The Problem of Authority in the Writing of Early American History
By Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton
This essay emerges from a workshop, “Writing Early American History,” which the authors convened at the Huntington Library in May 2008 under the sponsorship of the William and Mary Quarterly and the University of Southern California–Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. Ten participants, primarily midcareer scholars working on their second or third books, submitted drafts of work in progress and commented on one another’s’ essays. All ten participants were accomplished writers searching for ways to produce work that would meet rigorous professional scrutiny while engaging general readers. The papers were primarily exercises in microhistory that focused on questions of identity and self-fashioning in the early modern Atlantic world. Cayton and Anderson argue that these disparate narratives manifested an underlying concern with authority in the attempts of historical subjects to deal with the sources of power that structured their lives and in the ambivalence the writers showed toward defining the significance of the stories they told. This ambivalence, they conclude, reflects a central problem facing early American historians today: finding ways to acknowledge the authority of their sources while asserting their own authority to define connections to larger narratives that illuminate the meanings of specific events and individual lives.
The Curse of God: An Idea and Its Origins among the Indians of New York’s Revolutionary Frontier
By David J. Silverman
This essay traces the expression and evolution of an idea prevalent among the Christian Indians of Oneida country (the Brothertowns, Stockbridges, and Oneidas) during the late 1780s and 1790s, that God cursed Indians as a race less for their own sins than the sins of their ancestors. Drawing on a variety of sources, including writings by the Indians themselves, it posits several ideological influences on the Indians’ idea of the curse: long-standing indigenous theories of polygenesis, Christian providence, the Curses of Eden and Ham, and especially the very notion that Indians were a distinct category of humankind. This history demonstrates that Christian Indians had their own dynamic history of racial thought alongside the militant nativists who have drawn the bulk of scholarly attention.
The “divine right of republics”: Hebraic Republicanism and the Debate over Kingless Government in Revolutionary America
By Nathan R. Perl-Rosenthal
The period from 1650 to 1800 saw the rise, decline, and revival of an antimonarchical Hebraic republican tradition. This essay retraces that tradition and documents its role in the American Revolution as a step toward a fuller mapping of eighteenth-century Anglo-American republicanism. Employed prominently by leading seventeenth-century republicans, including John Milton and Algernon Sidney, the Hebraic tradition used biblical exegesis to argue that God hated monarchy and favored kingless republics. Though republican thinkers publicly disavowed it in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, the tradition persisted and spread across the Anglo-American Atlantic in the early eighteenth century. It returned to public debate in early 1776, at the moment when American patriots were hesitating between their long-standing allegiance to king and monarchy and the reality of an impending split with Britain. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which played a pivotal role in ending patriot loyalism, argued at length that God disapproved of kingly government. The vigorous debate elicited by this portion of Common Sense spread Hebraic republican arguments across the American colonies. These ideas contributed to the patriot leadership’s rapid embrace of kingless government in the first months of 1776 and thus the decisive break with Britain in July 1776. After independence New England ministers found a new function for Hebraic republican exegeses, adapting them to offer divine sanction and guidance to the republican governments then being formed.
Henry Drax’s Instructions on the Management of a Seventeenth-Century Barbadian Sugar Plantation
By Peter Thompson
In 1679, on the eve of his departure for England, Henry Drax drew up a meticulously detailed document describing how he wished his overseer, Richard Harwood, to run the Drax plantations and manage the three hundred slave laborers. Drax was among the first planters on Barbados to integrate all aspects of sugar production on a single site and to employ “cane-hole” planting techniques; both practices came to characterize the industry across the Caribbean as a whole. This piece offers a critical edition of Drax’s document and an interpretive essay stressing the role played by environmental and agronomic factors in shaping labor relations within what Drax referred to as his “family” of workers. Drax’s “Instructions,” reproduced in full, offers a wealth of detail of interest to historians of Barbados and to historians of plantation slavery.
The Account Book of Richard Poor, Quaker Merchant of Barbados
By S. D. Smith
Richard Poor’s account book affords rare insight into the trade of a resident West India merchant during the early eighteenth century. The 2,037 transactions recorded in the accounts document the thirteen-year-old Poor’s entry into trade in 1699, his early visits to London to establish commercial connections, and his progress through 1713. By the latter date, he had attained middling status within the mercantile community of Bridgetown, Barbados, importing British manufactures and exporting plantation produce. This essay investigates the rhythm of Poor’s business, his clients’ characteristics, and links between trade and Quakerism. Transactions were irregular and infrequent, occurring on only 558 of 1,887 available days. Business was largely confined to customers whom Poor could appraise personally, with socioeconomic status and shared religion being important determinants for transacting. Barbadian customers, generally male heads of households, tended to reside close to Bridgetown. Customers dealing in plantation produce were especially valued and most likely to result in repeat business. London Quakers occupied prominent positions as suppliers of merchandise, and the willingness of customers to trade on the Sabbath suggests that Barbadian clients also included many Nonconformists. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) generated opportunities for merchants such as Poor by disrupting the commission trade between planters and metropolitan merchants.