What’s the Point of the Declaration of Independence?

Happy July 4th, everyone. There was a little item in the New York Times yesterday, about whether or not a mark in the Declaration of Independence is a period or an ink smudge, and what that means. Why is this important? In the grand scheme, it isn’t. But it lends some interesting insight into whether or not the Continental Congress thought that the state is a necessary component of liberty.

At question is whether the list of natural rights – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – is part of the same sentence as what followed: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Whether or not this is a period or an ink dot (or a comma, the article doesn’t go into that) doesn’t substantially change what Congress was trying to say, but it does indicate how close they thought the relationship was between the two concepts.

One interpretation, which is most strongly held by libertarians, is that the state is something foreign and extrinsic to liberty – that it is a necessary evil, so to speak. But there is another interpretation, which is that the state is a necessary good, and that liberty really can’t be enjoyed without it.

Generally speaking, it is the second interpretation that I think is closer to the Lockean philosophy held by most of the delegates to the Continental Congress. According to Locke, the commonwealth emerging from the social contract was an organic part of society, not something that existed in opposition to it. Locke could hold this view because the state in 17th century England was just as Locke described it: it was small, it was local, and it was limited by traditions emerging organically from English society, particularly feudal relationships, the Magna Carta, and the common law. The large Anglo-British state that fought France and later alienated its American colonies didn’t exist until after the Glorious Revolution – a good ten years after Locke composed his Second Treatise on Government.

Locke provided fertile ideas to the colonists because they continued to exist in this smaller, pre-Glorious Revolution state. Some good research has been done on the extent to which colonists were still utilizing 17th century political ideas as late as the 1770s (see the work of JGA Pocock, John Phillip Reid, and Eric Nelson). Meanwhile, the governments of the American colonies remained small, local, and limited by legal traditions. This was why they so strenuously objected to the imposition of the British imperial state after 1763.

The issue of the period separating natural rights from the role of government in the Declaration of Independence is a useful reminder that the American Revolution could be a “revolution in favor of government” while at the same time being a rebellion against a large external state. It indicates that what the Continental Congress really cared about was not rebelling against the government, but establishing government that was rooted in the needs of the community and under the control of its subjects.

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Book review: Jack Greene’s “Confronting Colonialism and Evaluating Empire”

It’s been a while since my last post on this blog, but I’ve been busy with some other projects that should see the light of day over the course of 2014. One thing that I can reveal is my latest contribution to the IHR’s Reviews in History, a review of the notable Jack P. Greene’s latest book, Evaluating Empire and Confronting Colonialism in Eighteenth Century Britain. I’m a big fan of Greene’s work, although I didn’t feel that this one rose to the same level as some of his other writings.

I will give Greene credit for attempting to analyze political language on the important question of how Britain came to embrace its empire. After all, the British Empire was originally just a collection of trading outposts, and global dominance was hardly something that this famously insular people had sought out. But doing history of language is tricky, because of the extraordinary temptation to substitute one’s own categories of language for ones that were actually in use at the time. I think that is what happened here.

You can read the whole review here.

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Starting Your PhD – Using and Choosing Your Software: Reference Management

Part 2 of a 2-part series on academic software:

Reference Management

Reference management software is a program that offers some combination of note taking and bibliography building. For Mac, I use Third Street Software’s Sente. For PC as well as Mac, there are many options that I am less familiar with, ranging from paid programs Endnote to open-source freeware such as Zotero. I will offer a detailed review of Sente before summarising some other offerings for Mac and Windows.

While I do not feel as strongly about it as I do Scrivener, on the whole I have been very pleased with Sente, which I have been using since the first month of my PhD. Since that time, my library has grown to nearly 1,800 references. The Sente developers have been particularly good at expanding Sente’s capabilities, notably in the area of tagging. On the whole, computer organisation is moving away from the old file folder, in which files were grouped together into hierarchical folders. The disadvantages of this approach are that a file can only be in one folder at a time, and only one folder at a time can be viewed. Like the single-page view within a traditional word processor, this approach is unsuitable for large projects and big data. A different approach is needed.

Tagging provides a much more flexible way of organising data. Suppose I take Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution. Under a folder system, I would have to choose a single folder to place it in, and later on I might forget which folder that is; but with tagging, I can assign multiple search terms to a citation while leaving it in the main database. For Wood’s book, I would want to tag the citation with ‘American Revolution’, but I might also want to tag it with ‘social reform’ or even ‘Matt Damon’. Then, when I am researching a particular topic, I can simply enter a keyword and Radicalism will be displayed along with other relevant sources. This is a much better way of organising a large database and can help to simulate the useful sense of browsing a bookshelf, whereby the researcher can often discover a source they might otherwise have overlooked in a more rigid setting.

