raises some very interesting points as to how Americans view their political leaders.  “The fact that politicians, likes used car salesmen are often ranked at the bottom of the public’s hierarchy of trust and respect suggests that the restoration of deference may be fanciful.”   Where are the characters such as Washington, Hamilton, and Franklin who are the hallmarks of American prosperity in the society of today?  Well, as Brown puts in his epilogue, they don’t exist because the American public has created a society that values the talking head figures of the world and does not seek the unbiased truth on a matter.  Where are the citizens who went out of their way to promote the voice of the people whether that be in the streets or the pub?  Well the American society has invested so much on an intellectual/political few that the common man has been so mislead by the said talking heads that they cannot inform their own opinion.  Now while this little game of question and answer I have picked up in Brown’s epilogue seems to speak down to the state of America today he on page 205 draws his points on the lack of citizen role in politics to the original concept of America.  The common man shouldn’t be allowed to make/dictate society because they simply are too inferior to grasp concepts necessary for success.

The framers of America following the American Revolution recognized how easy the common man could be manipulated and thus established political boundaries (like the Electoral College) to keep this common man from disturbing the flow of the U.S.  “Citizens should be sufficiently informed and critically minded to be able to choose public officials wisely.”  So I am going to now pose a question, are we Davidson students informed/critically minded enough to choose our public officials?  Personally despite the high view I have for myself and my education I honestly believe that there are issues I have such a lack of knowledge of, that my voting seems like a detriment to American society.  Sadly, this view is shared by many classmates as we talked about this a few weeks ago.  I certainly could become versed to choose public officials wisely but that would mean that I would have to take time out of my busy day to look up details of a candidate.  But where would my first trip to figure out these politicians? The same talking heads that Brown says are hurting political understanding due to their bias.  Why? Well, because it is easier to find information that way.  It is time for individuals to no longer take the bias when it comes to political action and search for the truth of issues that matter.  We as a society have become so warped by an idea of media that originality is a difficult thing to come by.  We must being promoting individuals who have “taken the time to become informed and encourages private citizens to be informed as well.  The call to action has been made, are we the soon to be new leaders in a political society ready to make the call?

Pursuing Perfection

I found Shade’s commentary at the end of Beyond the Founders intriguing for a variety of reasons. As AJ mentioned, it was certainly difficult to wade through at first, but I think that noting progress of the historical tradition moving from focusing around only a select group of leaders, to political parties, towards the everyday experiences of common people depicts an interesting series developments in the field of history and reiterates in many ways what our class sought to achieve this semester. The goal of engaging with popular politics, outside of official institutions of political authority, has become the focus of modern research in the field of history and Shade places it into a longer narrative of progress that has sought to achieve a more complete and accurate portrayal of history. A few questions that came to mind when I thought about these developments, namely how with this change in focus affect the memory of these events? Another was that if this is part of a larger process, what is the next step, what else could be better analyzed and what perspectives are we overlooking as historians? And most importantly, what are we going to name that next step, New New New Political History? (I jest, but a little creativity wouldn’t hurt, would it?) I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think they’re important to keep in mind as we write and research.
Regarding the other article on the informed citizenry, the thing that immediately popped into my head was the opening from the Newsroom (which I hopefully succeeded in attaching). While I think that Brown’s article raised a number of fair points on the importance of an informed citizenry and modern concerns of its decline, his analysis of such concerns as a historical phenomenon connect it Shade’s commentary quite well. Specifically, that while fears and shortcomings may be focused upon, a willingness to be critical of oneself is important in progressing towards a more idealized version of your goal, be it an accurate historical representation or a informed citizenry.

A New Take on Early Political History

I think Ben’s last post and his points in class about “shaping” memory was a good transition into William Shade’s, “Commentary,” at the end of Beyond The Founders. Ben suggested that Douglass, as an outsider and through pen, was trying to shape and mend the memory of the Civil War. After the war, the history written about it was up in the air for the taking. As we read, Douglass viewed this as an opportunity to “never forget” what he believed was the main memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This opportunity and effort to shape and restore history on behalf of Douglass provides us with a good introduction into Shade’s comments on the types of histories, the historians themselves, and an insight into the newest political history wave showed throughout Beyond The Founders clippings of new approaches towards the political history of the Early Republic.

