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Quick-start guide to building a design-first company

In an age where user experience (UX) is key to a business’s success and differentiation, innovative teams know they have to prioritize UX from day one. Regardless of your company or industry, better design creates an improved user experience and drives customer excitement for your product. Zealous customers become early adopters, and in optimal scenarios,…



Quick-start guide to building a design-first company

In an age where user experience (UX) is key to a business’s success and differentiation, innovative teams know they have to prioritize UX from day one.

Regardless of your company or industry, better design creates an improved user experience and drives customer excitement for your product. Zealous customers become early adopters, and in optimal scenarios, can help a product go viral through grassroots evangelism. McKinsey’s The Business Value of Design report tracks the McKinsey Design Index (MDI), which rates companies by strength of design and how design plays into their financial performance. The report found top-quartile MDI companies had 32% higher revenue growth than their industry counterparts over the course of a five-year period. Design is essential to success.

The following tactical tips can help your company prioritize design from day one.

1. Talk to your users

Building well-designed products comes down to a simple principle: making your users happy. To make your users happy, you need to talk to them, understand what they really need and want, and dig into key pain points. The top priority is to understand how your product addresses pain points, and more specifically, how your product’s design meaningfully adds to or detracts from user experience.

Talk to dozens of customers and understand why they enjoy using your product. What are their favorite parts? Least favorite parts? What are their key pain points (both related to your product and related to their job at large)? How does your product fit into or disrupt their existing workflow? Customer conversations are not just one and done. It is crucial to be in constant communication with customers and use their insights to continuously iterate on the product.

Make sure you also have a good idea of who your target customers are. You might expect your target customers to be one demographic, but in reality, your product could end up being readily used by a totally different one! (This can be a good thing, especially if you are willing to be creative.)

A few resources to get you started:

2. Communicate with your audience

There are several ways to start building trust with your audience even before your product has launched. Working in public, or sharing work with the world as it is being developed, is an important way to build community and gather feedback. Some great ways to put this idea into practice are:

  • Community update emails, including key product milestones achieved, roadmap, and asks — for example, help with hiring and introductions to specific types of investors.
  • Blog posts are a traditional way to provide updates to the community.
  • If the company has an open-source element, GitHub is a great place to build and engage with an active community of passionate and technical individuals.
  • Platforms like Slack or Discord often offer a forum separate from GitHub that allow a community to grow and connect organically. They afford more spontaneity through external plug-ins like Donut, which pair people up to get to know one another better
  • Focus groups (also great for user research) allow companies to get to know their users’ pain points, and thoughts on the product, if developed. Small, targeted focus groups can lead to rich feedback and power users. See this First Round Review for more information on qualitative research

These initiatives help generate support for a technology from the bottom up, but more importantly, they help foster a human connection, which makes any purchasing decision simpler.

3. Create clear documentation

Documentation is created to share technical and visual design elements and to serve as a persistent style guide within an organization. Internal documentation helps employees understand the company’s mission, vision, roadmap, and north star. It can also cover standard operating procedures and resources. External documentation is designed for current and future users of the product. An external knowledge base is a public-facing toolset answering basic questions about the company and includes demos, integration information, how-to guides, etc.

Documentation should ultimately minimize the amount of time key employees spend answering questions. Clear documentation can also reduce friction in the sales process by allowing a user to get up and running faster.


  • Read the Docs is a free and open-source effort that simplifies software documentation by building, versioning, and hosting of docs automatically. According to its website, “Read the Docs Community hosts documentation for over 100,000 large and small open-source projects, in almost every human and computer language.”
  • GitBook started in 2014 as an open-source tool for developers to build documentation. Today it allows teams to create internal and external documentation.
  • Confluence by Atlassian.
  • Optic helps companies keep their API docs updated.
  • Almanac, a platform for creating and collaborating on open-source work documents, templates, and checklists, offers a guide on documentation: How to Write Technical Documentation for Your Software Project by Damien Filiatrault

4. Think about the user interface (UI)

Beyond just talking to your users, it’s important to understand how your users interact and live with your product. What parts do they spend the most time on? How often do they engage with your product? What pages do they get stuck on? It is as important to understand what parts of the product your users are working on most as it is to understand where they are not.

As you begin tracking user behavior, make sure you have a feedback loop in place to measure and respond to events. User behavior tracking will enable you to identify unique drop-off rates and adapt your product in real time.

Ultimately, you can’t design a better UI until you understand the baseline for said user experience!


  • Use FullStory, Cohere, or other user tracking apps to watch, interact with, and analyze user behavior and patterns over time.
  • Develop a robust set of product analytics tools like Amplitude, MixPanel, or others.
  • Check out Mixpanel’s Behavioral Analytics Guide.
  • Listen to the Airbnb How I Built This podcast; Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia talks about his realization that making two small product tweaks — professional home photos and frictionless payment — changed the trajectory of his company.

5. Minimize Friction

Focus on making your product as easy to use and try as possible. Identify any friction points to user adoption and work to reduce them. With short user attention spans, rapid time to value is a necessity. Try to identify lightweight ways to show value on a small scale (e.g. trial, online beta version) to pique the interest of prospective customers. Try to think of ways for your product to seamlessly fit into workflow and more importantly find value in as low-friction a way as possible.

Asana’s design principles state, “design for fast, effortless, and intentional interactions. Simple and common tasks should be frictionless and obvious; complex tasks should feel efficient and delightful. But speed should not lead to inaccuracies.”


6. Spice up your website

Does your website reflect your product and design principles? Your product value? Your website is often your users’ first impression and interaction with your product; the user experience should be meaningful.

While it depends on your product, a good website usually has three main attributes:

  1. A clear description of the product (in a concise way that product users will understand). Krisp, the noise cancelling app, is a good example.
  2. An easy way to sign up or try the product. A quick response time to leads improves conversion rates. Aglet points you directly to its app, through which you experience its core product, which turns physical steps into virtual currency.
  3. Case studies can build credibility. Why is your product worth learning more about, and how does it work in practice? Amplitude has a great page on case studies filterable by industry to illustrate its product value and reaffirm credibility.

Blogs or written content, i.e.thought leadership in your category can drive traffic to your website as an added bonus!

A few website tips:

  • Canva – lightweight logo creation and design.
  • Squarespace or Webflow have beautiful, easily adaptable website templates, which can be a good starting point
  • If you’re looking for outsourced help, the Webflow Experts Community, JulyCamp, or FuzzCo can help with website design or creative brand definition.

7. Community & personalization

It’s the little things that count. You can roll your eyes, but this cliche rings true in the context of user experience. Software and consumer goods companies both have opportunities when it comes to making the user feel valued. The pandemic-driven paradigm shift for how humans interact with digital goods gives companies an excuse to be creative. Depending on a company’s end goal, how it makes consumers feel can positively impact its bottom line.

Take the example of Peloton. Peloton works hard to build its community of riders and instructors. The instructors are personable and friendly, riders follow them on social media, comment on posts, and engage in the community. When riders complete 100 rides, Peloton sends them a “century club” T-shirt. Riders get a dopamine rush from achieving this goal, and seeing fellow riders in the “century club” T-shirt out in public makes them feel as if they’ve gained admittance into an exclusive club.

Give the people what they want! Stripe also offers a community-first approach. Though it is a payments company, it acquired Indie Hackers (a startup-focused community), offers Stripe Atlas (resources to help with company formation), and runs Stripe Press (a publishing arm focused on “books about economic and technological advancement”). Stripe understands by offering tools to innovators and entrepreneurs before they even begin their businesses, it improves its own visibility and bottom line.

Know the key user personas in your community and determine how you can make the experience incredible for these groups. User personas are characters that embody the needs, traits, and goals of a company’s current or ideal customer based on user research. As a thought exercise, you can think through what Peloton, Stripe, or your favorite company’s user personas might look like and cater your product accordingly. There are numerous effective templates and services available to help with user research and in developing user personas. Examples: UserTesting, Lookback, and Personify.

Design as a first principle is paramount to creating a magical user experience.

Morgan Mahlock is an investor at In-Q-Tel, the non-profit strategic investor supporting the U.S. intelligence and national security community, on the West Coast Investment team. She previously spent time at the NFL and at Lockheed Martin and works with a variety of nonprofit organizations, including BLCK VC and EVCA. 

