Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

American Historical Association Annual Conference (January 5-8, 2023)

The American Historical Association held its annual conference in-person in Philadelphia, January 5-8, 2023. The conference made the front page of the Arts and Culture section in The New York Times on Monday after the weekend event. It did so because of a column in Perspectives on History posted by James H. Sweet, the AHA President, back in August on the topic of “presentism.” That column and the immediate response was the subject of an earlier blog:

American Historical Association: Presidential Culture Wars Contretemps
September 12, 2022.

The October issue of the publication continued the fight. Below are the highlights made by those responding within the AHA community.


“(H)is thoughts are risky because … he comes off as a detractor of The 1619 Project and similar initiatives and thus social justice. In the neoliberal university, where utility is the primary virtue, this weakens this historical profession’s standing even more.”
Ken Mondschein

I am not quite clear if being a detractor of the flawed 1619 Project qualifies one as trying to improve the standing of the history profession or weaken it.

“I am glad that James H. Sweet wrote this column. It did what he intended it to do: it opened a particular conversation about how we “do” history…. As much as academic careers can be built on infighting, we daily have the opportunity to bear witness to a different world of possibility: one where historians, sociologists, political theorists, scholars of religion, and others can compare notes and enrich one another’s work without the nagging desires to police boundaries.”
Malcolm Foley

Although he was invited by AHA to respond to the Sweet column, my reaction is that he instead used the opportunity more to express his own views on the discipline of history without really engaging Sweet.

“I felt exhaustion at having to explain the harm of Sweet’s condescending portrayal of African American’s understanding of history and of his attempt, from his influential office, to delegitimize scholarship on essential topics like race, gender, and capitalism (in a manner that has now drawn the approval of white supremacists)….

“Retraction is appropriate because the essay’s flaws are pervasive and obvious…”

The responder than elaborates on how historians in the past have deployed “presentism” to serve “elite political agendas.”

“(I)n exhorting us not to project ‘today’s antiracism on the past, he [Sweet] adopts a moral superiority toward the past that [a previous AHA president] cautions against…. Sweet attacks scholarly work on ‘race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism’ as driven by contemporary social justice issues.’ The mind boggles at having to remind a fellow historian that gender and sexuality existed in the ancient world…

“To Sweet, The 1619 Project, the only ‘presentist’ book he names, fails as history because it views the past ‘through the prism of contemporary racial identity’ It is baffling that a journalistic effort stands in for historical scholarship here.”

Here the responder is encroaching into a subject that demands greater attention. No one would care if deeply-flawed 1619 Project was by an obscure publication that everyone beyond a fringe niche ignored. But instead it is a publication of The New York Times and is treated not as a journalistic effort but as historical scholarship just as the use of the books by David McCullough would be if included in the classroom [Historians vs. David McCullough – The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, January 27, 2022; History Scholars versus David McCullough: The American Revolution, January 30, 2022; David McCullough (1933-2022): No R.I.P. – The Culture Wars Continue, September 2, 2022.

“Sweet has contributed to public denigration of the discipline in a time of rampant, politically motivated questioning of humanistic expertise and resource crisis for the discipline. His complaint about a preoccupation with ‘contemporary social justice issues” offers fuel to attacks on the teaching of crucial subjects like race and slavery.”
Priya Satia

One wonders exactly how much sway a single column within the history field carries outside the academic arena.


“I love the well-written article [from Sweet] since it seemed to be based on speaking the truth, and I was very disappointed that Sweet inserted an apology at the front of the article…. Excellent job, Dr. Sweet: keep up the good work.”
Scott Green

Hard to believe Green and Satia were referring to the same column. That difference of opinion is an excellent example of how historians bring their own agenda and experiences to their work. How else to explain the divergent opinions of such magnitude from a single source? What a great lesson in how the history discipline works that two people can read the same column and have such contrary reactions.

“Whether intentionally or not, AHA president James H. Sweet’s misguided critique of ‘presentism’ in historical study plays into the hands of ‘presentist’ politicians who are censoring the teaching of history.”
Allan Lichtman

Is this letter-writer referring to the successful Woke effort to control the very words we are obligated to use in the classroom and in public discourse and to the content in college courses or  to the successful MAGA effort to do something similar legislatively? As the next paragraph makes clear it is the latter. The next three paragraphs are on how Sweet gives aid and comfort to right-wing attacks.


