With Historian Pauline Maier
December 01, 1998
American Truths, American Myths
Pauline Maier on "the first politician," the private lives of public men, and the teaching of history
By Dave Denison
With the publication of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence last year, MIT professor Pauline Maier established herself not just as one of the nation's leading scholars in the field of early American history, but as the kind of professional historian with major "crossover appeal." Rather than writing turgid treatises to a narrow audience of her academic peers, she writes for a wider audience of intelligent readers--people who look for well-researched and scholarly history but who also appreciate a well-told story. Maier's writing is serious, unadorned, and as bracing as an early-morning bugle blast. The New York Times named American Scripture to its list of the best books of 1997.
To hear Prof. Maier tell it, her career was not guided early on by a clear historical imperative. Her original ambition was to be in the newspaper business. As a Radcliffe student, she worked on the Harvard Crimson. During summers as an undergraduate she worked at the Quincy Patriot Ledger. Then she decided to go to graduate school. Her interest was in contemporary politics; she thought she might work in 20th-century history, perhaps specializing in urban history. In grad school at Harvard, however, she signed up for a seminar on Colonial and Revolutionary American history taught by Bernard Bailyn. "And as somebody said, 'Once you get into the 18th century, you never get out,'" she explains. She has studied, written about, and taught courses on the Revolutionary period ever since. She is the author of From Resistance to Revolution (1972) and The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980). Prof. Maier taught at UMass-Boston for nine years, then spent a year at the University of Wisconsin before taking her position at MIT (where she is William R. Kenan Jr., Professor of American History) in 1978. With her husband, Charles S. Maier (a history professor at Harvard), she has raised two daughters and a son in Cambridge.
In person, Prof. Maier is anything but the stereotypical stuffy academic. She has a warm courteousness about her--a fact that may have something to do with her being raised in Minnesota. She retains a trace of the Midwestern inflection in her speech and laughs occasionally with sudden abandon. We met on an August afternoon in her husband's office tucked away in the back of Harvard's Widener Library (her own office at MIT, she said, was a "storehouse" overcrowded with books). There were several points she had made in The Old Revolutionaries about Samuel Adams, and the matter of how history is written differently in different times, that I especially wanted to take up with Prof. Maier. (Samuel Adams has been of less interest to biographers than his "country cousin" John Adams, and it is difficult to find consensus on what kind of politics he practiced: Some have portrayed him as a master manipulator, others have seen a "man of the town meeting," a skilled organizer who was at home with the shopkeepers, mechanics, and shipyard workers in Boston. Prof. Maier has taken the friendlier view.) But we began by talking about how she came to write a book about the Declaration of Independence, a subject that one might think had already been well covered. She laughed merrily at the question, but was ready for it. "It had been a while since anybody had a crack at the subject," she said, and her publishers believed there might be a new approach taken. "What I don't think they understood, and certainly what I didn't understand at the time, was that it would be possible to find new material." What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for brevity.
CommonWealth: To put it in newspaper terms, if you were to tell someone who hasn't seen your book [American Scripture] what one of the scoops is--what would be one of the pieces of new information you reveal about the Declaration of Independence?
Maier: I started out trying to figure out how in God's good name you could find a novel approach to this very old subject. I knew from past experience that if you look at anything comparatively you come up with new questions. The Declaration of Independence is always treated like a unique and wonderful document, like nothing in human history--and I knew that couldn't be true. So I went out looking for things like it, and what I found to my surprise was this mass of local "declarations of independence," the greater part of which come from Massachusetts. And they come straight out of the political system of 18th-century Massachusetts. That is, the people were asked to express their views on this issue, and the idea was to bring pressure on their representatives to the General Court, so that Massachusetts would change its instructions to its congressional delegates--so that they were explicitly told to favor independence. But what the people were asked was, if the Congress decides for the safety of the American Colonies to declare them independent of Britain, are you prepared to defend that decision with your lives and fortunes? The question was directed to the inhabitants of the town who were qualified to participate in the town meetings. It was stated in a very personal way. And what I was struck with was the genuineness of the response, and the fullness of the statements of people's convictions on the issue, and how they varied from place to place, and how many of them were actually, despite differences in style, very similar.
You work in a field for 20 years, it's more like 30 years, I guess, I have worked on the American Revolution--ah, how the decades slip by!--and when you find something that moves you, you know you've found something. I was very moved when I found the resolutions of Ashby, just because I had a sense of where Ashby was--you know, it's a little town [in North Central Massachusetts] on the way to nowhere--where the people said they would most solemnly defend that decision with their lives and fortunes. It meant something very real. They had no doubt that what they said was important, that it was of significance. I think their sense of the significance of their political participation was part of what made it so moving, and no doubt it was moving in part because of the context I and we live in, where politics is less esteemed, or the assumptions that these people had are less widely shared.
