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Future of Popular Politics


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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.

Citizens Unchanged


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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


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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.

An Example of Blight's and Douglass' Thinking


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In “For Something Beyond the Battlefield,” David W. Blight writes about Frederick Douglass’ efforts to preserve the memory of the ideological background of the Civil War. More specifically, Douglass wanted to make sure that the Civil War would be remembered in the American consciousness as a moral struggle between Northern abolition as an absolute good and Southern slavery as an absolute evil. Blight confirms Douglass’ perpetuation of that idea by quoting a speech in which Douglass urges Americans not to remember the Southern cause with any of the admiration afforded to the Northern one. (1160) A big part of Blight’s thesis has to do with the practical reasons for Douglass’ desire for this ideological narrative to persist—in other words, Douglass did not want to perpetuate these ideas simply because he believed them to be true. Blight posits that Douglass believed that those who shaped historical interpretations of the Civil War would be the ones to shape the fate of African-Americans in the post-war period. That is why, according to Blight, Douglass looked at the Supreme Court’s overturning of the 1875 Civil Rights Acts as a result of Americans forgetting that the Civil War was at its core a war fought to free people of color from bondage. AJ’s post does a good job of further delving into the specific factors which, according to Blight, drove Douglass to take this view.

I definitely see the merits of Blight and Douglass’ view of the effect of what kind of history the nation generally accepts on its policies going forward. I think a good example of this idea in effect is in the reception of the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. It is one of the most well known films of all times, due in equal parts to both its innovations in filmmaking as an art and, unfortunately, its racist message. The story of Birth of a Nation takes an extremely biased look at Reconstruction in the South, indignantly claiming that white Southerners were stripped of their voting rights and made to live under governments made up entirely of unqualified, lazy African-Americans. In the film, the main character fights back against Reconstruction by establishing the Ku Klux Klan as a force for good that puts whites back in power (where the filmmaker would say they belong). Birth of a Nation was the highest grossing film of its time. Its popularity suggests that many Americans accepted the idea that Reconstruction was fundamentally unfair to whites and upset a power balance that it should not have. That is confirmed by the fact that by 1915 Southern Democrats had long before managed to stop Reconstruction and establish Jim Crow laws. Furthermore, many scholars believe that the film directly contributed to the 20th century revival of the KKK as an institution to harass African-Americans. Thus, we see that the film was a powerful enough influence on American collective consciousness to impact the future of race relations. In this way, Birth of a Nation’s reception and aftermath reflects Douglass’ and Blights’ argument.

Patriarchy's Appeal to Women?


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The articles by DuBois and Earle cast important light on the development of the women’s feminist and suffrage movements of the nineteenth century. However, while both articles thoroughly explore unique aspects of these women’s movements, the arguments of these works are undoubtedly strengthened when read together.

Alone, DuBois is very effective in situating her story within the framework of existing historiography. While navigating the routes taken by earlier research into the nineteenth century feminist movement, DuBois crafts her research questions from what previous scholars had left unanswered, ultimately leading her to ask “why” the nineteenth century suffrage movement became the most radical among women. One of DuBois’s strongest arguments in answering this question stems from her interpretations of the public and private spheres; the public sphere emphasized the “individual” while the private sphere centered on “family” (64). Through these understandings – and the illustrations of women’s lives revolving around domestic responsibilities – DuBois is able to demonstrate why women were so often confined to the private sphere.

One topic presented by both DuBois and Earle that is made more lucid through the pairing of these articles is the rhetorical foundation upon which the feminist and suffrage movements began, or perhaps were at least made most effective. An interesting conclusion by Earle states that “the very key to white women’s own racial advancement was patriarchy” (227). In justifying this claim, Earle notes that nineteenth century women used “middle-class gender relations” to place themselves above minority groups like free people of color, immigrants, and slaves (227). While this argument may initially appear to weaken DuBois’s contention that suffragists of the nineteenth century sought to become individuals, separate from their husbands in the public sphere, I think when read in the correct context it bolsters DuBois’s claims. In the last portion of her article, DuBois discusses the strategies used by the suffragists and organizations like the WCTU and why some were more effective. The WCTU was so successful, she argues, because “took as its starting point woman’s position within the home,” a “home-based ideology” (69). If we consider Earle’s argument about patriarchy, it becomes clear that women’s groups like the WCTU had to use the model of patriarchy to convince other women that the foundations of family were being threatened. This led many women to become a part of movements because most women were “limited to the private realities of wifehood and motherhood” (DuBois 68). By initially appealing to problems at home and within the family, women’s movements were able to garner sufficient support for their causes and finally provoke change in the public sphere.

