Friday, April 17, 2009

David Hume, Action Hero

Given that one does not usually associate philosophers with wartime military service, and given that one especially does not associate the vita activa with the reclusive and sanguine philosopher David Hume, I was somewhat surprised to come across this passage in the editor's notes to Hume's Essays Moral, Political, and Literary:

"In 1746, Hume accompanied an expeditionary force under General James St. Clair in an attack on the French coast. Hume describes the expedition, for which he received a commission as Judge-Advocate, in a manuscript known as the 'Descent on the Coast of Brittany.' See Mossner, The Life of David Hume (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1954), pp. 187-204.]"

The expedition in question was a minor military episode in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), a conflict which was important enough at the time but obscure today. Hume's manuscript describing the landing can be found in the 1889 edition of his Essays (available through Google Books). Seeking to aid Britain's allies in Flanders, General St. Clair took 4500 men from a cancelled expedition against Canada and threw them into a diversionary attack on the French coast. However, the organizers of the campaign were, according to Hume, dithering and clueless - the general didn't even have a map of Brittany. When the soldiers finally landed they made an abortive attempt to attack the fortified city of L'Orient, then withdrew a few weeks later, with the loss of 20 men and nothing at all to show for their pains - except a few sardonic remarks in an unfinished essay by one of Europe's great skeptics. It's the kind of story that Hume's contemporary, Voltaire, would have enjoyed.

Friday, April 03, 2009

OAH Convention Summary, Part the Second

In addition to attending a reception or two and browsing at the book exhibit, my main activity at this year's Organization of American Historians conference was attending two professional panels, one titled "Teaching American History as if the Pacific Mattered" (March 27), the other a "State of the Profession" panel on Native American History (March 28). The Pacific History panel featured presentations by Iris Engstrand, who presented some of her work on 18th-century explorers in the North Pacific; Thomas Osborne, who called for the creation of a Pacific History institute similar to Harvard's Atlantic World symposium; and Elliott Barkan, who observed ruefully that most American historians' consciousness stops at the Mississippi River. While the presentations were interesting, the session as a whole was an extended bout of question-begging, the question being "Is there really such a thing as 'Pacific History'? and if so, does anyone care?" I have my doubts. The panelists themselves seemed unsure, inasmuch as they frequently conflated Pacific History with the history of the American West, a related but not synonymous subfield.

The second panel was graced with some professional heavy-hitters - R. David Edmunds, Peter Iverson, Brenda Child, and Laurence Hauptman - but the panelists talked little about the actual "state of the field" (e.g. how many Native Americanist historians there now are, how many monographs we're producing, what questions we're now asking and interpretive devices are we using). Most instead spent their time telling a few good stories and anecdotes, and admonishing their peers to engage in more fieldwork - more direct contact with actual Native Americans - and to acknowledge the emotional depth of their field of study. I concur with the first admonition but not the second; the emotions most commonly associated with American Indian history are pity and rage, neither of which usefully contributes to historians' efforts to emphasize Native American agency and move them to the center of the historical narrative.

Dave Edmunds also informed the audience of a forthcoming American Experience miniseries on Native American history titled We Shall Remain, which premieres on April 13th. The five episodes cover 17th-century New England, Tecumseh, the Trail of Tears, Geronimo, and the Wounded Knee confrontation of 1973. A bit selective and dramatic, to be sure, but the producers wanted to make sure they could hold their audience's attention, which is a bit hard to do when you're discussing the High Plains smallpox epidemic or the Indian Reorganization Act.

Finally, here is a more thorough account of the OAH convention from the standpoint of another early Americanist (Ann Little of Colorado State University), who seems to have had a few problems with the local cuisine...