The squabble within the history community led to an article by David Frum in The Atlantic, October 30, 2022, entitled “The New History Wars: Inside the Strife set off by an essay from the president of the American Historical Association. The opening line was:

Even by the rancorous standards of the academy, the August eruption at the American Historical Association was nasty and personal. 

Frum describes the reaction as an “outrage volcano erupted on social media.” Frum called attention to the coverage by The Wall Street Journal as well as by Fox News. He then wonders “But all the Strum and Dang makes it harder to understand the actual substance of the controversy …Why did so many of his colleagues find it so upsetting even threatening?” Here Frum was echoing the comments of Jay Caspian Kang, columnist for The New York Times, as reported in my previous blog on the subject over the puzzlement about this academic firestorm.

Frum visited Sweet in Madison. The non-Twitter user had been deeply surprised by the reaction to his column. Subsequently, he had come under immense pressure. Sweet had discovered that many of his colleagues and in the history-reading public actually had agreed with him …even if they hesitated to say so publicly. Sweet informed Frum that he had received almost 250 emails which were almost the inverse image of Twitter comments – “’long, considered, thoughtful emails, not just 280-character responses.’”

According to Frum, Sweet worries about the move to de-emphasize the single author manuscript or book, a weakening of the cherished ideals and methods of the historical profession. Frum continues that Sweet’s attempted to erect a firewall to protect the academy from politics and power. He observes that such an effort is contrary to the dominant trend in history, especially African and African-diaspora history. Frum predicts academia will lose this battle with the American public. He declares that this quest to replace the ivory tower history with the actively involved historian for progressive social justice is one that will fail.

Frum then reports on some of the skirmishes within the field of African studies. The logical conclusion is it is more difficult for white scholars trained in African history to find jobs.

Grappling with the Past, Present, and Future: Historians gathered to discuss the influence of contemporary issues and what lies ahead – Jennifer Schuessler, (1/9/23 NYT)

With this background in mind, let us turn to the article covering the conference as if it were a sports event. After summarizing salient portions of Sweet’s column, Schuessler reports on the reaction:

The column provoked a firestorm, which spread along racial and generations fault lines. Many younger historians, cosigned to poorly paid adjunct work in a shrinking job market, saw the out-of-touch complaints of the privileged.

There was an opening-night panel at the conference to address the issue. One attendee commented “But some folks felt it as a stab.” A stab in the back? A stab like a pinprick and not a cleaver? Not clear. Sweet sat near the rear, not a participant.

Schuessler reports that the panel was “short on disagreement, and long on juxtaposition and questions, including a big one: Are the traditional methodologies extolled by Sweet an effective tool of justice and truth, or are they too enmeshed in their own racist past?” In other words, the methodology Sweet advocates for no longer is appropriate. I suspect from what I can glean from the article, that the panel was primarily politically correct and may not have reflected the full diversity of the history community.

Another issue drew Schuessler’s attention:

There was little reference to the widespread dismay that the field was (as a participant at another session put in) ‘in contraction if not collapse.   

Schuesssler quotes an historian in the lightning round of closing comments as being blunt: “’We need to talk about money.’”

Sometimes one gets the feeling that academics are like the band playing on after the Titanic has struck the iceberg.

Sweet’s Presidential Address was entitled “Slave Trading as a Corporate Criminal Conspiracy from the Calabar Massacre to BLM, 1767-2022.” He addressed a standing-room crowd which I take to be hundreds of people. For more than one hour, he spoke about a slave-trading family from Liverpool. Back in the 17th century, the patriarch of the family achieved dominance over other traders through a “’gangland-style’” massacre of 400 people in what is today Nigeria. He concluded the family, which still exists and operates today, is a ripe target for reparations.

Sweet then switched gears to speak about presentism. At this point, Schuessler does not fully elaborate on what he said. She does observe that “there was disagreement about whether genuinely open debate was really happening — or could happen. She quotes one historian at the conference saying:

“People are scared to speak honestly sometimes, even what they know to be historically true, because they don’t want to end up on the wrong side.”

