Political history

William Plumer and the Politics of History Writing

By guest contributor Emily Yankowitz

On December 30, 1806, on the inner cover of his first attempt at writing a historical work, the New Hampshire statesman William Plumer wrote, “An historian, like a witness, is bound to relate the truth, the whole truth, & nothing but the truth.” He would take up his project of writing a “History of North America” in November 1809 after three years of research. In what appears to be typical of Plumer’s personality, he intended to write a history of the United States government, but the project quickly expanding into “a general history of the United States” from its discovery by Europeans to his own time It was to include accounts of administrations, laws, presidents, heads of departments, members of Congress, judiciary, foreign relations, negotiations, relations with Indian tribes, purchases of lands, and commerce. Reaching even further into the past, he began with an overview of classical history, including the invention of hieroglyphics, and a detailed study of European political events, before arriving at the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 over 220 pages later. Yet having worked on the project for nine years and seeing little progress, Plumer unceremoniously put it aside, writing, “The undertaking I have abandoned” on the last page.


William Plumer, engraving by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin (1806). Photo credit: Library of Congress

A Federalist senator in a Congress dominated by President Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans, Plumer had little hope of influencing politics. Watching his vision of the world collapse around him, Plumer recalled that with nearly every measure Jefferson proposed, he was reminded of the angel’s declaration to Ezekiel, “Turn, & thou shall behold yet greater abominations” (Plumer to Jeremiah Smith, January 27, 1803, quoted in Turner, “Thomas Jefferson,” 207). These “abominations” included the Louisiana Purchase, the Twelfth Amendment, and the impeachment of New Hampshire judge John Pickering. Frustrated and alarmed, Plumer helped to plan a scheme for New England secession in 1803–1804, hoping to create a “Northern confederacy.” But the project quickly fell apart, although intransigent Federalists would take up a similar plan at the 1814–1815 Hartford Convention.


Amid a career in jeopardy and anxieties about the future, Plumer found solace in historical pursuits. Overwhelmed by his country’s fast-paced development, history offered Plumer a method of “preserving facts & opinions” that were “rapidly hasting to oblivion” as a result of the “changes & revolution of time and parties” (May 2, 1805). Unlike other senators who indulged in horse racing and gambling, Plumer spent his free time hidden for hours in the Congressional Library, reading voraciously. This curiosity was one of Plumer’s most pronounced traits; the son of a farmer, Plumer received little formal schooling beyond elementary studies, and pursued much of his education through books.

Over time, Plumer’s intellectual interests expanded. Spotting a mound of scattered government documents in the damp, mildewed lumber room above the Senate chamber, he devoted himself to preserving them, methodically sorting through the soiled records. Through the next four years, Plumer collected journals of every Congress from 1774 to his own, enough to fill between four and five hundred bound volumes. He eventually came to possess one of the largest and most complete collections of public papers held by a private citizen, even after he donated a substantial amount to the Massachusetts Historical Society. This effort rescued valuable documents from destruction, and also provided Plumer with a substantial number of sources for his later historical works. According to his son, it was this collecting effort that inspired Plumer to write a history of the country (For more information, see Freeman, Affairs of Honor, 262-4).


President Thomas Jefferson, painted by Rembrandt Peale (1800)

With the end of his term approaching, Plumer set about preparing for this enormous task—consulting with government officers, copying private letters shown to him by friends, and corresponding with antiquarians and scholars. He conferred with Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, who offered him any materials needed from the Treasury department. Not everyone was supportive—at least one friend advised Plumer to publish his history posthumously to avoid giving “mortal offence” to contemporaries (February 28, 1807). His meeting with President Jefferson showed how complex the publication of his history might be. Plumer observed that Jefferson’s “countenance […] repeatedly changed.” Jefferson expressed “uneasiness and embarrassment—at other [moments] he seemed pleased.” Seemingly affected by a range of emotions, Jefferson alternated between looking at Plumer and staring at the floor. Jefferson’s reaction perplexed Plumer, who reasoned that Jefferson must have been “embarrassed,” and “disapproved” of the project (February 4, 1807). But he also discussed Jefferson’s strange response with John Quincy Adams, who informed him that Jefferson “cannot be a lover of history,” as he did not want certain “prominent traits in his character” and “important actions in his life” to be outlined and communicated to posterity (February 9, 1807). Jefferson’s own actions appear to echo this sentiment. Out of a desire to control how he would be remembered, Jefferson later professed to have “no materials whatever” for Plumer’s project despite its usefulness to the country.

