Archive for Historian in the World

Trump has a Good Old Fashioned American Fortune

He preferred to bankroll Henry Clay rather than take a shot at the big chair himself. Let's hope Trump is as successful as Clay was. (courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York)

He preferred to bankroll Henry Clay rather than take a shot at the big chair himself. Let’s hope Trump is as successful as Clay was. (courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York)

I have been fascinated by the debates raging about Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, and the related debates about the size of his fortune and the source of his wealth.  The consensus seems to be that he is refusing to release financial information because it will show that he isn’t nearly as rich as he says he is.  While it’s absolutely entertaining to watch Trump writhe as the gossamer threads of his “success” are blown away by gale-force media scrutiny, I was particularly struck by John Cassidy’s reporting on the specific sources of Trump’s wealth in The New Yorker.   It turns out that (unlike Romney in 2012) much to Trump’s wealth is derived from old-fashioned, boring, concrete real estate, rather than modern, sexy, ephemeral market capitalizations.  As Cassidy points out, “Trump certainly owns some very valuable properties, most of which are in New York City.”  It struck me that Trump’s fortune comes from what is perhaps the second-oldest form of American fortune-building: owning a piece of Manhattan Island.  While it’s not quite as old and venerable of an American wealth-building tradition as owning enslaved people and forcing them to grow tobacco for export, it’s pretty close.  It places Trump’s fortune in a long and “illustrious” tradition of great American fortunes, along with the Beekmans, the Schermerhorns, the Astors, and many others.  Those previous owners of bits and pieces of Manhattan Island inspired Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; too bad this one seems to be operating as The Destroyer of American Political Innocence.

The Grammar of Inevitability; Or, Why TED Speakers Write Like Undergraduates

"Look! It's moving. It's alive. It's alive... It's alive, it's moving, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!"

“Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive … It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!”

I have always distrusted TED Talks.  They masquerade as scholarship for the masses, when they are in fact pretty much the exact opposite of scholarship.  They radically simplify rather than embrace complexity.  They rush towards answers without stopping to consider questions.  They reflect, or even celebrate, the conventional wisdom of their day, rather than questioning or even contextualizing it.  They may be the lyceums or chautauquas of the 21st century, but at least in the 19th century, sometimes you got to go swimming or sailing in between doses of packaged platitudes. Read more

Enough with March Madness. Scholarship Isn’t a Sport

This is the March Madness that historians should be obsessing over.

This is the March Madness that historians should be obsessing over.

Let me start by stipulating that I really like The Junto, which is “a group blog on Early American history.”  I think it makes a great contribution to the online life of early Americanists … more collaborative than solo outlets like mine or The Way of Improvement Leads Home, and less formal than Common-place.  But every year around this time I have to take a break from reading it because they give so much play to their annual “March Madness” feature.  As they described it this year, “each year we engage in a spirited tournament of voting in some category related to early American history.”  They accept nominations in the category (this year it’s journal articles) and “[t]hen, by the power of The Junto’s bracketologists, [they] put together tournament brackets, announce the brackets, and open it up for your votes.”  I think this exercise is highly problematic for two reasons, one of which is broad and general, and the other of which is narrower and more specific. Read more

A Modest Proposal


The best reaction so far to yesterday’s thoughts on the Mount St. Mary’s debacle: “[President] Newman and that Shkreli bro should be forced to live together on a desert island for a lifetime or so.” Quotation by anonymous.  Brilliant artwork by me.

The “Scorecard” Bites Back

It's hard to live in a Citty upon a Hill.

It’s hard to live in a Citty upon a Hill.

Like much of academia I have been riveted over the past 24 hours by the saga unfolding at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland. (Imagine me, late last night, trying to peer around the paywall at the Frederick News-Post while feeding a baby.)  Briefly, from what I can gather from news reports like this, this, this, and this, the story begins with the hiring in 2014 of Simon Newman, “an executive with a strong background in private equity, strategy consulting, and operations,” as president of the well-regarded Catholic liberal arts college.  Although he had no experience in higher education, Newman was hired because  the search committee was looking for “a new leader with fundraising, strategic planning and fiscal leadership skills.”  Readers who are immersed in the culture of academia can probably already tell exactly where this is headed. Read more

Debating Downtown Development and Preservation

Luckily, it's pretty much been uphill since then. (Harper's Weekly, Jan 3, 1863

Luckily, it’s pretty much been uphill since then. (Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 3, 1863)

My last post on the tension between preservation, development, and economic inequality in Fredericksburg attracted quite a bit of attention around town, which was gratifying.  By far the most interesting and engaging reaction came from Michael Spencer, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Historic Preservation in the Department of Historic Preservation at Mary Washington, in the form of a private email.  His email sparked what I found to be a challenging exchange about preservation, economic development, and the specific proposals that are currently on the table for downtown Fredericksburg.  I was extremely gratified to get the feedback of a professional preservationist, since my training has prepared me to work with documents and words, not brick and slate.  I think our debate reflects our disciplinary differences in a productive and illuminating fashion, so I have (with his permission, of course) shared it here in its entirety.

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Fredericksburg’s Small-town Fetish and Economic Inequality

Looks like something out of Norman Rockwell, doesn't it?

Looks like something out of Norman Rockwell, doesn’t it?

The city of Fredericksburg has 28,000 people and is the fastest growing municipality in the state of Virginia, and it is the hub of a region has over 300,000 people, which is also the fastest growing the state.  Nevertheless, many of the city’s residents, especially its downtown residents, insist on thinking of it as a small town.  Residents of the old part of the city might possibly be forgiven for mistaking it for a small town; it was a small town for most of its history, and the built environment and residential distribution of the downtown reflect that history.  Fredericksburg can often feel like a small town, even if the diminutive old city is really the hub of a large and growing region.  The scale of the buildings and the patterns of land usage are village-like, and the relatively minuscule downtown population (compared to the whole area) and its relative isolation from the newer regions of sprawl beyond the interstate make the social experience of downtown Fredericksburg feel decidedly intimate in a small-town way.  I get that the “small town character” of Fredericksburg is a large part of its appeal, but the overzealous commitment of downtown’s residents to preserving that “small town character” contributes significantly to Fredericksburg’s extreme income inequality. Read more

A Brief Respite From a Season of Terrible Historical Analogies

El Douche? I see what you did there...

El Douche? I see what you did there…

Something about this political season has encouraged a string of blockbuster new hits at the Bad Historical Analogy Theater.  All political seasons introduce a handful of entertaining new acts, but something about the unpredictability of national political life in the Age of Trump has really lit up the marquees on the Great White Way of Facile Comparisons. The presence of multiple political dynasties, the institutional and ideological implosion of the Republican party, the campaign finance Wild West of Citizens United, and the rise of nontraditional candidates have all stumped pundits and political writers of all stripes (and abilities), and in the face of such novelty and uncertainty many of them have an unerring instinct to grasp at historical analogies to explain what we’re living through.  Most of those analogies are terrible, in that they rely on superficial similarities for their explanatory power, while papering over vast historical differences that undermine any explanation they purport to make.  And if there’s one thing this blog is against, it’s Bad Historical Analogies. Read more

Ahab Among the Innocents

A mortal man who is, ahem, burdened by his past.

A mortal man who is, ahem, burdened by his past.

The oddest intellectual disjuncture of parenting so far has come during my quiet hours of feeding the baby her bottle.  I’ve been listening to books on tape audiobooks* while she drinks, because bottle feeding requires two hands, considerable attention, and a healthy dose of patience.  I’ve been mostly consuming nineteenth century novels, because it can’t hurt to bone up on some of the century’s doorstop classics, which are mostly too long to work into my regular rotation of professional reading.  I tend to gravitate to books that I know, but not particularly well, and which don’t directly bear on my research but which are important in the overall sweep of cultural and intellectual history of the nineteenth-century U.S.  It also doesn’t hurt that you can download public-domain books on tape audiobook (generally pre-1923) from Librivox for free, and I’m too cheap to pay for Audible.   Most recently, I’ve been wading through Moby-Dick, at the rate of two or three chapters  per 7 ounces of milk.  (Melville’s chapters are short, and the baby likes to take her sweet time.)  I am quickly coming to the conclusion that Moby-Dick was a deeply weird choice for the particular context of baby feeding.   Read more

Trump the Small-‘r’ Republican?

Who wore it best?

Who wore it best?

As Frank Rich pointed out in his recent meditation on the political phenomenon of Trump, political observers and pundits have struggled to identify historical precedents.  The most popular, according to Rich, have ranged “from the third-party run of the cranky billionaire Ross Perot back to Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin, the radio-savvy populist demagogues of the Great Depression.”  He also fingers Joseph McCarthy, Hugo Chávez, George Wallace, and his favorite, the fictional, comedic “unhinged charlatans” of Mark Twain.  For Rich, Trump is the real-life embodiment of the fictional political con-men of American cinema, characters who though their sheer outrageousness call into question the legitimacy and sanity of the political system as a whole.  Rich foresees some potentially salubrious effects of Trump’s brazen act of real-life political satire, because his performance will lay bare precisely how naked the emperor really is, thus necessitating reform.  I think that’s exuberantly optimistic, to the point of naiveté, although he gets points from me for trying to find a silver lining the dark cloud of Trumpism.  But I’d like to suggest another older and more jarring precedent for Trump: the “Founding Fathers” themselves.

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