I had assumed, however, that the prime threat to political history came in the national period, and specifically the 20th century, where advocates of the race/class/gender trinity have focused most of their efforts. The first sign for me that this might not be the case came a couple of months ago, when I was interviewed for a US News article by Michael Barone on the declining attention devoted to the Founders among new hires in Revolutionary America. Gordon Wood and Lance Banning also commented on the trend.
This month's edition of Humanities, meanwhile, features a depressing presentation by MIT historian Pauline Maier on the declining attention to political history topics in the study of the American Revolution.
"Historians of early America," she notes,"are now more than ever anxious to avoid earlier emphases on the British settlers of North America," as a way of countering the myth of American exceptionalism. As a result, since"the most prominent participants in the American Revolution were white men of European descent who founded the American Republic believing that accomplishment marked a break from the patterns of European history and so was by nature exceptionalist," there has been a desire to de-emphasize the significance of the Revolution and the Constitution.
Maier cites Alan Taylor's American Colonies as an example of this new scholarship; as she tartly notes,"the American Revolution does not have a prominent place in Taylor's book. Consider the opening sentences of its final paragraph:
. . . the dominant colonial power on the Pacific rim became the United States, the hypercommercial nation founded by the Americans who won their independence from the British by revolution and war in the years 1775-83. Far from ending with the American Revolution, colonialism persisted in North America, but from a new base on the Atlantic seaboard.
"I spend half a term," Maier observes,"on events to which he gives half a sentence. To be fair, earlier in the book he devotes another page and a quarter to the Revolution, a fraction of what he devotes to the Plains Indians. There he notes that the Americans' 'empire of liberty' was for whites only and demanded the 'systematic dispossession of native peoples and, until the Civil War . . . the perpetuation of black slavery. . . .' The 'new American empire' also 'provided military assistance to subdue Indians and Hispanics across the continent to the Pacific.' In short, here the Revolution marks only a moment in which a onetime colony became a colonizer. That has little to do with the Revolution as the founding. It is simply a different story, one with little relevance for the one I teach, which focuses on the revolutionary origins of American government."
This"general movement against political history and the history of white men" has produced what Maier terms a series of"disjunctions": the enormous gap between"scholarly interests and those of the reading public"; younger historians abandoning the subject just as a wealth of new souurce material--modern editions of the papers of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and Madison, as well as the multi-volumed Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution--have been published; and a failure to recognize that"whether it is in fashion or not, schoolteachers have to cover political history: it is part of the basic knowledge students in the United States need, if only as part of their civic education."
In addition, the attraction of teaching the latest historical fad,"global history," rather than national history, comes with a cost:"more college graduates with no idea what Reconstruction is, or how the Constitution was written and why. If some historians are prepared to live with that type of historical illiteracy, other Americans are not. Traditional history, as the NEH We the People initiative demonstrates, has powerful advocates."
What is the long-term outlook for a revival of scholarly attention to political history? Citing Ellen Fitzpatrick's History's Memory: Writing America's Past, 1880-1980, Maier notes that political history long has survived challenges, because of its intrinsic importance to training a new generation of citizens, and she detects evidence"that political history as a whole is reviving."
I am less optimistic. Obviously, few college presidents will follow Kimmich's course and openly proclaim that it's OK to exclude applicants who study government institutions from jobs in History Departments. But, as Lance Banning noted in US News,
I don't know if I'd say that universities are deliberately discouraging the history of the Founding, but some individual historians certainly would; and there is certainly a sort of systemic problem. Academics, of course, are hired, for practical purposes, by majority vote of existing departments. Academics in general are as captivated by fads and fashions as any group I can think of, and the political, intellectual, diplomatic and miltary history of the Revolution and the Founding are decidedly out of fashion at the moment. Many history departments have little interest in hiring anyone who specializes in these sorts of interests, and a good many teachers of graduate students may well discourage such interests because they do not seem as attractive to hiring departments as studies in race, gender, identity and the like.
Maier likewise concedes that the new scholarly focus" can have different ideological assumptions. You know, I don't personally teach the westward movement as a rolling atrocity and I don't teach the Revolution as the background of a rolling atrocity. That's a big difference."
I'll be soothed when I see a department--like Michigan's--that has become totally dominated by advocates of the race/class/gender approach replenish its ranks with several political, diplomatic, or constitutional historians. I'm not, however, holding my breath.