Plumer’s background and personality did not make him a particularly obvious candidate for the project. In his diary, he mulled over his doubts about his efforts, noting his personal shortcomings, the complications of his private life, and the magnitude of the project. He was not a “scholar” or a “master of the English grammar,” he noted, and could not read any foreign language or express his ideas quickly on paper. Regarding his personal life, his wife was often sick and he himself had a “weak & feeble constitution.” However, Plumer was also highly aware of the shortcomings of existing “historic performances,” namely state histories, which were written too quickly. They contained factual errors, had a “loose & slovenly” style, and “fall short of the true style & dignity of history.” He found Benjamin Trumbull’s Complete History of Connecticut to be “written in the style of a low dull Chronicle,” while James Sullivan’s History of the District of Maine was a “jumble of fact & fable” (July 22, 1806). Yet his task would take “indefatigable industry, & patient labour to render it useful to others and honorable to myself.” Virgil took twelve years to write the Aeneid, Plumer worried, while Edward Gibbon took twenty years to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Plumer would exceed both Virgil and Gibbon, ultimately devoting the remainder of his life to historical works that ultimately remained unpublished.

While Plumer believed the work would be useful for “future statesmen,” he also hoped to enhance his reputation. If he successfully produced the work, it would be an “imperishable monument that would perpetuate” his name. Highlighting the inextinguishable impact of history, Plumer noted that it would exist when “columns of marble are dissolved & crumbled to dust.” However, if he did not execute it well it would “tarnish & destroy” the little “fame” he had acquired (July 22, 1806). Thus, writing history had political as well as personal consequences.


William Plumer, Jr., depicted in The Granite State Monthly (1889)

Plumer was not alone in using history to achieve a recognition he would never receive through politics. In fact, one of his sons, William Plumer Jr., would take up a similar project in 1830, after completing his term as a representative. Reflecting on the project, he noted that if “executed with any tolerable success, it would be a more important service rendered to the public than I can hope in any other way to perform” and he might be able to acquire a “reputation, however small” if the work was successfully produced (“Manuscript History of the United States”). While the boundaries of Plumer Jr.’s intended project were smaller (he planned to begin with Columbus’s voyage in 1492), he made little progress.


Unable to acquire national political fame, Plumer sought recognition through history, while also pursuing a political (though nonpartisan) agenda. Even after his formal political party had changed to the Republican position, Plumer retained much of his Federalist view of the world, in part because of his own distaste for partisanship and in part because he lived in Federalist-concentrated New England. In particular, much like the Federalists of the 1790s, Plumer never fully supported the existence of political parties, viewing them as agents of division that distracted men from effectively evaluating candidates based on their abilities. Just as Plumer disapproved of partisanship in politics, he also disapproved of it in historical writing. For example, he wrote that historians and biographers should have “no other object than faithfully narrate facts & justly delineate characters” for when they “stoop to the support of a party or a sect” their “facts are misstated and their reasoning is sophistry” (“May 25, 1808”). Plumer argued that a historian should be “of no party in politic’s [sic] … without prejudice, & have more judgement than fancy” (“October 1, 1807”). Thus, for Plumer, historians did a disservice not only to the integrity of their subject, but also to the influence of their work, if they espoused partisan views.

Looking a bit further into the nineteenth century, historians would divide over whether it was acceptable to combine history and politics. In particular, following the decline of the Federalist party and the rise of Andrew Jackson, New England historians attempted to use history as a mechanism of regaining the power and influence they had lost in politics. Some followed both paths, like George Bancroft, who pursued a political career while working on his History of the United States, while others such as William Prescott and Jared Sparks believed that the two disciplines were incompatible (Cheng, The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth, 36-41). However, many members of both groups believed that history could be used as a method of advancing political agendas.

In an attempt to save their party from destruction in the wake of the Hartford Convention, some Federalists wrote historical works that tried (largely unsuccessfully) to shape how posterity remembered the event. Prompted in part by the publication of Matthew Carey’s wildly successful The Olive Branch and the Nullification Crisis, Federalists turned to writing histories to justify their actions. These works included Theodore Lyman’s 1823 A Short Account of the Hartford Convention, Harrison Gray Otis’ 1824 Letters in Defence of the Hartford Convention, and the People of Massachusetts, and Theodore Dwight’s 1833 History of the Hartford Convention. However, these works were generally unsuccessful.

Eager to shape both policies and how they would be remembered, early American politicking occurred both in the halls of Congress and in the pages of books. Plumer hoped to play a central role in constructing the young nation’s emerging identity and its memories of the early figures of the founding era. Thus, his historical writings—which he would continue for decades after his failed “History,” but largely never publish—serve as a reminder that our very understanding of the past has often been shaped by the individuals in the moment who had the foresight to record it. Given how the historical discipline has changed over time, it is perhaps tempting to dismiss early historian’s writings. However, they nonetheless offer a useful perspective on how contemporaries perceived the world around them and how they wanted it to be remembered.

Emily Yankowitz recently graduated from Yale University and is an incoming M.Phil. student in American History at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in the intersection of politics, culture, and memory in the early American republic.