CommonWealth: Nowadays, we're so accustomed to thinking of polls to find out what's on the mind of the people. There were no polls then, of course; how can we know there wasn't in those days a silent Tory majority?
Maier: It's a very good question. I say in my chapter [on local declarations] this is as close as we're likely ever to get to the voice of the people. But the statements that I found are from a very small minority of the people--even in Massachusetts, in fact, where the greater part of the 90 documents that I detail in an appendix [are from]. Does it mean that the others disagreed? Or that they didn't feel it was necessary to pass such a document? Or did they pass such a document but since they were not kept systematically in any one place they are impossible to trace comprehensively? I don't know.
CommonWealth: Public opinion shifts, year by year, month by month. Do you have a sense of when we could guess there was majority sentiment [for independence]?
Maier: You know, it's not at all an irrelevant position because the politicians of the time felt compelled to have that sense. It wasn't just, are you going to win the next election? It was, how much basic support do we have, of the sort that's going to be very important in fighting this war and in making this decision stick? It was a decision that called for popular support and it was going to have to be material support, people were really going to have to do what the resolution asked: Put their lives on the line. Was there going to be that kind of support? And the sense was that the popular opinion in general had shifted in favor of independence sometime, I think, in the spring of 1776. What it turned on was how much the people were aware of what was going on, and that depended in no small part on how widely the newspapers circulated. Where we know there were bastions of Tory sentiment it tended to be in the back country, more remote reaches where the newspapers didn't go. That was actually the brilliance of Samuel Adams--he understood that, and created an institution that could spread news [to people in remote areas] of what was happening to people. That, of course, is the Boston Committee of Correspondence.
"That was the brilliance of Samuel Adams--he created an institution that could spread the news."
CommonWealth: You've called Samuel Adams "the first politician." Why?
Maier: What's important is to understand that it was not yet respectable to be a politician. The fact that he was indeed a professional politician is of substantial significance. He may have understood it, I argue, as a form of ministry almost. But certainly he was the person who was involved in dealing with the organization of support for propositions which were not religious, that were political, and to make the political system work.
CommonWealth: What made him more of a politician than someone like John Hancock or John Adams?
Maier: He had no other profession. He had no alternative. John Adams was a lawyer, Hancock was a merchant. One has great difficulty finding an alternative profession for Samuel Adams. He came out of Harvard and was in business and he wasn't very good at business. Earlier historians have said he went into politics to compensate for all this failure. I think the truth of the matter is that he failed at business because he was already so deeply involved in politics--that's what his obsession was. Obsession makes it sound crazy; it was what absorbed him.
CommonWealth: A while ago I read John Miller's 1936 book, Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda. I know you take a different view, but it did not seem to me the least bit implausible that during that time of simmering revolt Adams would have used agitation, and even what could be called propagandistic methods, to stand up to British rulers. Maier: I think the Miller book was very influenced by the politics of the '30s. And it isn't an altogether positive view of Samuel Adams. [Miller] sees manipulation. Obviously events in Europe are very important in shaping this particular view, as most generations' interpretations of major historical figures are.
CommonWealth: That's exactly what I wondered about: What were the politics of the 1920s and 1930s that would have been making him think in terms of propaganda? I had thought of that as a more modern theme--at least a post- World War II theme.
Maier: The important thing is not so much to define where Miller came from as to understand how different the political system of the 18th century was. It was simply impossible for any individual to exert the kind of influence that he associated with Samuel Adams--that he was sort of pulling the strings, making the Revolution happen. No, you had too many headstrong people. And [Adams] never thought he could do that. The most you could do was to inform people and encourage them to think correctly about the events of which you had informed them. And he did that brilliantly. But he had no idea that he could make events happen; in fact he denied it explicitly. His system, of course, is very different than ours, but it's also in some ways very similar in that it's difficult, probably impossible, to make people do what you want by manipulation. You had all kinds of strong-minded people on local levels who were perfectly capable of thinking through these events, who indeed had spent their lives in town meetings, taking responsibility for political affairs. He could inform them, he could encourage them--he certainly couldn't make them do exactly what he wanted. And certainly he couldn't control the whole continent. Could Massachusetts control Virginia? No. There was a confluence of thought, a confluence of assumptions, and above all people were affected by the same events.
