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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · September 07, 2016

Beginning and Ending with Footnotes

WMQ 5 min read

In today’s post, WMQ author Michael D. Breidenbach (July 2016) reflects on the beginning and end of historical writing.

by Michael D. Breidenbach

An unavoidable task in historical writing is beginning and ending within particular time periods, dates, or moments. But while a published article denotes its end—the publication date—historical writing often does not admit of a beginning. The genesis of an article, like the history that it tells, is multifaceted, yet can reveal the complex relationship between history and historian.

One signal start was presenting at my first academic conference, the North American Conference on British Studies in Baltimore. As a first-year Ph.D. student at Cambridge, I had provoked the audience with a genealogy of early American political thought that, I argued, had roots in medieval ecclesiology. The esteemed intellectual historian John Pocock remarked that my work was extremely interesting, but it was clear to me that I had much more research to do.

I returned to the work that had initially inspired me, Quentin Skinner’s seminal Foundations of Modern Political Thought. From that book, and the “Cambridge school” that it popularized, I started to compare European political and religious thought with their American analogs. In particular, the 1970s Skinner introduced me to medieval conciliarist constitutional theory, whose resonances I later detected in the thought of early American Catholics. For their writings, I was indebted to the Omohundro Institute’s award-winning collection of Carroll family letters, Dear Papa, Dear Charley, edited by Ronald Hoffman, Sally D. Mason, and Eleanor S. Darcy, as well as to Mary Jeske, editor of the last three volumes of the Carroll papers.

As I visited and researched in the cities where the Carrolls had lived and studied—Paris, Rome, Liège, London, Bruges, Baltimore—I increasingly identified with my subjects: young Americans studying in Europe and attempting to reconcile their national, political, and religious identities at great distance from their native origins. As many authors realize in an honest moment, I was writing for myself.

Perhaps, then, the article had started at an earlier age, when I puzzled over the questionably comfortable equipoise of the American and Vatican flags flanking the altar of a parish church. That image, representative of our “just so” stories about religion and politics in American history, assures us of a progressive religious tolerance in a pluralistic America. Instead of taking the apparent compatibility of Catholicism and America for granted, I wanted to explore how conciliarist principles were an essential aspect of that compatibility story. I had in mind a catholic, more than parochial, audience of historians, political scientists, and legal scholars, especially those interested in American political thought and willing to reconsider their assumptions about Catholicism and American religious liberty.

To achieve that end, I submitted my manuscript to the Quarterly. The two rounds of peer reviews by five referees and the editor, whose comments totaled 27 pages, compelled me to begin again, and again. Their uncompromising reports and the Quarterly’s outstanding editorial team led me to rethink my argument, reframe the evidence, and edit every sentence. The final focus on each footnote was a fitting finale for an article that began with an interest in one footnote in history, a marginal minority in early America’s vast religious landscape.

Read the full text of Michael’s essay.

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