This class was the first I’ve ever taken that focused exclusively on popular politics rather than the more commonly studied history of the country’s elites. Someone in class summed it up well when they said that this class was all about the kinds of topics that usually have one or two class periods devoted to them in a normal class, or take up one section of a textbook. I definitely think it is a good thing that there seems to be a shift today in academia toward doing more popular history. The elite figures we typically hear about are the ones generally making decisions and holding power, and so obviously they will always be important to study. However, it is difficult as a historian to claim to truly know an era if you do not have some idea of how non-elites such as minorities, women, and the working class expressed themselves politically.
What is also exciting about the field of popular history is how much it will be able to grow in the coming years due to advances in technology. People attempting to study popular politics today are quite limited in their access to firsthand accounts from non-elites. However, imagine somebody studying our current time period fifty years from now. They will likely have access to huge archives of social media and Internet activity. Imagine the use of looking back on old facebook and twitter posts (a thought that admittedly I’m sure scares a lot of us now) as a historian. On these sites, users from all walks of life frequently post about their political views and feelings on current events. With that in mind, it seems that the field of popular history has nowhere to go but up.
Wayne Lee’s look into riots in pre-revolutionary North Carolina, in “Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina”, is an excellent example of popular politics. Lee is able to use specific examples of rioting and mob violence to demonstrate a greater understanding for the world in which these North Carolinians lived. Lee begins by telling the reader the background and European makeup of the colony. Then he discusses what riots and mobs were like in England, Scotland, and Germany. This allows Lee to make the argument, after discussing specific North Carolina riots, that the shape and rules of mob violence had not changed very much. As Lee is going through the specific North Carolina riots though, the reader is able to extract information about this world that would not be found in ordinary history textbooks on formal politics.
During the Enfield Riots discussion, I was able to learn about how land was granted and distributed through the Privy Council in England to individual Lords who then sold or rented the land. They hired men to act as the landlords in their stead. The relationship between the squatters and Francis Corbin was also very interesting. Corbin’s dishonesty and corruption allowed his victims to act as if they had the law on their side. When they captured Corbin and walked him seventy miles, they made him sign formal documents to reimburse the people and correct his mistakes. They acted with a sense of legality and formality that I would not have expected from rural farmers in North Carolina in the 1750s. This helps Lee make the argument that North Carolina rioters behaved very similarly to Englanders. Yet, while making this point, I was able to learn more about how the average man lived, operated, and thought in North Carolina.
Furthermore, in the Sugar Creek War section there are many insights into the daily life of these men. Punishments such as being tied at the neck and heels and whipping were discussed. The North Carolina men who whipped their persecutors are described as innovative by Lee as whipping was not used during English or Scottish riots. It is interesting then, that Lee discusses how whipping was typically associated with slavery. Together, these ideas are an example of the growth of a unique American culture. Through Lee’s insights on the North Carolina riots, we are able to accumulate more knowledge of their society as a whole.
As Ian Solcz discussed in his blog, newspapers played a significant role in popular American politics. Similarly to riots, newspapers allow us now to understand more about the culture and society of early America. As Ian says, “Without the papers, the various drunken banquet toasts that were so important in terms of the stance of different parties would have been lost in the night’s events, rather than becoming a rallying point for members” (Solcz, Rochester, NY). Newspapers and stories about riots are two of the more effective ways that one can garner facts about how average Americans lived. Newspapers are effective because they are better preserved and widely distributed. Riot tales are effective because they are interesting stories. Moreover though, riots were one of the most common ways that average Americans could make noise and affect society as a whole. Therefore, by researching riots, one can learn a lot about the people. Overall, while Lee was making interesting points about riots, he was also able to use his research and findings to further the readers understanding of popular and common life in early North Carolina.