These words are eerily familiar to what k-12 students and teachers say along with college students and teachers. Everyone is walking on eggshells trying to get the lay of the land so they don’t ruin their grades or diminish their chances of tenure or promotion.

This culture war puts history museums and organizations in the same battlefield as schools and academic history organizations. While many have eagerly embraced the Woke vocabulary and attitude towards American history others have not. They continue to regard history as they have in the past. As we come closer to the 250th birthday of the country the conflict likely will intensify. People and their organizations will be called on more and more to take a stand on where they stand in the culture wars.

Let me close with an observation made by Frum in his article on Sweet’s column where he reports on the backlash which has occurred.

Critical historians who thought they were winning the fight for control within the academy now face dire retaliation from outside the academy.   

It will get worse.

David McCullough (1933-2022): No R.I.P. – The Culture Wars Continue

Historian David McCullough’s death in August made the front page of The New York Times. For how many historians past or still living can one make or will one be able to make that claim? The title reads “Spellbinding Author Who Took His Audience to 1776 and Back.” The obituary lauded his achievements as a storyteller in print and on television in interviews and in documentaries. He could tell tales that could be become the basis of TV series. For a story-telling species, that is high praise indeed.

But we also are an academic species. The scribe has been an exalted part of human society since the dawn of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. In this regard McCullough had critics especially recently. The last column of the obituary noted this development:

…and his most recent book, published in 2019, “the Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West,” which provoked sharply critical reviews in The Times and The Washington Post as part of a wider controversy. “A new generation of historians, scholars and activists took to social media to accuse McCullough of romanticizing white settlement and downplaying the pain inflicted on Native Americans,” wrote The Associated Press.

In a remembrance read within the academic arena, Linda Chervinsky wrote about McCullough’s importance to her. He changed her life from that of a future lawyer to becoming an historian due to her reading as a teenager his book John Adams. She praised McCullough as a historian and storyteller citing book after book that moved her. Then she came to The Pioneers.

McCullough’s last work, The Pioneers (2019), defied this pattern. Rather than turning our attention to underappreciated figures, he further perpetuated the myth of the brave pioneer taming the wilderness. To be sure, the white settlers who traveled west to make a new life for themselves required tremendous bravery to leave their homes, their families, and the lives they knew. But they also required cruelty to seize lands inhabited by Native peoples and a tremendous capacity for violence to wage war on the Native nations that made their homes in the Ohio Valley.

What made McCullough’s previous works so accessible was his willingness to unflinchingly bare the flaws of his characters. John Adams could be pompous and petulant. He disowned one of his sons, Charles, for failing to conquer his (ultimately fatal) addiction to alcohol. That coldness is hard to read, but it’s an essential part of the story.

If McCullough had brought that level of scrutiny to western migration, just imagine what he could have done for our national origin story. He could have introduced countless readers to a more nuanced, complicated vision of American exceptionalism. Instead, he perpetuated a tired stereotype.

That is a tall order for someone in his eighties.

This remembrance itself then led to discussion on Twitter. Rather than getting bogged down in the weeds, let me turn back to an earlier effort to understand the writings of McCullough. Last year, there also was a multi-authored review section of the Journal of the Early Republic (JER 41 Summer 2021) dedicated to The Pioneers. It launched a new feature called Critical Engagements for the publication. It represented an attempt by the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR), the publisher of the journal, to determine:

1. how his book would fare if it had been written as an academic book subject to peer review<
2. what can academic historians learn from authors of such popular “airport” or “(white) Fathers’ Day” books about how to reach a larger audience.

Sometimes these books are called “Founders chic” and have been penned by such public luminaries as Ron Chernow and Joseph Ellis in addition to McCullough. They sell really well.

Speaking of fathers, one would be remiss in an analysis of the Fathers’ Day book about Founders without calling attention to “Dad Cinema.” Previously I had written about Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden: The Heroes We Want vs the Leaders We Have (July 12, 2022). Since then Joe Biden with his aviator sun glasses while not soaring in the polls has been rising following a string of victories on multiple fronts. By contrast Donald Trump is facing ever-mounting legal challenges and even Republicans now worry about the November elections.