Grace Isford is an investor at Canvas Ventures, an early-stage boutique venture firm focusing on leading Series A&B rounds in enterprise & consumer investments. She previously worked in growth equity at Stripes Group, as a product manager at Handshake, a digital recruitment platform for college students, and at the Stanford Management Company, helping manage over $24 billion in assets.

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To Work on a Hot Planet

By 1961, Charles Koch had stacked up three engineering degrees and was back home in Wichita, Kansas, to join the family business of oil refining, pipelines, and manufacturing. His father, Fred, was at the time attempting to tackle a different sort of engineering challenge: how to get unions, Communists, and big government off his back.…



To Work on a Hot Planet

By 1961, Charles Koch had actually stacked up three engineering degrees and was back home in Wichita, Kansas, to join the household company of oil refining, pipelines, and manufacturing. His dad, Fred, was at the time attempting to deal with a different sort of engineering obstacle: how to get unions, Communists, and big government off his back. The Nazi sympathizer Koch patriarch battled versus unions in Kansas, and when the John Birch Society assembled its inaugural conference in 1958– at first composed exclusively of National Association of Manufacturers members– he enthusiastically went to as a co-founder. According to a 1961 Washington Post profile of Koch’s white supremacist conspiracy-theory club, “leadership of the Birch Society overlaps heavily with the leadership of the companies that effectively campaigned in 1958 for a right to work change to the State’s Constitution.” Fred passed away in 1967, however Charles eagerly put his education to work continuing his household’s 60- year war against collective bargaining rights and that pesky idea called representative democracy. When it concerns best to work, especially, labor and environment campaigners quite literally share a common opponent.

If those two groups have actually found it tough to sign up with forces, their foes are elegantly structured. Throughout the Obama administration, Koch Industries trained its nonrenewable fuel source empire on the twin objectives of turning legislatures red and pushing through deceptively called right-to-work statutes, all the while finding time to help eliminate federal environment legislation. No state had actually enacted right-to-work rules given that Oklahoma in 2001, five have taken them up since2012 This most recent push has concentrated on sapping public sector workers’ cumulative bargaining rights, in specific, like the costs that led thousands of union members to in harmony inhabit Wisconsin’s capitol dome in2011

That some of the most high-profile targets of anti-labor procedures have been swing states with strong union traditions– specifically, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan– is no coincidence. As E.J. Dionne pointed out after Michigan enacted its right-to-work measures in 2013, Obama had actually won 66 percent of the state’s union households a year previously. He won the state general by simply 1 percent. In 2018, the right’s greatest win versus unions featured the choice in Janus v. AFSCME, that made ideal to work the nationwide requirement for public-sector employees. The essence of that case was AFSCME member Mark Janus’s argument– in a case supported enthusiastically by Koch networks– that being forced to pay agency costs– which cover the expenses of union representation and agreement settlement– broke his complimentary speech. This was a significant blow to unions’ capacity to extract gains from companies, weakening labor’s power overall. That’s the entire point.

For Charles Koch and other captains of industry, the estimation behind crushing unions isn’t complicated: Weaker unions suggest a weaker opposition to right-wing policies, including the sort of regressive climate and energy procedures they have actually helped push around the country through the American Legal Exchange Council. The right’s basic project of minority rule– whether in damaging little- d democratic organizations like unions, gerrymandering congressional districts, or reducing votes– is incompatible with climate action and democracy itself. Big business has long understood this.

Even with Democrats now in control of the House, Senate, and White House, democratic reforms from abolishing the filibuster to a project financing overhaul are a prerequisite to delivering meaningful legislation. Altering laws that disempower unions should be considered amongst them, and climate activists signing up with such battles might conquer the exhausted and incorrect stress in between excellent jobs and a livable planet by taking on common opponents and making sure green tasks can be excellent tasks, too. They may just restore expect the United States to end up being a multiracial democracy at the same time.

In Virginia– the worst state in the U.S. to work– Democratic lawmakers are now trying to strike a modest blow to the GOP’s long-running offensive versus majority rule by reversing its nearly 75- year-old right-to-work statute. Home of Delegates member and gubernatorial candidate Lee Carter introduced a bill in 2019 and once again late in 2015 as HB1755 As he told me, “[Right-to-work laws] have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you work. They force unions to imagine people who contribute nothing.”

Virginia’s right-to-work law was enacted in 1947 after IBEW workers at the Virginia Electric and Power Company– now Dominion Energy– threatened to strike. In response, Guv William Tuck, a staunch segregationist, preemptively took over the mines and drafted its employees into an “ messy militia,” threatening court martials need to they refuse to work.

The strike never ever happened, but right to work was put in place shortly thereafter. Its passage took place versus the background of a little-remembered labor uprising that followed the Second World War. The high production and labor peace imposed through The second world war had actually paved the way to the economic shock of transitioning to a peacetime economy. Months after V-J Day, the United Vehicle Workers left, sparking a wave of strikes throughout industries consisting of electrical energy, coal, and oil. At the height of strikes in 1945, 1.6 million employees had joined a picket, historian Jeremy Brecher writes in his book Strike! Nearly 3 million workers were associated with strikes that started in the first six months of 1946, which, Brecher notes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics called “the most focused duration of labor-management strife in the country’s history.”

It was around the same time that the Congress of Industrial Organizations unleashed $1 million and 250 organizers onto the Jim Crow South to “organize the messy” into integrated unions there as part of an effort called Operation Dixie. Companies throughout the South had actually long depended on bigotry as a method to cleave employees, consisting of against organizing drives in coal mines and steel mills by outfits like the Alabama chapter of the Communist Party, as historian Robin D.G. Kelley detailed in Hammer and Hoe. “Company police used violence and intimidation in an effort to crush Mine Mill prior to it might develop a following,” Kelley writes of one such drive, “but when these strategies failed, officials made use of racial animosities.”

The mine operator, TCI, created a company union, “which used racist and anti-Communist slogans to attract white workers.” As Kelley notes, “the cry of social equality, with all its multiple (particularly sexual) significances and obvious uncertainties, was especially effective” versus labor organizers and the left in Alabama “because it symbolized the supreme danger to white supremacy, class power, civilization, and Southern rulers’ most precious residential or commercial property– white females.” By generating Black strikebreakers and leaning on regional police and the Ku Klux Klan, mine operators pitted diverse workforces against one another to beat back uniformity and protect their own power. One leaflet sent to Operation Dixie organizers in the South got the exact same strategies, with a Klansman on horseback warning that “white Supremacy must be kept.”

In reaction to both Operation Dixie and the postwar strike wave, the Taft-Hartley Act– written with heavy input from the National Association of Manufacturers– compromised the National Labor Relations Act with overwhelming support from segregationist Southern Democrats, more than 80 percent of whom supported its 1947 passage. At its core was an attack on the New Offer order that corporations had been eager for given that Roosevelt first took workplace and knitted together a long lasting coalition of (among others) union members and Black citizens who got away the Republican Party in droves throughout the 1930 s.

The law efficiently developed a states-rights structure for labor law, forbade industry-wide cumulative bargaining, and cut off numerous avenues for unions to participate in politics. It further needed union officials to sign a promise that they were not members of the Communist Party. With the NLRA neutered, states south of the Mason Dixon line would become screening grounds for right-to-work rules. They were the creation of the Houston oil lobbyist Vance Muse, who described the advantages he saw in such statutes candidly: “From now on, white females and white males will be pushed into companies with black African apes whom they will need to call ‘bro’ or lose their tasks.” “These laws were created in the 1940 s to stoke stress between white employees and Black workers,” Carter discussed. “The subtext was right to work without integration.”

That carbon-intensive markets like coal, steel, and electrical power were so main to the U.S. economy and such prime targets for labor actions made it specifically crucial for market and political leaders to keep them running successfully and without disturbance, by any means required. As recently as the 1970 s, miners took part in militant, multiracial battles against their bosses. That the same employees are now viewed as the centerpiece of Trumpist white identity politics– and a cudgel against environment policy– is both a historical novelty and the product of a decades-long battle to drive unions and solidarity alike out of the industries that keep the country running.

Today, a new generation of Southern Democrats in Virginia have watched out for rescinding its right-to-work law. Guv Ralph Northam and a number of other Democrats declined to back the repeal effort when it was first raised in 2019, when the Republican Celebration managed Richmond. One common pushback Carter got then was that Republican delegates would make use of the opportunity to eliminate ideal to operate in a flooring vote. Now they state it threatens to make the state less welcoming to big business. “When it pertains to repealing right to work,” Carter said, “there’s been no functional distinction between Republicans in control and Democrats in control.”

