Founding-Era Reading List: Leftist History

Here’s a list of some of the writers whose work has been invaluable to my understanding of the founding period. They’re on the left — not New York Times “media bias left” as defined by the right. These writers are actually informed by Marxism. [UPDATE: I promise an invaluable Tory-history reading list next.] [UPDATE: But first, Left History, Part Two.] I leave it to you to sort out where you think each of them falls along the left — also to search for them, if you get interested, since (in most cases) they’re easy to find. I should note that some true left history I’d already known, but some I learned about through correspondence with Wythe Holt, a left law professor and historian, who wrote a very probing work on the Whiskey Rebellion (I found it too late to use it very much in my book on that topic, but I did correct a few things for the paperback).

[UPDATE: Those in the know should feel free to add to or annotate this list via comment — staying within the left-wing box for now — and also feel free to share it with historians, history buffs, students, and general readers, regardless of political persuasion, since these scholars should be better known outside the profession and across the political spectrum. (Wouldn’t Tea Party activists, e.g., want to learn from the grassroots organizing of the 18th C. social and economic radicals, whose significance both liberal and conservative historians leave out?)]

Jesse Lemisch. His benchmark work is Jack Tar, on the role of sailors in New York’s resistance to British trade acts, etc.  This is the “history from the bottom up” writer.  I especially like his article critiquing work on the Boston massacre by Hiller Zobel, and an essay on the complacency and wrongheadedness of liberal “consensus” history, in Towards a New Past. He’s funny, too, and very enlightening, on his time as a history grad student at Yale in the early 1960’s: Scary stuff. Chicago comes into it, and he gives Daniel Boorstin the epithet “right-wing hysteric.” Nice.

Staughton Lynd. A labor activist who started as a historian. In a chapter in Towards a New Past, he is especially good on Charles Beard and where Beard erred. Beard’s accusation that the framers all had a vested interest in the public debt had been supposedly “debunked” by (right-wing hysteric) Forrest McDonald — but Lynd sees the Constitution the way I did before reading Lynd, and for me that is always reassuring. It was an alliance between land and finance types, not the triumph of finance types.  The alliance, I’d already deduced, for The Whiskey Rebellion, was against the unpropertied. Lynd quotes Robert Brown, saying Beard should have based his thesis on property, not personalty.  Lynd and Brown may be alone in laying that out so clearly. (But here I’d also throw in William Appleman Williams — early new left, influenced by Merrill Jensen — who called Beard a “Tory radical.” That’s pretty good.)

Alfred Young. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party may be his best-known work. But for a thorough and brilliant critique of the tendency of liberal historians to expunge class struggle from the founding era, and really to expunge class in general, see “The Transforming Hand of Revolution.” Young reveals that good old Forrest McDonald was chairman of the Goldwater for President committee of Rhode Island and originally a business historian, financed by industry.  Yet consensus liberals like Edmund Morgan took McDonald up just because he was so anti-Beard. (They also wrote off more nuanced thinkers on Beard, like Hofstadter.) Young  is tough, fair, and if you like knowing about schools of founding history, key.

Gary Nash. My favorite work of his is the well-known Urban Crucible, a seriously ambitious and scholarly study, indispensible to me and many others. Working-class consciousness as it developed in Philadelphia, Boston, and  New York in the 18th century. I’ve drawn a lot from Nash’s understanding of the evangelical background to radicalism, the folk memory of the Levellers, and the American Manufactory and Committee of Privates as a 1770’s school of labor radicalism. Nash had a big dustup with Mrs.  Cheney in the 1990’s over school curriculum standards. And he has a book out right now on the Liberty Bell.

Eric Foner. Uses Paine’s story to tell the whole story of working-class Philadelphia in the 1770’s. Crisp, fun, sharp. A clearer understanding than I can ever emulate of the nuances in relationships among upper and lower artisans and the laboring class.

Stephen Rosswurm. The historian of the Philadelphia working class and its takeover, through the militias, of the province. Like Foner, he’s a good writer too, very crisp. He really pushes the social economic radicalism of the militias.

And there are others, so more to come in another post

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