Dad Cinema is an unsung and perhaps dying form of cinema replaced by interchangeable and numerous superdupers representing all identities in apocalyptic special-effects flicks. Just as Chernow, Ellis, and McCullough are not likely to be replaced, neither are Kevin Costner having catch with his father in a field of dreams or maverick Tom Cruise in his impossible missions. Consider these titles about the recent movie:

An Open Letter Imploring Dads to Watch ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

Top Gun: Maverick is the Best Movie to Bring Your Dad To

‘Top Gun – Maverick’ is Action-Based “Dad Cinema” At Its Very Best

Joseph Kosinski, the director of Top Gun: Maverick, was asked in an interview by The New York Times (8/30/22):

How do you feel about being called the savior of Dad Cinema?

Being a dad with three kids, I take that as a compliment. I made a movie about firefighters [“Only the Brave”], which is also known to bring grown men to tears. I’ll wear that badge with pride. To see young kids have a great experience, but also to have an experience with their dad and their grandpa or grandma, that, to me, is the most gratifying thing.

Returning to the academic analysis of McCullough’s The Pioneers, I had started a review of this study with two blogs:

Historians vs. David McCullough – The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (1/27/22)

History Scholars versus David McCullough: The American Revolution (1/30/22),

before being sidetracked onto other topics and completing the review.

Since that time and even since his death other history-related controversies have erupted.

1. The President of the American Historical Association (AHA) has apologized for his President’s Message in the current newsletter. There have been not one but two op-ed pieces in The New York Times (print, 8/26/22 and 8/31/22) on the controversy.

2. I have learned that the AHA will be publishing a review of The New York Times 1619 Project presumably following the format of SHEAR on The Pioneers.

And I still would like to comment of the AHA roundtable of Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States, the last major effort by an individual historian to craft a national narrative within the academic context. History is definitely in the news.

Previously, I have written two blogs contrasting two modes of learning and experiencing the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution, the more physical, visceral, place-based approach versus the academic ivory-tower approach (Sense of Place versus the Ivory Tower: The American Revolution 250th July 23, 2022). Both are essential for the health of the country. There is a tendency for them to operate in separate silos with neither knowing how nor wanting to communicate with the other. Academics would rather mock and denigrate the fathers than learn how to speak dude.

Chervinsky is right when she recognizes the need for a national narrative for the 21st century, but it seems increasingly unlikely if anyone would even try yet alone succeed at writing one your father would buy.

History Scholars versus David McCullough: The American Revolution

The post continues the examination of the multi-authored section of the Journal of the Early Republic (JER 41 Summer 2021) dedicated to David McCullough’s The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. This new feature called Critical Engagements represents an attempt by the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR), the publisher of the journal to determine:

1. how his book would fare if it had been written as an academic book subject to peer review
2. what can academic historians learn from authors of such popular “airport” or “(white) Fathers’ Day” books about how to reach a larger audience.

In the previous post, I presented:

1. guidelines for general public speaking by Connecticut State Historian Walt Woodward
2. an example of the way to alienate the general public by telling (white) people their ancestors were monster.

Before delving into the analysis conducted by JER of McCullough, I would like to turn to a topic that highlights some of the issues involved – the American Revolution.


Lately we have heard a lot about our President being illegitimate. The loser of the election claims that the winner stole the election. This is an ongoing news story and may well be until the bicentennial of the election of 1824.

In the meantime, the legitimacy of the country itself is not at stake in the political machinations. Such considerations are not always true in the academic arena. It is not unusual for people to describe the United States as a country born in sin, perhaps, even two sins. Here one may observe the clash between wanting to alienate the general public versus wanting it to repent (and make amends).

Let me begin by going to the wayback machine for a post about a conference in 2013 called “The American Revolution Reborn.”  The post is from my blog Rebirthing the American Revolution (November 29, 2016) citing another publication about it:

The interview on October 27 was by senior editor Samuel Hughes. It appears in the November/December issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette and follows.

