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Active Learning and Research

Meet the Anton Fellows: Breathing history

Interview with David Dubois
Worcester's American Antiquarian Society, with its nationally known collection of primary sources relating to early U.S. history, can be a treasure-trove to Clark history majors like David Dubois. After participating in a course held at the Society, David decided to conduct research into early Massachusetts politics. In a recent conversation, summarized below, he described how he got involved in historical research, and the difficulties the Revolutionary War generation faced in trying to establish legitimate state and federal constitutions.

What sparked your interest in United States history?

I'm from Massachusetts, and I guess my interest developed from just living in New England. The atmosphere seems to breathe history. It was the subject that I was particularly interested in during high school and what I did best in. So when I got to Clark, history was definitely what I wanted to study.

How did you find out about the Anton Fellowship?

I'm not sure when I first heard about the Fellowship, but the first time I really considered applying for it was after I completed Writing History (HIST120), a required course for all history majors. The course reviews ideas about the nature of history, the historical process, and types of historical sources and how they are used.

After taking that course I wanted to do some research. During the fall semester of my junior year I participated in the American Studies Seminar held at the American Antiquarian Society (HIST243) here in Worcester. As part of the course you get to undertake your own research project using the Society's archives, an extensive collection of pre-1820 documents. You can get lost in there for days! I decided I wanted to do another research project and applied for the Anton Fellowship to fund it over the summer.

Aside from what you'd done in your classes, had you participated in other research?

Yes, I was spending the summer after my sophomore year in Worcester, and I was interested in getting some research experience. I asked Dr. McCoy in the history department if I could help him out. He's researching Abraham Lincoln's early years and trying to assess what may have influenced him. As part of that I took a look at some of the newspapers Lincoln may have had access to.

What historical question did you research for your Anton Fellowship?

1780s Massachusetts witnessed a lot of tumultuous political events-two attempts to formulate a state constitution (1778-80), the end of the Revolutionary War (1781), Shay's Rebellion (1786-7), and the ratification of the United States Constitution (1788). I'm examining the interaction between local (town level) and state politics in Massachusetts as it affected the establishment of both a state constitution and the ratification of the federal constitution.

Why did some people or regions of the state support the constitutions while others were in opposition? At first I thought it might just be a split between urban and rural or eastern and western areas of the state, but that's proved too simplistic. On a broader level I also want to see if there's a connection between ideas of democracy and government legitimacy, and try to chart the intellectual history of those ideas in Massachusetts politics during this time.

Is it correct that the first attempt to draw up a state constitution for Massachusetts occurred during the Revolutionary War?

Yes, in 1778. During the war, Massachusetts was operating under the colonial charter, minus the governor appointed by the British crown. While a governor was absent, his council, whose members were elected from the legislature, assumed his authority. A movement developed in Berkshire County, in the western part of the state, challenging the authority of a government whose authority was still technically derived from the King. The constitutionalists, as they were called, closed their local courts and refused to allow the judges and justices of the peace to carry out their business. They wanted to formulate a new constitution setting out the terms of a new state government not tied to Britain.

The Massachusetts legislature drew up a constitution, but it wasn't really satisfactory to anybody and it was shot down thoroughly. Opposition came particularly from people in the eastern part of the state near Boston, who argued that the time wasn't right because for one thing, the war was still going on.

Political representation in Massachusetts during this period was more complicated than it is today. For the most part, excluding some of the larger cities closer to the seaboard, each town was alloted one representative in the General Court. It was the responsibility of each community, not the state legislature, to pay for its own representative's living expenses while in Boston. This placed a burden on smaller communities which, for the most part, chose not to send representatives. The year 1778 saw an exception to this trend, because of the political pressure from western communities to write a constitution. Their numbers should have allowed them a political victory, but they were outmaneuvered politically. Because of their lack of political experience, they couldn't form an effective block of voters.

A second attempt occurred in 1779-80, when a special convention (separate from the legislature) was elected to draft a constitution. Although the resulting document was finally approved, its validity was questionable. The convention was held in Boston, and the winter was so severe that few of the delegates from the western part of the state were able to attend. Nonetheless, a constitution was submitted to the towns for approval.

Right now I'm in the process of examining returns from individual towns regarding the 1780 convention. In many cases the proposed constitution was considered, article-by-article, during town meetings. Some towns recorded their objections to different parts of the document. I'm examining those in detail and trying to determine if there was a pattern to the opposition.

I find it interesting that in the second attempt, unlike the first, there were so many people opposed to the constitution in the western part of the state, and how much support there was in the eastern part. I think there was a lot of regional conflict that carried over from an earlier phase of the Revolution, when there were complaints from people in the east about food prices and about the westerners' support for the revolutionary cause.

What kinds of primary sources are you using?

Up to this point, most of my sources have been local and state government records. There are petitions from county conventions from towns that were filed into record, and returns relating to the 1778 and 1780 constitutional conventions. Some spell out quite specifically the objections with the documents and provide an ideological background for the opposition.

In regard to the Massachusetts ratification of the federal constitution, a journal was kept at the time that recorded the proceedings and what was said. There's also a four-volume collection of documents that's been assembled at the University of Wisconsin relating to the ratification by Massachusetts of the federal constitution.

This research is going to be incorporated into the honors thesis that I am currently working on. I'm hoping to also find some manuscripts that can add a more personal perspective.

Can you comment on what you perceive as the advantages and disadvantages of participating in research, in contrast to more traditional classroom learning?

What I really like about history is not what happens in a classroom, though I like reading books about history and hearing what historians have to say. But the chance to do this type of research, to hold a paper from the 1780s in your hands, is a very valuable experience. It's what I like about history. If I had to stay in a classroom all day and never got out to explore and sift through information, I don't think I'd like history as much as I do. The Anton Fellowship has given me an opportunity to do history rather than just read about it. That makes it a more enjoyable experience.

And you also have the opportunity to investigate your own questions, rather than just reading about those that have been asked by others.

Not only does research allow you to formulate your own questions, it gives you an opportunity to question things other historians have done, to evaluate their assumptions, and to see if you interpret documents the same way they did. You also have a chance to find out what documents they didn't consider in their analyses. History is very subjective--it's human interpretation--and as such it's based as much on the ideas of the historian as what actually happened. It's a good idea once in a while to just check up on historians and make sure they're not misleading to you!

 

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