Monday, August 11, 2014

The Author's Corner with Barry Shain

Barry Shain is Professor of Political Science at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. This interview is based on his book The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context: American State Papers, Petitions, Proclamations, and Letters of the Delegates to the First National Congresses  (Yale University Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context?

BS: I was motivated to write this book, in the main, by three goals: 1) to attempt to adjudicate between radically divergent claims concerning the standing of the Declaration of Independence’s briefly articulated political philosophy in leading the colonies to separate from Great Britain, in shaping American founding constitutional traditions, and in helping form America’s incipient political institutions; 2) to challenge the methodology, frequently encountered in political theory, in which historical documents are selectively chosen and mined to produce favored outcomes; and, 3) to begin a process of re-assessing the place of democratic republicanism in the thinking of those attending America’s first three continental political bodies.

JF: What is the central argument(s) of The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context?

BS: I hoped to show (and believe I have) that the colonies’ separation from Great Britain was not intended by the majority of the delegates attending America’s first three continental congresses, and that most delegates outside of many from New England and Virginia continued to view constitutional monarchy, as developed in Great Britain, as a preferred form of government and republicanism, at best, as a necessary evil.  Additionally, I have tried to show that the dispute between the colonies and Great Britain was between them (including many subjects who would choose to remain loyal) and the British Parliament (not the king), and was constitutional in nature and not predominantly novel, nor theoretical or philosophical.  Finally, I’ve argued that the colonial delegates, as well as their parliamentary counterparts, failed to solve two pressing constitutional conundrums and, accordingly, the Declaration of Independence’s political philosophy with its republicanism and hostility to monarchy was, for most in these three congresses, something that fit poorly with all that they had strived and had dedicated themselves to doing for the preceding 12 years and, in truth, was a tragic outcome with enduring untoward theoretical repercussions.

JF: Why do we need to read The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context?

BS: This work provides the reader with a more nuanced (and, in truth, more interesting) view of a fabled American historical event than does the dominant, historically flawed, master narrative.  This, in turn, will aid the reader’s understanding of the often -- likely closer to always -- necessarily unintended consequences of political movements, even those viewed favorably, and their messy and difficult to control natures.  In short, a better and truer understanding of the Declaration of Independence and the history that led to its adoption, might help delimit the hubris with which Americans view their founding history and, possibly too, their confidence in their ability to control contemporary international events.  A more parochial outcome might be the limiting of the reach of political theory as a body of study, and its replacement with history, with all its nuance and inadvertence.  For those who favor the instructive nature of history and its inherent complexity as a learning tool on how best to approach life, this is all to the good.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BS: My academic background is in vocational education, philosophy, and political theory.  I slowly came to recognize, as with life, most of what we do as individuals and as peoples is less guided by tightly scripted philosophical narratives, often exploited and imposed after the fact, than by historical contingencies and, far too often, even accidents.  Accordingly, studying the American late-eighteenth century in search of consistent and enduring political theories, in my experience, proved fruitless.  I came to history with all of its complexities and lived-character, in particular the changing meaning of words over a relatively short span of time and space, as a consequence.

JF: What is your next project?

BS: Over the past several years I have been working, on and off, on two projects: one is making sense of The Federalist by reading it as a whole rather than essay by essay so that it can provide us with the metrics with which to judge its often contradictory arguments.  The second, and more demanding and longer one, similar to what I’ve done with the Declaration and the thought of the delegates to three continental congresses, is an assessment of a circumscribed body of documents, in this case the 231 political pamphlets written or republished in the colonies between 1764 and 1776 (in Britain, for the same period and on the same topics there were some 1200).  My sense is that the preeminent interpreter, Bernard Bailyn, of these documents, or at least the dozen or two he discusses (at best half dozen or so are regularly read or discussed by others), has, through a selective sampling of the texts, greatly overemphasized their consistency and their authors’ commitment to republicanism.

JF: Thanks, Barry!

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author's Corner.