The question from the audience bordered on the subversive. It came during “The American Revolution Reborn,” a 2013 conference organized by Michael Zuckerman C’61, emeritus professor of history, and Patrick Spero G’04 Gr’09, librarian and director of the American Philosophical Society, which hosted the event. (The conference also yielded a book of the same title, co-edited by Spero and Zuckerman and published last month by the University of Pennsylvania Press.)

“Somebody—clearly one of the non-academics—got up and said, ‘Look, all of you are full of nuance, full of contradictions of prevailing wisdom, but what do you really think? Was the Revolution a good thing or a bad thing?’” Zuckerman recalls. “He was sensing that the mood was overwhelmingly disenchanted, anti-heroic, anti-nation-building, and he was getting a distinctly negative, sour take on the Revolution. He wanted to know, ‘After all this, do you think we shouldn’t have done it?’”

Eventually Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich offered a response, but she “refused to give a bottom-line judgment—said it was the wrong kind of question—and left him hugely unhappy.”

The disagreement continued after the conference ended. Peter Feinman … reported on it extensively in his New York History Blog.

“Peter’s a thoughtful, critical guy but ultimately a high-powered patriot,” says Zuckerman. “He was saying [meaning not my actual words], ‘We’ve got to save the Revolution. It’s an inspirational thing—and you guys are not helping the cause.’ He took the side of the person who had asked the question and accused the historians of pussyfooting, and said that’s why they don’t have any clout and why we have nothing to say to people beyond our own cloister. And people weighed in—most of them attacking Peter, because they were scholars, but everybody was quite righteous.”

A smile plays across Zuckerman’s face. “It was a great brawl, with no resolution.”

Zuckerman anticipated some of the very issues and concerns expressed by the JER editors.

Here is what I actually wrote about that incident in a blog shortly after the conference:

The issue of leadership became a crucial one in the conference proceedings at least as far as I am concerned. Non-academic J.F. Gearhart asked one group of commentators if they thought the American Revolution was a good thing. Is the world a better place because the American Revolution occurred? The pained look on their silent faces spoke volumes. The anguished mental gymnastics of the three visibly uncomfortable academics was reminiscent of an American President coming up with “What is ‘is.’” Finally Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University, managed to say (and I am paraphrasing), “There were some good things which came out of the American Revolution and some bad things.” Gearhart pressed her to provide a “net-net” rendering on the Revolution. She declined to do so and laughingly noted that her students want her to do the same. (American Revolution Reborn: Missing New York July 10, 2013)

The conference, without meaning to, exposed two critical issues. First how did 19th-century Harvard American historian George Bancroft become 21st-century Harvard American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich? When did elitist Americans change from being proud to be Americans to looking like deer frozen in the headlights when asked if the American Revolution was a good thing?


As Michael Zuckerman reported, there was a response to my blog. Here is the comment by Michael D. Hattem, Associate Director of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, a co-founder of “The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, author of Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution, and currently working on Memory of ’76.

I think you misjudged her reaction, which was less that of a “deer caught in the headlights” than of mild bemusement. I also think that you have totally misinterpreted the audience’s reaction, as well. The vast majority of the audience, who were academics, did not have their breath taken away by Ulrich’s pause or her response. Rather, they were stunned that such a simplistic and impertinent question would even be asked at a conference like that and they were silent because they were waiting to see how Ulrich would address it. To her credit, she addressed it quite diplomatically and respectfully (more so than I suspect some in the room would have done). As she said, it was the kind of question that is asked by undergraduates with little to no experience with academic history as a discipline. The first thing an undergraduate learns in a college-level history class is to avoid such generalizations because they can never convey the actual complexity of history. Think of how simplistic and unfair the perception is that anyone who won’t come right and make such a generalized statement as “The American Revolution was good” as being “apologetic anti-American” or having an apologetically “anti-American” view of American history. Now you didn’t make that claim but you described the public perception and I would hope you could see why historians would react in that way to such an anti-historical and anachronistic perspective. I think many academic historians (especially of early America) acknowledge the need for historians to expand their audience among the general public but not by prostrating ourselves at the altar of American exceptionalism or nationalism.

