Goose Commerce


Such Phrenology. So Railroad. Wow.

Or, Meme Translation

Asa Whitney Doge

Today I found a portrait and detailed profile of one of the characters I’m currently writing about in the American Phrenological Journal.

Yes folks, in November 1849, Asa Whitney, railroad projector and lobbyist for humanity, was not only the man of the hour and talk of the town, but also the cover model for America’s leading pseudoscientific periodical. Reading what the nation’s foremost experts in head-bumps and skull-shapes had provided to the interested public concerning the former China merchant, it occurred to me that the phrenologist’s analysis might very easily be stripped of its Victorian vagaries, and translated into a jargon with more currency today; that is, into doge speak. Thus, the above.

(Also, per Gary Larson, it was late and I was tired).


Full cite (incl. original image):

“Article LXXI: Phrenological Character of Asa Whitney, with a Likeness,” American Phrenological Journal 11, no. 11 (November 1, 1849): 329–333.

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A Slaughter-Bench, Explained

Or, Thoughts on Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (Knopf, 2012).

YuYuan Garden by Wolfgang Staudt, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Wolfgang Staudt 

Odd as it is to say, it’s been a long time since a history book completely captivated my attention; and even longer since I lost a night of sleep to stay up reading one. I read history all day, everyday, but rarely for pleasure – one likes to escape, you know? But sometimes something special intervenes. Stephen Platt’s excellent account of the Taiping Rebellion is one such. While by no means an escape – the civil war he takes as his subject was one of the most brutal the world has ever seen – his book is as gripping and analytically sophisticated a piece of historical scholarship as I have ever read.

Platt’s book marries the deft use of “novelistic” tricks of popular historians with a serious and important new analysis of the Taiping civil war to construct a gripping narrative. The careful use of a judiciously chosen cast of characters – drawing from all factions in the war – allows Platt to draw the reader in to personal stories. But these are not just historical excursions for history’s sake, loosely connected. Rather, Platt makes a consistent, and convincing argument that the war should be seen as intimately connected to the other great civil conflict of the period – the American Civil War – by way of British foreign and economic policy. (Basically, he argues that the Brits got involved in the war – decisively, as it happened, on the side of the Qing – to protect their economic interests, partly out of pressure put on them by the loss of the American market).

In what I think is his greatest accomplishment, Platt makes all of these events make sense.*  That might sound like the first task of an historian – but believe me when I say that it is quite a feat, especially in this case. The caprice of the British public and the arrogance of some of their officials is paired nicely with the internal politicking of the Qing and Taiping courts. Each on its own is complex enough, but Platt is able to draw out the links between them, to explain the unfolding of events through these wavering intersections (which is not to say that events were rational; like all wars, this one was model of chaos). As someone who has mainly confronted the Taiping war through the garbled accounts of contemporary American observers, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to finally have some glimpse of the Taiping war as a coherent whole. (Okay, well I can: and just did).

I think part of the secret here is that, unlike other books on the war which analyze the particular cultural characteristics that motivated actors  – say, Jonathan Spence’s – this book concentrates on making the strange familiar, and not on delineating just how strange the the strange was. Thus we get a portrait of Zeng Guofan, commanding general of the Hunan army (the main Qing force), that depicts him as a deeply conflicted, even tortured scholar trying to follow duty wherever it led. The foreignness of Zeng’s worldview (from our contemporary, Western perspective) is only partially revealed in the denouement, when glimpses of Zeng through the eyes of Western and Chinese observers reveal a brutal, calculating man, working to protect his image and his family’s power from the still-smoking and blood-stained ruins of the rebel capital, Nanjing.

I’m no expert in the Chinese historiography, so I can’t comment on how Platt’s work succeeds of fails in that regard; certainly his pedigree as a China expert is impeccable, and Sinologists who’ve reviewed the book seem pleased. From my perspective as an Americanist with more than a passing knowledge of British and American sources relating to the period, nothing rang false. Sections of the book dealing with British perspectives on the war, or maneuvering in Parliament, or even American reactions to the Taiping all seemed judiciously written, and did not a make any claims that stepped beyond the evidence. The Chinese sections…well, Chinese history, in English, always seems lightly sourced to me – but I think that is an artifact of the available archives and my footnote fetish, not any sort of real criticism.

(If I have one criticism, it is that I wish Platt had refrained from including a poorly-argued NYT op-ed as part of his book publicity efforts. Affecting a Tom Friedman-level of rhetorical analysis is not only historical malpractice – really, is the Taiping rebellion in any way like China today? really? – it does his scholarly reputation no favors. Indeed, had I not already bought the book before I read that article, I would have never cracked the cover).

But if we judged all scholars purely by their malpractice on the op-ed page, then we’d read no one, ever. So, my recommendation is simple: whatever your speciality or your interests, go read Stephen Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, and have your understanding of 19th-century history, the global economy – and perhaps even your ideas about human nature – helpfully revised. And maybe your sleep disturbed, too.

————————–

*The petulant jerk who reviewed the book for the NYT seems to lack any sense of how complex this war was – how many people were involved, how difficult the sources are, how much violence deranges neat narratives. His complaints about how difficult his finely-tuned flâneur’s mind found the book reveal more about him, I think, than about the work under review.



