Suffocating History

Bruce Cole sketches an elegant portrait of historian Barbara Tuchman that’s well worth reading in its entirety, particularly for her tips on “practicing history,” as she called it. But Cole focuses on the fact that Tuchman was not an academic — to her credit.

Is a Ph.D.—the union card for the professorate—a hindrance to approaching history as Tuchman did?

Alas, the answer is likely “yes.” The years-long slog of course work, exams and the laborious, footnote-laden dissertation—written strictly to be read by other scholars—have a way of hard-wiring habits of the mind that are difficult to overcome. A few academically trained scholars do survive the tyranny of their doctorates and reach a wide reading audience. But inside the Ivory Tower, where most historians dwell, professors write books, articles, and conference papers for other professors, and mainly for those colleagues toiling in the same small subset of the past.

A grad-school professor once chided me that I wrote in a “casual” popular style. His goal was to gently push me toward a more formal tone in my papers but I stubbornly dug in my heels. Academic English is a baroque dialect, a game of tin-can telephone meant for a minority of receivers, as Cole says, and not intended for a general audience. But what then is the point of writing something no one will ever read? What rationalization can be presented for the public grants, endowments, tax exemptions, and tolerance if no outsider ever benefits? How can you ever argue that professors aren’t just a priest class removed from yet supported by society? It’s an obligation to write in a comprehensible style. I earned very good marks in graduate school — I even enjoyed it! — but the writing was the most difficult for me. I hated the writing.

I shouldn’t complain, though; general-audience historians are the main beneficiaries of this system. Leave the professorial witch doctors shut up in their temples, burning their incense and scrutinizing their chicken bones. I’m more than happy to author the books they never will.

Writing History

Angus Phillips on Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast:

Not that it’s a quick or easy read. Dana, son of a poet, made the choice that all who write about the seagoing life must make—whether to do so in the rich, exotic language of the ship and risk losing landlubbers along the way, or to dumb it down so everyone could breeze through. He took the hard way, keeping it real, as we say today.

The challenge of writing Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer was weaving a narrative that was equal parts local history, American Revolution history, and maritime history, bound by a tight 30,000-word limit. And, early on, I had to confront the same issue Phillips raises: whether to spend valuable verbiage explaining nautical jargon to readers or to proceed regardless and hope they speak salt as a second language.

I adopted what I call a History 201 approach, specifying recurrent themes or details but assuming readers knew the general course of events or customs (or at least could look them up). I rarely defined the differences between types of vessels, for example. If the reader really burns to know what a schooner or snow is, there are better explanations available elsewhere than I had space to give. In contrast I defined brigs and ships because Smedley’s Defence was both.

Another decision: I jettisoned the traditional measure of a ship’s size by tonnage, which involves a complicated formula interesting only to Age-of-Sail historians and model-ship builders, for a comparative yardstick by number of cannons. Saying a ship was 200 tons means nothing to a reader, but he will understand that a 16-gun brig was more powerful than an 8-gun schooner and dwarfed by a 64-gun frigate.

Otherwise, the West Country accent isn’t too thick. Any reader who knows her bow from her stern should enjoy it.

I delivered the manuscript April 1 and the copyeditrix and I are doing polishes now. Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer goes to press in early May and should be available by late June.


Jacob Sullum on the government shutdown:

The saddest scenario envisioned by the Times involves a Cincinnati woman who is driving to Washington, D.C., on Friday with her family and plans to visit the Smithsonian Institution. When she gets there, the Times gravely informs us, she may be greeted by paper signs that say “Closed Due to Government Shutdown.” Tragic as that would be, I have to ask why the hell the government needs to run a set of museums that paying customers are so eager to visit. Ditto the National Zoo and the national parks, which also will close temporarily in the event of a shutdown. If people really value such facilities, they would be willing to pay for private versions of them, whether as customers or as patrons. If they don’t, how can it be right to forcibly take their money and use it for these decidedly nonessential purposes?

There is no doubt in my mind that government transparency is aided and abetted by the maintaining of archives, so I see no contradiction between supporting the Smithsonian and my belief in low taxes. Written documents can tell us a lot about what occurred in the past but so can material culture. That is the difference between history and archaeology. If we agree to preserve the plans of how to build an Apollo rocket capsule, then is it so strange to also preserve the capsule itself? The only quibble is what exactly should be preserved. The Wright Flyer or a fossilized T-rex skull is more relevant and important than an inaugural gown will ever be. Or maybe not. We can argue over criteria.

That said, I don’t have a problem with the Smithsonian charging a modest admission fee to offset some of its costs. But there’s no way user fees could ever cover the expense of curating its massive holdings.

The National Zoo is more problematic. One imagines a likewise biological archive where visitors could experience the indigenous fauna of the 50 states, but in reality there’s not so much as a bison burger in the National Zoo cafeteria. The place is instead a menagerie of pandas and elephants and kangaroos — whatever animals have been dropped on us by foreign dignitaries. It’s a run-down, random mishmash and it should be completely privatized.

As for national parks, battlefields, and so on: I don’t lose sleep over them. If the day ever comes when the most egregious abuse of government is taking our tax money to spend on public parks and libraries, then libertarians have won.

Fighting Irish

In 1780, some privateer friends and relations of Samuel Smedley found themselves jailed within the notorious British prison ship Jersey at what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was enough to get their Irish up. From the journal of William Wheeler:

The winter of 1780 was much the severest that had occurred in 40 years, the Snow filled the roads from side to side, & the air was proportionately keen. In one of the coldest nights of that dreary winter, 7 captives having got out of the Ship (one of them, Ebenezer Bartram, our neighbor, had his toes frozen) waited on the ice for about 40 more. They not coming, they took to their heels, amidst a shower of bullets which were fir’d from the surrounding guardships, & made for the land.

