An Interview with Professor Mark Boonshoft
JMC Resident Historian Elliott Drago sat down with JMC Member Mark Boonshoft. Dr. Boonshoft is Associate Professor and Conrad M. Hall ’65 Chair in American Constitutional History at Virginia Military Institute.
ED: What inspired you to become an American historian?
MB: In 4th Grade, I got an A+++ on a paper about Thomas Jefferson. I figured: stick with what you’re good at. Actually, it wasn’t quite that linear.
I worked in a law firm during college. At least once a week, my boss would say to me, “whatever you do, don’t be a lawyer.” What else could an argumentative guy who stunk at math do with his life? More seriously, for whatever reason, I had always found myself drawn to the early republic period. That would not have been enough, though, to get me to make this career choice. Rather, I had good history teachers in high school and professors in college who early on made me realize that history is an interpretive discipline. Historians ask questions and then argue endlessly over possible answers. It was learning historiography that really pulled me in.
ED: What do you consider an underrated moment in the American founding?
MB: I’d say the ratification controversy of 1787-1789. I don’t know that it’s underrated, but it’s at least underappreciated by most Americans. The fact that there was a prolonged, controversial fight whether to adopt the Constitution is not well known. The consequences of that oversight are dangerous.
The notion that criticizing the Constitution is beyond the pale rests on omitting the fact that it was decidedly unpopular (probably >50% of voters voted for Anti-Federalist candidates to state ratifying conventions). Reading the Federalist Papers as some objective source for decoding the Constitution’s meaning only works if you ignore the context in which it was written. More generally, it matters that the most consequential political decision made by Americans before the Civil War happened in the aftermath of a bloody civil war, in a country wracked by continued political violence and the possibility of disunion, amid fears of uprisings by enslaved and Indigenous people, and that participants used the most unbecoming political tactics imaginable.
ED: Describe how digitizing archives has changed how we study history.
MB: Some of it has been for the good. Historians can access more material—both manuscript and printed sources—which allows for more deeply researched projects. One can cover more ground than if you had to access everything directly in a bunch of different special collections libraries.
On the other hand, there has been a loss of local specificity. Histories that grow out of a scholar completely immersing themselves in a local archive are my favorites—think of Robert Gross’s Minutemen and their World. For more on this question, check out the book of essays I edited with Nora Slonimsky and Ben Wright, American Revolutions in the Digital Age, which will be out in 2024 with Cornell University Press.
ED: Explain some of the arguments used by American education reformers to convince the public that education was vital to self-government.
MB: The main argument was civic. In a republic, the people rule. For them to do so capably, the people needed to be educated. In addition, if you took seriously the notion that all people were created equal, then the logical realization was that the most talented and virtuous people were distributed evenly throughout society. The children of wealthy and powerful families—the traditional constituency for formal education, in a world without universal public education—were no more likely to make good leaders than anyone else.
This is why five of the original state constitutions included provisions to support public education, why the Northwest Ordinance created a mechanism for building public schools in every town, and why so many founding-era Americans wrote elaborate plans for national systems of education. To ensure a good republic, and to ensure that the most deserving people hade a path to public office, access to education needed to be equalized. Absent that, the US would just recreate an aristocracy within a democratic political system. Education reformers have consistently failed to implement their ideas, which is why we arguably have even now an unrepresentative political system.
ED: Which figure from American history embodies your definition of “informed citizenship”?
Tough question. Maybe Thurgood Marshall? I cannot think of someone who did more to advance these ideas and try to make them reality.
ED: What has your research taught you about America’s founding principles and history?
MB: There were some really good ideas, like a commitment to equality. But also, those ideas could not be actualized without creating a deliberate institutional architecture to make it possible—things like public schools. Much of my earliest and current research is on the politics of slavery and racial inequality, especially in the North. So the other thing my research has taught me is that you cannot understand the political ideas of the founding era without taking into account slavery and the questions created by emancipation. I’ll use two examples.
First, representation: This was arguably the most important issue in creating a government for the United States. The revolutionary slogan after all was “no taxation without representation,” right? When it came to ratification, could the Constitution adequately represent Americans? Were congressional districts too big, the senate too unresponsive, and so forth? Relatedly, for the purposes of apportionment, should you count people, citizens, voters? Every single element of this debate was shaped by the politics of slavery and the presence of enslaved people.
I have an article in New York History on this. Also check out David Waldstreicher’s Slavery’s Constitution and all of Jan Ellen Lewis’s remarkably brilliant and criminally underappreciated essays on the 3/5th clause.
Second, education. As I mentioned above, one of the primary arguments for creating public education in the early American period was to make possible informed citizenship. As I argue in a piece called “From Property to Education” (Journal of the Early Republic, Fall 2021), Northern states used expanded access to public schools as a justification for expanding voting rights—average citizens were now capable of voting.
Well, free Black men and women in the North took that argument seriously—perhaps more seriously than the average free white American. They built schools, clamored for access to public schools, and used their education to demand equal access to the ballot box. Racist Northerners responded by racializing the vote and segregating their schools. Racist disenfranchisement and racially segregated public schools became mutually reinforcing institutions in the early national North—there is your playbook for Jim Crow.
ED: What’s one thing you wish that every student knew about American history?
That it is constantly being rethought. “Revisionist history” is a GOOD thing. If you’re not revising, you’re just regurgitating. If history is supposed to help make critical thinkers and good citizens, then there has to be the possibility that existing interpretations are wrong and existing narratives are open to critique. IF we close off the possibility of revision, history cannot possibly teach critical thinking, or much of anything.
ED: Powerful words, thank you for your time!
Elliott Drago serves as the JMC’s Resident Historian and Editorial Manager. He is a historian of American history and the author of Street Diplomacy: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom in Philadelphia, 1820-1850 (Johns-Hopkins University Press, 2022).
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