The Past is Flat, But the World is Round

Or, Gibson, Friedman, and #FirstWorldProblems

From Darkness to Light - please read by ecstaticist, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  ecstaticist 

How evenly distributed was the future, in the past?

Yesterday, Alexis Madrigal distilled novelist Teju Cole’s tweeted critique1 of what’s wrong with #firstworldproblems – as a concept – and it got me thinking.

His post goes into a bit more detail (and explains what #firstworldproblems signifies), but here are the key lines of Cole’s analysis:

I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. …

… people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. … the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is–quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.

Quite so. The approach that twitterers using #firstworldproblems take to the developing world mirrors, in no small part, the approach Europeans (and later, Americans) took to the “new” worlds of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. To assume that no one in Lagos is frustrated with her iPad’s inability to sync properly is to assume that Lagos exists in a different stage of history, a different time – pace Gibson, “[t]he future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” But listening to Cole, it seems the future is actually very well distributed – at least geographically; in our brave new world, wealth forms more of a barrier than oceans.2

The key difference in both usages is history, represented by technological gadgetry (and sometimes infrastructural abundance). Time passed, in this view, is progress achieved — a view echoed, from another vantage point, in a related meme-driven complaint about the lack of flying cars. In this, as in so many ways, our way of seeing the world is an iron Enlightened Victorian imperialist cage, albeit one with some of the sharp edges sanded off.

Continue reading

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The Limits of Sympathy for Teas
03-04-10 Splash ~ Explored :) by Î’ethan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by Î’ethan

Or, How Debt Ceilings, Tea, and the tradition of Governing in the U.S. Tangentially Relate

The political crisis du jour is over whether or not Congress will vote to raise the “debt ceiling,” aka the legal borrowing limit for the Federal Government. The broad consensus is that should the debt ceiling not be raised (as is customary), the Federal government would, for the first time ever, fail to pay – and perhaps even repudiate – its debts.

Now, the consequences of such an action are disputed; those seeking to hold firm on the debt ceiling (the Republicans) maintain that there would be no ill effects, just a healthful readjustment of budgetary priorities, while their opponents – and here that includes the Democratic party and associated partisans and officials, bankers, other Wall Street honchos, and most of the media – maintain that failing to raise the debt limit would be tantamount to a financial apocalypse, for the U.S., and possibly the entire world.

So there’s a bit of a gap in the conversation.

I bring it up here not to comment on the issue in particular – though there are some really interesting discussions happening, including some historical debates related to whether or not the 14th Amendment was designed to prevent just a crisis1 – but because lately I’ve been working through documents from the first few years after the Constitution, a period where Congress was determined to do exactly the opposite of what the Republicans are proposing today. Back in the 1790s, the overriding concern for the rulers of the newly re-organized American republic was to figure out how generate revenue so as to pay the U.S.’s debts.

The rub was that Congress had to find a way to do so consistent with the principles of the Revolution – and since there was no real agreement about what these were, or what that would look like, conflict ensued (some things never change). The parts of these machinations that typically get the most airplay are the debates over the “how, who, and what to pay” issues – the internal structuring of the national debt, the creation of a national bank, division of fiscal powers among the different branches, etc. These are the core issues around which the first partisan divide in the nation’s modern history formed, between “Federalists” (the Hamiltonian/Washingtonian conglomeration in favor of an active national government modeled in its fiscal policies after European powers) and the “Jeffersonians” (TJ and Madison’s more structured opposition party that favored a decentralized republic with weaker coercive power).

The attention this dynamic gets is justified – the people involved in these struggles certainly emphasized the “how, who, and what to pay” issues. But they weren’t the only problems being worked out. I’ve been looking how those early Congresses worked out the other part of the debt equation – the “where do we get revenue from” problem.

Here the partisan divide dissolves a bit, because the answer that the Founders gave to the revenue question basically boils down to one phrase: the tariff. The national government did implement other taxes in the early years – there was a pretty heavy tax on personal carriages2, and of course the excise tax on whiskey is well known – but until the introduction of the permanent income tax in the early 20th century, taxes on imported goods and international shipping were the primary revenue for the Federal Government. And, as you might expect of such an important component of government, during that period between Revolution and the 16th Amendment the tariff was among the most powerful drivers of American politics.

~

Long-time readers of this blog will be unsurprised to find out that Asian trade was a non-trivial part of the tariff, in both the debates setting it up and the legislation itself. And in fact, there is a lot that’s unique about the way the Federal Government handled Americans’ involvement in Asian trade which suggests that policymakers regarded it as particularly important.3 But what interests me in connection with the debt ceiling controversy is not the protections the China trade received, but rather how the Federal Government resolved problems with the collection of tariffs on the trade, and what that says about the ultimate priorities of the Founding generation of legislators.