Writing the History of University Coeducation

by Emily Rutherford

When Yung In Chae told me that she was going to Nancy Malkiel’s book talk, I begged her to cover it for the blog. After all, my dissertation is a new, comprehensive history of coeducation in British universities, and as I was writing my prospectus Malkiel helped to put coeducation back into historians’ headlines. As Yung In’s account shows, Malkiel’s weighty tome restores some important things that have been missing in previous histories of university coeducation: attention to the intricacy of the politics through which institutions negotiated coeducation (and an emphasis on politics as a series of negotiations between individuals, often obeying only the logic of unintended consequences), and attention to the men who were already part of single-sex institutions and considered whether to admit women to them. Histories of coeducation usually focus on the ideas and experiences of women who sought access to the institutions, whether as teachers or as students. But that tends to imply a binary where women were progressives who supported coeducation and men were reactionaries who opposed it. As Malkiel shows—and as we might know from thinking about other questions of gender and politics like women’s suffrage—it just doesn’t work like that.

Malkiel’s book strikes me as a compelling history of gender relations at a specific set of universities at a particular moment—the 1960s and ’70s, which we all might point to as a key period in which gender norms and relations between men and women came under pressure on both sides of the Atlantic. But we should be wary, I think, of regarding it as the history of coeducation (Malkiel isn’t suggesting this, but I think that’s how some people might read it—not least when glancing at the book’s cover and seeing the subtitle, “The Struggle for Coeducation”). Malkiel’s story is an Ivy League one, and I’m not sure that it can help us to understand what coeducation looked like at less selective universities whose internal politics were less dominated by admissions policy; at universities in other countries (like the UK) which existed in nationally specific contexts for institutional structure and cultural norms surrounding gender; or in terms of questions other than the co-residence of students. Some of Malkiel’s cases are unusual universities like Princeton and Dartmouth which admitted women very late in the game, but others are about the problem of co-residency: merging men’s and women’s institutions like Harvard and Radcliffe that already essentially shared a campus and many resources and administrative structures, or gender-integrating the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and thus meaning that men and women students would live alongside each other. But at these institutions, as at other, less elite universities, student life was already significantly coeducational: men and women had some, though not all, teaching in common; they joined mixed extracurricular organizations; they socialized together—though this was limited by curfews and parietal rules, which in 1960s style became the focus of student activism around gender relations. Women teachers and administrators faced other, historically specific challenges about how to be taken seriously, or how to balance a career and marriage. Those who opposed coeducation and sought to support single-sex institutions did so—as Malkiel shows—in ways specific to the political and social context of the 1960s.

But my dissertation research suggests that lasting arguments about co-residency that persisted into the 1960s—and ultimately resulted in the coeducation of hold-out institutions like Princeton and Dartmouth—were the product of an earlier series of conflicts in universities over coeducation and gender relations more broadly, whose unsatisfactory resolution in some institutions set up the conflicts Malkiel discusses. Let’s take the British case, which is not perfectly parallel to the US case but is the focus of my research. My dissertation starts in the 1860s, when there were nine universities in Great Britain but none admitted women. The university sector, like the middle class, exploded in the nineteenth century, and as this happened, the wives, sisters, and daughters of a newly professionalized class of university teachers campaigned for greater educational opportunities for middle-class women. In the late 1870s, Bristol and London became the first universities to admit women to degrees, and activists founded the first women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, though they were not yet recognized by the universities. By 1930, there were seventeen universities in Britain as well as many colleges, all except Cambridge granting women degrees. Cambridge would not admit women to the BA until 1948, and as Malkiel shows the Oxford and Cambridge colleges wouldn’t coeducate until the 1970s. Indeed, higher education did not become a mass system as in the US until the period following the 1963 Robbins Report, and national numbers of women undergraduates did not equal men until the higher education system was restructured in 1992. But it’s already possible to see that a definition of coeducation focused not on co-residency but on women’s admission to the BA nationally, and on the first women on university campuses—as teachers, as students, and also as servants or as the family members or friends of men academics—changes the periodization of the story of coeducation, placing the focal point somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century and taking into account the social and cultural changes wrought by significant factors within British history such as massive urbanization or the First World War. Of course, it’s not just about the BA, and the cultural aspects of this shift in norms surrounding gender relations in Britain are an important part of the story—as middle-class men and women (particularly young men and women) found themselves confronting the new social experience of being friends with each other, an experience which many found perplexing and awkward, but which the more liberal sought out regardless of whether they were educated at the same institutions or whether there were curfews and other regulations governing the ways they could meet each other. University administrators had to confront the same questions among their own generation, while also making decisions about institutional priorities: should accommodation be built for women students? should it look different from the accommodation offered to men students? should women be allowed into the library or laboratory or student union? should they be renovated to include women’s restrooms? how would these projects be funded? would philanthropists disgruntled by change pull their donations? These were questions universities faced in the 1920s as much as in the 1960s—or today.

