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A Truly Revolutionary Removal: An Introduction to the “Backlash Thesis” of Politics, Gender, and the American Revolution

Images: The engraving on the left depicts the so-called “petticoat electors,” women permitted to vote in the New Jersey electorate from 1776 to 1807. The painting on the right depicts a Missouri election in the 1850s. As the historian Rosemarie Zagarri writes, the contrast between these images captures a backlash against gender in early America. Although the political process was much more inclusive in the revolutionary era, only white men were empowered by the 1850s.

Introduction: Please excuse me. This historiographical essay begins in an unorthodox way: with a personal story. This past fall, I was serving as a teacher’s assistant for the very first time at UC Davis. I was assigned to Professor John Smolenski’s course, “HIST 17A: History of the United States to 1877.” On Wednesday morning, November 2, Smolenski gave the class a particularly memorable lecture. It was about the age of former president Andrew Jackson, and the theme was “An Age of Removals.” Of course, Smolenski talked about the Trail of Tears, and the removal of the five major Southeast Indian tribes west across the Mississippi River in the 1830s. Then he talked about the ongoing work of the American Colonization Society—their continuing effort to remove free black people from the country in the same era. Last, but not least, he talked about the so-called “petticoat electors.” Now this was a subject that I had come across before, but only in passing, as I skimmed textbooks in preparation for teaching at Solano Community College. Nonetheless, I am ashamed to admit that, as a twenty-eight-year-old PhD student in History, I had never appreciated the subject until Smolenki’s lecture. As most historians of early America know, the “petticoat electors” refers to a group of property-holding women in New Jersey. These women took advantage of a new state constitution from 1776 that did not specifically prohibit women from voting. They voted in local elections from the 1790s to 1807, when new state laws removed them from the electorate.[1]

What is the purpose of discussing the “petticoat electors?” The forced removal of property-holding women from the New Jersey electorate is only one example of what historians often refer to as the “limits” or the “paradox” of the American Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the United States of America as a new nation-state. In the above example of Smolenski’s lecture, the case of these female electors serves to round out a three-dimensional introduction to such limits. The example of the Trail of Tears introduces the limits in relation to Native American peoples; the example of the American Colonization Society introduces them in relation to African-Americans; and, last, the case of the “petticoat electors” introduces them in relation to propertied women. On the one hand, the story of these women has become a standard line in history textbooks, because perhaps no other incident in early American history can so clearly demonstrate the blatant failure of revolutionary ideals—like calls for “liberty” and freedom from British “tyranny, oppression, and slavery”—to translate into increased freedoms for women. On the other hand, the example of the “petticoat electors” is also an introduction to a much larger argument about the history of gender and the founding of the United States. This argument is called the “backlash thesis.”[2]

What is the “backlash thesis?” Well, if you searched the phrase in an online journal database like JSTOR, America: History and Life, or Academic Search Complete, you would probably come away thinking that it was about Southern, white racial conservatism in reaction to the desegregation decision in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Indeed, the phrase “backlash thesis” is most commonly used in academia to refer to the postwar period of the twentieth century, especially to how the modern conservative movement arose as a direct response to gains that were made in areas such as racial equality, women’s reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights. Much of this work derives from a foundational article by the Civil Rights and legal historian Michael J. Klarman. However, the phrase “backlash thesis” is also employed in the field of early American history. Here it refers to a national conservatism in reaction to gains in women’s and gender rights that accompanied the American revolution and the founding of the country. Perhaps its most vocal advocate—its Michael J. Klarman—is the historian Rosemarie Zagarri, in her 2007 monograph Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic.[3] Continue reading “A Truly Revolutionary Removal: An Introduction to the “Backlash Thesis” of Politics, Gender, and the American Revolution”

Review of Kariann Akemi Yokota’s Unbecoming British

KARIANN AKEMI YOKOTA. Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 368. $36.95. Hardcover. ISBN: 0190217871.