A nice thing about Sente is that it is free, but a downside is that they have linked the ability to create a bibliography of more than 100 sources to the purchase of online sync space. The sync space is nice, especially if you are running Sente for iPad, but I have not found it to be essential since I am only using my main computer, so I wish they hadn’t done that, but at least it means the program is free to start. Buying a Sente license unlocks the limit and buys you 1 GB of permanent sync space; more space requires a yearly subscription. My own library is about 2.2 GB, but at 1,777 citations my library is probably bigger than most PhD candidates’, since I have included a fair number of ebooks and long law journal articles that tend to be 2-3 times the size of a humanities article. A single gigabyte of space should be sufficient for a library of about 1,000 sources, a divided roughly equally between journal articles with the PDF attachments, and books that are the citation only. Another nice thing is that all your attachments can be annotated within the Sente viewer. Thus I am able to keep all of my notes directly attached to their source material and viewable on demand.

Here’s a screenshot of my Sente library:


Now, it is possible that Sente is not for you, either because it seems too complicated (although its complexity is an indication of its power as a tool) or because you don’t run a Mac. I will run through a few more options.

Endnote seems to be the most widely used reference manager for Windows and Mac, but it’s expensive. I would say that it is the closest to Sente you can get for Windows, being a proper database program, but it doesn’t seem to have Sente’s advanced functionality involving tagging. On the one hand, it is widely used, but on the other why pay up front when you don’t have to? There are lots of other options out there.

One such program that comes recommended to me by a colleague is Zotero, a browser-integrated reference manager that allows you to harvest data directly from webpages. The advantage of Zotero is that it is a much lighter piece of software than Sente or Endnote. Zotero is functional enough that Endote’s creators sued Zotero for infringing upon Endnote, a suit that was dismissed. Given also that Endnote costs $139 for the student edition, it seems that Zotero is worth trying out first.

I don’t think there is a single right answer to the question of which reference manager to use, and fortunately there are a large number of programs to choose from. It’s about choosing the reference manager that you feel most comfortable using, balanced with the ability to expand in functionality as your research progresses. That second part is crucial and easy to overlook at the beginning of a project. Once you build a library within a reference manager you won’t have the time or energy to build a new one in a different program, so make sure that you balance the two above factors; citations can be ported over but not necessarily the metadata that makes a collection of citations into your personal library. Simplicity of use may indicate a lack of functionality. This is not always the case, but be careful, read reviews, and make an informed decision.

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Starting Your PhD: Using and Choosing Your Software

It’s September, and that means that another class of PhD candidates will be entering university to embark on a research project that will take up anywhere from three years to a decade’s worth of their time and effort. Doing a PhD can be a valuable thing, but you have to do it right. Financial insolvency and project fatigue are two dangers that face the unprepared PhD candidate. In the following series of posts, I will cover the academic software options available to PhD candidates and explain how they integrate into a well-planned course of research. A subsequent series of posts will address PhD finance and career planning. (Note: while potentially useful to any PhD candidate, this advice is intended for students of the humanities, particularly those within the UK, as that is where my personal experience lies.)

There are four types of software every researcher must have: a draft editor, a reference manager, a database, and a mind mapper. While there is overlap between some of these types of software, it is best to think of them as separate items. If you can find a program that combines these functions, that’s all to the good, but don’t assume that you will. This first post will deal exclusively with drafting software – where the writing and editing of the PhD thesis gets done.

Drafting Software

Word processors, such as Microsoft Word, are good applications for short documents or final editing for publication, but they are terrible for the composition of long documents, due to their inflexibility and the limited view available of the whole document at any given time. A document extending into double digits of page length quickly becomes unworkable. Instead of a word processor, the PhD candidate is advised to purchase drafting software that will allow text to be written in manageable chunks, while also allowing a flexible overview of the entire work in progress.

I use Scrivener for my drafting needs, and it is probably the best program I have ever purchased. It is available for both Windows and Mac, published by the boutique software house Literature & Latte. Scrivener appears as a corkboard to which the user can pin notecards containing ideas, but the beauty of the program is that these notecards are merely the surface imagery of a very deep organisational program. 

Scrivener contains a multi-column view. The left navigation column allows the user to see the entire document, with the ‘notecards’ actually forming sections within the document. I adopted a hierarchical approach, with a Scrivener project for each chapter of my thesis. The chapter was broken down into folders, within which I placed notecards representing topics I wished to address, topics that soon became sections and sub-sections of the chapter organisation. The corkboard, comprising the large central column, can be toggled into an outline or composition mode, within which you can write the document itself. The right column is the Inspector, within which you can add metadata as well as footnotes and comments to the main work. On larger screens, the central column can be split into two panes, so that the text editor, outliner, or corkboard can be viewed simultaneously.