Despite what a visit to your local art museum might lead you to believe, the West’s trade with China in the late 18th-century was not about porcelain, silks, or lacquered furniture, but rather was almost entirely concerned with exchanging silver for tea. The American trade with China was no different; indeed “china ware” was carried back from Canton to U.S. markets chiefly as ballast. The Founding generation, having concluded that taxing widely-consumed beverages with mild psychoactive effects was the most effective, lucrative and appropriate way of gaining a steady income, made duties on tea one of the linchpins of the American revenue system.4 In the tariff acts from 1789 onward, and in the periodic special taxes for defending the frontier and paying down the debt, tea invariably appears as one of the key enumerated items singled out for special attention – and taxation.5

In the early years, though, both the success of the American trade in teas, and the amount of tax it could reasonably bear, were unknowns. It is unsurprising, then, that the government ran into trouble with collections. The problem was not that tea taxes were somehow verboten because of their role in sparking the Revolutionary struggle.6 The difficulty was more prosaic: an oversupplied market meant that merchants couldn’t pay their taxes without going broke.

It was a classic boom-bust case. Americans’ rush into the China trade in the late 1780s and early 1790s flooded the U.S. market with cargoes of tea – enough in 1790 alone for three years’ of domestic consumption, according to one (admittedly self-interested) China merchant.7 With supply and demand being in an inverse relationship and all, this in turn led to both a precipitous drop in the commodity’s price and a marked rise in petitions to Congress. As merchants found themselves with stocks of teas that could not be sold even at cost, they presented Congress with a dilemma: how to best secure an important source of revenue while at the same time encouraging growth in a key economic sector?8

The merchants themselves were divided. Some requested stronger protections from foreign competitors, up to and including a ban on sales of teas imported by European shippers; others merely requested “to be allowed a farther time for payment of the duties on a quantity of teas imported.” Though there was a strong sentiment in the early Congresses that the development of the China trade was of great importance as a means to national prosperity and security – as “a trade sought after by all the world” it seemed obvious to some members that it should be protected, one way or another – this feeling was not sufficiently shared to move more protective legislation out of committee.

Even Alexander Hamilton, who is sometimes presented as the protectionist avatar of American commerce, was ambivalent. Replying to a request to evaluate a petition from the “merchants of Philadelphia trading to India and China,” he told the House of Representatives that “the trade to India and China appears to lay claim to the patronage of the Government” but “a full and accurate examination should be had into the nature and tendency of that trade” before any “encouragement” or protection could be offered.9 In other words, Hamilton kicked the can down the road, a move likely made out of concern for maintaining government income – as Hamilton knew, protecting the American trade too aggressively was a sure way to choke off the stream of revenue that flowed into the Treasury from the high duties paid by foreign importers (who paid 50% higher duties on teas, and 700% higher tonnage duties). However, in a different report on a similar petition, the Secretary of the Treasury did suggest another option: that Congress extend “credit for the duties” due on tea.10

Though Hamilton’s advice was hardly gospel – Madison and other proto-Republicans in the House were at pains to reduce the his influence in all things financial – in this matter the legislature followed his lead and chose to amend only the administrative aspects of the tariff law. Specifically, Congress extended the amount of time American merchants could store imported teas without paying duties, first from nothing to one full year, and then later from one year to two; all the importer had to do was give the port collector a bond for future payments, which could be made as the tea was sold.11

In the event, this new system worked well: by offering merchants two-year interest-free loans on their taxes, the Federal Government provided the flexibility needed to keep the trade alive beyond one season of oversupply, while at the same time effectively securing an important long-term source of revenue. It was a neat piece of governance which allowed Congress leeway to raise taxes on teas repeatedly over the next few decades, without fear of harming the trade, as merchants would always have time to adjust to new market conditions.

~

So what does this have to do with the debt ceiling negotiations? Well, I think the case of the tea tariffs offers us some insight into the particular ways our own political scene differs from those of the Revolutionary era. For the significant conservative political force in our own moment, the financial reputation of the U.S. is worth chancing in order to achieve a significant change in policy, whereas in the founding decades, for partisans of every stripe, any policy was worth changing in order to secure a sounder financial reputation.

Moreover, I think the audacity of the move – forego taxes in order to secure them! – is one worth remembering in any era where a flexible approach to ideology in governance seems rare.

(It’s also important to remember that – two centuries of hagiography to the contrary – this was not the compromise of a uniquely enlightened age. Recall that a key architect of this decision, Hamilton, got himself shot and killed by a political rival – something that is now, thankfully, nearly unheard of. And trust me when I say that the rhetoric exchanged between partisans, of this or almost any other age of American politics, is quite comparable to ours, in terms of outright viciousness; though earlier generations were perhaps more creative…)

More germane to my own inside baseball, the tea tariff decision overthrows the bipolar conclusions drawn in the current literature on the China trade. In contrast to writers who argue (implicitly or explicitly) that Asian commerce impinged only slightly if at all on the politics of early America, the care policymakers took with the tea trade suggests that concern with economic connections with Asia was most certainly a force in political debate. On the other hand, the government’s strategic deafness to merchant’s calls for commercial protection from competition belies accusations leveled by later politicians and historians that the:

“records of American legislation bear the most satisfactory testimony of the transcendent influence of the mercantile interests, and of the unceasing exertions made to fence it round with every species of protection the government could bestow which secured to the tonnage of our merchants, a monopoly of the whole of the China trade – and gave them paramount advantages in all other foreign trade.”12

Neither a controlling force in government nor a puff of air, the China trade was nonetheless an important component of the nation’s most crucial, and endlessly controversial, revenue laws. And the way the revenue it generated was flexibly supervised within the tariff laws typifies the pragmatic approach that early American politicians took to governing what they hoped would be a nation simultaneously prosperous and free.