In Unbecoming British, historian Kariann Akemi Yokota takes as her subject the historical process of American identity formation across the revolutionary and new national periods, or what she calls “America’s postcolonial period.” Specifically, she traces the process through which English colonists created an “American national character” out of their colonial inheritances. She does this through material, visual, and cultural history rather than political history. As Yokota observes, the transition of English subjects to American citizens was rife with “tensions and contradictions” that historians can study through both “lives of people engaged in missionary, scientific, and commercial pursuits” and “objects as varied as maps, imported and domestic artworks, and botanical prints.” Foremost among these tensions is the idea that, while elite American nationalists embraced aspects of their new identity such as their country’s raw materials, the superiority of whiteness, an increasingly democratic political structure, and a reflex for self-defensive intellectual arguments, “they could not relinquish their cultural attachments to the refined objects and courtly trappings of the British monarchy.” In short, while the political process of “unbecoming British” might have culminated with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the cultural process was just beginning.[1] Continue reading “Review of Kariann Akemi Yokota’s Unbecoming British”

Historical Fictions: Readings on the Origins and Relevance of the First Great Awakening

SUSAN JUSTER. Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. xi, 224. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN: 0801483883.

FRANK LAMBERT. “The First Great Awakening: Whose Interpretive Fiction?” The New England Quarterly 68 (1995): 650-659.

JON BUTLER. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction.” The Journal of American History 69 (1982): 305-325.

The readings for this week discuss the origins and relevance of the “First Great Awakening.” This is a term used to describe a series of religious revivals that occurred to a varying degree across the British colonies of mainland North America in the mid-eighteenth century, mostly between the 1730s and 1750s. In “Enthusiasm Described and Decried,” Jon Butler argues scholars should “abandon the term” because it is both an “interpretative fiction” and anachronism that “distorts the character of eighteenth-century American religious life and misinterprets its relationship to prerevolutionary American society and politics.” Contemporaries, as he states, were not the ones who used this label. Rather, the now-popular term of “Great Awakening” was invented by a nineteenth-century historian named Joseph Tracy. He projected the religious context of his own age—what is now referred to as the “Second Great Awakening” of the early national period—back onto the colonial era. In doing so, he “homogenized” a series of local, scattered, erratic, heterogenous, “politically benign,” and largely unrelated revivals; he re-cast them as a great, general, and uniform phenomenon. As Butler laments, a diverse lineage of scholars has followed Tracy’s lead since “the last half of the nineteenth century,” thereby furthering all sorts of gross mischaracterizations. Foremost among the distortions is a “fiction” that “the Great Awakening” undermined traditional structures of authority and paved the way for the democratic ideals of the American Revolution. [1] Continue reading “Historical Fictions: Readings on the Origins and Relevance of the First Great Awakening”

Sources of Power: Reflections from Readings on Race, Sex, and Power in Early America

CLARE A. LYONS. Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Pp. x, 432. $32.50. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8078-5675-8.

How does the historian of early America study something that was rarely meant to be recorded? The readings for this week address that question in the context of the entangled relationship between social power and sexual practice. Put another way, this week’s scholars have either taken specific early American societies—like Massachusetts, Philadelphia, North Carolina, or New Orleans—as their case studies, or they have surveyed sexual coercion across all the original thirteen colonies. Regardless, each of them have looked at the intersection of sex and power. Yet, as Jennifer M. Spear acknowledges in her contribution Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans, that task has not been easy one. Indeed, Spear seems to speak for each of this week’s authors when she laments, “Writing about sex in early America is difficult.” Historians of sexuality have, to phrase it mildly, needed to get creative with their sources and methods. Notwithstanding these difficulties, studying sexuality has been a fruitful endeavor. Since, as Sharon Block writes, “sexual power was inextricable from social power,” studies of sexuality have revealed the extent to which unequal power dynamics are coded by practices characterized as either deviant or normative.[1] Continue reading “Sources of Power: Reflections from Readings on Race, Sex, and Power in Early America”

What’s the Point of a Middle Ground? Reflections from Two Works by James Merrell and Sophie White

SOPHIE WHITE. Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana. Early American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Pp. x, 355. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4437-3.

JAMES H. MERRELL. “The Indians’ New World: The Catawba Experience.” The William and Mary Quarterly 41, 4 (October, 1984): 537-565.

A quarter century has passed since the historian of Early America, Richard White, articulated the concept of the “middle ground” as a geographic, cultural, and temporal space of mutual accommodation between Native American and European peoples on the North American continent. In first introducing this idea through a case study of the pays d’en haut or Great Lakes region, White described it thus: “The Middle Ground is the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages. It is a place where many of the North American subjects and allies of empire lived. It is the area between the historical foreground of European invasion and occupation and the background of Indian defeat and retreat.” While neither of the two works under review here use the phrase “middle ground,” both of them are attempts at tackling the same underlying question of mutual accommodation and the spaces in-between. Both of them use specific case studies—the Catawba of the Carolina piedmont and the Illinois of French colonial Louisiana—for exploring the ways in which native peoples adapted to European colonization and, conversely, the ways in which those adaptations were received by colonizers.[1] Continue reading “What’s the Point of a Middle Ground? Reflections from Two Works by James Merrell and Sophie White”

Review of Death of a Notary by Donna Merwick

DONNA MERWICK. Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi, 304. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN: 0801487889.

