Twists and Turns of Modernity

We are often tempted to portray the transition to modern ways of organizing the world as elegant and completely embraced, yet in fact as all my research shows, it was halting, disjointed, and sometimes deeply painful for the people going through it.  Modernity was not self-evidently superior to the people who found themselves grappling with immense change.

 
 
From Revolution to Reunion (USC Press, 2016)

From Revolution to Reunion (USC Press, 2016)

Loyalist Reintegration

The majority of Loyalists never left the United States after the war.  Instead, they pursued--and achieved--reconciliation with their Patriot neighbors.  My first book, From Revolution to Reunion (2016), shows how this reconciliation worked in South Carolina. 

 

 Credit Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

Old Age and Aging in North America

We live today in a time when developed countries are terrified of what is described as the coming ‘grey tsunami.’ Yet in fact, we are not the first people to grow old in significant numbers—plenty of early Americans grew old too.  So how did they experience the aging process and the idea that they were old?  I study aging men, the people who had the most cultural power and prestige of their age, in order to understand how they self-conceptualized old age and how others treated them. 

This study of cultural ideas about old age shows that early Americans never embraced old age, but they became increasingly frightened of it as Enlightenment ideals permeated their society.  The American Revolution cemented the new emphasis on youth as the true source of creativity and democratic virtue, and therefore denigrated old age and aged people as never before.  Individualism had a dark side—even old people could not claim respect based on what they had once done, but solely on who they were in the moment.  The baby boomers may have been the first to say “Never trust anyone over thirty” but the sentiment is one that the Revolutionary generation would have embraced.

 
William Humphrey, "The savages let loose, or The cruel fate of the Loyalists," approx. 1740-1810 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540

William Humphrey, "The savages let loose, or The cruel fate of the Loyalists," approx. 1740-1810

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540

Transitional Justice and Loyalist Reintegration

How can historians can take the methods of analysis and language of transitional justice and use it to understand the strategies and approaches that allowed Americans to reconcile after the brutal civil war of the American Revolution?  Perhaps this approach can bring order to what seems a veritable smorgasbord of laws and approaches enacted in thirteen separate states at different times.  In my ongoing work, I understand the national history of the reintegration of the majority of American Loyalists, and disaffected people.  

 

Further, I suggest this is an interesting corrective to the blindness inherent in an approach to ending conflict that exclusively relies on empowered international organizations in an age of globalization.  Our current era of transitional justice is really underwritten by and created by the end of empire, which gave rise to a vigorous international infrastructure capable of intervening around the globe in the democratically-inclined detritus left by the collapse of empire.  At a moment at the end of the eighteenth century when the disgorgement of empire and the rise of independent democratic nation-states had just begun, how did transitional justice work?