 

1) For example: http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/91347/the-14th-amendment-solution

2) How’s that for Federal intervention into private life! 1 Stat. 373 (June 5, 1794), Chapter 45, 3 Congress, Session 1, “An Act: Laying duties upon carriages for the conveyance of persons.”

3) Among all forms of overseas commerce, only the direct trade in China goods was singled out for protection, distinguished by the trade route rather than what commodity trafficked. Taxes on Asian goods – teas, China ware, etc. – were the lowest if they were imported by Americans directly from Canton, higher if they were brought by Americans from Europe, and highest if they were imported by foreigners to the U.S.

4) Taxes on imported wine and hard alcohol were the other key supports of the system.

5) 1 Stat. 25, Chapter 2, 1 Congress, Session 1, An Act: For laying a duty on goods, wares, and merchandises imported into the United States. (July 4, 1789); 1 Stat 145, Chapter 35, 1 Congress, Session 2, An Act: To provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares, and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels. (Aug. 4, 1790); 1 Stat. 180, Chapter 39, 1 Congress, Session 2, An Act: Making further provision for the payment of the debt of the United States. (Aug 10, 1790); 1 Stat 219, Chapter 26, 1 Congress, Session 3, An Act: Making farther provision for the collection of the duties by law imposed on teas, and to prolong the term for the payment of the duties on wines. (Mar. 3, 1791); 1 Stat 411, Chapter 17, 3 Congress, Session 2, An Act: Supplementary to the several acts imposing duties on goods, wares, and merchandises imported into the United States. (Jan. 29, 1795); 1 Stat 503, Chapter 10, 4 Congress, Session 2, An Act: For raising a further sum of money by additional duties on certain articles imported, and for other purposes. (Mar. 3, 1797); etc.

6) As one republican columnist explained, the political implications of taxes mattered, not what they taxed: “people who revolted against that innovation [the 1773 Tea Act], certainly not for the magnitude of the duty, but from a wise anticipation of the horrid train for which it was calculated to open the way….” “For the National Gazette, On the Secretary’s Report on the Excise,” National Gazette, 26 April 1792

7) “Petition of Elias Hasket Derby, Salem, Mass., 10 June 1789,” in Kenneth R. Bowling, William Charles DiGiacomantonio, and Charlene Bangs Bickford, eds., Petition Histories and Nonlegislative Official Documents, vol. 8, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, 1789-1791 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 407.

8.) Fri, Feb 24, 1792 (1st Sess), Journal of the House of Representatives, 520

9) Emphasis mine. United States Congress, American State Papers: Finance, ed. Walter Lowrie and Matthew St. Clair Clarke (Washington, D.C: Gales and Seaton, 1832), 1:107, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwsp.html; “Report of the Treasury of the Secretary, 10 February 1791,” in Bowling, DiGiacomantonio, and Bickford, Petition Histories and Nonlegislative Official Documents, 8:382-383.

10) “Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, 2 March 1791,”Bowling, DiGiacomantonio, and Bickford, Petition Histories and Nonlegislative Official Documents, 8:411.

11) 1 Stat. 145, Chapter 35, 1 Congress, Session 2, An Act: To provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares, and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels. (Aug. 4, 1790); 1 Stat. 219, Chapter 26, 1 Congress, Session 3, An Act: Making farther provision for the collection of the duties by law imposed on teas, and to prolong the term for the payment of the duties on wines. (Mar. 3, 1791)

12) Mathew Carey, The New Olive Branch, or, An Attempt to Establish an Identity of Interest Between Agriculture, Manufactures, and Commerce and to Prove, That a Large Portion of the Manufacturing Industry of This Nation Has Been Sacrificed to Commerce, and That Commerce Has Suffered by This Policy Nearly as Much as Manufactures (Philadelphia: M. Carey & Son, 1820), 213-214, http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006512105. Carey’s summary of the early Congress’s favoritism toward the mercantile interest in general and the China trade in particular is repeated in Edward Dewey Graham, American Ideas of a Special Relationship with China, 1784-1900, Harvard dissertations in American history and political science (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988); Edward Dewey Graham, “Special Interests and the Early China Trade,” Michigan Academician 6, no. 2 (Fall 1973): 233-242.

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Ex Readex: Redux
April 25, 2011, 5:29 pm
Filed under: Archival Follies, History and Historians, Now in Actual Work

Or, the world in a grain of ads

Granular :: Gimme some sugar by Vanessa Pike-Russell, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Vanessa Pike-Russell 

You’ll recall that in my last I wondered “What am I getting wrong?” — a big question, for sure, with many and varied answers, as friends, acquaintances and passer-by would be happy to tell you. But in this case I was specifically concerned with what I was misunderstanding about the search results I was receiving from a Readex database, America’s Historical Newspapers.

Well, you’ll be pleased to know that Readex, in the person of their marketing director, David Loiterstein, was kind enough to get in touch by e-mail and tell me exactly that. And the answer? Granularity.