With this in mind I wholeheartedly agree with Max’s claims that failure would have been ineluctable for suffragists and abolitionists had they strived to “overturn all traditional values” (Feminist Radicalism). As Earle remarks, “to embrace abolitionism was an inherently radical act by itself” (226). For women to make sufficient progress in gaining the right to vote and entrance into the public sphere, they needed to, as Max says, “pick their battles.” This give and take between radicalism and appeals to patriarchy definitely developed a strategic paradox, but I believe, along with Earle, that perhaps this manipulation of social understandings was necessary for the success of the feminist and suffrage movements of the nineteenth century (229).

Dubois on the Radical Nature of the Suffrage Movement


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In The Radcalism of the Woman Suffrage Movement, Ellen Dubois addresses recent scholarship denying the radicalism of the 19th century woman suffrage movement. These recent scholars assert that the patriarchal family structure has historically been the primary example of female oppression, and that the suffrage movement was not truly radical because it did not address that issue. Dubois argues that the suffrage movement was radical because by demanding for the vote, women were demanding their entry into the traditionally male-dominated public sphere of politics, as opposed to being relegated to the private sphere of maintaining the home and caring for the family. This distinction between the public and private sphere is crucial to Dubois’ argument, as she claims that up to this point in American society there had been no challenge to this separation of the genders into the private and public sphere. According to Dubois, the suffrage movement was therefore radical because it represented an effort by women to take on a role in society (namely that of voter) that had nothing to do with their role in the family.
Dubois concedes that 19th century woman suffragists did not seek to undermine the family structure or the idea that women should inherently take on a domestic role. Again, the mere fact that they were requesting to enter the public sphere was radical enough. Perhaps, as Max pointed out in his post, these women recognized that they had to pick their battles and therefore did not seek to dramatically change the dominant family dynamic. I agree with Dubois’ argument that the foray into the public sphere was the radical part of the woman suffrage movement. However, I am unsure of how radical it really was based on the precise political causes these women hoped to address with their voting rights. According to Dubois, it seems woman suffragists hoped to vote in order to address issues related to their place in the household and family. Dubois claims that woman suffragists thought their voting rights would allow them to address reforms in family law and the marriage contract, as well as improve husband-wife relations by making “democracy the law of the family.” (68) If Dubois is saying the radical element of the suffrage movement was that it thrust women into the public sphere, is her argument undermined by her claim that women planned to use their voting power solely on domestic issues related to the private sphere? It does make sense that women would want to address domestic issues, as those directly affected the most women. However, if the suffrage movement was radical because of suffragists’ desire for women to influence only their domestic role via voting as opposed to other, more public causes (economic policy, foreign affairs, etc.), I believe Dubois’ argument is somewhat weakened. Under Dubois’ argument, women push their way into the public sphere by getting the vote, but that push is not sustained if women then focus their political power solely on domestic issues.

Only in the Burned-Over District


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In her article “The Power of Women’s Networks”, Mary P. Ryan argues that women played a large role in the shaping the sex/gender system of the 19th century. She describes the various ways this power was manifested in Oneida County in the 1830s and shows how these networks gave direction to the future of their sex. She also delves into one of the great ironies of feminist history: that women had direct involvement with the creation of the Victorian gender code, which demanded extreme sexual repression on their part.

It is important to note that this movement was specific to its place and time. The demographic and religious climate of the area before Victorian times allowed for networks of women to flourish. The revivalist Presbyterian church provided them with the framework to build their own associations and the pre-industrial economy made a population density more conducive to a more even distribution of influence. (74-5) As Ryan tells us, the flame of moral reform flickered out after a steam textile mill opened, and the town was flooded with new immigrants.

The women went from wanting to reform the whole of society to wanting to reform their own families, as the case in Victorian America.  One could look at Angelina Grimke’s outlook on marriage to see how the move to the Victorian gender code and the cult of domesticity was really just a move to combine the public and private lives of women. (Henry) She wrote that it was “absolutely necessary that we should know that we are not ruined as domestic characters” because of leading a public life. (Henry)

Irish Discrimination a Myth?


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In No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization, Richard Jensen argues that 19th century job discrimination against Irish-Americans, symbolized by the idea of signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” (NINA) hanging in business windows, was largely a myth. Nearly everyone in America remembers learning about the discrimination Irish immigrants faced during their early years in America, and the NINA signs are an essential part of that narrative. However, in his thorough research that included combing through both newspaper ads and records of firsthand accounts, Jensen convincingly shows that there is no evidence these signs were at all common. Instead, Jensen convincingly presents us with a narrative in which NINA signs were somewhat common in private British homes seeking maids, and that the collective memory of those signs and their significance as a slogan of general distaste for the Irish carried on into the 19th century United States. (409) He then discusses how John Poole’s song spread the line even further, causing the people to believe the phrase really was printed up in many businesses and also giving the phrase a special status as a rallying cry of oppression for the Irish to bond over. (409) Jensen uses economic arguments and later statistics to assert that the Irish were not discriminated against and in fact were sought after as cheap labor, a common experience of any immigrant group entering a workforce en masse without many skills. (413)