What happens to a people when they are conquered by a foreign imperial power? How are their everyday lives and the ways in which they are remembered changed by the circumstances of their conquest? These questions lay at the heart of Donna Merwick’s engaging microhistory, Death of a Notary. Merwick’s text is a narrative that uses the life of a seventeenth-century Dutch notary—named Adriaen Janse van Ilpenda, or simply “Janse”—as a metaphor for exploring the effects of imperial conquest generally, and the transition of power from the Dutch to the English in colonial New York specifically. Overall, Merwick’s work is a testament to the saying that a writer’s choice of subject goes a long way toward dictating the success of their project. As a low-level civil servant who spent his career documenting the ambitions and grievances of a largely forgotten community during some of its most turbulent years, Janse is a historian’s treasure. His biography has the potential to teach us volumes about the long- and short-term effects of imperial conquest. Continue reading “Review of Death of a Notary by Donna Merwick”

Presentations from “HIST 017: History of the United States to 1877” — The American Revolution Within (1775-1783)

Dear readers, today I am following up on my lecture series from HIST 017, “History of the United States to 1877,” with a new PowerPoint presentation. This presentation is called “The American Revolution Within (1775-1785).” It discusses the internal struggles and transformations of the United States at the very moment of its creation. It was originally presented to my class on Thursday, June 23, 2016. As always, I recognize that my lectures are far from perfect and they have several problems. Nonetheless, I hope you will enjoy them and feel welcome to send me any recommendations you may have.

All of the PowerPoint presentations for HIST 017, including this one, were developed from content in the following textbook: Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!: An American History, Vol. 1, Seagull 4th edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014). I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Foner for his wonderful work as an historian. Give Me Liberty! is truly an exceptional educational resource and I recommend its use in any History setting, be it a college classroom or otherwise. I would also like to extend my gratitude to everyone at Solano Community College and UC Davis, two institutions that continue to support both my teaching endeavors and my professional education.

Thanks, and enjoy!

The American Revolution Within (1775-1785) — HIST 017 (6-23-16)

Presentations from “HIST 017: History of the United States to 1877” — The American Revolution (1765-1783)

Dear readers, as many of you know, after six years of studying History in college, I officially began my teaching career last fall, 2015, by teaching “HIST 037: Women in American History” at Solano Community College. I am following up on that course this summer by teaching “HIST 017: History of the United States to 1877” at the Vacaville satellite campus of SCC. Today I would like to post the first lecture that I created for that course to The Zamani Reader. As always, I recognize that my lectures are far from perfect and that they have several problems. Nonetheless, I hope that you will enjoy them and feel welcome to send me any recommendations that you may have. This particular lecture is on the lead up to, and the history of, the American Revolution (1765-1783). It was originally delivered to my class on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.

All of the PowerPoint presentations for HIST 017, including this one, were developed from content in the following textbook: Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!: An American History, Vol. 1, Seagull 4th edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014). I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Foner for his wonderful work as a historian. Give Me Liberty! is truly an exceptional educational resource and I recommend its use in any History classroom, be it a college course or otherwise. I would also like to extend my gratitude to everyone at SCC, who has supported me in my teaching experience thus far. Thanks, and enjoy!

The American Revolution (1765-1783) — HIST 017 (June 21, 2016)

Presentations from “HIST 037: Women in American History” — African Women and Slavery in the Colonial Era

Dear readers, I am continuing my lecture series with a new presentation called “African Women and Slavery in the Colonial Era.” I have spent the last three weeks working on this presentation, and I am very satisfied with the result. The PowerPoint is broken into three separate parts called 1) Representations, 2) Historical Concepts, and 3) Primary Sources. The first section focuses on displaying imagery of African women in the colonial era, with the goal of juxtaposing racist images with honest portrayals; the second section sets forth some very basic concepts in order to help us understand the historical context of slavery, black women, and the colonial era; and the third section introduces the audience to a few of the types of primary sources that historians use to further explore these experiences.