There may be cause for optimism at the national level, however. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act— which passed out of your home last February, and which Biden has voiced assistance for– would preempt the core of statewide right-to-work steps. In addition to a host of other work environment defenses, the legislation would enable companies and unions to agree on a “reasonable share” clause, so that employees can pay the company charges towards the expense of bargaining and administering cumulative bargaining arrangements. It secures employees’ First Amendment rights, also, like their capability to take part in the “secondary boycotts”– opposing nonunion stores, for instance– that Taft-Hartley banned. The PRO Act, of course, will face the same anti-democratic difficulties that threaten most progressive legislation in the Senate.

If passed, it may assist build the power necessary to win green policies: A 2018 research study by political scientists James Feigenbaum, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Vanessa Williamson compared counties on either side of state borders– one in a state that had actually enacted right-to-work laws and one that had not. “After the passage of RTW laws, county-level Democratic vote shares in presidential elections fall by 3.5 percentage points relative to bordering counties without RTW laws in place,” they found. “Presidential-level turnout is also 2 to 3 portion points lower” in right-to-work counties, and such laws “usually decrease Democratic vote share and turnout in U.S. Senate and Home elections, as well as state Gubernatorial races. Democratic seat shares in state legislatures also fall after the passage of RTW laws.”

For climate activists, there is ample cause to want strong unions besides needing more Democrats to pass climate legislation. The war mobilization is a frequent recommendation point for Green New Offer advocates. Even the Biden administration appeals to the fond memories of a flourishing manufacturing economy in describing plans to produce American-made electric automobiles. The automakers who may carry that out, however, have actually moved many of their operations South over the last several years, looking for weaker labor laws and less expensive earnings– or out of the country totally.

If expanding electrical car production were the idea of the spear of a green healing– and there are myriad factors to be wary of that– much of that production might well take place in nonunion plants that are hardly delivering the sort of midcentury fictional that talk of a wartime production stimulates. The country’s most prominent electrical automobile maker, Tesla, is run by an anti-union zealot who has already broke the National Labor Relations Act. “A great deal of people lament the loss of making tasks, but the reality is you can have a good union job in any market as long as you unionize it,” Carter said. “By rescinding right to work, we’re setting conditions that make it simpler for organized labor to come together and form unions and demand the kind of incomes” and working conditions related to those tasks.

Taking the Green New Offer’s namesake seriously would imply not just big costs programs and curbing corporate power however proactively building electoral unions that can endure through the years of work that decarbonization will entail. Environment politics have actually frequently been felled by industry talking points pitting working individuals versus ecologists supposedly asking to quit their livelihoods. That argument is frequently made in bad faith.

A lot more progressive environment policy plans, though, can make unions seem like one product on a long laundry list of advantages it would be nice to have in an energy shift. In right-to-work states, specifically, unionized nonrenewable fuel source work– at power plants and refineries, for example– is frequently among the only constant sources of well-paid jobs. Organizing for the PRO Act and right-to-work repeal could be a way for greens to show concrete solidarity with labor in the near term, building the kind of power needed to make any enormous green tasks program a reality. Importantly, unions arranging the lots of unorganized employees in low-carbon sectors– from energy performance to rooftop solar– could swell their ranks and institutional power, which can bear dividends on everything from democratic reforms to labor protections to climate measures.

Where the Industrial Workers of the World sought to arrange the world’s employees into “one huge union,” the right’s vision is unity among a small ruling elite. The concept of multiracial bulks running governments is naturally threatening to the likes of Charles Koch, however much he claims to wish to “unite a diversity of individuals behind a common objective.” His ilk has always needed to discover a method to divide the masses against themselves. White supremacy has actually been its most effective tool for doing so. That fights for racial justice and office defenses and environment justice and democratic reform today appear siloed off from one another talks to simply how reliable those efforts have been.

Republican governmental candidates have actually won the popular vote simply once in the last 32 years. The party understands its governing days are numbered and is now in open revolt against the prospect of majority guideline. The challenge for anyone interested in a twenty-first-century multiracial democracy is to damage Republican politicians’ minoritarian project before it can damage the planet.

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The Really Severe Appeal of Call My Representative

In the days immediately following the publication of the not-exactly-positive review of Netflix’s Emily in Paris I wrote for this very website last October, friends and strangers alike had one burning question: Had I watched the other Parisian, media-centric comedy on Netflix, Call My Agent, which was set at a chic agency for actors and…



The Really Severe Appeal of Call My Representative

In the days immediately following the publication of the not-exactly-positive evaluation of Netflix’s Emily in Paris I wrote for this extremely website last October, friends and strangers alike had one burning question: Had I viewed the other Parisian, media-centric comedy on Netflix, Call My Agent, which was set at a chic agency for stars and directors? It was authentically, in fact French, rather of cod French, they all said; it was genuinely amusing, and the characters with “design” dressed stylishly, and nobody stated anything about their “ coq” or mistranslated the word “ ringarde.” In addition, it had cameos from lots of major stars, playing themselves: Juliette Binoche tumbling down the stairs at Cannes, or Monica Bellucci bemoaning her perpetual singledom, or Béatrice Dalle intensely storming out of a gratuitous naked scene and then hiding in a convent. Isabelle Huppert stayed on for 2 complete episodes in the third season, sending out up her reputation as a workaholic, which if you are a TELEVISION show about stars is a flex approximately equivalent to that of getting Jesus to sign on for a two-episode arc in your Bible epic. It was mild but sophisticated, clever but not taxing, low-stakes enough to be soothing however well written enough to ensure that you were constantly thoroughly purchased its principals– the leonine, ruthless Mathias; the fey and amusing Hervé; the bumbling, hirsute Gabriel; the elegant and randy and enthusiastic Andréa; et cetera, et cetera.

Everything they stated, it turned out, was right: Call My Agent is a gem, a rare amalgam of beauty and genuine heart that coaxes tummy chuckles out of its film market setting not by lampooning the vapidity of the movie world however by adoringly poking fun at its characters’ enthusiasm for their picked field. Harebrained plans are hatched in order to guarantee the ideal actors wind up with the right directors, the work’s quality infinitely more crucial than its spending plan; double-crossing is accepted, reluctantly, if it turns out to be about stability rather than money. “You have always been callous, stopping at absolutely nothing,” Mathias’s fan Noémie tells him, with a straight face, “but it didn’t stop me from falling for you, since I saw you did it out of artistic conviction.” Individuals who work at Agence Samuel Kerr are “skilled (even when they fall victim to disaster), competitive, and dedicated,” Alexandra Schwartz composed at The New Yorker in2018 “They enjoy what they do, and they revere the movie theater. That, and the fact that business and enjoyment mix very easily, is how you understand that the program is French.”

If its quintessentially French qualities do not precisely appear like probable attributes for a global hit– audiences beyond France, for example, might not instantly acknowledge some of the stars who do cameos as themselves, unless they take place to be effectively versed in the French New Wave– they are likewise precisely the important things that viewers have actually taken on, hungrily and happily, as the source of its appeal. Satires of Hollywood, particularly those embeded in L.A., are typically either harsh or sour, zeroing in on the industry’s widespread vice and avarice, its plastic shine. Call My Representative, which does not include even a single joke about a needlessly particular latte order, breaks the mould in order to recommend that motion pictures might, in reality, be as major and essential as real life.

The show’s breakout star is Camille Cottin, the impossibly soignée middle-aged actress who plays Andréa Martel, and who somewhat improbably first rose to popularity as the presenter of a prank program whose name, Connasse, is an expletive. For a character in film or tv to begin their arc as a seductive, self-centered womanizer with a phobia of monogamy and end it married to a sane and serious lady is not unusual or ingenious; ditto a transition from sexy, self-centered womanizer with a fear of parenthood to goggle-eyed, devoted moms and dad. It is unusual and innovative, though, if that character is female. For 3 seasons, viewers have watched as Andréa– a kind of cross between a lesbian Serge Gainsbourg and a fashion editor, a respected shagger and inveterate partier who at one point could not keep in mind whether she had actually recently made love with more than one woman named Clementine– shocked herself by falling slowly, inexorably in love with a shy and uptight accountant named Colette, then by ending up being not only an other half but a brand-new mother.

