Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Improving Public Policymaking with the Help of Digital Archives

Adam Smith (1723-1790) predicted the financial crisis of 2008. Well, sort of. He favored numerous small producers over a few large ones, especially where the big companies were corporations, which he loathed because they were generally so poorly governed. After examining the historical record and thinking through the economic incentives involved, Smith concluded that corporations would strive to become monopolies and that they would suffer chronically from agency problems, including the ability of corporate managers to bilk customers and stockholders. Smith would have seen the subprime mortgage and concomitant crises as simply the latest battle in a centuries-long war between principals (owners) and their agents (employees, in this case management). Managers won this time by paying themselves huge irrevocable bonuses on the basis of ephemeral paper profits. It was not the first time managers were able to expropriate significant value from stockholders and it certainly will not be the last.

Improving Public Policymaking with the Help of Digital Archives


The Importance of Newspapers in Chronicling the American Revolution

I used to think I knew quite a bit about the American Revolution—until I became a re-enactor. I certainly knew that the war consisted of more than the battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton, Saratoga, Camden, Guilford Courthouse, and Yorktown. I soon learned that even the most detailed history books don’t cover all the military engagements.

When I participated in the 225th anniversary re-enactments, I overheard fellow interpreters commenting about some of these events they knew nothing about. There had been no guidebooks published about the Revolutionary War since the nation’s bicentennial in 1975. Moreover, those guidebooks only covered the major, better known events. This compelled me to begin work on what I intended as a comprehensive, if not exhaustive, military history of the American War for Independence.

The Importance of Newspapers in Chronicling the American Revolution


Finding Fatalism and Overconfidence in a Cruel Port: The Bubonic Plague's First Appearance in Brazil

On October 18, 1899, Brazilian health officials declared that bubonic plague had arrived. Bacteriologists identified the bacteria in samples taken from sick patients in Santos, a port city that had grown rapidly due to Brazil’s coffee boom. For much of history, people reacted to the news of plague with panic, flight and violence. When plague struck Santos, however, the town did not empty of its residents, international ships were not quarantined outside the port, and authorities or militias did not form “rifle cordons” at roads leading out of town. In fact, according to one report, “the news that bubonic plague had broken out in Santos seems to have made an impression everywhere but here. Santistas are, as a rule, of a somewhat skeptic frame of mind and reports about sickness and epidemics do not frighten them unduly.”

Finding Fatalism and Overconfidence in a Cruel Port: The Bubonic Plague's First Appearance in Brazil


The Connecticut Webster on Slavery

The pure-bred New Englander revered the Constitution. Though the eloquent statesman hated slavery, he sought to eradicate this evil without destroying the union. Division was anathema to him, as could perhaps be guessed from his ancestral name, Webster, which means “uniter” in Anglo-Saxon. And some three score and eight years before the outbreak of the Civil War, whose 150th anniversary we commemorated last spring, he advocated a moderate course designed to steer clear of bloodshed.

The man’s first name was Noah—not Daniel—and he hailed from Hartford. While his younger cousin, the Massachusetts legislator, would repeatedly take up the same mantle on the Senate floor, most notably in an impassioned speech on behalf of the Missouri Compromise in 1850, Noah Webster first spoke out against “the violated rights of humanity” back when Daniel was still in grade school.

The Connecticut Webster on Slavery


Talking News with Carolyn Cassady: A Conversation with the Matriarch of the Beat Generation

Closing in on her 88th year, Carolyn Cassady is still gracefully full-speed ahead. The wife of Neal Cassady, one-time lover and confidant of Jack Kerouac, and a somewhat reluctant Beat Generation icon herself, she’s recently returned to her home in England after a whirlwind trip to the U.S. for the production wrap-up of Walter Salles’ new film version of Kerouac’s masterpiece “On the Road,” in which she is portrayed by actress Kirsten Dunst. Her daily duties include sheaves of mail in need of reply, books to sign (her own “Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg,” a treasure in itself), the occasional visiting rock star, and interviews to grant and subsequently deliver. It isn’t odd for the BBC to call or knock requesting a quote or access to the private mementos of her storied past.

A decade after I did my undergraduate work at Marlboro College on Beat Generation writers, with focus on the women, Carolyn and I became friends through correspondence. And as one might assume a fan would, I’ve peppered her with whatever questions cross my mind. Many times, she’ll implore me back to her book. “Didn’t I cover that in ‘Off the Road’?” And of course many times I find she has, to my chagrin. But she is always welcoming, reminding me that a simple sign in her kitchen reads “Ask Carolyn.” So I do.

Talking News with Carolyn Cassady: A Conversation with the Matriarch of the Beat Generation


Ephemeral Loyalties? Consumption, Commerce and Jeffersonian Politics, 1806-1815

While the Revolution may have secured Americans their political independence, economic independence remained elusive. As early as 1783, Americans realized that they had not extricated themselves in any meaningful way from the mercantile system of the Atlantic world, still dominated by European imperial might. 1 This realization cut especially deep as the Napoleonic Wars escalated. By 1805 American sailors were at risk of impressment by the British navy. Worse still, maritime commerce came under attack, as the British outlawed America’s lucrative carrying trade. By 1806, President Thomas Jefferson was forced to concede that many of the economic problems that America had faced as a colony still plagued the newly formed nation.2