Basically, the AHN database does not consistently break down advertising sections at the same level of granularity; it has changed over time. As David explained:

Initially, particularly for the 18th century in which the first series of newspapers was so heavily concentrated, we identified individually every advertisement on every page; however, in later series multiple contiguous advertisements were identified in groups.

So: sometimes individual ads count as individual “articles,” sometimes a multiple-ad block count as one, and sometimes entire columns of ads count as one unit; and the granularity of the ads goes down, generally speaking, over time. Which means that my results — which included all article types, including ads — were skewed by the ways ads are counted.

David provided a graph of his own, illustrating this effect, and suggesting a way to get clear of it (reproduced here with permission):
AdBlocker
I’ll let him explain:

This approach seen above—in which advertisements are isolated and an aggregate number of the other article types is counted separately—provides a more representative measure of available “texts.” While the data does in fact indicate fewer “articles” available between 1820 and 1850 in what is otherwise a steady increase in articles available between 1690 and 1819 and between 1850 and 1922. The declining number of ads as a percentage of “articles” or “text” is a result not of fewer ads but the changing approach by which we identify them.

Thus, practically speaking, if you want to get some kind of a baseline for how representative a given search’s results are, you’re going to have to sacrifice including ads in those search results. Not ideal, of course, but much better than not knowing what your results mean. In addition to responding directly to this specific question, David also mentioned that Readex was working to update the Readex Help section, and fix the discrepancy between the two portals I had noticed.

So where does this leave us?

Well, with a much better understanding of how one of the most important databases in Early American historical research functions, for which I am grateful to David and his colleagues for their quick response and kind explanation.

I would note, though, that even using the new numbers, the curve still shows an unexpected dip in the 1820s and 1830s — the heart of the Jacksonian era, where most historians would tell you that print, and especially newspapers, exploded. As I said before, this is not something I think unique to Readex, but rather an artifact of the way many digitization projects have done triage (or, alternately, it might be proof that print output indeed declined, in which case steam-powered presses were not actually all that important in the development of American democracy! But let’s hope not, as then we’d have to revise a lot of historiography…).

In any case, all good factors to keep in mind when trying to use large collections to buttress claims about relative representativeness, ubiquity, or uniqueness. And now on to new and exciting problems…

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Ex Readex: Not Much?
April 9, 2011, 10:45 pm
Filed under: History and Historians, Now in Actual Work

Or, Caveat NewsBank

Seeing My World Through a Keyhole by katerha, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by  katerha

UPDATE: See the subsequent post for the thrilling reveal!

In harmony with one of the recent memes floating around the world of digital history — the happy attention to some of what historians don’t know about database design, how particular databases are missing parts of texts, within particular series, and proposals for how we might directly address this issue, as a collective, I thought it might be worthwhile to add my own experience to the pile.

Briefly stated: one of the standard databases, Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, seems to have a shockingly low number of texts available for the Jacksonian-to-Antebellum period — more, even, than their own product descriptions (which emphasize the coverage of particular years) would lead you to believe. Here’s a picture:

(see below for a table with the raw numbers)

But before I get too far in here, let me emphasize the caveat: I say “seems” for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost: I may be completely misunderstanding something about how searches work in this database. The y-axis on the above graph is the number of “hits” a blank or wildcard (* or ?) search in the fulltext field of the database returned for 5 year intervals (blanks and wildcards returned equal numbers). This may or may not be the same as the number of “documents” (articles) or “images” in the database; though I should think it would be.

Second, the results I’m getting seem to run counter to some of the statistics Readex itself provides about the component databases searched by “America’s Historical Newspapers.” See, for example, what they say about the number of images in each of the seven (7!) component series of “Early American Newspapers” in the product description. The numbers of images available seem out of whack with what you’d expect…but since these are such big dates ranges, it could be that what I’ve found is still true for this period; I don’t know. There also seems to be a discrepancy between the these figures and those produced on different search pages available on the Readex site.

On another level, though, all this jibes with something I’ve long suspected — the digitization of print materials from the U.S. follows an uneven U-shaped curve, where the trough is roughly 1800 to 1850. Broadly speaking, it seems like every possible scrap of material from the colonial and revolutionary era has been digitized, extending, in the case of the Founder’s Paper’s projects (e.g. Rotunda) far into manuscript materials. Then, just as the print explosion begins in the U.S., digitized materials drop off, picking up again with the Civil War, and increasing as we approach the 20th-century. That seems to be borne out here (or, at least as far as I was willing to go with the data entry).

This curve is in many ways totally understandable; there are fewer colonial and revolutionary periodicals, so why not be complete about it? And obviously there is more interest in the more recent past (perhaps the post-war stuff is digitized because it’s close enough that it might be good for local histories and genealogical work?). But on another level, it’s troubling; especially given how historians are beginning to use this and like databases to talk about the appearance of particular terms. Comprehensiveness, esp. relative comprehensiveness really matters there.

That’s how I happened on this case. I came across this oddity while trying to control for changes in the size of the database while tracking changes in the occurrence of a particular set of terms.1

What really shocks me about the numbers I’ve pulled out of AHN — which is, to my knowledge, far and away the most comprehensive database for this period there is — was how much the absolute number of articles scanned is lower over time. I figured, at best, that the coverage was reduced only in terms of geographic range, or narrowed by a focus on particular publishers; only New York, Philadelphia and Boston well-covered, for example, and not the vast West and South. But apparently (and again, I want to emphasize the tentative nature of my conclusion here), that was dead wrong.