When they arrived at Long Island they came to a house where they were dancing & went in.

A British officer present sent off for a guard to secure them & placed himself at the door to obstruct their retreat, but their comrade, a huge Irishman, with one blow felled him to the floor.

After further adventure and evasion, the party safely returned to Connecticut.

As the saying goes: violence may not be the answer — but it sure cuts down the questions. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

The Right of the People Peaceably to Assemble

The genius that is Baylen Linnekin:

The proper situs of the Assembly Clause, research reveals, is in its birthplace: colonial America’s taverns. Colonial taverns served not just as establishments for drinking alcohol but as vital centers where colonists of reputations great and small gathered to read printed tracts, speak with one another on important issues of the day, debate the news, organize boycotts, draft treatises and demands, plot the expulsion of their British overlords, and establish a new nation.

In 1779, Samuel Smedley’s ship Defence wrecked on a shoal off New London. Smedley blamed the pilot, and was so worried about his reputation that he requested, and was granted, an immediate court of inquiry to clear him of wrong-doing. The court met, of course, at a tavern.

Baylen’s paper is free and easy to download. He also has a longer, so-crazy-it’s-brilliant thesis wherein he traces “how America’s experience with food and drink, British common-law protections of food rights, and — especially — British attacks on the food rights of the colonists after 1763 directly influenced the text of the Bill of Rights.” That paper’s unpublished — so far. I’m looking at you, American book publishers.

The First Amendment to the Constitution1 is “a cluster of distinct but related rights.”2 The
freedom of assembly protected therein3 is one right that Americans exercise every day.4 With
perhaps the exception of speech, assembly is the most widely and commonly practiced action
that is enumerated in the Bill of Rights.
This freedom is also one of our least understood and least considered rights. Sometimes
ignored and other times grouped with other freedoms, the right of those in America to come
together peaceably deserves to be studied, respected, and celebrated.
To better understand the freedom of assembly in America, one must explore and
understand its origins.5 Tracing the evolution of the freedom of assembly requires placing this
freedom “within the context of culture.”6 Exploring the origins of the freedom of assembly in the
context of culture requires tracing the right—as practiced—back to its fundamental situs, a term
that can be used to ground rights in their proper place or places.7
The proper situs of the Assembly Clause, research reveals, is in its birthplace: colonial
America’s taverns.

Lost States

Santa left a copy of Michael J. Trinklein’s Lost States under the tree this year, a book I’ve been wanting to crack for months. I recommend it if you too are fascinated by lost or forgotten geography — with the caveat that Lost States is more of a compilation of cartography paired with Wikipedia entries than a serious history book.

The full title and subhead of the book is Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It. Here’s my true story: between 2005 and 2007, I shopped a book idea entitled The Lost States of America. My high-concept tagline was, “Everybody knows there are fifty states. But what about the ones that didn’t make it?”

I eventually abandoned the project, even though I wrote the first chapter (18,000 words!), due to lack of interest from agents or publishers and a growing realization that my energies were better spent elsewhere. Along the way I accumulated a number of rejection letters, including my favorite from an agent who wrote a long reply about how he wanted to write a history of a lost-state endeavor near where he lived. He declined to represent my book, therefore, lest it interfere with his. I chuckle just thinking about that letter. Of course, if he had wanted to write his book so badly, he would have done so already. But he hasn’t and he never will. I prize that rejection as the quintessential example of everything that’s wrong with big-name book publishing. Trinklein, an Emmy-nominated PBS producer, self-published the original version of Lost States. It seems publishers were just as deaf to him as they were to me.

My concept differed from Trinklein’s in that I planned to write a textual history book about ten different lost states (eight of which Trinklein includes). Trinklein opted for a more graphic presentation. Each of the 74 entries features a full-page chart crafted to resemble a map from the relevant time period — nicely done. A 300-word description faces it. And yet while Trinklein writes in a breezy style that is sometimes fun, sometimes flippant, his renditions are sometimes at history’ s expense.

Take Franklin, for instance. Trinklein cites Samuel Cole Williams’s History of the Lost State of Franklin as the source for his entry, a reference I also read while researching my 2004 Reason piece on Franklin. Trinklein disparages the whole idea of Franklin, even going so far as to assert that Benjamin Franklin, for whom the endeavor was named, was hostile to it. Not so; the Philadelphian was politely noncommittal. Trinklein also says that North Carolina troops crushed the Franklin movement militarily. Again, not true: Indian attacks in what is today western Tennessee caused North Carolina to walk away from the Franklin issue, eventually leading to the creation of the Volunteer State in its place. I caught several other errors throughout the book and the customer reviews over at Amazon list a bunch more.

Trinklein is also hindered by his lack of focus. The words “George W. Bush,” “Iraq,” and “quagmire” pop up a lot — even though the copyright on the book is 2010. He reminds me of my grad-school professors who, as late as the early 21st century, would spin themselves into a tizzy over Ronald Reagan and Grenada. A couple of entries (New Connecticut, Nickajack) go off on silly tangents, something a writer can’t afford when he’s jotting in eight-graf blurbs.

Like Wikipedia, the scholarship of Trinklein’s hardbound gazetteer is dodgy but it’s a good place to begin an inquiry. Enjoy the maps and follow the bibliography to more factual accounts of events.

Writing professionally, I believe, is like being a drunken lighthouse keeper: it’s lonely; and for every dozen vessels safely shepherded to their destination, you have a spectacular shipwreck on the rocks. Years ago, my reaction to Lost States would have been jealousy. Experience has taught me since that whatever enemies a writer may have, other authors aren’t among them. I may resurrect my old book idea, although with a focus on a single lost state and told through a biographical narrative, when I finish my current project. But more on that later.