Whereas some shows might have used this storyline to bludgeon viewers with an old-fashioned, didactic message about the supremacy of the nuclear family over the more shifting enjoyments of deliberate, carefree indiscrimination, Call My Representative treats Andréa’s new and old lives with the exact same degree of respect– her relocation from putain to maman alters her schedule and her sex life, however it does not alter her style. She negotiates her child’s location at an especially bougie day care as if she were trying to sell one of her starlets to Claire Denis or François Ozon. That her neat tuxedo coat now includes a pale, unglamorous splash of vomit on its collar still does not negate her poise.

Season 4, which released this week, remains in lots of methods precisely what a faithful audience of Call My Agent might anticipate. Its first episode, in which a very funny Charlotte Gainsbourg attempts to get out of an incompetent, awful sci-fi motion picture by pretending to have actually injured herself slipping on a stray banana skin, perfectly shows the series’ broad appeal– it has enough in-jokes to persuade film enthusiasts that they’re being dealt with and adequate witty, breezy minutes to keep anybody who is not as interested in gags about the oeuvre of Lars von Trier on board for more. (” How am I supposed to know if it’s an excellent script?” Gainsbourg ponders. “I signed on for Antichrist!” “I enjoyed you in Nymphomaniac,” a shabby prop department lackey informs her, later, the compliment hanging creepily between them for one subtle, best beat.)

Through a storyline in which Andréa and Colette are struggling in the instant after-effects of their domestic happy ending, nevertheless, the new season gradually exposes itself to be about a very various type of love– one unrelated to monogamy or marital relationship, untouched by familial ties, and only really a little touched by sex. I am, naturally, describing the love experienced by cinephiles for movie theater, a passion next to godliness in its devotion, and adjacent to actual, romantic love in its propensity to make those experiencing it speak in humiliating, declarative statements. When Andréa notifies Colette that she is attempting, desperately, to make time for her family, and Colette asks: “Which family– ours, or the terrific household of movie theater?” the line should be toe-curlingly pretentious. In the context of the program, it is a legitimate concern. More than ever, Call My Agent is concerned with one particular and extremely French issue: Is it possible to be a working person, and especially a parent, in addition to being a die-hard, full-time advocate for the importance of the arts?

When Andréan admits to Colette that she knows she never ever thinks twice when attempting to please her clients in the same method she periodically does when entrusted with getting back on time to see her child, Colette confesses she is as moved by her wife’s honesty as she is distressed by her declaration. We are not asked to see Andréa as monstrous– or if we are, it is in referral to the expression coined by the author Jenny Offill in her 2014 unique, Dept. of Speculation, “art monster.” “My plan was to never ever get married,” Offill writes. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never ended up being art beasts due to the fact that art monsters only worry themselves with art, never ever ordinary things.” If Andréa does mundane things, it is so that Jean Dujardin can make what she thinks will be a fantastic new movie, or to avoid Jean Reno from retiring altogether. What is terrific about her journey in this latest season is the manner in which she starts to recognize that the act of bringing up her daughter is not actually that various from the work she does at ASK, in the sense that both strenuous, self-sacrificing presentations of her love will eventually end in something bigger, more gorgeous, more enriching.

It is never less than pleasurable to enjoy Andréa grapple with the ropes of being human, in the exact same method it was always pleasant to see her chasing her cherished actors around Paris in previous seasons, dipping into being a therapist or a driver, a matchmaker or confidante. The camera, caring as it does a singular and striking face, loves Cottin as much as Andréa loves her clients: her extended, Modigliani cheekbones, the significant Roman nose that juts out like a questing ship’s prow or a shark’s fin, sleek and urgent. It surprised me to find that she played the lead role in the French reimagining of Fleabag, given that she does not have the extremely qualities so precious in its heroine as played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge– she’s entertaining but not wacky, uninhibited however not undignified, scarcely a natural underdog. Like the program itself, what she possesses is an unusual balance of humankind and hauteur.

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Against the Consensus Approach to History

In the mid-1940s, Edmund S. Morgan, a mild-mannered young historian, was teaching at Brown and making a name in the quiet field of early American studies. Having published a slim, well-received collection of essays on the New England Puritans, he might have seemed the very model of the unassuming scholar at the outset of a…



Against the Consensus Approach to History

In the mid-1940s, Edmund S. Morgan, a mild-mannered young
historian, was teaching at Brown and making a name in the quiet field of early
American studies. Having published a slim, well-received collection of essays
on the New England Puritans, he might have seemed the very model of the
unassuming scholar at the outset of a modest career, satisfied to refine the
work of great forebears in a narrow field. That wasn’t Edmund Morgan. The
Second World War was over. The United States was developing an energetic
vision, which would come to fruition in 1960 with the election of John F.
Kennedy, of its new global leadership role. In keeping with that vision, Morgan
launched a bold new interpretation of the nation’s founding.

Throwing out elder historians’ prevailing focus on the
founding generation’s self-interest (Clarence Alvord had said that George
Washington became a patriot to defend speculations in Indian land) and on its
class conflicts (Carl Becker had said that the Revolution was not only over British
rule but also over the rule of elite Americans), Morgan sought to identify the grand
principles that the revolutionary generation agreed on. “What the colonists had
to say about Parliamentary power and about their own rights deserved to be
taken seriously,” he explained later.

As the U.S. began to exercise new power around the
world, Morgan set out to show that the protests in the 1760s and ’70s against the
Stamp Act and other British policies offered slam-dunk evidence of a founding
American consensus on principles of rights. Inherent to the American character,
that consensus unified the colonists, he said, inspired the Revolution, and
brought about the United States. In the larger context of his work, and the
work of similarly minded colleagues, the lesson was that the founding American
commitment to rights persisted in postwar U.S. commitments to modern liberal

The impact of this interpretation was by no means limited to
the late 1940s and the 1950s. Historians who built out what Morgan largely began—what
became known as the consensus approach—turned early American history into a
booming field and made big names for themselves. Born about a century ago, in
Morgan’s generation, were Douglass Adair, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter,
Forrest McDonald, and Bernard Bailyn. Born in succeeding decades were Pauline
Maier, Gordon Wood, Carol Berkin, Sean Wilentz, and Akhil Reed Amar, among
others. As dissertation advisers for scores of scholars, many of them have held
great sway in their profession.

Even more striking is their success in shaping conceptions
of the American founding widely held among the American public. That power and
some of its complications were seen in recent controversies involving two of
the younger members of the group (though not young anymore), Wood and Wilentz.
In late 2019, Wilentz organized a letter, also signed by Wood and three other
historians, criticizing The New York Times Magazine’s
much-discussed 1619 Project, which frames slavery, racism, and Black Americans’
struggles for equality as the key drivers of American history. The signers said
the 1619 Project ignored objective historical fact and was steeped in
politically influenced bias. In early 2020, Wilentz followed up with an essay
in The Atlantic whose title put the issue bluntly: “A Matter
of Facts.” Because these objections to the 1619 Project were made not on the
basis of a competing framework but on the basis of plain fact revealed by deep
expertise, they struck many readers as insurmountable on their face.

That’s how consensus history works. Anyone hoping to explore
the depths of America’s not-so-consensus-filled past will run into this
presumption, on the part of widely respected scholars, of their superior
objectivity as a basis for higher authority. The roots of that presumption can
be found in the approach launched by Edmund Morgan about 70 years ago.

It’s true that in scholarly circles, the consensus approach
has been subjected to intermittent criticism for years. But it’s been reflected
so thoroughly and for so long in museum exhibits, trade publishing,
broadcasting, op-eds, and political speeches that its credibility remains
unassailable with big segments of the interested public. I think that’s because
even those scholars who are critical of the Morgan framing of the nation’s
founding haven’t told the public the strange story of its dramatic and at times
even unsettling origins.

I first confronted the work of Morgan and his intellectual
allies and progeny in 2003. In response to the terrorist attacks of September
2001, I had begun trying to understand something of our nation’s founding
history, and amid what was turning out to be the run-up to the Iraq War, I
bumped into a half-submerged obstacle, another kind of war, an old one, among
historians, with big winners and losers and a lot of dirty fighting. How that
war was fought, how it tracked with the rise of U.S. power after World War II,
and how its victors came to define acceptable styles for discussing the
country‘s founding and meaning: That’s the story I have to tell you now. For it’s
the consensus framing that still stands, for so many of us, as the essential
truth about America.