In response, Jefferson fell back on pre-Revolutionary tactics to assert his nation’s strength. Imposing a highly unpopular non-importation law on Americans in 1806, he attempted to fashion grassroots non-consumption into a federally administered campaign of commercial retribution against the British. The law required that merchants refuse to ship certain British and French goods into the country. Although nominally enforced by an under-developed customs-house and the undermanned Coast Guard, in practice it was a law that relied on the patriotism of merchants and consumers to refuse to consume imported wares.3 The legislation re-politicized the consumption of imported goods in America. Indeed, Jefferson’s legislation was fiercely opposed. Federalists were furious to find themselves subject to Jefferson’s demands. Old guard Republicans were appalled that Jefferson should attempt to re-instate a mercantilist economy, only decades after Americans had fought so hard for free trade. Thus, Jefferson re-ignited a debate over the connection between consumption and patriotism that would endure all the way through the War of 1812 and on into the late 1820s.

Ephemeral Loyalties? Consumption, Commerce and Jeffersonian Politics, 1806-1815


Of Presidents and Papers

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, established at Princeton University, is preparing the authoritative and comprehensive edition of the correspondence and papers of our nation’s third president. As historians editing Jefferson’s incoming and outgoing correspondence, we are responsible for gathering documents and making them available to posterity in an accurate, transcribed, and contextualized format through our published and digital editions. Our “humanities laboratory” (as our general editor Barbara Oberg refers to it), consists of folders of more than 70,000 photocopied manuscripts gathered from over 900 repositories and private collections. These manuscripts line every wall and fill almost every surface area of our small space and are the core of our collaborative scholarly enterprise.

We never tire of sharing with others the process of producing a documentary edition. When we hosted an annual documents-based seminar for high school students last year, the teenagers looked incredulous when we explained that our compilation of Jefferson correspondence, some in multiple versions, is the single most comprehensive resource of its kind in the world. The techno-savvy students were equally intrigued by the clunky object that, until recently, occupied a corner of our office. We explained that this microfilm reader had enabled us to search thousands of documents from federal repositories and other smaller collections. As we demonstrated this alien technology to a texting and tweeting generation, we were reminded that not long ago these microfilmed manuscripts or microcard collections were the only access points to archives short of in-person visits.

Of Presidents and Papers


Preserving the Library in the Digital Age

Librarians, educators, journalists and others often rave about the potential and promise of electronic databases. Let's face it, I rave, too. For my previous book, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, and my current book on the Boston Tea Party, I have found Readex collections like America's Historical Newspapers and Early American Imprints invaluable for discovering new sources, learning more about eighteenth-century readers, confirming citations and drawing new comparisons.

I've had a lot of chances to reflect on how I gain access to sources. As a scholar whose sources are over 200 years old, it still amazes me how much I can read without ever leaving my study. Sometimes there are frustrating gaps in the available electronic databases, which can be unwieldy or misleading. Still, on occasions when I need to check a fact or a footnote without leaving my study, they're massively convenient.

Preserving the Library in the Digital Age


Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers

"In the management of her household, she displayed every good quality necessary to form a prudent and beloved Mistress of a family—regularity and order, neatness and exactness," said the Pennsylvania Gazette about Ann Ross, who died in 1773.

Historical obituaries record what society deems to be of value in a person's life. Death may be the great equalizer but class and gender shape what is remembered and valued. Frederic Endres suggests that studying obituaries "may tell something about the cultural values of a given society, as well as something about the values and attitudes and vocational socialization of the editors who wrote and published the obituaries." [1] Although women's obituaries are generally shorter than men's and are shaped by gender stereotypes, they are one of the few sources that allow insight into the lives of women and their changing roles over time.

In the late 18th century, women were described mostly in terms of their domestic attributes and Christian virtue. Women were judged primarily in terms of three categories: as wives, mothers and as domestic managers. If a woman had a role outside of the home, it was primarily through church activities. It is common to find many obituaries where women are pictured as being blessed with many children, faithful, as a dutiful wife or daughter and praised for their regular church attendance.

Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers


The Literary World of Early American Women: Using Digital Archives to Recover Allusions and Explore Influences

In the autumn of 1801, Susan Edwards Johnson of New Haven, Connecticut read several novels while visiting her cousin in New Bern, North Carolina. On November 27, Johnson recorded in her journal1: "Began to read the maid of the Hamlet an indifferent novel, by the author of the Children of the Abbey." She made this entry on December 2: "Passed our time principally in reading the beggar Girl; we got so much interested, that we sat up untill near one oclock, (reading) Saturday night—." In a December 6, 1801 letter, she wrote: "We ride, walk & read novels; last night we sat up until near one oclock & were then quite unwilling, to leave the interesting history of the beggar Girl—."

In mentioning these works, Johnson provides valuable insight into her contemporary literary world. In the summer of 1825, Olivia Caroline Laurens of Charleston, South Carolina who was visiting family in Pendleton also noted literary activities in her journal2, as on July 18: "Miss Hugers called to see us in the morning and promised to lend me 'Patronage', a tale by Maria Edgeworth" (222); and again, on August 25: "This morning I commenced reading Griscom's 'Year in Europe' find it extremely entertaining, it is in two thick octavo volumes 500 pages each" (226). In each instance, these allusions lend insight as to what women were reading and how they interacted with literature, thereby expanding our understanding of women's intellectual worlds and their contemporary literary tastes.

The Literary World of Early American Women: Using Digital Archives to Recover Allusions and Explore Influences


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