June 27, 2010
By Robert A. Schneider, Editor, American Historical Review
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The June issue of the American Historical Review is now available on-line at the University of Chicago Press website. It includes two articles on food in early modern colonial contexts, a piece on the history of language in official efforts to create a “national language” in Meiji Japan, an analysis of an all but forgotten U.S. congressional act that freed the wives and children of slaves who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War, and an AHR Exchange on “The ‘Myth’ of the ‘Weak’ American State.” There are also five featured reviews followed by our normal extensive book review section. “In Back Issues” calls attention to articles and features in the AHR from one hundred, seventy-five, and fifty years ago.
In "‘A continuall and dayly Table for Gentlemen of fashion’: Humanism, Food, and Authority at Jamestown, 1607–1609," Michael A. LaCombe uses the multiple meanings of food—as symbol, rhetorical device, and basic human need—to shed new light on the familiar figures and events of early Jamestown. He notes that the colony’s grave supply problems raised political questions as well as logistical concerns for its leaders, and thus challenged its leaders to justify their choices of policy and conduct. But the governing figures at Jamestown employed different languages of politics and authority in asserting their leadership. Some, like George Percy, evoked paternalist images of a leader; others, like Captain John Smith, based their self-presentations on rhetoric and imagery rooted in humanism. The historiography of the early period of Jamestown often focuses on breakdown, failure, and dysfunction, but legitimate differences like these lay at the root of many early disagreements. Further complicating their efforts, was the necessity to pursue negotiations with Powhatan, the paramount chief of the Chesapeake region’s native population. English leaders and Powhatan understood that food conveyed similar meanings, though they often differed on what they were, and Powhatan knew full well that English dependency on his people’s food stores could not be reconciled with English claims to preeminence in the Chesapeake. In these ways, food offered early modern English and their Algonkian hosts rich opportunities for cross-cultural negotiation and a complex contest for dominance.
Rebecca Earle explores the place of food in a rather different colonial context. In "‘If You Eat Their Food . . .’: Diets and Bodies in Early Colonial Spanish America" she argues that if we are to understand the history of European colonization in the early modern era we must pay attention to how Europeans thought about food. Diet was important to the colonial enterprise because the correct foods were believed to protect Europeans from the rigors of an unfamiliar climate. More fundamentally, food possessed the paradoxical power to create or, more troubling, to blur the bodily differences that separated Europeans from colonized peoples. Looking at a colonial context through food thus reminds us that early modern bodies, whether in Europe or elsewhere, were thus essentially porous and fluid—the very opposite of the fixed, racialized bodies that some recent scholarship has claimed to locate in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spanish and English new world settlements. Her article explains the ways in which food was understood to produce ‘Spanish’ and ‘Indian’ bodies, and further demonstrates the centrality of these ideas to Spain’s larger colonial enterprise, by tracing the connections between views about the mutability of colonial bodies and the broader aims of colonialism, which sought simultaneously to make Amerindians like Europeans, and to keep them separate.
Hiraku Shimoda’s "Tongues-Tied: The Making of a ‘National Language’ and the Discovery of Dialects in Meiji Japan" examines the process of standardizing spoken Japanese from early modern times to the early twentieth century. While variety in provincial speech was a fact of life in Tokugawa Japan (1603–1868), the imperatives of the nation-state of the Meiji era (1868–1912) compelled a reinterpretation of that familiar social reality. As Meiji-era scholars and officials sought to overcome diversity by creating a newly normative "national language" (kokugo) or "standard speech" (hyōjungo), they transformed and redefined long-standing varieties of speech into "dialects." By analyzing scholarly discourse as well as field cases in the Aizu region of northeast Japan, this article reveals the struggle to nationalize the legacies of regionalism and the ironies inherent in the search for modern uniformity. Shimoda argues that the fundamental recasting of provincial speech in the late nineteenth century rendered "dialects" no less an artificial linguistic category than "national language."