I’m still early in my research, but one focus of my inquiries is those who opposed coeducation. They haven’t been given as much attention as those who fought for it—but what did they perceive to be the stakes of the question? What did they think they stood to lose? Who were they, and how did they make their claims? I already know that they included both men and women, and that while many of them were garden-variety small-c conservatives, not all of them were. I also know that for many, homoeroticism played an important role in how they explained the distinctive value of single-sex education. By 1920, the battle over women being admitted to the BA was over at all British institutions except Cambridge, but these opponents put up a strong fight. They help to show that coeducation wasn’t foreordained in a teleology of progress, but was the outcome of certain compromises and negotiations between factions, whose precise workings varied institutionally. Yet the opponents also were in many respects successful. After their institutions admitted women to the BA, they carved out spaces in which particular forms of single-sex sociability could continue. The Oxbridge collegiate system enabled this, but it also happened through single-sex student organizations (and persists, it might be noted, in universities that today have vibrant fraternity and sorority cultures), many of which were sponsored and fostered by faculty, alumni, or donors who had a stake in the preservation of single-sex spaces. Coeducation is often viewed as a process that ended when women were admitted to the BA. But even after this formal constitutional change, single-sex spaces persisted: colleges, residence halls, extracurricular organizations, informal bars to women’s academic employment, and personal choices about whom teachers and students sought to work, study, and socialize alongside. Understanding how this happened in the period from, say, 1860 to 1945 helps to explain the causes and conditions of the period on which Malkiel’s work focuses, whose origins were as much in the unresolved conflicts of the earlier period of coeducation as they were in the gender and sexuality foment of the 1960s. I suspect, too, that there may be longer-lasting legacies, which continue to structure the politics and culture of gender in the universities in which we work today.

Anti-Imperialist Publications and Suspended Disbelief: Reading the Public Materials of the League Against Imperialism, 1927-1937

by guest contributor Disha Karnad Jani

“Why We Appear”: so begins the September-October 1931 issue of the Anti-Imperialist Review, the official journal of the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence (LAI). This organization was founded in 1927 and brought nationalists, Communists, socialists, and sympathizers together under the direction of the Communist International (Comintern) to organize a complex solution to a complex problem. Based in Berlin, then London, but arguably led from Moscow, the organization would disintegrate by 1937, despite the fanfare that accompanied its arrival in the anti-imperial spaces of the interwar period. Their inaugural sessions at the Palais d’Egmont in 1927 had resulted in an organization tasked with bringing empire to its knees, through the cooperation of all those who considered themselves “anti-imperialists.” As the attitude of the Comintern towards non-Communists and national bourgeois leaders hardened, the LAI turned away from this avowedly inclusive agenda. The socialist origins of the organization, when combined with the nationally-circumscribed aims of many involved, meant that the League’s rhetoric and activities reflected the complexities of a negative association such as “anti-imperialist.” These were the years during which men like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Hatta, Achmed Sukarno and J.T. Gumede met and forged links that contextualized and strengthened their decades-long struggles for freedom.

A historian seeking to understand this organization—and the tremendous significance of this moment for the long decades of nationalisms and decolonizations to come—will likely ask some basic questions. What did the League Against Imperialism look like? Who were the participants? How did this organization function? How did its members make decisions? What did it set out to do? To whom was it appealing?

Luckily, the answers to these questions lie in the LAI’s official publications, journals, and resolutions. Take the first piece in the Anti-Imperialist Review‘s September 1931 issue:

We are faced at the present moment with the need to draw up a concrete and detailed programme for the international anti-imperialist work in the spirit of the principles and organizational lines led down by the second World Congress and by the recent session of the Executive Committee [of the League Against Imperialism], a programme that will serve as a mighty weapon in the struggle for integrity of principle and against national reformism. This journal will systematically prepare for the working out of such a programme by free and open discussion. (Anti-Imperialist Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 5, author’s emphasis).

This publication is very clear in its aims and its desired audience. No national reformists or members of the bourgeoisie need read this journal. Only those truly committed to the liberation of the “struggling masses in the colonies and the revolutionary workers in the imperialist centers” need read further. The Review—as well as news bulletins, resolutions, and policy briefs emanating from Friedrichstrasse 24, Berlin between 1927 and 1933—present themselves as fostering a genuinely robust community of revolutionaries from all oppressed nations in order to bring about an end to imperialism and capitalism.