The upshot: for given values of the “Early Republic,” digitization is still a ways away, and we should not trust any database’s comprehensiveness — even if, at first glance (or, in my case, continuous usage over aargh, years) seems to suggest that it contains a lot of material.

Okay, so now some blegs: Any thoughts on this? What am I getting wrong? As I said, I can’t help but think this puts a major crimp in what we can use these databases for, in terms of reliability — but I’d be glad to have any mistakes I’m making here pointed out, the sooner the better.

1.) If you’re interested, the string I was searching was this horrible stew of syntax:

(“East Indies” OR “East India” OR “East Indian” OR China OR Chinese OR Orient OR Orient*) NEAR25(specie OR silver OR dollar? OR currency OR circulati*) AND (trade OR commerce) NEAR25(specie OR silver OR dollar? OR currency OR circulati*) AND (drai* OR expor*) NEAR25(specie OR silver OR dollar? OR currency OR circulati*)

Suggestions on how to improve that monster would very welcome.

2.)There is also a discrepancy between two portals to search the Readex newspaper database. When I’ve searched only newspapers from the Archive of Americana portal, I consistently get higher returns than if I had searched America’s Historical Newspapers directly. The difference is potentially significant — in the period 1835-1839, AHN returns 1,702,150 hits compared to AA’s 1,933,685, a difference of 231,535, or 13.6%.

I’m not sure why this is so; the two searches say they are tapping into the same databases, to wit:

AA’s search says it includes:

Early American Newspapers, Series 1 (1690 – 1876), Early American Newspapers, Series 2 (1758 – 1900), Early American Newspapers, Series 3 (1829 – 1922), Early American Newspapers, Series 4 (1756 – 1922), Early American Newspapers, Series 5 (1777 – 1922), Early American Newspapers, Series 6 (1741 – 1922), Early American Newspapers, Series 7 (1773 – 1922), Hispanic American Newspapers (1808 – 1980), African American Newspapers, 1827-1998 (1827 – 1998) and Ethnic American Newspapers from the Balch Collection (1808 – 1980).

While AHN’s claims:

Early American Newspapers Series 1 – 7, 1690-1922; African American Newspapers, 1827-1998; Ethnic American Newspapers from the Balch Collection, 1799-1971; Hispanic American Newspapers, 1808-1980 and Selected Historical Newspapers.

That seems comparable to me. If anything, the AHN search should include more, what with the inclusion of “Selected Historical Newspapers.”

I’m planning to e-mail the Readex people to find out what’s going on — and what I might be missing — but any suggestions in the meantime are welcome.


Raw Numbers

(Note: these figures come from searches performed using the AHN portal, not the AA portal)

Years

Total “Hits” (articles?)

1795-1799

3,626,530

1800-1804

4,422,965

1805-1809

5,041,412

1810-1814

4,838,756

1815-1819

6,449,231

1820-1824

3,856,979

1825-1829

2,338,139

1830-1834

1,991,623

1835-1839

1,702,150

1840-1844

1,907,799

1845-1849

2,398,359

1850-1854

2,682,211

1855-1859

2,762,811

1860-1864

2,757,069

1865-1869

3,725,627

1870-1874

4,531,278

1875-1879

4,566,376

1880-1884

5,015,152

1885-1889

6,958,484

1890-1894

9,701,775

1895-1899

11,397,028



As Threatened, er, Promised
January 22, 2010, 5:26 pm
Filed under: Now in Actual Work | Tags: , , , ,

Or, Not Pervasive, but maybe Persuasive or Practical?

So here’s what I’ve come up with as an op-ed proposal. It lacks a strong policy argument, but hopefully uses that perspective trick to good effect.

For the forgetful, here’s the prompt again:

a proposal for a New York Times opinion piece which applies a major finding from your research to a current public policy problem. … it must describe a full op-ed that you might write, and explain its relevance to current events.