In 1948, Edmund Morgan laid the first brick of what would
become the dominant postwar narrative of the American founding in a scholarly
essay in The William and Mary Quarterly that had the unassuming,
even downright boring, title: “Colonial Ideas of Parliamentary Power
1764–1766.” He followed it up with further essays, on the Sugar and Stamp
Acts and the colonial protests in response to those acts, which served as
intellectual background to a highly influential book, The Stamp Act
Crisis: Prologue to Revolution,
written in collaboration with Helen Morgan,
his wife. Published in 1953, the Morgans’ book would be assigned to generations
of undergraduate and graduate students and widely read by a lay audience.

The book’s success can be attributed in part to a
character-driven approach, feeling almost like reporting from the scene. That
feeling is deceptive. By declining to present an argument, and relying instead
on factual-sounding statements, the Morgans concealed a tendentious purpose. That
purpose is found only in Morgan’s related scholarly essays, where the book’s argumentation
can be seen in burgeoning force.

He was out to prove a peculiarly urgent claim. There was
universal intellectual consistency among the American colonists, he said,
regarding the moral basis of their objections to the British trade and
navigation acts that led to the American Revolution. This broad claim of
hyperconsistency may seem a bit strange now. Why would it matter so much to a
young history professor of the late 1940s to show such an unusual degree of
intellectual consistency, on one issue, among American colonials of the 1760s?

The answer lies in the nature of the hidden war that Morgan
was fighting. He had two big targets to take down. One target was progressive
history, as it was then known. The historian Charles Beard, born in 1874, had
developed a critique of the elite economic interests that, he said, were the
true engines behind the creation of the United States Constitution. To a degree
possibly surprising to modern schoolchildren taught about the Founders’ fealty
to high-minded principles inspired by the Enlightenment, Beard’s and other
progressive historians’ focus on the Founders’ economic elitism and the lower
classes’ struggle for equality was widely accepted, not only in the academy
but also by the public, when Morgan was coming up.

His other target was, in the context of the day,
conservative. The first half of the twentieth century had seen a lot of
British-friendly scholarship of the founding crisis. That work presented
Parliament’s changing policies of the 1760s and ’70s as more or less
reasonable. In this reading, the protesting Americans can come off as
inveterate smugglers, histrionically overreacting to tiny increments in
taxation, their appeals to the great principles of liberty masking—just as in
Beard’s take—self-interest.

In going up against those two elder schools of history,
Morgan represented a young, questing, postwar American liberalism. He and John
F. Kennedy were born less than 18 months apart. The 1961 inauguration speech,
with its famous line, “[T]he torch has been passed to a new generation of
Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and
bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage,” brought to its head an eagerness to
present the country as moderate, fair, and broadly middle class and to cast
assertive foreign policies as the beneficent spread around the world of
especially American talents for freedom and equality.

A lot of official energy, including public funding, overt and
covert, went into developing that viewpoint. The Central Intelligence Agency,
successor to the wartime Office of Strategic Services, didn’t just carry
out a wide range of intelligence and military operations but also encouraged
cultural expressions of American greatness through the University of Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, The Paris Review, abstract expressionism in painting,
and performances by Louis Armstrong. In the years before the failed U.S.
invasion of Cuba in 1961, many romantically inclined, highly educated liberals
found much mystique in the agency’s blend of scholastic thought and derring-do
in defense of American civilization.

The Ivy League history departments got in early. After the
U.S. entered the war, William Langer, a history professor at Harvard (Edmund Morgan
completed his doctorate there that year), became chief of the Research and
Analysis branch of OSS and brought in students and former students. Perry
Miller, the great Harvard historian of early New England and academic mentor
of Morgan, served in OSS’s Psychological Warfare Department. Yale became
supremely OSS- and CIA-connected, fostering such important spies as James Jesus
Angleton, who studied modernist poetry before becoming an early chief of CIA
counterintelligence, as well as such famous statesmen as McGeorge Bundy, national
security adviser to JFK and a promoter of American involvement in Vietnam. The
postwar academic programs known as area studies, including American studies,
“were manned, directed, or stimulated by graduates of the OSS,’’ Bundy himself
once noted. By the time Morgan started teaching at Yale, in 1955, and took part
in the rapid growth of its American studies program, the program described
itself as “designed as a positive and affirmative method of meeting the
threat of Communism.”

The opening of Edmund and Helen Morgan’s The Stamp
Act Crisis
 plays up the ancient-heritage mood. It tells of “a prophecy
delivered in the wilderness,” in a place “out of a fairy tale”: an “enchanted
castle” deep in the wild Virginia “paradise.” This turns out to be the home of
the colony’s former governor, Alexander Spotswood, who predicted as early as
1732 that Americans would always stand on their rights and never be taxed
without representation. Such mixtures of Arthurian national romantic spirit and
pragmatic colonial politics reflect the view that Morgan had been working up in
his essays in the late 1940s and early 1950s on the colonists’ responses to
British taxation. By clarifying a deep, even innate commitment to the
principles expressed in those protests, Morgan would show postwar Americans,
especially the college graduates who went on to staff the leadership class for
the next 50 years or so, who Americans essentially are and what their hopes for
the world essentially involve.

The young Morgan got his new interpretation rolling by
taking on an aging lion of the imperial school. Not a big name today, Lawrence
Gipson was a full generation older than Morgan and immensely important at the
time. His 15-volume The British Empire Before the American Revolution,
published from 1936 to 1970, is a work so dry and analytical, so empty of
storytelling, that it’s almost unreadable. He took a forgiving view of British
colonial policies and expressed skepticism about the colonists’ sincerity when
invoking the principle of rights. Morgan saw a soft spot in Gipson’s portrayals
of both British government and American colonials and focused his attack
relentlessly on it.

Gipson was alleging a contradiction between what the
colonists said they objected to when responding to the Sugar Act of 1764 and
the Stamp Act of 1765 and what they said they objected to only shortly later.
According to him, the colonists announced that they objected on constitutional
principle only to what were called internal taxes—taxes collected from citizens
within the colonies. The stamp tax, collected within the colonies, was
internal. It therefore violated the colonists’ constitutional rights, they
said, because such taxes could be imposed only with the consent of the taxed,
given through representation, and the colonists weren’t represented in
Parliament; only their representative legislatures could levy internal taxes.
But the colonists did not object on constitutional grounds to taxes collected
at ports, called external, levied to regulate the larger processes of the
empire. Parliament did have a right to tax colonial trade externally; it had no
right to tax colonists internally. That, according to the eminent Lawrence
Gipson, was the colonists’ position—at first.

And yet, according to Gipson, when the British repealed
internal taxes and instead placed duties on imports like tea, the colonists
turned on a dime, switched to a different principle, and continued to protest
anyway. Now they complained that these new external taxes, too, violated the
constitutional right of representation: These taxes were levied not to regulate
imperial trade but, like internal taxes, to raise revenue. The real principle,
it now emerged, wasn’t internal versus external, but regulation versus revenue.
Because the colonists got just as worked up over this new distinction as they’d
been over the old one, Gipson suggested that colonial outrage, for all of its
high-flown oratory of rights, originated more from a desire to continue in tax
avoidance than from a truly principled opposition to some supposedly awful

Morgan set out to disprove the inconsistency that Gipson was
pointing to. If Gipson claimed the colonists switched their principles, Morgan
would show that the colonists never switched, because they never objected, he
said, to internal taxes exclusively, and they never acquiesced in external
taxes. What they consistently objected to, early and late, was any tax,
internal or external, intended to raise revenue and therefore constitutionally
requiring representation. That was the constitutional principle. That was the
right. According to Morgan, Americans ruggedly clung to the principle and the
right. Claiming that they began by objecting exclusively to internal taxes was
only to parrot a British invention, indeed a Tory libel.

Crucial to Morgan’s new approach—and for the long
ramifications of his framing, as it came to dominate public discourse on the
American founding—he said he was basing this contention of colonial consistency
on a more fair and objective reading of the colonists’ petitions than earlier
readings. Thus the fight between the older and younger historian came down to
what those petitions literally, factually, said.