These statements of intent and organizational success do little for us, however, when we read them in concert with surveillance documents, correspondence, state archives, and the private papers of the people involved in decision making—such as the Executive Committee mentioned above. As Fredrik Petersson’s research has shown, the Communist International had a heavy hand in LAI proceedings, while the Eastern Secretariat in Moscow influenced the financial and ideological direction of the organization. The German Communist Willi Münzenberg had organized the initial meetings and later facilitated the LAI’s reorientation in policy towards a more hardline, anti-bourgeois stance in 1931. These goings-on highlight the often-chaotic shifts in larger forums that affected the way this purportedly international organization functioned.

But what was it like to be a part of an organization like this one, taking what its leaders said about free and open discussion and resistance led by the colonized at face value, without having access to the kinds of archives a historian can rely on to tell the behind-the-scenes story? If you learned about the LAI sometime in 1928, for example, at a meeting of one of its affiliated groups, how were you meant to remain connected to the larger struggle against imperial injustice? One way was through engaging with the language and rhetoric of the LAI’s circulated resolutions and its “official organ” the Anti-Imperialist Review. Once the conference in Brussels, Frankfurt, or Berlin was over and one went back home, participating in this grand project meant receiving things in the mail and reading them, and writing back.

Knowing this, is it possible to read the “official” publications coming from the central offices not as a façade to be torn away, but a material and intellectual facet of what it was like to see yourself as part of a transnational project of resistance?

As an exercise, I found it helpful to read at face value the materials put out by the League and disseminated through its national sections and sympathetic friends. At least some of the people reading the materials the LAI put out likely believed the image they provided of the state of world revolution (though the profusion of qualifiers here indicates, I hope, my discomfort with assuming the intentions of these people). What can be learned from reading this organization’s so-called “propaganda” as intellectual production, as a genuine desire to work through the problems of anti-imperial struggle? Whether or not the Comintern was coordinating its efforts, and whether or not its organizing capabilities and financial situation were up to the task it claimed, the LAI’s official public materials presented an upwardly-striving, robust, diverse, and yet united revolutionary entity. That means something, whether or not it was a strictly accurate depiction, since the language and affect associated to this day with the cosmopolitan and radical and transnational 1920s and 1930s were predicated on this sort of source material.

Allow me, for a moment, to consider the LAI’s policy or outlook in the year of its founding by reading sincerely the 1927 resolution of the LAI. This document was produced as a summary of the decisions made at the first meeting, and was widely circulated in the LAI’s affiliated circles. The involvement of so diverse a group of nationalists, pacifists, Communists, and socialists lends an institutional unity to the League’s proceedings, smoothing out divisions born of specific national and colonial differences. Since these resolutions were discussed and agreed upon in Brussels, once might consider these documents an amalgam of the least objectionable viewpoints of key actors, since the LAI operated at the beginning with a culture of consensus. There was little evidence at that moment of open, recorded controversy—everyone involved was at least an “anti-imperialist.”

In 1920, the relationship between communist elements in colonial countries and the national bourgeoisie and their revolutionary movement (for independence, justice, or dominion status) was still being worked out. A somewhat open and exploratory stance continued to evolve after Lenin’s death. By 1927, the LAI believed the time was right to proceed in a manner indicative of the planning stages of the prospective world revolution.

According to the LAI, it employed three main categories of person in 1927: the home proletariat, the oppressed people(s) and the toiling masses (“Statutes of the LAI, 1927,” League Against Imperialism Archives, International Institute of Social History, Int. 1405/4). The home proletariat was the class of workers in the imperialist country, who also suffered from imperialism. They suffered, the League argued, because the exploitation of cheap colonial labor through industrialization lowered the standards of living of the workers in the imperialist country. This was the main thrust of the League’s argument for the cooperation of this sector in the anti-imperialist struggle. This group was supposedly accessed and represented in the League by European trade unionists, left-leaning social democrats, and socialists more broadly.

This is the easiest category to “define,” because it is clearly delineated in terms of nationality and class. The categories of “oppressed people(s)” and “toiling masses” are a little more troublesome. They are indicative of the complicated relationship between socialism and nationalism in the context of the League’s aims. “The oppressed people” (singular) is usually used with a national qualifier, for example “the oppressed people of India.” “Oppressed peoples” indicates a plurality of national groups, and each national group is by definition taken as containing a single “people.” Toiling masses was a term used to distinguish the European proletariat from the colonial one, and the colonial national bourgeoisie from the colonial national proletariat. The “toiling masses” in the context of anti-imperialism in 1927 was likely a distinction reserved for the unorganized colonial worker, while the same stratum in the imperialist countries is referred to merely as “the workers” or “the proletariat.” This underscores the fact that Europe-oriented socialists (i.e. socialists from the imperialist countries) did not consider the “masses” of the colonial world to have realized their proletarian character.

