The book is a political and economic history of the emergence of the working class in New York City, running from the ratification of the Constitution up through 1850. In part, the book was a response to those historians who have argued that class and class relations have played no significant role in U.S. history. In addition, many of the leading historical arguments about the character of Jacksonian democracy had focused on New York City and the movements that arose there; I’m thinking, for example, of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson and Lee Benson’s The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy. Studying New York City was a way to engage these arguments. And I had always wanted to write a book about my hometown.
I pursued a couple of major themes. One was that class understanding developed in the early 19th century within a framework of politics and political talk that had come out of the Revolution. I was especially interested in the continuities and discontinuities in political thinking that came with industrialization and the emergence of new social classes. I was also interested in writing a history of a seaport, metropolitan working class. Much that had been written about American industrialization concentrated on factory towns or canals or mining camps. All of this was important, but it wasn’t the whole picture. The smaller-scale industries found in the big cities--things like printing and clothing manufacture--in many ways defied the conventional wisdom of historians about how industrialization came about in the United States. In 1860 New York was the most productive manufacturing city in the entire country. If you can’t account for the largest manufacturing city in the country, you’re missing a lot.
In 1994 you published a very different kind of book, The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-century America.
That was an attempt to write history in a different kind of way. Paul Johnson, my coauthor, and I envisaged a book that was novelistic in form but rigorously historical in substance, and that would illuminate important issues in American history. In some ways it was an experiment in the writing of history. We had an amazing story to tell. In the 1830s a small religious cult--the Kingdom of Matthias--developed in New York City under the leadership of a frustrated carpenter named Robert Matthews. Matthews renamed himself the Prophet Matthias and invented a new religion basically organized around the charismatic properties of his own sexuality. In its day the cult was notorious for its bizarre doctrines and practices, and it became one of the first great penny-press sensations in U.S. history. In the end Matthews was indicted for the murder of one of his followers.
The story of Matthias is a strange but telling episode in the Second Great Awakening, a major U.S. religious revival in the early 19th century that produced new denominations like the Mormons and saw dramatic growth of existing denominations such as the Methodists and the Baptists. We hoped that the story, and our approach in telling it, would let us get at the darker aspects of this moment in American history -- at its sadness and anxiety as well as its lust. Remember that all kinds of experiments in spirituality, comportment, and ethical living were taking place in America in these decades. Rising up alongside offbeat religious movements were the temperance movement, radical abolitionism, dietary reform, public school reform. All these movements were of a piece. One of the members of Matthias’s cult, in fact, went on to become a very famous abolitionist-- though you’ll have to read the book to find out who it was.
Your most recent book is The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005). How did you approach such a formidable topic?
Some years ago I set myself the task of writing a thorough narrative history of the emergence of democratic politics in the United States. Many people don’t realize that the United States did not begin as a democratic nation; there were strong elements of democracy, but they were far from what was to be. I wanted to show how these elements emerged and evolved, not just as philosophical propositions but as political realities, between 1787 and the Civil War, in which the democracy that had emerged underwent its great crisis.
In many ways the book is traditional in its formulation and narrative approach (and I am of course not the first person to write on this topic). But I also wanted to bringing together aspects of political history that are often split apart, and split apart strands that are sometimes too easily joined. In particular I was interested in bringing together the high and the low. To understand democracy one has to understand politics at the very top and at the very bottom, but the two are rarely brought together, seen as part of a complicated but important set of human connections. Recently, politics at the top has mostly been written about in terms of ideas, although a history of ideology is not the same thing as a history of politics; and politics at the bottom has often, of late, been inaccurately characterized as simply antagonistic to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy. My goal was to understand the interplay--and the ironies and paradoxes that resulted. Take the anti-slavery movement, for example. The beginning of the abolitionist movement is commonly dated around 1833, when the American Anti-Slavery Society began, and started to force Congress, against its will, to consider the slavery issue. That is, abolitionism started out as a grassroots movement. But if you look at the “high” politics of the 1820s, and for decades before that, there was a lot going on that anticipated the anti-slavery movement of later decades. I argue that the emergence of the abolitionist movement from “above”--in Congressional politics, especially -- as well as from “below,” beginning well before 1830, had a powerful effect in mobilizing and reformulating ideas that were already there. And, contrary to the current conventional wisdom, much of that agitation built on explicitly Jeffersonian ideas--even though Thomas Jefferson himself was a slaveholder.