I began to read this commentary and was a little side-tracked by what Shade was talking about with these types of political history being thrown around. As a newcomer to this field as of recently, this information and conversation was foreign to me but by the end of this short commentary I began to understand why it is something of importance and deserves discussion. I did not know about the worry traditional historians have regarding the depleting field of political history, so I found it rather interesting that current historians and those of old are hoping and relying on the newest political historians to salvaged and restore political history. Shade discussions the differences in scholarship on political history from those deemed traditionalists, New Political Historians, and those recently labeled the New New Political Historians which leads into his comments on their subtle variances in language and methods of inquiry. As he delves into the newest political history being published he states, “Right now there is not enough published work to talk about a school of political history, but there is a feeling that something is going on” (394). Immediately, my focus was on what this feeling was and what were the newest historians doing that coined them “agents of change.”

As I continued to read, Shade was claiming that the new generation of political historians were writing and confronting the history of the early republic using different language and variants of topics and methods to study than the New Political Historians did forty years ago. From this I wanted to ask questions regarding why most of the literature identified from the newest political historians is on the early republic before 1820? Also, why these new historians returned to strikingly traditional methods in their analysis of early republic politics? Beyond The Founders represents quite different ways of doing history, but the excitement for the new studies for political historians is refreshing for historians of the past and present and also those like me who are newcomers. Shade left us with a promising notion as he states, “Above all, the energy and engagement of the newest political historians represented in this book provides hope for the revitalization of American political history” (404). As a history major, the ways in which these new historians are restoring old history and revitalizing the field seems pretty cool. I wonder what reasons these new historians have for going back to early republic politics and shining new light on old methods yet new variants in topics and interpretations. I guess we will find out.

Remembering the Past

In his article, “‘For Something beyond the Battlefield’: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the memory of the Civil War,” David Blight describes Frederick Douglass’s efforts to promote equality for African Americans through remembrance of the Civil War. Douglass felt that remembering the war and the war’s true meaning (the abolishment of slavery in his eyes) would help end white racism. As Blight points out, the South achieved greater remembrance of the war and romanticized its heroes. Growing up in the South, I can attest to this type of thinking. Throughout Virginia, public schools are named after Confederate generals (Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, etc.) and many of these generals are revered for their service to their great state. This thinking completely counters the beliefs of Douglass and Albion Tourgee. Both figures do not believe the South fought an honest battle, and therefore, does not deserve unification with the heroic North. During the period, their thinking was colored with emotion. I cannot argue with the emotional scars of being a former slave and the resentment carried by these former slaves for the South. I can, however, say that Douglass’s and Tourgee’s assertions are sweeping generalizations. Not all Confederates were fighting to maintain the institution of slavery. Robert E. Lee, for example, fought for his state’s rights (I don’t think he owned slaves) against his personal desire for the country to remain intact. Although Lincoln asked Lee to fight for his nation, Lee chose to fight for Virginia. Douglass neglects to remember the honor in fighting against your own personal beliefs because of your loyalty. Furthermore, Douglass’s hatred for Lee is seemingly unwarranted.  Lee was not “the soldier who kills the most men in battle,” that Douglass painted him to be. Instead, Lee was a gentleman who surrendered his troops before a planned insurrection occurred in the North. The South was radical, but Lee is remembered so fondly for a reason. Following the war, he supported reconstruction and became president of Washington & Lee University (formerly Washington College until Lee served as president).

Benny (not Johnny) Hartshorn makes a pretty good point about contextualizing Douglass’s arguments. I, too, believe that Douglass felt his actions were going to be remembered, and this belief probably shaped his writing. He wanted to be remembered as the man who fought for African American equality and was unforgiving of the South so other African Americans might follow in his footsteps. Concurring with Ben, Douglass was more concerned with the lasting effects of the war as opposed to the actual battles. He failed, however. Often, the Civil War is portrayed as the war against brothers and often divided families. I think since slaves were emancipated (due to a military strategy, not moral beliefs) in 1863 instead of at the start of the war, takes a backseat to the dividing aspect of the war.

