3d ser., 68, no. 4 October 2011
This essay emerges from a workshop, “Grounded Histories: Land, Landscape, and Environment in Early North America,” held at the Huntington Library in May 2010 under the sponsorship of the William and Mary Quarterly and the University of Southern California-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. The decline of the nationalist paradigm prompted many early Americanists to embrace geographically larger frameworks such as Atlantic world, hemispheric, and global histories, exploring the vast spaces through which peoples, commodities, and cultures flowed. The eight papers presented at the “Grounded Histories” workshop turned instead toward smaller frameworks of study, pursuing histories focused not on space but on local and regional place, and demonstrating the power of place to convey complex meanings of identity and power, possession and belonging. Whereas the panoramic view of oceanic and global histories can sometimes discern large-scale connections not visible to historical subjects on the ground, the Dutch landskip perspective of grounded histories can perceive features of the historical landscape not discernible from a greater distance. Historians of early America, Halttunen argues, should not overlook those times and places when local attachments, vernacular knowledge, and a sense of grounded place proved more important to our subjects’ experiences than transatlantic connections, imperial knowledge, and oceanic or global movement.
“Patriot Royalism” makes the case that American patriots of the early 1770s became the last Atlantic defenders of the early Stuart monarchs. Their constitutional argument—that America was “outside of the realm” of Great Britain and therefore to be governed not by Parliament but by the royal prerogative—had famously been made by James I and Charles I in their acrimonious disputes with Parliament over colonial affairs in the 1620s. Most patriot writers were fully aware of the provenance of this new position and enthusiastically embraced its ideological implications. In the process they developed a radical, revisionist account of seventeenth-century English history. A proper reckoning with the story of patriot Royalism should allow us to appreciate the true drama of the republican turn in 1776, as well as to understand the persistent allure of prerogative powers in the formative period of American constitutionalism.
In the essay featured here, Eric Nelson argues that in the early 1770s patriots dropped their previous insistence that Parliament was sovereign over the colonies but simply lacked authority to impose internal taxes, and instead adopted the dominion theory, returning to the constitutional position of the Stuart monarchs James I and Charles I. Examining this remarkable turn toward royal power demonstrates the true drama of the republican turn in 1776 and highlights the persistent allure of prerogative powers in the formative period of American constitutionalism. Gordon S. Wood, Pauline Maier, and Daniel J. Hulsebosch assess Nelson’s thesis, and then Nelson replies to their critiques.
“Free Trade, Sovereignty, and Slavery” offers a broad economic interpretation of the coming of the American Revolution. It does not ignore or discount leadership and political rhetoric but seeks to overcome what the authors term “historiographical amnesia” concerning economic causes. Examination of arguments made both in Great Britain and by delegates to the First and Second Continental Congresses, as well as the reasoning of Thomas Jefferson’s several “dress rehearsals” for the Declaration of Independence, reveals unappreciated relationships between the Founders’ desire to break away from imperial regulation of trade and their failure to abolish slavery. The essay perceives the American Revolution as one among many efforts by colonies anxious to determine their own destinies rather than the “exceptional” event presented both by recent scholarship and by opinion makers outside the academy.
Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher attempt to cut across old divisions in the historiography of the American Revolution between whigs and progressives (or neo-whigs and neo-progressives) to argue that the Revolution was a colonial independence movement and the reasons for it were fundamentally economic. Robert G. Parkinson, Jack Rakove, Barbara Clark Smith, and Michael A. McDonnell respond to the essay; the Forum concludes with Lynd and Waldstreicher’s reply.
By Rhys Isaac
The first decisive response in Britain’s North American colonies to the Stamp Act in the spring of 1765 occurred in Virginia. Patrick Henry famously supported a series of defiant resolutions in the House of Burgesses. The romanticized Henry legend and subsequent histories that have tried to deflate it have obscured the actual events and their consequences. A close reconsideration of what has become known as the “Journal of a French Traveller”—the crucial eyewitness document—has long been overdue. Especially needed has been a critical inquiry into the actual ethnicity of the author so his text and his motivation can be better understood. Alongside that, there has been a need for matching scrutiny of the opposite role taken in the letter written to his superiors by Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier—in league as he was with the old-guard leadership of the Virginia burgesses that had blocked and tried to suppress the most inflammatory resolutions. Reconstructing the drama revealed in these two documents demonstrates how the artfully disseminated “Virginia Resolves” and the persona of a defiant Henry were vitally important in rousing the spirit of armed struggle across the Virginia countryside and beyond.