Hattem did not write in boldface. Notice the putdowns of the questioner and me. Notice also how somehow saying the American Revolution is a net good becomes prostrating oneself at the altar of American exceptionalism or nationalism. Hattem continued:

If you want a sanitized, nationalist view of the Revolution and an endless stream of hagiographies of the founders, you can read McCullough, Ellis, Brookhiser and the dozens of others who have cashed in on the reading public’s desire for this Whiggish view. However, if you want to understand the Revolution more deeply outside of a small handful of elites and high politics and to understand how it affected groups of people differently, and how people on the ground actually experienced the Revolution, then you need the academics that were in that room at the APS, because they don’t choose topics or write books based on potential sales. Your instrumentalist and utilitarian view of history is completely at odds with the modern profession, the notion of which is reinforced by your expectations of the conference, which, like most academic conferences, wasn’t meant to provide a thorough narrative of the topic but specialized analyses of important themes. Historians are more concerned with what the Revolution meant to the people who lived through it and its immediate aftermath than what it means to people today. The former is history, the latter is politics. Either knowing or consciously shaping contemporary meanings of the Revolution is beyond the purview of historical inquiry for early American historians.

How does Hattem know that my expectations for the conference were for it to provide a thorough narrative of the topic? There is nothing in the conference schedule that even remotely suggests such an outcome.  Since his current work is on the memory of the American Revolution over time and timed for the 250th anniversary of it, the idea that early American historians are not hoping to shape contemporary meanings of the American Revolution is suspect at best. I suggest his answer provides a casebook example of why academic historians may be regarded as elitists and of the challenge to be overcome to stop alienating the general public.


In this regard, it is interesting to note the change in the tone by Hattem a mere eight years later. On January 27, 2021, He was the speaker in a virtual discussion at the American Philosophical Society (APS) on the topic of his book “Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution. During the Q&A portion, I posed a question and he responded as posted on the APS website.

Q: I just received my copy of the current American Historical Review roundtable of Jill Lepore’s These Truths. This follows on the release of the 1776 Commission report by one president and cancellation by the incoming president. How do we go about creating a new national narrative today? (Peter Feinman)

A: I have thought about this question a lot in thinking about the contemporary relevance of my work and thinking about national memory [apparently no longer beyond the purview of early American historians]. My current project looks at the history of the memory of the Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries and what I’ve found is that American history became politicized in a distinctly partisan way after 1800 and has been that way ever since. There has never been a time outside the window of the 1790s and early 1800s when there were not competing national narratives and memories. In other words, I do not think it is possible to create a new national narrative that could be widely accepted. Of course, one of the challenges there is that doing so would have to contend with the very powerful resilience of the Cold War-era memory that many American adults grew up with. All that said, I think we are currently in an important moment in the history of the memory of the American Revolution. Conflict over American history seems to ebb and flow along with the degree of political division in the country. Not unlike in the 1760s and 1770s, many Americans today are reconsidering the meaning and legacy of the Revolution. What is somewhat new is that many are calling for it to have no place in our collective civic and political cultures. I do not know if there is a way to create a national narrative with broad appeal in the present but I think that if it were possible it would require avoiding the two extremes we see so often currently of either seeing the Revolution as all good or all bad. What makes American history so interesting to me as a historian is its complexity and both of those extremes tend to flatten American history into two dimensions.

So he is thinking about it a lot … and providing a thoughtful answer. He recognizes the new phenomenon that there are Americans (Woke?) who think the American Revolution should have no place in our collective civic and political cultures. He rejects the view that the American Revolution should be seen as all good or all bad.

According to my notes, Hattem also was asked about what to do today given The New York Times Project 1619 and the (previous) White House 1776 Commission. He replied that he is not as indignant as he used to be [see his answer above from 2013]. He characterized both the 1619 and 1776 reports not as history but as memory construction. For Hattem, the American Revolution is part of the common inheritance for all Americans. We need to find a balance for this shared history which includes both horrible aspects and things which should be celebrated.