Douglass's Warped Views

Fredrick Douglas has always been a character that I have admired for his intellectual ability but after the reading for today I am not so sure if I feel the exact same way about him.  Max points out in his work the general hypocrisy of Douglass through “his strong support of the Republican party which often abandoned black and while attacking individualistic northerners who wished to forget was issues while preaching self reliance to African Americans.” (MARIEHEMANN).  Now Douglass is a man who certainly built his own success out of the terrible lot life had given him.  Douglass taught himself to read and write while working as a slave and would use these tool to aid the black community.  I can understand why he would feel Reconstruction of the South would be unnecessary as he is an example of what someone can make out of themselves with little to no help.  This of course leads me to one of my favorite debates I have had in a Davidson class, “what was the war fought over?”  Douglass like most Americans believe that the war primarily was about slavery, I believe that the Civil War is falls somewhere in between the greatest game of chicken (regarding a group of people threatening something, in this case the South seceding) and a general over appreciation for someone’s role in a society (I believe the South thought that the North would be crippled without the raw goods and crops they provided).  Now Douglass is not wrong  thinking the war is about slavery, remember most people would see that as the biggest issue, but is certainly wrong to state as Henry put it “those who shape historical interpretations of the Civil War should be the ones to shape the fate of African-Americans in the post-war period.”

I get that Douglass was upset that this idea of Reconstruction was put into play right away, but what did he expect would happen? Was the South to suffer forever because they had an ideological difference that many considered “bad?”  It is this that makes me question Douglass for his hypocrisy.  Douglass is proof that there is more to meet the eye as his life challenges every claim that blacks were second class citizens due to their inferior intellectual nature.  It is now his turn to let members of the South prove that they can function in a society that does not treat blacks poorly.

A point that many of my classmates have made a comment on his an idea AJ brings up in his blog regarding Douglass being less credible because he did not participate in the war as a soldier.  To that comment I look towards a character like Ben Franklin.  To my knowledge he was not a soldier in the American Revolution, yet some of his views and rhetoric on the revolution are the most popular writings from that time period.   Douglass could have been held in the same light as Franklin but due to his simply “wrong” views regarding reconstruction and who should dictate the way we view the war to an extent wallows a state of irrelevancy because his work simply doesn’t appeal to the right audience.

Shaping History

I found Frederick Douglass’s idea that the postwar era may be defined and controlled by whichever side could best shape interpretations of the war to be very compelling.  He understood that it is almost more important to control how the story is told than the story itself.  Douglass’s argument that the people could not lose memory of the real issues and purposes of the fight rings true when thinking about many other historical situations.

Christopher Columbus is usually portrayed as the explorer who heroically though the Earth was round and discovered America.  After doing more research into Columbus and his expeditions though, one finds that he had many flaws (such as the ruthless way he treated the Natives that he encountered once in America).  This example goes well with Frederick Douglass’s point because the narrative of the war could very easily have been shifted if the South were allowed to tell the story by alone (like one of my roommate’s insistence on calling it “the war of Northern aggression”).

Douglass’s understanding of the idea that, “people and nations are shaped and defined by history,” is very advanced.  I only know of a few men in history that have been as aware of this idea (Thomas Jefferson comes to mind because of his prolific writing and record keeping).  Furthermore, I think that Douglass took it upon himself to make sure history remembered him so that he could tell the tale of slavery and freedom from the perspective of his people.  Last semester, I read one of his autobiographies in an American History class; so obviously his ideas have been passed down just like he was hoping for.

I think that it is crucial when talking about Douglass and his opinions to keep them in context.  This was, obviously, a time before Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.  Douglass, a former slave, was in the unique position to really talk to all African-Americans through his speeches and testimonies.  Douglass understood that what he said was going to be read about by the rest of the country because of the man he had become.  With this power, Douglass took it upon himself to continue the crusade for his people.  He felt the best way to do this was to make sure that the Civil War was remembered for its causes and results.  Anthony John Pignone (Olney, Maryland) makes a different argument.  He contends that Douglass’s view on the war may be skewed because he did not fight in the war.  While I think this is a valid concern, I believe that Frederick Douglass was not trying to discount the perils and bravery of the actual fighting, he was merely trying to protect the legacy of emancipation and the future of his people.  I understand what AJ is saying, but I think that Douglass was more focused on how future generations would remember the war than the war experience itself.