Any and all thoughts heartily welcomed.

~~~

“Not so Fast, We’ve Been Here Before”: An Op-Ed Proposal

In 1841, an ex-President and former Secretary of State declared his support for British forces in the “Opium War,” Britain’s war with China over Chinese trade restrictions and closed markets. Though many commentators, then and now, cited the opium trade as the casus belli, John Quincy Adams told a Boston audience that the motive went deeper : “The cause of the war is the Ko-tow! – the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China, that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind, not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relation between lord and vassal.” In Adams’s view, the political despotism of China’s government found its worst expression in illiberal trade policies; and that these restrictions on foreign merchants, Americans prominently among them, justified war.

More recently, another Secretary of State gave a speech calling for all nations to recognize a basic “freedom to connect” to the internet. Made in light of Google’s decision to stop censoring search results in China, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s remarks were a pointed rebuke of Chinese policy. Condemning government censorship of the internet, Secretary Clinton argued that “from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech.” By linking political and economic liberty together, and critiquing China on both fronts, Clinton’s remarks strongly echo Adams’s speech of almost 170 years before.

This op-ed will argue that U.S. officials would do well to understand the deep historical resonance of American calls for economic and political liberty in China. Though Chinese censorship is indefensible, an awareness of how American calls for reform in China themselves spring from complicated roots in national economic interest and Western imperialism can only improve Sino-American relations.


Image cite: The Suss-Man (gone for the weekend), “Project 366 – 78/366 Diplomacy,” Flickr, CC License

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Pervasive, Persuasive, and Practical
January 21, 2010, 11:34 pm
Filed under: Now in Actual Work

Or, What’s a Paradigm Worth These Days?

I.

Recently I’ve found myself completely blocked on a writing assignment.(1.) It’s for a fellowship application; the host institution brings together historians and social scientists under the rubric of understanding and influencing government policy, so it’s a bit of a chimera in terms of disciplinary focus.

The assignment in question calls for:

a proposal for a New York Times opinion piece which applies a major finding from your research to a current public policy problem. … it must describe a full op-ed that you might write, and explain its relevance to current events.

Some words pop out there, no? “Relevance,” “current events,” “a major finding from your research”… you can see how those might bring a historian to a standstill.

It’s not that I don’t want my research to be relevant or au courant. Quite the opposite. Here’s the problem, though: drawing big lessons, lessons big enough to cross time and space, is pretty much the antithesis of dissertation work, and, I think, historical thinking more generally.

Dissertations are about the super-specific. Historians are too, in a way: we’re in the business of explaining the unique, the contingent, the transformative event (or series of events). When context is king, the work is, by definition, not portable.

When I’ve heard historians explain the practical aspects of their research, it usually hinges on perspective. The past is a foreign country, they say, they do things differently there — and we can learn from that. History teaches us about the oddly contingent and jury-rigged origins of things in our own world — what I think of “naming the monster,” the fantasy/horror/folklore trope that knowing the name of a devil gives you the power to exorcise it, a technique being used to very good effect in the history of sexuality and gender at the moment (think of the difference between “marriage the eternal traditional bulwark of human society,” and “marriage the socially constructed category that is always changing” in a courtroom, and I think you’ll see what I mean). Likewise, the foreignness of the past, especially the past of one’s own culture, is an object lesson in how diverse human institutions, motives, and actions are (or rather, were).

In a practical sense, then, historians usually explain their work as the building blocks for something new — by reminding us of what possibilities once existed (a form of naming the monster) — or, more commonly, as a caution against hubris and self-satisfaction. Both are exercises in perspective; knowing where you came from, and what other choices there are out there.

These are good lessons, I think. But it doesn’t get you very far to figuring out what early American ideas about the China trade can say about public policy today.

II.

The always-interesting Tim Burke has been ruminating on a related topic lately. Thinking on the practical bases for popular anti-intellectualism, he’s frustrated with the answers his fellow humanists have come up to explain the value of their knowledge. What’s important about knowing about Hawthorne, or the Constitutional Convention, anyway?

That this is a question at all is, in part, due to the success of the humanist project over the last half-century or so, and the collapse of what Burke terms “ramrod” forms cultural authority — not a bad thing, on balance (“good riddance,” Burke says). But the problem of how to explain the value of this kind of knowledge remains: “educators haven’t arrived at a substitute rationale that’s both persuasive and pervasive.”

Burke argues that this value can be demonstrated in a couple of different ways. One is through sheer enthusiasm for the subject — but passion is hard to instill through training, and even more difficult to generalize. Another answer comes out of the literacy (aka “critical thinking skills”) that humanist work teaches. Burke describes this explanation as a focus on “practicality.”

This is a new iteration of the very old idea that humanist knowledge enriches the storehouse of the mind; Burke’s spin is novel in that it is focused on the problems of a information-rich age, where the ability to “read” in different media and environments, and make judgements about that content — which is now far more important than accumulating content itself (that’s easy).

Any way you put it, though, the ends are the same: a richer, more well-lived life:

Cultural and historical literacy enriches your rhetorical and interpersonal skills. It helps you imagine other people, which is the key to so very much in life: to love well, to raise children well, to live in community well, to self-develop, to choose when and how to fight for yourself and your beliefs.

III.

Burke’s solution to the problem of finding ways to make humanist knowledge relevant is, I think, just a more broadly stated version of the historian’s go-to answer for the value of historical work. But instead of using specific content to demonstrate perspective, it’s the literacy and rhetorical skills developed through repeated efforts of that sort that provide the value.