In "Instead of Waiting for the Thirteenth Amendment: The War Power, Slave Marriage, and Inviolate Human Rights": Amy Dru Stanley explores the counterpoint between two antislavery decrees adopted by the United States Congress during the final months of the Civil War. One became the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits slavery everywhere in the American republic and its territories; the other was an enlistment measure, which liberated Union soldiers’ wives and children owned by slave masters in the loyal border states exempt from the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. That counterpoint, she argues, sheds new light on both the making of abolition and notions of human rights forged at an epic moment in the downfall of New World slavery. Instead of waiting for the Thirteenth Amendment, Congress asserted its sovereignty under the War Power to overturn chattel bondage via slave marriage. With the constitutional amendment pending, abolition thereby tethered a new birth of human rights to domestic bonds based on the husband’s property in his wife. At the heart of the matter lay the “badges” of women’s slavery—torments peculiar to bondswomen enumerated in excruciating detail by abolitionists both inside and outside Congress to vindicate, by negation, the ideal of freedom as a universal human right. Yet those badges have never figured in Thirteenth Amendment jurisprudence. To the contrary, the Amendment’s ambit has remained exceedingly narrow, never encompassing subjection based on sex, while the scope of the Commerce Clause has swelled as a foundation for fundamental human rights guarantees. The roots of that puzzle, Stanley argues, reach back to the counterpoint between the abolition decrees adopted just before peace came at Appomattox.
In the June 2008 issue of the AHR, there appeared an essay by William J. Novak, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” which argued that historians and other scholars had long underestimated the power and intrusiveness of the U.S. state. Because of the provocative nature and wider implications of this piece, the editors invited three scholars to comment on Novak’s article. These essays and his response comprise the AHR Exchange, “On the ‘Myth’ of the ‘Weak’ American State.”
John Fabian Witt’s comment, “Law and War in American History,” begins by joining with Novak in his insistence that law should not be seen as an obstacle to state power but rather as a feature of its authority, facilitating, justifying, and shaping its exercise, both domestically and on the international stage. Witt criticizes Novak, however, for failing to acknowledge a large body of literature that has for long focused precisely on foreign affairs as the arena where American state power is most evident, thus challenging his assumption that the “myth” of a weak U.S. state is so prevalent. In addition, Witt points to other scholarship that offers an analysis of American power which argues that the relationship between American constitutionalism and global power was more complicated than Novak’s critique suggests.
Gary Gerstle, in "A State Both Strong and Weak," offers two criticisms of Novak’s argument. First, he challenges Novak’s claim that America’s current status as world hegemon was already manifest in the American state’s earliest years, arguing instead that America’s global hegemony dates from the 1940s and especially the post-World War II era. Second, he asserts that Novak’s focus on the American state’s inherent strengths causes him to overlook this state’s chronic weakness: an unwillingness or inability to corral the influence of private money and private power on American politics. Many of those who once imagined the American state as weak, Gerstle notes, were trying to make sense of this reluctance to discipline markets and corporations in the public interest. To ignore their insights, Gerstle concludes, is to imperil our ability to understand key aspects of the American state, and many other issues in American history too.
In "The Puzzle of the American State . . . and Its Historians," Julia Adams endorses Novak’s quest to discover why so many American scholars persist in seeing the U.S. state as week, when the contrary is so manifestly the case. And she notes that his effort to explain the specific nature of American state power will be welcome by other scholars of other political cultures who are similarly engaged in examining the nature of state and imperial power from a historical perspective. She argues, however, that while Novak’s question is good and timely one, his answer is in some respects factually inaccurate and also preserves American exceptionalism to an unwarranted extent. Adams suggests that we can best decipher the U.S. state—which develops in tandem with other states and empires-in-formation—by means of a conceptual language rooted in the work of Max Weber but amplified to incorporate both the specifics of American history and the evolving forms of international sovereignty.
In his rejoinder, “Long Live the Myth of the Weak State?” Novak acknowledges many of the criticisms and comments of Witt, Gerstle and Adams, but energetically defends his thesis. He argues, indeed, that each of the commentators acknowledges the “fundamental, unresolved problems of power in modern American life.”
October’s issue will include articles on the links between the seventeenth-century English Revolution and the origins of abolition and on the Middle East in the 1930s, as well as an AHR Forum on “Intimate Life and Sexuality in Mid-Twentieth-Century France.”