Historiography: finding the individual voice in national trends

 

I reviewed three secondary sources more in-depth. Together, the sources give three very different pictures of Davidson as an institution: the first a Presbyterian-centric image, the second focused on national pedagogical trends, and the third seeking to emphasize actions of individual historical actors. My project attempts to blend the latter two approaches by highlighting individuals within structurally-focused data.

The earliest work I reviewed was written by Reverend D. I. Craig and published in 1907. Craig’s Development of the Presbyterian Church in North Carolina focuses on the history of Carolinian synods, Church governing bodies. Craig tracks synod development through a discussion of changing boundary lines. The synods take on a personality of their own in his work; he often lists the members of a given synod without any explanation of individual motivations. Craig leads with a decidedly top-down approach, leaving the reader with a sense of inevitability.

Craig clearly reveals himself as Presbyterian as he hold the title “Reverend” and includes various sermons from Presbyterian ministers at the end of his book. For Craig, the Presbyterian story did feel inevitable, part of a divine plan. When Craig writes laments the mid-nineteenth century as a time when “other denominations came in and possessed much of the land which naturally and rightfully belonged to the Presbyterians[1],” it becomes clear that he writes to celebrate the accomplishments of Presbyterianism in settling America, not to provide an objective description of its development.

Craig’s approach represents an “ethno-ethnohistory” as anthropologists call it; his book tells the story of a culture from inside that culture. Craig sees Presbyterians as set apart and superior to everyone else and his historical documentation is a testament to that truth.

The nature of Craig’s affections colors his description of Davidson College. He writes that Davidson College “stands as a monument to the everlasting honor, praise and wisdom of our fathers, and is the pride and joy of all Presbyterians[2].” Thus, the reader gains a vision of the College as the culmination of divinely-ordained Presbyterian progress.

Contrastingly, Stephen Rice’s discussion of the manual labor movement places Davidson’s founding on a much more secular trajectory. For Rice, Davidson College, as a manual labor school, was part of national movements critical to shaping a new class structure in America. Rice focuses on the rise of the middle class in the nineteenth century. Rice’s main argument is that newly middle class Americans used mechanical discourse to emphasize cooperation among different levels of employees, asserting a space for themselves that avoided conflict with the upper class[3]. The mechanical focus of public discourse turned greater attention to the human body, the mechanical half of the mind/body combination that made up personhood. Rice sees the manual labor school as a culmination of increased public perception of the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle as well as a manifestation of the popular sentiment that mental and bodily exertion must be balanced[4]. Thus the reader comes away with a very different understanding of Davidson College. The College is not a beacon of light in the unruly southern wilderness, as Craig paints it; instead it is part of broad shifts in Americans’ understanding of themselves. The college is very much a part of national trends, not set apart from them.

Writing in 2004, Rice employs a much different approach to history than Craig’s insular concerns. Rice weaves seemingly isolated sectors into his version of a new American myth that celebrates the place of middle-income Americans. Craig subscribes to an American myth that posits Presbyterianism as the greatest thing that happened to America, no matter what your class level. Whereas Rice blends many facets of American life in a single outcome, antebellum class stratification, Craig sees American life emanating outward from a single point, Presbyterianism. Rice’s approach runs the risk identifying false marriages between or among various parts of American life, but Craig’s approach ignores the broader American context to a fault.

Jan Blodggett and Ralph Levering’s history of the town of Davidson applies a third historical approach to the time of the College’s founding. Blodgett and Levering capture the early years at Davidson by providing a richly detailed narrative. Their approach focuses on historical actors and actresses, adding in the explanations of individual motivation that are lacking in both Craig and Rice’s texts. Blodgett and Levering also take great care in illustrating the experience of marginalized people at the time. The authors include a section on race relations in the early years of the college[5] and take space to describe the enslaved family[6] that worked for the Robert Morrison (Davidson’s first president).

Additionally, Blodgett and Levering utilize historical voices found in primary source documents in their retelling of Davidson’s history. This technique gets the reader closer to experiencing the town’s history as an historical actor may have experienced it. Blodgett and Levering wrote the book as an ode to “the many Davidsonians over the years who have cared deeply about the well-being of their community,” and the authors’ accomplished their goal; the reader senses the personalities that surrounded Davidson College in its early days. In this interpretation, Davidson Collage emerges as the coalescence of a great multitude of local relationships. Blodgett and Levering’s approach lacks some of the national context that Rice provides, but it expertly demonstrates the contributions of locals, which is exactly what the authors intended when they limited their focus to the Davidson community.

Overall, these three texts give three very different pictures of Davidson College as an institution: a divinely-ordained monument to Presbyterian progress, the consequence of popular perceptions of mechanics and the body, or the mingling and melding of individual motivations into a learning community. A better history of the college’s founding would blend Rice’s approach with Blodgett and Levering’s. Despite its purported prominence in the region, the College has not been the subject of such a comprehensive study that would relate the motivations of the specific Davidson community with more general regional or national trends. From the inside out: How is it that Robert Morrison and his cohorts came to be interested in the manual labor school curriculum? And from the outside in: How was the manual labor curriculum adapted specifically for Davidson College? Current literature, while identifying important national trends and illuminating important historical actors, could use more analysis that merges the national and the local. My network is small step in this direction.

 

 

Works Cited

Blodgett, Jan, and Ralph B Levering. 2012. One Town, Many Voices: A History of Davidson, North Carolina. Davidson, NC: Davidson Historical Society.

Craig, D. I. 1907. A History of the Development of the Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, and of the Synodical Home Missions, Together with Evangelistic Addresses by James I. Vance and Others. Richmond, Va.: Whittet & Shepperson, Printers.

Rice, Stephen P. 2004. Minding the Machine Languages of Class in Early Industrial America. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

[1] Craig, D. I. 1907. A History of the Development of the Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, and of the Synodical Home Missions, Together with Evangelistic Addresses by James I. Vance and Others. Richmond, Va.: Whittet & Shepperson, Printers, 22.

[2] Ibid, 23.

[3] Rice, Stephen P. 2004. Minding the Machine Languages of Class in Early Industrial America. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 4.

[4] Ibid, 73.

[5] Blodgett, Jan, and Ralph B Levering. 2012. One Town, Many Voices: A History of Davidson, North Carolina. Davidson, NC: Davidson Historical Society, 21.

[6] Ibid, 6-7.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *