Last month I wrote about the extraordinary range of subjects, chronologies and geographies encompassed in the field of early American scholarship. As the OI’s support for and investment in interdisciplinary work, and gatherings such as last year’s joint annual conference with the Society of Early Americanists suggest, we should add methods and theoretical approaches to the reach that makes early American work so exciting. And as a colleague reminded me, it’s not only breadth but depth that’s been vital to this field. Close, detailed studies are as important, and have been as important to, our understanding of the early American past.
I have tweeted about #VastEarlyAmerica, posting about early American topics and work that crosses my desk or my screen during the day. I have also been thinking more about the foundations of the field. I’ll be writing more about this, too, throughout the year. The Omohundro Institute and early America as a field share an important history, and that history is itself important to explore and to consider.
What started me thinking more seriously about the first issue of the William and Mary Quarterly was the typescript of an interview in 1973 with Richard L. Morton, the first Editor of the WMQ, held in Swem Library’s Special Collections at William & Mary. Provost and OI Executive Board member Michael Halleran passed a copy to me recently and asked if I’d seen it. In fact I hadn’t, although I’ve read pretty deeply in the archives of the OI’s founding and early years. Morton elaborated some things I’d wondered about, including some of the practical aspects of the collaboration between the College and Colonial Williamsburg that became the OI. But mostly he mused about the challenges of getting the journal up off the ground. He even (too briefly!) described his earliest version of a card system for tracking submissions and subscriptions.
The January 1944 issue was not the very first issue of the journal itself but rather the first of its third series. The William and Mary Quarterly had been published, in two series, since 1893, and concerned primarily with local and Virginia history as well as genealogy. With the establishment of the Institute of Early American History and Culture in 1943, the journal had a fresh start as an academic publication for “the entire field of early American history, institutions, and culture.” (A close observer will notice that of the few very modest changes to the cover in the last seven decades, one is a revision of the subtitle from “Magazine of Early American History, Institutions, and Culture” to “Magazine of Early American History and Culture.” A topic for another post!) Morton described the push, in the midst of war, to get fresh, relevant scholarship for the journal. He recalled that Leonard Labaree from Yale, an author of one of the first issue essays, was in a parachute company and that reportedly the first time he’d seen Williamsburg was from on high—during a parachute jump out of his base at Fort Eustis.
The first issue includes two pieces about and one essay by the very recently deceased Charles McLean Andrews. Andrews was a member of the original advisory group for the Institute; others of that group offered material for the first issue, too. Louis B. Wright of the Huntington Library authored an essay on Robert Beverly’s History and Present State of Virginia (1705), a book he called “A Neglected Classic,” which he then edited and published for the new Institute just a few years later. (The OI published Susan Scott Parrish’s new edition of this important work in 2013.) Wesley Frank Craven wrote about “Indian Policy in Early Virginia.” But it was Andrews who was the gravitational center of the modern WMQ’s inaugural issue in the third series.
Andrews was by any measure a giant in the profession. An 1889 PhD from Johns Hopkins, Andrews spent the bulk of his career at Yale. A president of the AHA, Pulitzer Prize winner, and recipient of many other honors, he was also an extraordinarily prolific writer. He felt passionately about the value and the purpose of history. “A nation’s attitude toward its own history,” he wrote, “is like a window into its own soul, and the men and women of such a nation cannot be expected to meet the great obligations of the present if they refuse to exhibit honesty, charity, open-mindedness, and a free and growing intelligence toward the past that has made them what they are.”
In Labaree’s biographical sketch of Andrews and then in an essay by Andrews posthumously published, his approach to the field called “Colonial American History” appears vast indeed. Labaree paid particularly close attention to Andrews’ work with J. Franklin Jameson and the Carnegie Institute on guides to manuscript collections in the UK for the study of American history. Also worthy of another post, those Guides reveal an extraordinary range of subjects, geographies and chronologies that Andrews considered of importance to understanding American history.
Andrews’ essay for the January 1944 WMQ, written perhaps two years before he died and revised several times and then finally reviewed by his wife and collaborator Evangeline Walker Andrews, mapped out what he’d spent a career explicating. “On the Writing of Colonial History” is a brief for an approach to early America that expressly frames the history of early North America in a larger geographical context. There had been, he wrote, “a tendency to …center attention on the colonies alone, to interpret our early history as if American life, problems, and growth were the only subjects worthy of consideration.” The colonial period had to be seen, he argued, as “a part of the general history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and consequently . . . something more than a seed-bed for the propagation of forms of government and habits of thought that would reach fruition only at a later period.”
It can’t be surprising that having witnessed two world wars Andrews would be attentive to the global context of American history. He also had much to say about different categories of analysis, including the relationship of social history (his early 1940s usage thereof) to politics and economy and many other issues of consequence for historical scholarship. He surely privileged English colonies, connections and contexts. But his vision for a vast Early America looks particularly interesting from our vantage so many decades later—more than a century from the beginning of Andrews’s career. And particularly so as we think about how the field of early American scholarship has developed. Perhaps the changing horizons of the early American field look less like, in my colleague Josh Piker’s wonderful prescription, getting lost than staying the course.