Was the Sun on Washington’s Chair Rising or Setting? A Reconsideration in 2018

Serena Zabin
The Rising Sun Armchair, made by John Folwell in 1779. Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA. Picture courtesy of ushistory.org

The Rising Sun Armchair, made by John Folwell in 1779. Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA. Picture courtesy of ushistory.org

During the months of writing and revising my conclusion to the joint issue, I described it to friends as a cri de coeur. Oh, the outmoded Electoral College! The retrograde ideas about women! The racial (white) vision of America! Hadn’t we gotten past all this yet? Most of all, how could the United States have elected a man who apparently had no idea how our government worked? Don’t worry, said the pundits, our Constitution will ensure that the United States can survive even a person with no knowledge or respect for the document.

When I got ready to teach, however, and looked through my notes on the Revolution, I had to laugh at such confidence in the Constitution. How (in the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s famous description) could the “covenant with death” save the republic? Didn’t the document’s concessions to proslavery advocates from Georgia and South Carolina show precisely what would happen when we decided that the Constitution was the bulwark against chaos?

I know why so many of us emphasize the dark history of the Revolution in our classrooms: because to suggest optimism in the American project is often to deny the exclusions, the violence, and the pain of the past. The goal of this dark history is to acknowledge the horrors of the past for those whose pain is in the present. And yet I could not bring myself to teach that there is nothing worth saving from the founding period. After all, if the nation is built on such a rotten foundation, why not just let it fall to pieces? Why are many so distressed at the idea that the nation might not survive?

But if being a historian had brought me to this moment of existential angst, I wondered if thinking like a historian could help us rise from the slough of despond. Those of us who work on the founding era are particularly aware that there is no direct link from the past to the present. History does not run in a straight line, neither in Whiggish ascension or nostalgic declension. In fact, I sometimes tell my students that time does not even always run in one direction. What may look like causation may actually be a false causality; links from the past to the present may not exist, or at the very least they rarely exist in the ways we imagine.  Do we reinterpret history as we look backwards, or in fact, do we create it anew?

Howard Chandler Christy, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (1940). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Howard Chandler Christy, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (1940). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Once I start channeling Hayden White and going all postmodern, my students roll their eyes. They remind me that they came to history because they love stories, and because they are interested in people. And they are right to remind me that in the end it is people who animate our vision of the past. For it is in reflecting on these people that we find the humility that we need to continue to try to make changes in our present.

All of us who study the late eighteenth century know that there was no clear “right side” of the American Revolution. The revolutionaries’ language of liberty and equality was deeply moving for people throughout the Atlantic world, both then and for centuries to come. At the same time, some aspects of the American Revolution were truly counterrevolutionary. Should we always say today that we know precisely how to categorize every action? The small choices that people made were seldom weighted with the significance that we now accord them. Like those in the past, we cannot always tell what impact, if any, our decisions will have. But the everyday actions of all of us—writers and readers alike—do help shape the world. Such is the nature of unintended consequences.

I was struck by many of the ideas in those wonderful articles. But most of all, as I read the newspaper, I held on to Andrew Shankman’s account of “affective” relationships with the parts of government that people experience face to face; I held on to Jessica Roney’s story of settlers who managed an end run around the Constitution; and I held on to Eliga Gould’s reminder that the Constitution did work far beyond organizing a national government. Taken together, these three insights break down the seemingly monolithic and formidable governmental structures in which we now live. To a few of my students, the “deep state” does seem to control the government. To others, the presence of corporate cash in the election process makes it hard to believe that they as individuals have much political impact at all. But these articles help us remember that we can forge relationships with that congressional staffer whom we call weekly; that for both good and bad, the powers of the Constitution are only as robust as we make them; and that the idea of a collective nation—even one that is so conflicted about the place of heterogeneity and inclusion—can still contribute some good to the world.

At the end of my essay, I wrote, “The struggle continues; a truly inclusive democratic republic has never, except in rhetoric, been a part of the American story. Its seeming impossibility may be mirrored by the impossibility of writing a fully inclusive history, one that populates the past with vulnerable, complicated, and contradictory people. But for the sake of the people in both the past and the present, we must try.” This is the history I teach.

28 February 2018

About the Author

Serena Zabin is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Carleton College.

Recent Contributions to the JER
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