Perhaps not precisely relevant to my problem of figuring out how my research is relevant to the theoretical readers of my op-ed piece. But thinking in terms of pervasive, persuasive, and practical is a good start. You can decide for yourselves how well my actual proposal meets that standard tomorrow.

To be continued…


1.) A shocking revelation from a blogger who has quarter-long gaps between posts, I know.

2.)Tim Burke,”Hester Prynne, Schmester Prynne, or Sarah Palin’s Ressentiment Clubhouse,”Easily Distracted, 19 January 2010.

Image cite: Gabriela Camerotti, “Practical Magic,” Flickr, CC License

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Wheatonesque
August 17, 2009, 10:00 pm
Filed under: Archival Follies, Now in Actual Work | Tags: , ,

Or, Nineteenth-Century Natural History and Geopolitics Go Together Like…*

Frame

Henry Wheaton was a busy man in 1843. Aside from his official duties as U.S. Minister to Prussia – which included everything from issuing passports and entertaining visiting Americans to more serious affairs like preparing for a treaty negotiations with the Zolleverein, the German Customs Union – he was also intensely engaged in writing reports, as a hobby.

And not just a few. In 1843, Wheaton wrote at least ten reports for the National Institution for the Promotion of Science – aka the “National Institute” – a Washington-based organization that sought to : “to promote Science and the Useful Arts, and to establish a National Museum of Natural History, &c. &c.”

Wheaton’s contributions to the Institute fell firmly in the “&c. &c.” category. Though best known for his legal work – he was the first professional reporter for the Supreme Court, and wrote the standard treatises on international and maritime law – his reports for the National Institute trace a wider circle, and depart significantly from the then-standard definitions of “scientific and useful arts.” He wrote absolutely no treatises on New England ferns or Great Lake mollusks (all popular topics with the Washington professionals cum amateur scientists that made up the bulk of the Institute’s membership), which probably accounts for his failure to get the Institute to help publish his work.

Instead, he wrote on a bewildering array of subjects, including:

The geography of Central Asia; the revival of Greek tragedy in Prussia; German canals; the state of the fine arts in Denmark ; the character of Frederick the Great; the last days of the Emperor Charles V; the genius and labors of Liebniz; the life and writings of Diderot; the Panama canal; the history of the reformation in Germany; Egyptian Antiquities, and the Ptolemaic canal across the Isthmus of Suez.

If we ignore the Teutonic flavor of some of the reports (likely the result of his location and occupation; he had been a diplomat in Prussia since 1835), a striking pattern emerges. Almost uniquely among the corresponding members of the National Institute, Wheaton was concerned with history, culture, art – and, above all commerce and geopolitics.
Continue reading

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China, the Sea, and the South
June 12, 2009, 2:55 pm
Filed under: Now in Actual Work | Tags: , , , , ,

Or, Heathens All

earth

Rev. Joshua Leavitt,

Dear Sir, – I noticed in a recent number of the ‘Emancipator,’ a proposition to furnish gratuitously for a year, that paper to such clergymen as lectured and took up collections among their people, in the course of the year, for the Anti-Slavery Society.

My course of procedure, although it does not conform strictly to the letter of the proposition, yet, in fact, secures to the cause a greater amount of attention and effort, in my view, than would a solitary lecture in the course of the year.

At my monthly concert of prayer for the conversion of the world, which I hold on the Sabbath evening previous to the first Monday in each month, a distinct portion of time is allotted to the cause of the oppressed slave. I portion out to brethren distinct missionary grounds, with the understanding that each is to prepare himself with the latest information relative to his own station. One has, for instance, China; another Ceylon; another the Seamen’s cause; another that of American slavery: which last cause being in two zealous friends of the slave, has, I think according to their ability, due justice to it. Our custom is, that each cause shall be followed by addresses at the throne of grace in their behalf.

As to contributions, the frequent visits of your agents and those of the State Society does not suffer what he ave to give to remain long idle in our purses.

My object in this communication is two-fold, –1st. That of communicating my plans, believing, as I do, that there are many brethren who might introduce it with profit to their people, and with little or no opposition. I think it profitable, as it brings the subject up for serious meditation more than it would be in any other way, unless a distinct concert is held for the slave. And further, the subject is brought before the minds of many that would not attend an anti-slavery concert or a regularly announced anti-slavery lecture.

If you agree with me in sentiment, you may be able to concoct a brief paragraph on the subject that will, I think, be useful. Or you can use such portions of this letter as you please, if you will leave blank my name and the date.

My second object in this communication is, to request that if my measures come up to the spirit of your proposition, in your view, you will please forward to me the Emancipator.

Yours, &c.,

~”Another Response from a Minister,” The Emancipator and Free American (New York), 8 August 1839, p. 58

Once you get past the overcrowded syntax here, this is a fascinating letter. While I’ve certainly heard of church groups convening to hear a lecture on slavery, or about happenings in the mission fields, it never occurred to me that the two would be grouped together in this way. Never mind how Chautauqua this is. Can you imagine hearing a sermon, and then getting a regular news round-up like this?

The list of topics that the good reverend assigns his parishioners – China, Ceylon, Seamen’s Bethels, American slavery – is a great reminder of the wonderful scope of Jacksonian evangelicals’ interests. A bit less happily, it reaffirms who’s at the edges of their world: people far away, people from home but of a radically different occupational class, and people who are property.

And, while I don’t think this is sufficient cause to give interest in missionary endeavors the same weight as the anti-slavery movement (I don’t think it would be wrong to say that missionary news reached a wider audience in anti-slavery newspapers like the Emancipator, rather than in missionary-only magazines like the Missionary Herald), it’s certainly a good indicator of the frame, or frames, within which such news was received. I do wonder if slavery is the controlling metaphor here, or if it’s something bigger about Christian civilization and the perfecting of society.

Thoughts, as always, welcome.


Image cite: Woodleywonderworks, “Earth, courtesy Apollo 17, and probably the most reproduced image of all time,” Flickr, CC License

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