CommonWealth: One of the points that you make in American Scripture is that Americans can sometimes be strangely reverential about the icons of our early history, including I guess early heroes--thinking about someone like George Washington--and yet one of the things that was catching my interest about Samuel Adams was the opposite tendency--refraining from making him into a saint.
Maier: Yes. He became an anti-hero, really, and came to incarnate a lot of tendencies that the writers disliked in their own time. I mean, "Sam" is the perfect example. Nobody called him Sam in his time. He was Samuel. They didn't call people by nicknames. So "Sam" was a kind of making him the political boss of the late 19th century, when that view of him really dominated.
CommonWealth: Was Thomas Paine also given that same treatment, scurrilous information coming out about him?
Maier: I think he was much less a victim. Of course, he had a lot of critics; he earned his own critics, including Samuel Adams, mainly because of [Paine's] religious views. They called him an atheist. He was a Deist. He was, as Crane Brinton said, "a trifle unlovely" at the end of his life. I mean, unkempt. Didn't smell too good. And then he tried to claim exclusive responsibility for American independence because he had written Common Sense. Nothing drove John Adams more ballistic than that. John Adams actually is the person who one should cite as the greatest or most conspicuous agitator for independence; certainly in the Congress he was much more forthright on his commitment to independence. He spoke much more than anyone else. Samuel Adams did not speak very much on the floor of Congress, I think because he had a lisp. His work was much more in committees, behind the scenes.
CommonWealth: What it gets at is the way history is written in different times. Can you say whether there's a period in the writing of American history when historians were especially myth-making, hagiographic?
Maier: I would point here to the 1820s, where you had the sons of the revolutionaries starting to resurrect the history, which people had not been particularly interested in up to the second decade of the 19th century. They were writing these biographies of their ancestors, which also made the case that their particular state or region had been primary in the independence movement. I think the [William] Wirt biography of Patrick Henry is a perfect example. Massachusetts tended to argue for James Otis. In any case, they're making cases for individuals who were their ancestor or from their region. And they put them on an altogether different scale. I mean, they seemed superhuman. This begins clearly with Washington. The [Parson] Weems biography where Washington becomes somewhere between Moses or Jesus, depending on what passage you look at. This really becomes large scale in the 1820s.
Even today, of course, we have a large holding to myths, and I think Thomas Jefferson is the biggest example of all, the one that I think has the tightest hold on modern Americans' affections. My personal preference, my personal favorite in that generation is not Thomas Jefferson but John Adams, who in the 1820s really reacted to all this hagiography and myth-making. [He] said, first of all, I don't recognize the people you're talking about. I worked with these people. I don't recognize them from the books that you're writing. And he warred against it. He said what we need instead of all this canonization is a second Protestant reformation. He thought it was politically counterproductive--that by making these figures of the founding generation bigger than life was to discourage the young. That they could never live up to that model, so they would go off and do something else. He said in fact there weren't very many talented people in the 1770s in this country, which made it very easy to realize your ambition. [He said] there were many more capable people in the 1820s, and he was probably right. There were more college-educated people, the population was greater. I think his insight is one that is still relevant to us today.
CommonWealth: You wrote in The Old Revolutionaries that you wanted to understand your subjects as humans as well as to understand their causes. It made me wonder how you regard the attempts of some writers in recent times to understand in new ways Thomas Jefferson's private life.
Maier: Ah. Like Joseph Ellis.
CommonWealth: And even the more popular, less respected books that really delve into his affairs. Which, of course, I think also has something to do with the politics of these times.
Maier: I think that's true. The way people look at these private affairs and what meaning they read into it differs enormously from person to person. I mean, [author] Fawn Brodie thought that if you looked at Jefferson's affection for Sally Hemings that it was affirming. It wasn't necessarily scurrilous. She didn't see this as an attack on Jefferson, as others did who raised it in the first instance.
CommonWealth: Is it necessary to understand that Thomas Paine was an unhappy bachelor who abandoned his wife, or the questions about Jefferson [and Hemings] that are raised?
Maier: I think they're probably not the most important things you need to know, but they're the kind of things we want to know. In fact, they're absolutely beyond what people thought should be asked about them at the time, which makes it very difficult to find that kind of information. Their private affairs were not important; what was important was what they did for the public, their public life, their commitment to a cause. Samuel Adams was the greatest example of this.
"Their private affairs were not important; what was important was what they did for the public."
CommonWealth: He hid a lot. He protected that side of himself.