But it also came down to how the British literally,
factually, responded to those petitions. Gipson, in depicting the colonists as
overreactive, portrayed Parliament as relatively considerate of colonial
petitions, in some ways even sympathetic. Morgan, like the colonists
themselves, portrayed Parliament as aggravating its own tyranny by refusing
even to consider any American grievances. This possibly secondary question—how
did the British government respond to the petitions?—became one of the
hardest-fought issues between Morgan and Gipson. Yet in the Morgans’ book,
where so many students and other readers first encountered these issues, the
fight remains so obscured you wouldn’t know it’s there.

I sure didn’t. I was in the New York Public
Library’s research branch when I bumped into these diametrically opposed views,
by two major historians, of the colonists’ petitions and their reception by the
House of Commons. I was reading the Morgans’ book, and I came upon the section
covering the Stamp Act debates, held in the Commons in February 1765. The book
contends that the Commons was univocal in shutting down any consideration of the
petitions. It goes on to say that the few members who did object to the stamp
tax did so only on grounds of expediency and fairness and never on the
constitutional right of representation, a principle invoked only by the
colonists, and not by anybody in the House of Commons.

But this seemed strange, because I’d just read Gipson. He’d
been telling the opposite story. He said some members of Parliament did
speak on the question of right and even supported the colonists in invoking

Could two eminent scholars really be disagreeing on
something as elementary as what was and wasn’t said—literally, factually—during
the Stamp Act debates? Yes. It seemed they really could be. And yet both
historians cite the eyewitness record of those debates, so it seemed to me a
fairly straightforward job to determine which of the two I could better rely
on. Nobody would have recruited me for OSS Research and Analysis, but I can get
around a library if I have to, and I gave myself a simple task.

Compare the two historians’ accounts of parliamentary
debates on the act. Note where and on what grounds they differ. Note the
citations given for the differences, look up the primary sources, and see what
they really—literally , factually, objectively—say.

According to the Morgans, the House of Commons allowed no American
petition to be read into the record and debated, on the grounds of a univocal
recoil, by the Commons, from the Americans’ assertion of the right of
representation. The Morgans note that the Commons also had a procedural reason
for not hearing the petitions—protests against money bills of any kind were
routinely not heard—but they say that the important reason was the Americans’ asserting the right. That seemed like a pretty easy claim to verify in the
primary record. In the Morgans’ notes, I saw that their main source on the
issue was one Charles Garth. I easily found the source in The English
Historical Review.
A member of Parliament and participant in the debates,
Garth was reporting to South Carolina’s Committee of Correspondence, and just
as the Morgans say, he reported the House of Commons’ decision not to hear the American

But here’s where the trouble started. Garth provides a
mass of detail on why the Commons refused to hear those petitions, and the main
reason, he says, was the technical and procedural one disallowing the reading of
any petitions opposing a bill regarding money, on any grounds, sent by anybody.
Garth does note briefly that Virginia’s petition had been said to question the
authority of Parliament to tax Virginians. That must have struck the M.P.s because it’s no technicality; it’s the great constitutional principle. Still, in
Garth’s report, the procedural money-bill issue played a far more important
role in the M.P.s’ decision not to hear the petitions.

In their book, the Morgans have reversed their source’s
priorities. They make the money-bill issue less important to the M.P.s. They
cast the rights issue as the key reason the Commons refused to hear the
petitions. Their account so masterfully blends what their primary source
reported with what it didn’t report that if you don’t look up the source, and
don’t read it all, you have no reason to doubt that it says what the Morgans
say it does.

What about the other big stand the Morgans take, in
opposition to Gipson, regarding the Stamp Act debates? Their book asserts
without qualification that those few M.P.s who did speak against
the act objected only on grounds of inexpediency and unfairness, and never on
the principle of the right. Gipson, by contrast, portrays the Commons as by no
means entirely unsympathetic to the principle, and in support of his portrayal,
he cites a letter from Jared Ingersoll, Connecticut’s colonial agent in London,
reporting on the debates to that colony’s governor, Thomas Fitch. When I found
the Ingersoll letter, I was startled to see that Gipson was dead right, the
Morgans dead wrong. According to Ingersoll, William Beckford, alderman of
London, spoke in the House of Commons on the right. Even more notably, Beckford denied the
right of Parliament to tax the colonists.

How could the Morgans handle this glaring discrepancy
between their contention that nobody spoke on the rights issue and the
assertion, by an eyewitness, that Beckford did? I flipped quickly back through
the Morgans’ account and saw that they handle the discrepancy with consummate
ease. They erase it. They mention Beckford exactly once, not speaking on the
colonists’ rights but bringing a motion to adjourn the session; then they never
mention him again. In the Morgans’ book, Beckford’s speech in the debate
doesn’t exist, so he can’t speak in favor of the colonists on the right, and
Parliament remains univocal in ignoring a principle defended only by Americans.

 This is why the text of The Stamp Act Crisis reads
so smoothly and seems so calmly factual. A major impression has been created,
not by marshaling an argument, with all the muss and fuss that that entails,
but by misrepresenting the evidence most relevant to the thesis. And the
Morgans were unlikely to be caught making this move. What general reader could
be expected to hit the bump and start wondering about it?

Let’s face it: In the end, of course, the American petitions
weren’t heard by the House of Commons. The Stamp Act passed handily. So forget those
debates. Even more germane to the Morgans’ undercover assault on Gipson were
their sharply differing views of what the protesting Americans said they were
protesting. Do the petitions really show the colonists consistently rejecting
the internal/external tax issue, as Morgan insists a fair and objective reading
shows? Did the colonists really hold firm, from as early as 1764, as he says,
to a fundamental American principle, the right of representation in all taxes,
internal or external, imposed not for regulating trade but for raising revenue?

No. They didn’t. Not even close. To find that out, though,
you have to put the Morgans’ book down and read Morgan’s scholarly essays,
which led to the book. The book engages in flat-out erasure, but the essays do
have to go into detail, and reading them makes clear that, contrary to Morgan’s
assertions, the primary record offers a multitude of examples of well-informed
colonists taking contradictory, confused, ad hoc positions on
the great principle of taxation and right. So many examples of inconsistency
pop up, in fact, that every time Morgan stomps one down, he has to wheel around
and stomp down another. You can see him learning, when working on the essays,
what the book will have to steer so majestically around.

For one thing, Morgan has to rule out what Benjamin Franklin
said in the 1760s about parliamentary taxation in the colonies. “I am not much
alarmed about your schemes of trying to raise money on us,” Franklin
assured Richard Jackson, an M.P. and agent in London for some of
the colonies—contradicting Morgan’s assertion that all American patriots always
objected to any tax intended to raise revenue. When living in London, Franklin
testified in the House of Commons to the supposed all-importance to Americans of a bright
constitutional line between internal and external taxes. There’s no denying
that Franklin relayed to the British government an American position opposite
to the position that Morgan says Americans consistently took.

There’s no denying it, so Morgan doesn’t deny it. He suggests
instead that Franklin’s view can’t be counted against the claim of a
characteristic American consistency on principle, because Franklin was
inconsistent with the principle, so not characteristically American. Franklin could
be a wily situational advocate, and he took other positions on the issue as
well. Where he said things in keeping with Morgan’s vision of the American position
on taxation,  Morgan notes them; where he
contradicts Morgan, he gets pushed to the margins.

Another thing Morgan can’t deny is that in many pamphlets
and newspaper pieces, the colonists made constitutional objections exclusively,
at first, to internal taxation. He therefore rules out that whole category of
publishing as unreflective of American views. For him, only the legislatures’
official petitions to Parliament count as evidence. All of those petitions, he
says, denied Parliament’s right to tax Americans for revenue, on the grounds
that Americans weren’t represented in Parliament, and all of them avoided
making the internal/external distinction.

But by no means did all of the petitions deny Parliament’s
right, or avoid making the internal/external distinction, and you only have to
read the petitions, not just to find that out but also to watch the young
Edmund Morgan building a misleading picture of them. It’s a hard lesson—it was
for me—in the ways of scholarly sleight-of-hand.

Here’s how it works. Morgan begins with solid fact. New
York, he says, was firm in linking the right of representation not to the
internal/external distinction but to the revenue-raising issue. It’s true. The
New York petition explicitly denied, on the basis of the constitutional right
of representation, Parliament’s legal power to tax Americans for the purpose of
raising revenue, and because New York also didn’t expressly limit its
objections to internal taxes, as other petitions did, it also avoided
acquiescing in external taxes’ constitutionality. With New York, Morgan stands
on solid ground.