The complexities and assumptions contained within these terms can explain the shifting and contextually circumscribed stakes of world revolution. Who were the actors in the kind of world revolution the LAI wanted? Its resolutions contain categories that overlap and describe courses of action that are at times complementary, and, at others, mutually exclusive. The messiness of this struggle, and the ways in which the men and women involved related to one another and to the groups they claimed to represent—the workers in imperial nations and the oppressed masses in their far-flung colonies—these most basic categories are potent ones. Is reconstructing a realistic narrative always the goal of the historian? In the end, perhaps. But during the long process of archival work and the necessary selection and omission of information, if only for a moment, it might be useful to believe our subjects when they make a claim we know is false, or at the very least, much more complicated. Widening the lens to include state surveillance, correspondence, private papers, and other organizations’ collections may provide a more accurate portrayal of what the LAI looked like and how it worked. But sometimes suspending disbelief at a claim as outlandish as one to “free and open discussion” in Communist circles in 1931 can yield a degree of clarity as to the lived experience of participating in such a project.

Disha Karnad Jani is a Ph.D student in History at Princeton University.

Shame, Memory, and the Politics of the Archive

by guest contributor Nicole Longpré

During a research trip to the University of Leeds in the spring of 2014, I requested access to a selection of files from the papers of former Labour MP Merlyn Rees which are held by the university library’s special collections facility. Staff at the facility were unsure what to do: it was possible that these files were included in the part of the collection that was closed to the public. They would have to check. I asked again the next day, and again the next: the staff were still uncertain, so I would not be able to view the files. At the Conservative Party Archive in Oxford, things were clearer: the Conservative Party staffer responsible for granting special access said it would not be possible to view the selection of files I had requested. They were not open to any member of the public.

Historians of the twentieth century in particular are frequently confronted with the barrier of the closed file: information that archivists, politicians, or others have deemed too sensitive to be read by the general public. But what do we mean by “sensitive”? “Sensitive” for whom? The files that I was requesting to view in these cases all dealt in some way with immigration to the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, they dealt with anti-immigrationism: opposition to immigrants who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean and South Asia in substantial numbers from 1948 through the 1970s. The material in these files almost certainly would not have included references to individual immigrants, so the files were not closed out of concern for those people’s wellbeing. Rather, they were closed because they might reveal that some individual, prominent or otherwise, who was involved with politics during the second half of the twentieth century opposed immigration, and may have done so in a way that was shameful.

Tony Kushner argues that “There persists a strong tendency to deny racism and exclusion—past and present—and therefore a need still to study its impact and importance in British society and culture, especially on the minorities concerned” (13). But it is not enough, I don’t think, just to study the impact of exclusion. Exclusion is not some miasma floating about in the air: it requires agency, and unless we acknowledge the role of human action in creating and maintaining exclusionary practices, we have only half the story. Kushner further argues that “Official proclamations from politicians of all hues from the late twentieth century onwards emphasise that ‘The UK has a long standing tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution in other parts of the world’. A contrary tradition of animosity has been less easily accepted in self-mythology.” (12) And since animosity is challenging to incorporate into the national narrative, evidence of its existence is suppressed, or ignored—certainly not encouraged.

Shame does not only manifest in the closure of existing archival files; it also results in the non-existence of archives themselves. There is, at present, no archive of anti-immigrationism. No repository includes among its collection the complete papers of any single-issue anti-immigrationist group, or any individual whose primary or exclusive contribution to politics and society was their anti-immigrationist activism. All of the collections which hold anti-immigrationist materials are those of mainstream political parties, MPs, or even left-leaning groups who surveyed anti-immigrationists for the purposes of information-gathering. That is, all the documentary evidence that exists on the topic of anti-immigrationism was deposited, and collected, by someone else, or because the person who possessed or created those documents did other things which were more important—or at least more acceptable. This trend reveals certain tantalizing details that might otherwise have been lost: for instance, that the Labour Party and National Front ran a series of infiltrations of each other’s organizations in which young working-class men posed as members for the purposes of obtaining information about their opponents’ tactics. But it conceals other, equally important information. For instance, what was the nature of internal organizational debates about how, and why, to oppose immigration legislation, or discussions about which tactics were best suited to challenging the political status quo? How did anti-immigrationists think about themselves, and how did they speak to each other? It is not clear whether members of anti-immigrationist groups ever offered to deposit their papers with any repository; if they had, it is similarly uncertain whether any repository would have accepted them. In both cases, shame operates to suppress the collection of data and information that might otherwise be used to construct a compelling, and complete, vision of the past. If we think it is important to preserve the papers of the National Council of Civil Liberties, presently held at the Hull History Centre, why not those of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association?

Typically when a group of individuals have not been responsible for depositing their own papers, we assume that this is because they have been in some way disempowered or disenfranchised—that they were among the oppressed and thus not granted their own voice. Anti-immigrationists in the twentieth century, by contrast, were typically citizens of the United Kingdom who were more or less uniformly entitled to a full package of civil, political, and social rights. However, the effect, and perhaps the intent, of an official disinterest in the anti-immigrationist past is to send a clear message not only to the anti-immigrationists and their successors, but also to any members of the public who may be paying attention: as anti-immigrationists you were always marginal, never mainstream, and the record will reflect this.

