Distinguished Lecturers
Seth Cotlar

Seth Cotlar

Seth Cotlar is a professor of history at Willamette University. His first book, Tom Paine's America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (2011), won the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic's James Broussard Best First Book Prize. His current book project is entitled "When the Olden Days Were New: The Cultural History of Nostalgia in Modernizing America, 1776–1860."

OAH Lectures by Seth Cotlar

Americans have long used the term "democracy" to describe the political system they most admire and in which they live, but in the founding era, "democracy" was a fighting word. It is rare to find someone who used the term "democracy" with a positive connotation before the early 1790s, yet by 1800 a significant number of Americans proudly used it as a descriptor of their new nation's political system. This talk will explore how and why this transformation occurred, and how we might think about its lasting significance. I will focus on the role Thomas Paine played in shifting the meaning of the term democracy in this era of international revolution, both as an influential thinker and a controversial symbol of democracy's most radical implications.

In the 1820s and 1830s there emerged a new category of people--self-described "antiquaries" and lovers of "the olden times." By the 1840s, just about every town or county had a small community of quirky amateur historians. These librarians, bank clerks, widows, and lawyers collected old books and manuscripts, hoarded old tools and objects, donned "old fashioned" clothing, filled their houses with anachronistic furniture, drew sketches of old houses before they were about to be torn down, and regaled anyone who would listen with stories from "the olden days" that they had gleaned from their conversations with local octogenarians. In an era when most of their contemporaries could not have cared less about history (Independence Hall, for example, was almost torn down and replaced with a more modern building in the 1820s), this community of eccentrics produced hundreds of local histories and founded dozens of historical societies. This work matters, because the material they collected formed the foundation of the modern historical archive that we now use to reconstruct the history of early North America. In this talk, I will critically interrogate the nostalgic impulses that animated this work of recovery and preservation. For the most part, these builders of the archive have been looked down upon, if not entirely ignored, by professional historians because of their unseemly, melancholy attachment to objects and documents from the "obsolete" past. Their emotional investment in their work disqualified them as "serious" scholars for a profession eager to define itself as rigorously modern and empirical. But I argue that the melancholy, nostalgic sensibility of these early nineteenth century historians is precisely what enabled them to see certain features of the American past that many of their more forward-looking contemporaries wished to forget. Indeed, we are now able to tell more capacious and creative histories of early America today, in part, because of the radically inclusive work of preservation carried out by this first generation of nostalgic hoarders, and eccentric lovers of "the olden times."

This lecture draws on my experience of teaching a course on the History of American Conservatism almost every year since 2010, the year the Tea Party Movement made its momentary splash on the American political stage. Each year I have made slight changes to the course in response to new issues that have emerged on the political scene. The election of 2016, however, forced me to dramatically rethink how I approached this class. Topics in the history of American Conservatism that I had once considered fairly marginal (like the history of America First isolationism or the John Birch Society, to take just two examples) now appeared to have played a far more important role in shaping the nation's political culture. As Trump's opponents in both the Republican and Democratic parties made ever more strenuous arguments in defense of longstanding institutions like the press, the courts, regulatory agencies, international alliances, and the intelligence community, it made me reconsider whether it even made sense to use the term "conservative" to describe the current Republican administration. Were contemporary progressives and moderates the ones most eagerly seeking to conserve the nation's political traditions and institutions, and were they thus the true inheritors of the American conservative tradition? And if that was the case, how do we explain why most Americans who called themselves "conservative" voted for Donald Trump? Amidst all of this terminological confusion, we are left to wonder what words like progressive, moderate, and conservative even mean, in both a contemporary and a historical sense. This talk will discuss how the scholarship on the history of American conservatism has evolved since the early 1990s when the field first emerged. It will also offer some thoughts on how the present shapes the ways historians view the past, both as scholars and as teachers.

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