Here’s a screenshot of one of my draft chapters in Scrivener:


As you can see, this is very powerful software, and at the bottom of the navigation pane (left column) you can see that there is room for attachments, so as to keep your documents all under one project file. This is a very valuable feature that I have not yet utilised to the full, but you may find useful in your own work. Given that Scrivener is available for both Windows and Mac, and given my own high regard for it, I will leave the matter of drafting software there and turn next to reference managers.


Next to come: Reference management software.

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Movie Review: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

Warning: This post contains massive spoilers from the beginning.

When did actors become too talented for their movie roles? That question started to bother me soon after watching the latest Star Trek film, “Star Trek Into Darkness”. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy watching the film. Indeed, at times I was nearly giddy with recognition of details alluding, and sometimes directly referencing, earlier films. But as soon as the credits rolled I was immediately dissatisfied. A film that is essentially a remake of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, “Into Darkness” is crippled by association and cannot stand in comparison to its parent film, largely because the flimsiness of the writing cannot sustain it. Continue reading

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Why were there no decisive battles in the US Civil War?

There’s an interesting discussion going on in response to a post by James Q. Whitman at the New York Times’ Disunion blog. Whitman argues that the reason the US Civil War did not have decisive field battles, and instead ended as the result of the Union’s policy of total war against Confederate society, was that the US Civil War was an ideological war between two republics, whereas eighteenth century wars were characterized by decisive battles fought between legalistic monarchies, who accepted the outcome of trial-by-battle. Paul Krugman counters that the mass production of the long rifle neutralized the ability of cavalry formations to exploit the retreat of a defeated army, and hence the victors of a particular battle were unable to consolidate their gains, thereby dragging out the duration of the war.

There are some pretty big flaws with both interpretations. I think that Whitman misreads the eighteenth century wars when he states that:

The wars of the 18th century were legal procedures, fought over carefully stated legal royal claims to territory, and were justified by carefully formulated legal briefs. They were staged in orderly ways intended to symbolize the glory and civilization of royal courts. But in the mid-19th century the two Americans republics and the French Republic began to fight more bitter and more horrible wars, in the name of grander ideals. Hard though it is to accept, democratic idealism and widespread death began to march hand in hand.

While Whitman is correct that some of the intra-European wars were fought as disputes over royal claims to territory, particularly the claims of rival houses over the Spanish and Austrian empires, he overlooks the importance of imperial politics as generated from mercantile and colonial, rather than court, interests. While the claims of entities such as the various monopolistic trading companies, or the claims of colonial settlers, were frequently territorial in nature, they were presented in the language of national self-interest, with the language of royalism being a secondary consideration. Mercantile interests had also developed a nuanced ideology of national prosperity to justify their policies. Analysis of the limited nature of eighteenth century European warfare must take this into account. (Whitman also understates the extent to which civilians were victims of eighteenth century warfare; massive population displacement, such as the flight of the German Palatine refugees to London, and then to New York, was less severe than in the seventeenth century but not unheard of.) Continue reading

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Was The Iraq War Inevitable? A 10th Anniversary Counter-factual.

When the Iraq War started ten years ago, I was a college freshman studying politics, and to call my understanding of international affairs “sophomoric” would be getting ahead of ourselves. I was enthusiastically in support of the war – I read the newspaper coverage of diplomacy, tracked the troop buildup online, and even stayed up all night on March 19th in order to watch the war as it started on TV. I look back at the way I looked at the world in 2003, and I am amazed by how dumb I was. Having access to lots of information doesn’t make you informed.

Over the years, I turned against the war like most everyone else, but I’ve never lost interest in it. I even went so far as to present a research paper on the Iraqi military at a conference hosted by the US & UK navies – a bit outside of my current area of expertise, but one in which I have a wealth of background knowledge. The Iraq War came to define my undergraduate experience in many ways and, when it came time to choose a career, was the main reason why I chose to go into academia rather than government service. (The jury is still out on that decision.) I also teach Iraq as part of my American history undergraduate survey. Each year, the last class is a discussion of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” and James Fallows’ “The Fifty-First State“.

So I think about this topic a lot. The Iraq War was a mistake, but why, exactly? Certainly the mendacity of Republican officials, and the self-serving political risk management of the Democratic opposition, are two main factors. The war was bungled politically from the very beginnings of diplomacy. But here is where I have a hangup with the “we should never have gone there” crowd. We were already there. So the question we have to ask ourselves is: “was the Iraq War inevitable?” Continue reading

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