Assessing the complicated legacy of white supremacy in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written that “’Hope’ struck me as an overrated force in human history. ‘Fear’ did not.” Coates argues that white supremacy is likely an indelible feature of American society, and that the best remedy that can be achieved is a diminution of its impact. He means this stance not to be unnecessarily alarmist or pessimistic, but rather to militate “against justice and righteousness as twin inevitable victors in history.” Evidence of this (problematic) commitment to a positive spin on the trajectory of British history abounds in present-day commentary on the anti-immigrationist rhetoric of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in particular. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is routinely mocked, chastised, and condemned by members of the political establishment; yet he persists in his public statements, and it would be difficult for anyone in the UK to ignore the role he is presently playing in politics at the highest level. It would similarly have been impossible for anyone to ignore the role that anti-immigrationism played in politics in the 1960s and 1970s—and so to frame anti-immigrationism as strictly “marginal” is an inaccurate representation of the lived experience of this period.

Unearthing the unpleasant history of an anti-immigrationist past is not an easy task, or a straightforward one. But it is not a task that should be avoided for all that. The cumulative effect of a failure to deposit shameful documents, or of denying access to potentially shameful materials, is to render oneself complicit in the process of suppression. By pretending that these things did not happen, and by preventing others from telling the story of a shameful past, we are ourselves culpable. So what principles should guide our collection and preservation of historical evidence moving forward? Do we keep only that which we can be proud of? Or do we accept that there are certain things about humanity that should change, but which can only be changed if we confront them in all their gory detail, if we pay them as much attention as those events and individuals who we most admire? Indeed, should we continue to accept the social phenomena of pride and shame as the grounds upon which we do, or do not, remember the past?

Nicole Longpré recently completed her Ph.D. in history at Columbia University, and will take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Victoria in Fall 2016. She researches anti-immigrationism and twentieth-century British political history.

Institutionalized: Between American Political Development and Intellectual History

by contributing editor Daniel London

Two different kinds of literature sit uneasily next to each other on bookshelves. One group falls under the rubric of American political development (APD) scholarship, an innovative subfield of Political Science. The other books are more generally works of intellectual history and ideas, dedicated to understanding the development, articulation, and life of concepts. Looking to how APD scholars have theorized the role of ideas in their methodology, how can practitioners of both approaches better speak to and inform one another’s research?

Richard Hofstadter (photo by Bernard Gotfryd, circa 1970)

Richard Hofstadter (photo by Bernard Gotfryd, circa 1970)

Such cross-fertilization saw their last great period of flourishing in the 1950s as historians enlisted theories from both the social sciences and the humanities to explain American politics. Richard Hofstadter exemplified this tendency. Hofstadter conceived of politics neither as a pluralistic constellation of self-contained institutions nor as a terrain of materially-driven social conflicts. Rather, Hofstadter drew from the fields of cultural anthropology, social psychology, and Karl Mannheim’s theories on the sociology of knowledge to posit politics as a sphere of behavior in which culture—broadly defined in terms of ideas, attitudes, and values—determined the content of policies. For example, Hofstadter understood the source of Progressive-era politics as deriving from the collective rationalization of a middle-class aspiring to a particular status, rather than strictly class-based goals.

Ironically, Hofstadter’s formulations helped set the stage for a general reduction of politics to ‘the social’ for a generation of historians. New Left historical work in particular saw state institutions as epiphenomenal to the interests and ideologies of the groups which made them up. In response, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, several political scientists dubbed “Neo-Institutionalists” attempted to rescue political history from historians by devising a more complex and historically-grounded definition of their subject matter. Their efforts led to a seminal 1985 edited volume, Bringing the State Back In, which in turn gave impetus for the establishment of the journal Studies in American Political Development the following year. The rest is…well, you know.

APD scholarship explains durable shifts in governing authority via a historical-institutionalist lens. Institutions – governmental or nongovernmental –– function as “bundles of rules” that, while constantly evolving and interacting with broader social/cultural processes, nonetheless contain enough stability and authority to shape the behavior, power and policy preferences of political actors both within and without their boundaries. The activities of these institutions are, in turn, constrained and enabled by: a. the simultaneous and intercurrent activities of other institutional actors (even those who might formally comprise a single “political order”, such as a political party); and b. past policies whose consequences continue to shape the political terrain via “path-dependent” processes. Within this complicated environment, occasional openings for shifts in governing authority can open up: the ultimate subject of inquiry for an APD scholar becomes how and why institutional-grounded actors attempt to control these shifts at a given moment, why some succeed and others fail, and what the consequences of these shifts prove.