His answer reminds me a new development, not quite a trend, in these virtual presentations. I call it the 42 Minute Syndrome. After 42 minutes of being critical of the American Revolution, the speaker notes that there actually were some good things worth celebrating.  For example, consider the virtual discussion held December 20, 2021, at the Wilson Center on Thirteen Clocks: How Race United the Colonies and Made the Declaration of Independence by Robert G. Parkinson. At the end of his opening remarks, Parkinson showed a slide saying:



Parkinson noted what hadn’t happen before was any effort to make a new nation and new republican regime on a very different theory of citizenship. It sounds like he was saying these were good things even though his talk was not about them.

As Liz Covart summed up in her Ben Franklin’s World podcast discussion with Hattem on July 20, 2021, the new nation and political entity needed a new history to which all the different ethnicities could belong. Our familiar historical narrative originated in the effort to unite the populace into one people by creating a shared sense of the past.  Exactly right.

Let me close with my closing words about the American Revolution Reborn conference

There is a difference between challenging America to be great and simply constantly condemning it for its shortcomings. Academics haven’t learned to speak the language of patriotism when criticizing America. They should champion the journey the Founding Fathers began, rather than only criticizing them for failing to meet their 21st century moral standards.

Yes, the American Revolution was a good thing, but we can’t rest on our laurels.

Yes the American Revolution was a good thing, but there is more that needs to be done.

Yes, the American Revolution was a good thing, and with your help the journey the Founding Fathers began can be renewed for the 21st century.

Historians vs. David McCullough – The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

David McCullough and academic historians generally do not mix. Historians derisively refer to books by McCullough and his ilk as “airport books.” These are the kinds of books one buys in an airport and not at a history conference or from an academic press. Another derogatory term is (white) Father’s Day Gift.

Therefore it was a surprise to see a multi-authored section of the Journal of the Early Republic (JER 41 Summer 2021) dedicated to this author and this book. The editors announced it as a new feature called Critical Engagements. The section will appear from time to time in the journal. It will allow the history community represented by JER “to participate in conversations of great interests to scholars of the early American republic and the general public.”

For the first foray into this venture, the editors chose The New York Times #1 bestselling history book in 2019 herein called The Pioneers. The time period covered in the book directly coincides with the purview of the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR), the publishers of the journal. Its conferences have been the subject of previous posts here.

SHEAR CHAOS: A Culture Wars Train Wreck for a History Organization
August 19, 2020

Universities and the Legacy of Slavery (SHEAR Session)
September 22, 2016

Teaching Slavery: A SHEAR Perspective
September 12, 2016

“The Year without Summer” (1816): When Republicans Recognized Climate Change Existed (SHEAR CONFERENCE)
August 24, 2016

The General Public and the Early Republic Historians (SHEAR Conference)
August 23, 2016

In the session in this last blog, “THE PUBLIC AND THE EARLY REPUBLIC: A ROUNDTABLE ON IN AND BEYOND THE ACADEMY,” I wrote about the presentation by Connecticut State Historian Walt Woodward:

[He] gives about 75 public lectures per year. His experience has shown him that there is a tremendous public interest in Connecticut for history. He strongly advocates for historians to leave the ivory tower and venture out into the public arena. Walt generously provided some guidelines to be followed if you are so inclined [in my words].

Don’t speak academic or undergraduate-lecture style jargon to the general public.
Don’t assume prior knowledge (or that they read the assignment before the lecture).
Complexity is not clarity.
Nuance can be mind-numbing.
Park your biases at the door – leave out the progressive politics. You are there to share your presumed expertise in the past, not to indulge in being a know-it-all on a TV talk show.
Don’t be arrogant – you aren’t the god’s or goddess’s gift to humanity where the little people should bask in the aura of your greatness and be thankful that you have chosen to enlighten them.

The public audience loves history and wants to hear from people who knew it well and can communicate to them in an effective manner.

From the Q&A, I wrote: Walt is critical of the elimination (or reduction) of history in a STEM world. The history community is doing a poor job of communicating to the general public of history’s importance. There is a need to intervene in creating the k-12 curriculum.

In his session wrap-up, Commentator Peter Onuf, University of Virginia observed (in my words):

If students don’t care about history, then the professors need the skills of the public historian who has the job of reaching out to a general audience and then to apply those skills in the classroom to reach the students.

At least orally, Woodward seemed to be practicing some of the same techniques McCullough probably is in reaching out to the general public. Possibly public historians (I would include historians at state and national parks) do as well. How about academic historians?

The JER editors noted both the public attention and “stinging scholarly criticism” McCullough’s book received when it was first released. The objective of the editors in reviewing this book was clearly stated:

Given the reach of popular histories such as McCullough’s and the book and musical Hamilton, can we use such histories that reach and fascinate large audiences to show those hungry for exposure to the past how to think about history further and in new and more necessarily challenging ways? Can we as scholars engage with popular and less scholarly historical works beyond just pointing out their limitations? No matter how warranted or cathartic that reaction is, it often has the effect of alienating the public that enjoyed the book—not just from our critical reviews, but from our scholarship and even our methods and questions altogether. How can we reach that audience and build from the interest that propelled them to read McCullough’s book? How can our interventions offer a richer, more complicated picture?

Or, can we do what Woodward advised us to do at the SHEAR conference?

In this paragraph, the JER editors have expressed laudable goals as well as an awareness of the problem and perhaps the stakes. They are aware of the current controversies involving The New York Time Project 1619, another publication outside the academic arena. They are aware of the greater reach to the general public of these two non-academic and opposing publications. They also are aware of their own inability to reach out to the general public in a way that does not alienate or patronize them but instead serve as a necessary corrective. To some extent, this new feature represents a stab in addressing that need … subject to the fact that the audience for the section is the academic historians and not the general public who will never read this journal and probably not even aware of its existence.

Before delving into the reviews by five scholars on particular aspects of The Pioneers and the two scholars who reflected on the entire initiative, let me offer some thoughts about the approaches to the public taken by academic historians. Due to the length, this will require two blogs.


Genealogical research is a popular pastime in America. If you work in a library, archives, or museum (pre-COVID), then you are very familiar with people who are searching for information about their ancestors. They scroll through rolls of microfilm; the turn page after page of newspapers and other print sources; they search through databases. They are quite dedicated in the time they devote to the quest. They also are quite willing to share with others the results of their work. The work can be quite collaborative with multiple Facebook and other social media sharings.

And when they find something, truly it is a joyous moment. They may not quite run through the library in righteous exaltation with tears of happiness streaming down their face, but they are doing that mentally. Finding a never-before-known relative or a never-before-known action done by a known relative counts as blessing. Look what I found!

There are even “Hallmark-like” commercials dedicated to this phenomenon. A three-generation family may be seen wandering through giant displays of their ancestors’ lives. There are blowups of photographs and documents. Maybe a birth certificate. Maybe a census record. Maybe a naturalization notice. Whatever the image, there are the grandparents and parents proudly pointing to the next generation of the record documenting the life of an earlier generation, perhaps someone the child never knew personally but only heard about at family gatherings.

Rarely do you see someone jumping for joy to have learned that their ancestor was a monster. Given all the people searching for ancestors and all the ancestors there are in three, four, five, ten generations or more, someone at some point will come across someone they rather would not have as an ancestor. For example, there are people today who have learned that their ancestors owned other people. There also have been touching reunions based on that knowledge such as with the 1619 people.

Still people do not want to be told again and again that their ancestors were monsters. How many statues of Robert E. Lee does it take to cause a person to be stressed? How many times do you tell someone their ancestors were monsters before you have alienated them?

By these comments, I am not suggesting that academics in the public presentations (mainly virtual now) constantly berate and harangue their audience. After all it is not the ancestors of the members of the audience who have chosen to hear the academic speaker who are the monsters! But there are people based on race, location, and politics who well may be the descendants of monsters or be monsters themselves. And they do not need to be college graduates to understand that you are telling them their ancestors were monsters and they are too unless they repent their ancestors’ actions.

These considerations go the challenge of creating a national narrative for the 21st century. McCullough does it piecemeal through his books including about the American Revolution. For academic historians that effort is more problematic as will be discussed in the next blog on this initiative by JER: the message historians deliver on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a country born in sin.