Right away, he gets shifty. Turning to Virginia’s petition,
he calls it “almost as plain” as New York’s. But Virginia’s petition limits its
objections, expressly, to internal taxes. It doesn’t do so by implication but
by explicitly demanding that the colony be governed by its own laws “respecting
their internal Polity and Taxation.”

The limitation imposed on “taxation” by the adjective
“internal” will seem clear to many readers, but Morgan says it’s not. In that
phrase, he says, Virginia intended “internal” to modify only “polity” and not
“taxation.” That’s because the phrase appears in other petitions too, and some
of them underwent changes that really do make “internal” not modify “taxation.”
Such variation might seem to many readers to indicate a certain inconsistency
in the American position. For Morgan, the versions where “internal” doesn’t
modify “taxation” become the standard, and he can thus inform us that we err in
thinking that, in the Virginia petition, an adjective modifies a noun it
clearly modifies.

Given the acrobatic extreme that “internal polity and
taxation” drives him to in the essay, it’s no surprise that in their book, the
Morgans characterize the Virginia petition in only one misleading
sentence, quoting a different section of the text and never even alluding to
the pesky phrase on internal taxation. You’d never know about the acrobatics—or
about the phrase “internal polity and taxation”—unless you read the essay.

New England’s petitions make Morgan’s essays strain even
harder. He acknowledges that Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut took
what he calls a “less precise” approach than other colonies. Calling
Rhode Island imprecise may be fair enough. Roping in the Massachusetts and
Connecticut petitions is fantastically unfair, both to the petitions and to the
unsuspecting reader. Because the Massachusetts petition, revised with input
from the governor, backed off an earlier draft’s categorical denial of
Parliament’s right to tax for revenue in any way, internal or external, the
officially submitted draft did end up making the constitutional distinction
between internal and external taxes that Morgan says Americans never made in
official petitions. Now Morgan has to contradict his own classification of
legislatures’ petitions as the sole useful barometer of American opinion. He
plays down the petition. He plays up a related letter that Massachusetts sent
to London, as well as a pamphlet by the lawyer James Otis, which do refer to
the revenue issue and deny the internal/external distinction. In this exceptional
case, a letter and a pamphlet are deemed more official than the petition,
because they express the view Morgan calls official, and the official documents

But it’s the Connecticut petition that finally drove Edmund
Morgan off the deep end—and drove me around the bend. 

Morgan tells his readers that Connecticut was guilty of the
same ambiguity as Rhode Island, whereas in fact, the Connecticut petition was the
loudest and clearest of all in making the distinction that Morgan says
Americans never officially made. Just reading the Connecticut petition
demolishes Morgan’s case, already tottering, for consistency of principle in
the early American protests. For one thing, Connecticut explicitly objected
only to internal taxes. But it also went all the way and explicitly endorsed
the right of Parliament to tax externally. Having demonstrated at great length
the unconstitutionality of internal taxation, the petition ends by actively
proposing a constitutional means of raising revenue in the colonies “by a
duty … on the importation of Negroes, and on the fur trade &c.”—i.e., external

So Morgan does his damnedest to make what the Connecticut
petition says disappear. In one place, he admits that it “came as
close” as any petition ever did to asserting a parliamentary right to tax
externally. In another, he acknowledges Connecticut’s external tax proposal for
revenue, while resorting to the classification scheme, labeling the petition
not a petition but a pamphlet. Once he compromises with it, calling it a “pamphlet
approved by the Assembly.” And once he admits that the document was written by
a committee, “deputed,” as he puts it, by the assembly. Still, he says, it
wasn’t addressed to King, Commons, and Lords, as petitions normally were, and was
circulated in published form within the colony, making it just a pamphlet.

But that’s not what the Public Records of the Colony of
Connecticut say about it. Those records are cited by Morgan, but so selectively
that I had to read the relevant section closely. The record says that in order
to prepare an address to Parliament, the committee was charged by the
Connecticut legislature with presenting reasons why internal taxes,
specifically and exclusively, are unconstitutional. It’s true that, as Morgan
says, those reasons were then circulated in pamphlet form within the colony;
the document is readily available in that form today, with Governor Fitch given
as its author. Yet the legislature approved the contents in full, and it
ordered copies sent to Richard Jackson, who normally presented petitions to
Parliament. With the Connecticut petition, as with Benjamin Franklin, Morgan spends
enormous intellectual energy trying to make American ideas seem less thorny and
complicated—simply less interesting—than they really are.

What emerges from reading all of the 1764 petitions is that
only New York’s took the line that Morgan says they all took. To call him less
objective and factual than he claims to be would be putting it far too mildly.
His whole story of an early American consistency on principle is made up. And
he misrepresents objective fact to support it.

Morgan might easily have mounted an argument to refute
Gipson’s reading of American inconsistencies as hypocritical: Gipson, too, cuts corners.
Morgan might have shown that the colonists gained a more consistent official
position over time. Connecticut did come to a better understanding of the
taxation issues. Franklin may always have had a more consistent private position
than he was willing to express in 1766; in 2002, Morgan published a biography of
Franklin for general readers that, though skeletal and breezy, briefly traced Franklin’s
developing thought on the Stamp Act matter. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, though,
in keeping with cultural and political imperatives of the day, Morgan’s whole effort
was to delegitimize any idea that was out of keeping with the notion of American
principles of right as innate, and therefore fixed. The colonists’ ideas, not
their interests, were paramount, but any evolution in their ideas was anathema.
He was out to define something essential in the American character and thereby
create a new master narrative, and to achieve that end, he concocted a false
portrayal of the colonists’ petitions.

And he supported that narrative by claiming a firmer grasp
on fact and a clearer window on truth than his competitors. To this day,
concoctions of the American past invoke fact and truth in just the same way.
One more problem with the 1764 Connecticut petition exposes the lengths to
which such concoctions have often been driven. When reading that petition,
something kept bugging me about its title, a long one, typical of the period: “Reasons
why the British Colonies, in America, should not be charged with
internal taxes, by Authority of Parliament; humbly offered, for consideration, in
behalf of the colony of Connecticut.” The title alone—“in behalf of the
colony of Connecticut”—shows that the document is an official petition, not a
pamphlet. Morgan’s calling it a pamphlet would have to be flatly contradicted
simply by his reference to the document in his text, and how on earth could he
have dealt with that?

Back I go to look at Morgan’s first important reference to
the Connecticut petition. It’s in the essay that I’ve called the opening lob in
his decisive postwar reframing, “Colonial Ideas of Parliamentary Power
1764–1766.” That’s where he began the process of redefining the American
founding in terms of grand principles publicly associated with the
postwar emergence of U.S. power around the world. More than 50 years after the
essay was published, the U.S. was taking up a global war on terror and
I was at a table in the New York Public Library wondering
how Morgan’s reference to the Connecticut petition’s title wouldn’t, just in
itself, wreck the thesis underlying a framing of the national founding that had
prevailed, all my life, in elite policy circles, and with the American public.

The title didn’t wreck the thesis because, in his reference
to the petition, Morgan changed the title. Here’s what he calls the document:
“Reasons why the British Colonies in America should not be charged with
Internal Taxes, by Authority of Parliament.”

Absent is “humbly offered, for consideration, in behalf of
the colony of Connecticut.” Without the legislature’s imprimatur, the document
might easily pass for a pamphlet.

This was peer-reviewed scholarship. Now you know something
about how the Morgan framing works.

 Nobody with a sincere interest in finding out what happened
in the past is supposed to have to do what I did. We want to believe that
arguments mounted by eminent historians will be at least somewhat transparent; that we may have some basis for evaluating the evidence they rely on; that we
won’t have to rebuild the case, on our own, from scratch.

But it must have seemed to the young Edmund Morgan that all
faith in U.S. commitments to rights and liberty would crumble to dust in the
face of the slightest acknowledgment of any mixed motives in the nation’s founding.
In 1956, in a very brief and enduringly popular book, The Birth of the
Republic 1763–1789,
he took on American self-interest directly and placed
it in a providential context. Yes, he admits there, self-interest existed at
the founding. It’s one of the more thrilling features of the founding, he says,
that every time self-interest raised its head, it combined with principle and
flowed toward higher aims. That’s the magical American thing, to him. And thanks
largely to Morgan, it became the magical American thing to many Americans.