The part of Jensen’s argument that most interested me was something I alluded to in the last paragraph: the idea that the Irish used the idea of NINA and a general sense of discrimination as a way to strengthen their sense of community in the face of what they saw as economic discrimination. Jensen claims numerous times that this tight-knit Irish community encouraged individual Irish from taking jobs dominated by the “Other.” (Presumably, this means other immigrants and Yankees). Jensen believes this was a useful tool for the community as the Irish were able to dominate certain professions such as the canal building and longshoremen industries. (412) Their numbers thus allowed them more power as workers and allowed them to negotiate with employers and organize strikes in a unified fashion. On the face of it, it seems counterintuitive to say that the Irish community could play up discrimination against themselves and use it as an economic tool, but Jensen makes it into a logical, economic argument. Immigrant groups, and really any minority or otherwise disadvantaged groups, are at their most powerful when they act collectively and act to better conditions for the entire group. If Irish workers were constantly going into the same professions, then their numbers would give them a greater collective power as workers within those professions.

If I had one issue with the article, it would be the same that Eli brought up in his post. I think that Jensen could have done a better job of including narratives that illustrated how Irish people of the time actually felt. Perhaps diaries, letter correspondences, or Irish newspapers or pamphlets could have given insight into ways they felt American society mistreated them. I appreciated Jensen’s statistical, more logic-based argument, but when evaluating an immigrant group in this way it is important to consider their own experiences as they themselves perceived them.

Debunking Discrimination of Irish-Americans


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Jensen’s “No Irish Need Apply” and Kenny’s “Race, Violence, and Anti-Irish Sentiment in the Nineteenth Century” provide revealing insights into race relations in America, particularly with reference to the plight of Irish immigrants to the United States. While both authors discuss the issues of anti-Irish sentiment in the nineteenth century, however, each takes a markedly different approach to their understandings of discrimination and racism against the Irish in America.

Jensen writes a bold, new interpretation of Irish–American history, and argues that the “No Irish Need Apply,” or NINA ideology said to have pervaded businesses in the United States was largely a fabrication of the Irish people. He effectively asserts that there is a surprising scarcity of evidence to support the widely-held view that the Irish were victims of workplace discrimination in the nineteenth century. In fact, Jensen writes that unskilled Irish workers were very likely welcomed into American business (409). While I agree with Jensen that there appears to be a definite lack of sufficient support to argue that the Irish were discriminated against under the NINA ideology, I believe his claim that the Irish used the NINA slogan as a protective tool falls short of his own criticism. While I found his argument about the possibility of Irish-Americans using NINA as an agent to ensure solidarity interesting, Jensen’s use of a single man’s assessment of the collective spirit of the Irish people to represent a century’s worth of political, economic, and racial struggles for Irish-Americans is audacious (417). With that being said I applaud Jensen’s effort because of this risk. As Kevin Kenny states in response to Jensen’s work, the conclusions presented are not supported by any other historians in the field (Kenny 372). In this way Jensen presents a novel method of evaluating the Irish-American solidarity of the nineteenth century, but ultimately falls short in providing a convincing argument for why it persisted.

On the other hand, Kenny’s work is much more conservative than Jensen’s, and ultimately this works in his favor. In his essay, Kenny successfully classifies the differences between anti-Irish sentiment among British and American societies. Unlike Jensen, Kenny also focuses on the progression of racism against the Irish, beginning with the caricature of “Paddy” in the news media; Paddy “was a uniquely racialized figure” (369). Kenny is also able to use several cases of Irish labor groups – the Molly Maguires, the Whiteboys, and the Ribbonmen – to illustrate the collective violent practices used by these groups, leading to the growth of anti-Irish sentiment because of perceived potential threats towards American society (373). Kenny’s statement that labor and class were largely inseparable from race in nineteenth century America was also well supported through his discussion of racism against Asian and black people in comparison to the Irish (375). Augmenting the evidence he provides for depicting an American culture with racist attitudes towards Irish-Americans is Jensen’s organization of his essay. Through his clearly articulated arguments and thorough treatment of historiography his claims are more cogent than those presented by Jensen.

While I agree with Max’s comments in stating that Kenny could have extended his essay to elaborate upon other factors affecting Irish-American racism in the nineteenth century, in doing so I believe Kenny may have lost his central argument that Irish collective violence was the basis for anti-Irish sentiment in the United States. By adding interpretations to this work Kenny might be falling back into the historiography he is trying to distance himself from, making his argument less an original piece than an amalgamation of what other scholars have stated about Irish-American racism. While narrowing one’s focus definitely runs the risk of weakening the quality of a historical work (just see my criticism of Jensen), I ultimately think both Kenny’s and Jensen’s article make important contributions to understanding the development of the Irish-American community in the 19th century.