This presentation was originally created for my HIST 037 class, “Women in American History.” I taught this class last Fall at Solano Community College. More specifically, this presentation was given to my class on Monday, August 31, 2015. Please note that all of the PowerPoint presentations for HIST 037, including this one, were developed from content in the following textbook: Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil,Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston and New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012. I would like to extend my gratitude to these two authors for their extraordinary work.Through Women’s Eyes is a wonderful educational resource. Second, I would like to extend my gratitude to everyone at SCC who encouraged the development of this course.

Thanks, and enjoy!

African Women and Slavery in the Colonial Era Presentation (8-31-15)

Presentations from “HIST 037: Women in American History” — European American Women in the Colonial Era

Dear readers, as many of you know from my post last week, this summer I have decided to share some of the PowerPoint lectures that I created for the first class I ever taught at Solano Community College (SCC). This class was called “HIST 037: Women in American History,” and I taught it during the Fall of 2015. The following presentation is part of the colonial lecture series. It is about the experiences of European or European-American  women in the colonial era. The presentation focuses mostly on European women in the area that will become the thirteen American colonies on the Atlantic seaboard. It was presented to my HIST 037 class on Wednesday, September 4, 2015.

All of the PowerPoint presentations for HIST 037, including this one, were developed from content in the following textbook: Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil,Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston and New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012. I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to these two authors for their extraordinary work. Through Women’s Eyes is, indeed, a wonderful educational resource. Second, I would like to extend my gratitude to Rachel Purdie, another adjunct History instructor at SCC who introduced me to this textbook. Thanks, and enjoy!

European Colonial Women Presentation — HIST 37 (9-4-15)

Presentations from “HIST 037: Women in American History” — Native American Women in the Colonial Era

Dear readers, this summer I have decided to share some of the PowerPoint lectures that I created for the first class I ever taught at Solano Community College (SCC). This class was called “HIST 037: Women in American History,” and I taught it during the Fall of 2015. Of course, these lectures are far from perfect, and they have several problems. In this sense, they should be seen as both a source for History education and a source for seeing how I approached the task of making class presentations during my first year as an adjunct History teacher. This summer, I am teaching my second class at SCC, called “HIST 017: History of the United States to 1877,” and I can already see that my style of creating lecture presentations has changed dramatically. In these early PowerPoint presentations, you can see my attempt to make detailed footnotes for both myself and my students at the bottom of each PowerPoint slide. Each of the slides usually consists of a title, a few pictures, and a block of text summarizing the major concepts and providing citations for the images. I do not, however, list out the most important concepts on each of the slides. As you can probably imagine, this was a major point of complaint for some of my students.

All of the PowerPoint presentations for HIST 037, including this one, were developed from content in the following textbook: Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil,Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston and New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012. I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to these two authors for their extraordinary work. Through Women’s Eyes is, indeed, a wonderful educational resource. Second, I would like to extend my gratitude to Rachel Purdie, another adjunct History instructor at SCC who introduced me to this work. Thanks, and enjoy!

The following PowerPoint presentation is about Native American women in the colonial era, and it was presented to my HIST 037 class on Wednesday, September 2, 2015.

Presentation on Native American Women in the Colonial Era — HIST 037 (9-2-15)

Research Guide to the Life and Career of the Former Lieutenant Governor and Colonel Alexander Spotswood

 Introduction: (cont’d in full post)

This essay is an introductory research guide concerning the twelve-year administration of Colonel Alexander Spotswood, the lieutenant governor of colonial Virginia, from 1710 to 1722. Spotswood was the lieutenant governor from late June, 1710, until early April, 1722, when the king’s ministers in England decided to replace him with the Irish-born ex-soldier Hugh Drysdale. Like other lieutenant governors before and after himself, Spotswood ruled Virginia in absence of the actual governor, George Hamilton, the first earl of Orkney, who reigned over the colony as a sinecure and never actually crossed the Atlantic to see the region. Continue reading “Research Guide to the Life and Career of the Former Lieutenant Governor and Colonel Alexander Spotswood”

Review of Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers

JANE LANDERS. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Forward by Peter H. Wood. (Blacks in the New World.) Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Pp. xiv, 390. $29.00.

Introduction:

Cover for LANDERS: Black Society in Spanish Florida

Black Society in Spanish Florida is the first book written by Jane Landers, colonial Latin Americanist, historian of the Caribbean and the Hispanic southeast, and assistant professor of History at Vanderbilt University. In the text, Landers presents the first English-language, conceptual history of black society on the Florida peninsula during the first and second Spanish tenures (1565-1763, and 1783-1821). Continue reading “Review of Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers”

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