51cjmJt3GeL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_What attracts me to books influenced by the APD framework – classics include Theda Skocpol’s Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States and Richard Bensel’s The Political Economy of American Industrialization 1877-1900 – is their ability to ground enormous and significant questions in empirically robust and temporally complex narratives. There are no “black boxes” in these books and few monocausal explanations or unidirectional narratives: rather, they account for political transformation via detailed analysis of the resources, motivations, and interactions of a constellation of political actors while situating them in a dynamic context that, from the very beginning, is shaped by deeply historical constraints and opportunities. The sins we usually associate with political science – a-historical functionalism, game theory, rational choice theory – are not in evidence here.

Where do ideas fit into the APD framework? Let us begin with the six-step ideal-type sequence of how political development actually occurs that political scientist Roger Smith sketched:

  1. Contexts of Human Institutions, Practices, Ideas, Natural Orders
  2. Formation of Ideas, Interests and Goals
  3. Coalition Formation and Competition
  4. Capture of Governing Institutions & Policies
  5. Modification of Contexts
  6. Formation of New Contexts

From a given context, political actors inherit and modify their own sets of ideas, interests, and assumptions about the world. These, in turn, create opportunities and constraints for devising new policies and building new alliances within and across institutions in order to achieve them. The third stage comprises actual attempts by these modified institutions to acquire the resources and positions necessary for implementing their policies – typically through the capture of strategic institutions or the formation of new ones. The fourth stage involves the nitty-gritty of getting policies passed and implemented within these transformed institutions, often involving quite a bit of compromise and horse-trading along the way. The consequences of policy implementation then modifies the contexts we began with, thus repeating the cycle. This ideal-type directionality is complicated by the facts that: a. no single stage constitutes the primal “ground” from which the spiral proceeds; every stage is a product of what has come before and feeds into what comes after; b. what drives activity along this spiral, what the consequences of action along the spiral are, and by what route processes proceed through the spiral are completely open, historical, and empirical questions; and c. the real-time actions of other intercurrent actors are constantly influencing every stage of this cycle.

So, where do ideas exist and function in this particular model of APD? Things seem clearest in Stages 2 and 3, which seems to approximate the domain of the Habermasian “public sphere.” The ideas actors use to justify their interests (and the way they frame them) can determine the kind of coalitions they might expect to form in these stages. Whether ideas have this kind of causal power is not a given, however: the influence of ideas, for an APD scholar, must be demonstrated empirically and in explicit relation to the goals, rules, roles, and problems as defined by different institutionally-bound actors at any given time. Ideas also seem to be active in the policy-negotiation stage of phase four, although their precise role is often complicated by the lack of overlap between the goals and assumptions of different negotiators (even within the same political party). For this reason, it is rarely the case that a piece of legislation ‘reflects’ a single idea. On the other hand, following the development of policy formation can often serve to reveal hidden assumptions that could only emerge in the flux of argument, and which can have unexpected influences on the ultimate shape of policy.

It is only partly true APD scholars interest themselves in ideas to the degree that they serve an explanatory function as a “cause” or “enabling condition” for shifts in authority later on. But if we interpret “ideas” broadly here, as political historian George Thomas suggests, there is enormous room for the kind of deep, textured, and hermeneutic work that characterizes the best of intellectual history. In this broader reading, institutions do not merely serve as carriers and receivers of ideas– ideas constituted them. The legitimacy and authority of an institution depends on certain assumptions on what constitutes a fact, on what the “roles” of certain actors are, on where the boundaries between the private and the public lie. Changes in these intellectual underpinnings can (though not always) destabilize the position of institutions and/or provide the basis for the formation of new ones.

I think intellectual historians and their methodology have the most to contribute to APD scholarship on this point. Traditional concerns of intellectual historians – the way a single concept means different things to different people, the way seemingly unrelated topics interact and blend in the minds of actors, and other concerns of intellectual historians – have great potential bearing on the works of APD scholars, not least because they specify the hidden structures of logic and meaning that determine the kind of policies actors believed were possible and desirable. A nuanced investigation of these structures at stage one and two of Smith’s cycle can create a dramatically different explanatory agenda further down the cycle.

At the same time, I believe that the kinds of concerns and approaches adopted by APD scholars can inform the work of intellectual historians. Most obviously, Smith’s “spiral of politics” provides us with broader contexts in which to trace the origin, development, and influence of ideas. The arena of policy negotiation, the process of coalition formation, the structuring and restructuring of institutions: all these hold enormous potential as “sites” of intellectual history. The APD concepts of “intercurrence” and “path-dependence” might also be translated and operationalized into intellectual-history work, though this will take some trial-and-error. But these are only my initial impressions and suggestions. In what ways do you think intellectual historians and APD scholars can borrow from and assist each other – and where might be sources of tension that might have to be addressed for this to take place?