Current Issue Article Abstracts
Summer 2021, Vol. 41.2
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Scholars, Scholarship, and David McCullough's The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West
Jessica Choppin Roney, Andrew Shankman
We are pleased to announce a new feature in the Journal of the Early Republic (JER): Critical Engagements. Critical Engagements will appear on a recurring though not a fixed schedule to allow the JER to participate in conversations of great interests to scholars of the early American republic and the general public.
To launch Critical Engagements, the JER commissioned a forum on David McCullough's 2019 New York Times #1 bestselling history, The Pioneers. By telling a story about citizens of the U.S. republic moving west and enlarging the nation's territorial claims, Pioneers brushed against subjects of central interest to members of Society of Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) and readers of the JER, issues including, but not limited to, Indigenous history, settler colonialism, the expansion of slavery, and the role of land acquisition and speculative profit in the development of capitalism.
Why do books like David McCullough's The Pioneers sell so much better than academic monographs? This question is more complicated than it may appear, given that academic historians strive for many of the qualities for which McCullough is rightly known. The difference between this work of popular history and most academic histories centers on the moral coherence of McCullough's story, which makes it easier to read and digest. This coherence derives from key authorial decisions about characters and outcomes. Yet academic historians should not fear or envy these kinds of histories, for there is a great and growing demand for the kinds of contextual knowledge and precision that they can provide.
This essay evaluates David McCullough's use of primary sources in his best-selling book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, focusing on his discussion of the origins of the Ohio Company. The essay argues that a rigorous application of historical methods yields a very different interpretation than the one McCullough advanced. When McCullough's evidence is analyzed alongside other contemporaneous accounts and viewed through an up-to-date understanding of historical contexts, the Ohio Company emerges not as a noble venture to plant innocent ideals in a vacant wilderness, but rather as a corrupt scheme to profit off the conquest of unceded Indigenous land.
In The Pioneers, David McCullough marvels at how readily, and unexpectedly, he located historical sources that documented the lives of the founders of Marietta, Ohio, the first U.S. town built in the Northwest Territory. Yet McCullough's subjects constructed this archival presence and historical memory of their townbuilding efforts themselves. By not critically engaging with city leaders' extensive and deliberate campaign to make history, McCullough framed his book on their terms. A closer look at the history of place—and particularly Mound Cemetery—reveals the deeper meanings that McCullough's subjects attributed to the architecture of Marietta and their enduring influence on the town's historic landscape.
In The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, author David McCullough tells a story of the white heroes who settled the Ohio Territory. McCullough describes a story of intrepid pioneers with noble intentions who endeavored to advance the American Dream. His work, however, ignores decades of historical scholarship that challenge such triumphant narratives and reveal the darker consequences of American exceptionalism. By excluding recent scholarship, McCullough's work excuses the violence of settler colonialism and fails to capture the complex history of this region.
By failing to meaningfully address Black unfreedom in The Pioneers, David McCullough presents an incomplete, partial account of early Ohio and robs the supposedly heroic, antislavery actions of his would-be protagonists of their import. As a result, The Pioneers falls short in achieving its own stated goals.
The Indian Menace in David McCullough's The Pioneers
Michael John Witgen
David McCullough has written a history of Ohio almost entirely devoid of Native history. He ignores the long and complicated history of the Northwest Indian confederacy, and their struggle to retain their homeland in the face of an aggressively expansive American republic. Instead, he imagines Ohio and the Northwest Territory as an "unsettled wilderness." And he imagines the history of Ohio as the story of the settlement of this territory by white settlers, struggling to bring "the American way of life" into the North American wilderness.
The concluding commentary to the "Forum" on David McCullough's The Pioneers summarizes the critiques advanced by the other contributors and contemplates the disconnect between scholarly condemnations and public commendations of the book. Aron urges more attention to addressing the divide between "academic" and "popular" history and to the appeal of what he calls "wishtory."
Over the Fourth of July weekend in 1845, as American citizens celebrated the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and its egalitarian ideals, more than fifty armed bondsmen fled from southern Maryland and marched through the nation's capital toward the North and freedom. After a violent confrontation with militiamen near Rockville, Maryland, nearly all of the absconders were arrested and returned to their owners; nevertheless, their efforts to escape from bondage were not made in vain. In the coming weeks and months, abolitionists rose to the defense of these freedom fighters, and on the pages of northern newspapers exposed the glaring gap between the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, which Americans celebrated annually, and the reality of slavery. By viewing the historic escape attempt as a political action inspired by the Declaration of Independence, this essay demonstrates how these fugitive slave rebels infused the national dialogue on slavery and freedom with the voices of enslaved people
James Madison believed that religious pluralism would allow religion to flourish and benefit society if untouched by the government. At the same time, he worried that foreign powers might leverage internal divisions to undermine sovereignty, making religious pluralism simultaneously essential and dangerous to a republic. Although Madison believed that state-established religion could cripple a people's sovereignty, he also grappled with the dangers that religious liberty posed to national security—the government's ability to repel internal subversion and foreign assault. The conflict became especially relevant when he accepted his position as secretary of state and shared responsibility to protect the nation against foreign dangers. From the 1770s through his tenure as secretary of state, therefore, Madison matched his passion for religious liberty with his devotion to national security, and he struggled to calibrate policy to protect both.
Standard-Bearers of Equality: America's First Abolition Movement by Paul J. Polgar (review)
Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution by T. Cole Jones (review)
World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family's Journey through the American Revolution by Richard Godbeer (review)
Charlene Boyer Lewis
Breakaway Americas: The Unmanifest Future of the Jacksonian United States by Thomas Richards, Jr. (review)
Speaking with the Dead in Early America by Erik R. Seeman (review)
Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America by Michael A. Schoeppner (review)
Christopher James Bonner
In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America by Kabria Baumgartner (review)
Setting Slavery's Limits: Physical Confrontations in Antebellum Virginia by Christopher H. Bouton (review)
David Stefan Doddington
Becoming America: Highlights from the Jonathan and Karin Fielding Collection of Folk Art ed. by James Glisson (review)
Jennifer Van Horn
Historic Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States by Whitney Martinko (review)
Scott E. Casper
The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America by T. H. Breen (review)
Robert G. Parkinson
The Cambridge Companion to the Federalist ed. by Jack N. Rakove and Colleen A. Sheehan (review)
Katlyn Marie Carter
Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood by Cynthia A. Kierner (review)
Horace Greeley: Print, Politics, and the Failure of American Nationhood by James M. Lundberg (review)
The Founding of Thomas Jefferson's University ed. by John A. Ragosta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew J. O'Shaughnessy (review)
Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century by Aston Gonzalez (review)
Martha J. Cutter
Harnessing Harmony: Music, Power, and Politics in the United States, 1788–1865 by Billy Coleman (review)