Maier: I think he did. In fact, he probably neglected it. His relationship with his son was not very good. You weren't supposed to ask about private life. It was supposed to be insignificant. That was the idea at least by the 1770s. By the 1790s, of course, you could do anything. The press was totally scurrilous. It's very modern in some ways that way. Probing personal lives. [Alexander] Hamilton, of course, admitted he had an affair. The notion was that he had somehow been corrupted in his offices. No, no, he said. Unfaithful to my wife, but not to my country. Ultimately the relevance of it all is open for debate. It's the kind of thing contemporary people want to know about historical figures and obviously about their own leaders.
CommonWealth: You're saying that Alexander Hamilton in a way blazed the trail for Bill Clinton.
Maier: [laughs] One could make that argument.
CommonWealth: Do you get discouraged as a historian about how much Americans know about history? How much they care? How much historical perspective is brought into our politics?
Maier: What I get discouraged about is how little history is actually taught. I don't think it is true that there isn't an interest out there. I think there is an interest. But it's not in the curriculum. And when people talk about reviving history in the curriculum then you get great infighting about what it should be. Somehow the idea that there is a political story to be told that has elements that people of good will could agree should be taught and made clear to students in American schools, I think that's lost increasingly.
Of course, if I say there are certain elements everybody could agree upon then you get into the whole difficulty about standards, what should be taught, and it turns out that there's enormous dissention over these issues. But surely anyone should come through the schools with a fairly good idea of what the American Constitution is, how it occurred, something about independence, the Civil War, the changing of American politics in the 19th century. I think the things that to my mind really should be understood in the schools, since we are a democratic country where people are going to have to exercise those responsibilities, have to do with the evolution of our political system. Certainly social issues are also important, but the idea that somehow the Constitution and Revolution are something called the "History of Great White Men" exclusively I think is about as crazy an idea as any I've heard expressed.
I would demonstrate this with my favorite taxicab story. Which occurred on a visit to Washington while I was finishing this book. I took a cab from National Airport to the Smithsonian, and had a black woman as a cab driver. And I sensed she was pleased to have me as a passenger, and I had no idea why. I wasn't paying too much attention; I was thinking about this meeting, and we had one of those conversations that you have mindlessly about the weather, at which point we said something about it was cold. I realized she was from somewhere else. Where was she from? She was from Africa. Bear in mind that this woman knew nothing about me, except that she had a middle-aged white woman who carried a briefcase and was going to the Smithsonian. I said it must be warmer in Africa, probably a beautiful place. "Yes," she said. "But it's better here." And I said, "What do you mean it's better here?" And I still wasn't thinking about it. And she says, "I like the Constitution." Absolutely overwhelmed me! She said, "I like government by law. Where I come from, we don't have government by law." And it meant something to her immediately. Then she said, "And I like equal rights." What she was talking about [were] the fundamental institutions of this country that were defined in the 18th century. She had no doubt that they were relevant to her life, and to her children.
CommonWealth: Do you have any ideas or suggestions for history teachers out there of how you can bring that sort of relevance and excitement in teaching history to American children who are growing up where those principles are taken for granted? That sort of excitement that the immigrant would be aware of--how do you convey that to American adolescents?
Maier: One way that I think you can do it is to go through the excitement of the Revolution. If you can make the events come alive for students, then they see the things they have assumed were always the way they are in a new way. There are many very talented teachers out there who find ways of doing this. Some of them contacted me via the miracle of e-mail after my book was published. One fellow in Tennessee actually told me he had his students write the Declaration of Independence in their own words. It was 7th- or 8th-graders. He had resources available for terms or words that were unfamiliar to the student. But he sent me what one of these students had written as his summary of the Declaration of Independence. Now, he didn't go through all the grievances. But the opening paragraphs were absolutely marvelous - to have these expressed in modern language that was understandable to a 7th- or 8th-grader. After he does this, he has them go through the official version. He said they could do it with great expertise since they'd written the document already. That's one technique of doing it. I think biography is another way that tends to work very well. Some of the best history books I know for children are actually fiction, because they do open up that era and make what seems obvious less than obvious.
CommonWealth: One last personal question: As a writer and as a historian, are you ever going to get out of the 18th century?
Maier: [laughs] Well. Occasionally I toy with the idea of writing something in the Civil War era. I'm not sure I'll ever really make it to the 20th century. But I just like writing history, if the truth were known. It's the challenge of trying to clean your mind of all the assumptions that come with being a person living in the 20th century and understanding another period. People ask, "Is history relevant?" I think it's always implicitly relevant. Every time you understand what's distinctive about a different time you are understanding what is distinctive about our time.