I can assure you that consensus historians by no means
imitate Morgan’s postwar work on the founding or move in anything like
lockstep. They’ve produced major scholarly works of great nuance and sway, with
major differences. Famous examples include Maier’s Ratification,
Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Wilentz’s The
Rise of American Democracy,
 Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the
American Revolution,
 Berkin’s A Sovereign People, Amar’s America’s
 and Jill Lepore’s These Truths. Thanks to these
and other works, consensus ideas have formed the preconceptions of at least two
generations of educated Americans, including the leadership class, and the
overall effect has been just what Morgan wanted: sharply diminished attention
to economic interests and class struggles among founding-era Americans. Ideas,
not interests, dominate the narrative. The ideas point the way—with a multitude
of qualifications, disclaimers, and criticisms—to an ongoing settlement of
conflict in the flowering of the American achievement: liberal democracy.

That’s the legacy of Edmund Morgan’s success. Much of it can
be attributed to a way of writing. Consensus historians speak with Olympian
certainty. They’re not trying to create a framing—they’re stating the facts.
There’s no political agenda—they’re telling us how things were. We should
listen—because they know. In the face of a challenge, unflappability can
collapse quickly into testiness. In 1994, Gordon Wood, reacting to a revival of
class-oriented critiques of the founding, made a run for the high ground even
while sulking over being left behind. “I know it is naive and old-fashioned to
believe,” he wrote, “that our responsibility as historians is merely to
describe the past as it was and not to manipulate it in order to advance some
present political agenda.”

That’s what consensus history tells us to believe: It holds
a position so far above present influence that it can maintain the one true
angle on the past “as it was.” We can easily see, if we take our own look,
that the consensus past isn’t the past as it was. In Morgan’s work on the colonists’
petitions, it’s the past as it manifestly wasn’t. The consensus mode has
produced a vast and important body of history, based on a claim to superior
objectivity that was never anything but attitude.

For a notable recent exercise of attitude, and an example of
the persistent public success of the early Morgan style, I’ll end my long
journey with Sean Wilentz’s 2020 Atlantic essay criticizing
the 1619 Project. The essay’s assertions and ways of arguing for them make it a
classic of the early-Morgan genre: Wilentz places his criticism in the loftiest
possible context. Fending off recent assaults on objective fact by President
Trump and others, he takes up a mission to wield expertise and objectivity in
defense of truth, liberalism, and democracy.

His essay responds in part to one of the 1619 Project’s most
controversial claims: that preserving racial slavery was a prime motivation for
declaring American independence. In the British Somerset decision
of 1772, a judge ruled that an enslaved man couldn’t be held in bondage, and
the man was freed. The 1619 Project claims that Somerset planted
a fear in American slaveholders that the British government would abolish the
institution in the colonies. Hence the American countermove toward
independence. To shoot down the Somerset argument, and thus
shoot down preservation of slavery as a motivation for declaring independence,
Wilentz unrolls an impressive list of statistics to prove that there was no
significant American reaction to Somerset at all.

Just six newspapers in the South, he says, published only 15
reports about the case. Virtually all of those few reports were brief. There
was more coverage in American papers of the intrigues of the Queen of Denmark,
and most of the Somerset coverage ran in a tiny font on the second or
third page of four-to-six-page papers.

Done and done. Well-informed people commenting online on
Wilentz’s essay considered the case closed, and why wouldn’t they? When a
renowned Princeton professor makes such a masterful display of archival and
statistical research, coupled with such evident erudition in eighteenth-century
publishing, expertise and facts must win the day.

But the expertise on display is in the art of the bluff. The
facts lack the context that gives them meaning, which turns out to be pretty
much the opposite of what Wilentz says it is. He seems to have gotten all of
it—even the mention of the Queen of Denmark—from a single scholarly paper,
“Colonial Newspaper Reaction to the Somerset  Decision,” by
Patricia Bradley, presented in 1984 at the annual meeting of the Association
for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. He doesn’t cite it. That
paper didn’t include the three newspapers that were published that year in
North Carolina and Georgia, skewing Wilentz’s stats misleadingly downward, but
more important, the six newspapers that, as Wilentz says, did report on the
case were all of the papers published in those colonies that year. So it would
be a lot more objective to say that Somerset was covered by every
paper in all of those colonies than to say that only six covered it. The
coverage appeared not on front pages but on pages two and three, and in smaller
fonts, because Somerset was foreign news: In the eighteenth
century, the importance of news items wasn’t signaled by font size and page placement.
Anyway, Southern colonists didn’t get much news from local papers. They relied
on London publications, which reported heavily on Somerset. Nothing
that Wilentz has rolled out in tones of such grave authority and such
impressive performance of high expertise supports his claims.

But how would I know all that about eighteenth-century news,
and the scholarly paper that Wilentz relied on? Did I go back to the library and learn, on my own, everything one would have to know?

I couldn’t have learned that on my own. The facts I’ve
paraphrased come from a deeper layer of scholarship than any nonspecialist can
achieve: that of Joseph M. Adelman, associate professor of history at
Framingham State University and author of Revolutionary Networks: The
Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789
. At “The Junto,” a
lively group blog by junior scholars of early American history, Adelman
published a brief and thorough clarification of the issues that Wilentz’s essay
muddies so badly, based on his work with the relevant primary record. The post
is fun to read because a scholar is showing us one of the things that
historians can do and that we can’t. It has a kind of forensic playfulness.

Adelman can be so confident because he’s frank about what he
does and doesn’t know and can and can’t prove. That approach is a marked
departure from the one Wilentz and others inherited from the Morgan framing. It
means that I have to admit the possibility, of course, that Adelman is mistaken
as to where Wilentz got his information—and that I’m therefore wrong about some
of what I’ve said about Wilentz—and even admit that some of Adelman’s claims
about eighteenth-century printing might be subject to dispute. But what I think
is that in a blog post based on deep research, Adelman has demolished not only
Wilentz on Somerset but also, more importantly, an entire
approach to so-called fact. That’s one kind of scholarship. The other kind,
mighty and eminent, has all too often depended on bravura degrees of
distortion. When the past is invoked to stiffen the sinews of an epoch’s moods,
bear out political imperatives, dominate the narratives of national heritage,
and hold the center of middlebrow culture against all comers, mightiness and
eminence become both end and means. Edmund Morgan always took an unassuming
tone, but mightiness and eminence are what he achieved.

That’s what the 1619 Project wants, too: to own American
exceptionalism, define a foundational national character, build a platform for
determining public understanding of our history for generations to come—to
develop, ultimately, a new consensus regarding what the project sees as the
highest imperatives of learning history. Times have changed. The Morgan framing
was launched at universities. The 1619 Project was launched at a legacy media
brand, abruptly connecting itself, for reasons of its own, to a particular
reading of the nation’s past. While some might presume that a framing launched
at the Ivy League in the 1940s would have the edge on objectivity, I think my
experience shows otherwise. Another difference between the Morgan framing and
the 1619 Project: The project admits to being a framing, and to having

But the new young Morgan shouldn’t be expected to look like
the old young Morgan. What firmly links the 1619 Project to the Morgan framing
is a vaulting cultural ambition. In the grip of such ambition, the overriding
need is to win, and that can’t be done, I once was forced to learn, without
erasure, distortion, and dissociation from the messy realities of the past. At
thirtysomething, Edmund Morgan began to have a major influence on his time.
Long before he died, in 2013, at 97, he’d become the revered granddaddy of
founding history. There was a high cost to that influence. In the history
profession and other powerful institutions, dissociating from messy realities
is one of the ways the U.S. advanced its cause at home and abroad. Now
we may be seeing liberal democracy in crisis, at home and abroad, and if
American cultural endeavor is to have some part in a renewal, and even an
improvement, it can’t rely on the tactics of what I’ve called the Morgan
framing. Insupportable assertions, argumentative slipperiness, slapping away criticism, acrobatic bedazzlement,
presumption of authority, displays of testiness: Any genuinely fresh
confrontation with the past would have to scrap those tricks.  

It’s not fair. The tricks endowed at least two generations
of thinkers, overwhelmingly white and male, with unearned authority and
influence. Fairness would dictate that members of groups not overwhelmingly
white and male get a turn at practicing the same tricks, for the same rewards.

But we’re members of the public, you and I. Getting in our
heads is how the great victories in America have always been won. To avoid
being forever bluffed, forever tricked—forever Morganed—our descendants will
have to be warier than we were, and maybe more playful, too.

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