You were the director of the Program in American Studies from 1995 through 2006. When you took on the job you initiated a number of changes in the program. What were these?
When I became director, American Studies at Princeton, which is the oldest program of its kind, had been largely a traditional history and literature program, and it had great strengths. American Studies has always aimed to give students a fuller sense of American civilization by blending topics and issues normally studied in separate disciplines. Around the time I started, there was a feeling around the university that other aspects of the American experience needed to be treated more systematically. So we made a number of changes. We created a new core course, “American Places,” that focuses on places in time as well as on the people who lived there. In any given year, the course can cover everything from the Pueblo Revolt, which broke out in the 17th century in present-day New Mexico, to Sunset Strip in modern Los Angeles. (I co-taught the course myself in Fall, 2008, treating Boston in 1775, New York in 1855, Greenville, Mississippi in 1927, and Orange County, California, in 1966.) The idea is to settle down in a single place and take a more thorough, concrete look at everything from ecology to music to local politics. We also wanted to broaden our horizons; we didn’t want to spend all of our time in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Today we spend much more time than we used to in the South and the West and thereby bring in a more diverse collection of American populations. At the same time, American Studies still teaches Emerson. II tried to keep the best of the old and the best of the new.
The Rose and the Briar (2004) comes with a companion CD, something not many history books offer. What kind of a book is this?
The critic Greil Marcus, who was a visiting fellow in the American Studies Program, and I cooked up an idea for a book about the ballad. We both thought that the ballad--the narrative song--was the premier musical form through which Americans informed each other about what it is to be American. It’s hard to name a great American epic poem; if there is a uniquely American epic form, it’s the ballad. The book began with a question: What does the American ballad tell us about America? Marcus and I both suspected that this story couldn’t be told just by historians or critics. So we asked two dozen writers and artists, most of them non-academics, each to choose a ballad and to create some response to it. The results were very interesting. We got history, poetry, fiction, even cartoons. The CD you mentioned, which to our great good fortune Columbia/Legacy records wanted to release, includes recordings of most of the songs.
In December 1998 you argued before the House Judiciary Committee that President Clinton’s alleged conduct did not warrant impeachment. How did this come about?
I happened to be in Washington, D.C. that year at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and so I found myself in the midst of the very acrid atmosphere that prevailed in the capital before the impeachment. I became increasingly concerned and then angry at what was going on. I know quite a bit about the Constitutional Convention and that period of U.S. history, and it seemed to me that certain people in Washington, both on the Republican side and in the press, were showing a shocking indifference to serious questions of constitutionality. Jerry-built, partisan arguments about the Constitution that were basically made up on the spot were getting taken seriously. I started contacting other historians and asking, “Can you believe this?” Many of them were just as upset as I was. I got in touch with my friend Arthur Schlesinger and my old teacher C. Vann Woodward, both of whom are politically savvy, and we wrote a statement explaining our objections and circulated it to a few colleagues by email. Within a couple of days we had five hundred people wanting to sign it. Eventually we published the statement and the signatures in the New York Times.
After that the White House got in touch with me and asked if I would testify in defense of the president. I responded that I wasn’t interested in defending Clinton’s misbehavior and efforts to deceive, but I would be happy to raise certain issues about history and the Constitution. They said fine, and I went ahead and testified. It was quite a situation. I bluntly said what I thought, and that was enough to ruffle some feathers.
Some might say that a historian shouldn’t weigh in on the political controversies of the day.
I had strong views about the Clinton impeachment, like others, and I felt moved to contribute to the public conversation about it. I see no reason that a historian shouldn’t do this, so long as he or she is aboveboard about the historical evidence and reasoning involved. I can think of many great historians who have had strong political commitments. George Bancroft, one of the great American historians, ran the Massachusetts Democratic Party and ended up serving in Polk’s Cabinet. On the other hand, there are many great historians who have had no discernible political or civic commitment. I don’t think the distinction tells you anything by itself: good and bad historians are active in realms outside the academy, good and bad historians are not.