100: Jason M. Opal, 32


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

100: Jason M. Opal, 2-16-09

Note: This is the 100th Top Young Historian HNN has profiled!

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of History and George C. Wiswell Jr. Research Fellow, Colby College
Area of Research: Jacksonian Democracy and the politics of “vengeance” in early national America; international law in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary public life; Thomas Paine and anti-imperialism in the eighteenth century
Education: Ph.D, History, Brandeis University, 2004.
Major Publications: Opal is the author of the Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England, University of Pennsylvania, March 2008, and the editor of Common Sense and Other Writings by Thomas Paine, Norton Critical Edition,
Jason M. Opal JPGforthcoming (under contract).
Opal is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others: “The Labors of Liberality: Christian Benevolence and National Prejudice in the American Founding,” Journal of American History, 94 (March 2008), lead article; “Exciting Emulation: Academies and the Transformation of the Rural North, 1780s-1820s,” Journal of American History, 91 (September 2004), lead article, winner of Binkley-Stephenson Award; “The Making of the Victorian Campus: Teacher and Student at Amherst College, 1850-1880,” History of Education Quarterly, 42 (2002). Featured and reviewed in November 2002 Chronicle of Higher Education; “The Politics of ‘Industry’: Federalism in Concord and Exeter, New Hampshire, 1790-1805,” Journal of the Early Republic, 20 (Winter 2000).
Opal is currently working on, “Freeborn Outlaws: Personal and National Sovereignties in Revolutionary North America, 1750-1830,” Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson and the Ordeal of the Early United States.
Awards: Opal is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Colby College, Class of 2006 Charles Bassett Teaching Award, 2006; Organization of American Historians, Binkley-Stephenson Award for Best Scholarly Article, 2005;
Colby College, George C. Wiswell, Jr. Research Fellowship in American History, 2004 to present;
Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Charlotte W. Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship, 2002-03;
New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, Regional Fellowship, Summer 2002;
American Antiquarian Society, Legacy Fellowship, Summer 2002;
Spencer Foundation/Brandeis University, Research Grant for Interdisciplinary Seminar on Education, 2002;
Brandeis University, Rose and Irwin Crown Fellowship in American History, 1998-2002;
Cornell University, Department of History, George S. Lustig Prize, Outstanding Senior, 1998.

Personal Anecdote

Historians should read cozy anecdotes with skepticism, but…well, when I was twelve, my family went to see Les Miserables at the Shubert Theater in Boston. I was swept away by the dramatic tale of hunger and poverty, redemption and rebellion. During the car ride home, I kept pestering my parents and my brother with all manner of questions. Why did so many people suffer? Were things really so bad in nineteenth-century France? Why hadn’t the Revolution of 1789 made life better? A few years later, the quick collapse of the Soviet Empire-and the brutal repression of the democratic protests in China-made these historical questions seem all the more real and vital and living.

So, I went to college knowing I would major in history and thinking I would study revolutions. Because of the great professors I met at Cornell and then Brandeis, I came to focus on the American Revolution and its aftermath. Where did this revolution come from? What did it accomplish? How does it continue to shape, define, and diminish democracy in America? As a teacher and scholar, I try to use many different strands of analysis so that I can ask big questions and study enduring themes. My first book was a study of ambition in the post-Revolutionary age, especially among the rural households of New England; my new project is about vengeance and its ascent in American foreign policy and nationalism. (My wife, Holly, jokes that I’m writing a series about the seven deadly sins of the early United States. First ambition, now vengeance…) I’m also working on an edited collection of Tom Paine’s work, which has allowed me to learn again about a thinker and radical I thought I knew.

In any case, corny as it sounds, I try to retain a childish enthusiasm for the study of the past. This is fairly easy to do, because I am more and more convinced that studying history is an ethical as well as intellectual journey. By revealing to us the whole sweep of the human drama, across huge swaths of space and time, and by enabling us to comprehend people unlike ourselves, history jars us out of a narrow, shallow self-regard. It can make us more humble and decent, more compassionate and curious. So I consider myself very lucky to be able to learn and teach and write history for a living.


By Jason M. Opal

  • The eventual emergence of ambition into a national creed was of course a long and fitful process, full of continuities and adaptations, through which the prevailing values of a primarily rural and household-based society gave way to those of a largely urban and individualized one. That much is clear. But the slow and uneven pace of cultural evolution can conceal rather sudden shifts in the cultural climate, after which certain ideas, conceits, and institutions gain traction while others give ground. The ensuing changes do not simply reveal and reflect the social and economic trajectories we now see; they also help to make those trends happen, and to frame how people remember and respond to them. To recognize this is not to impose simplicity on a kaleidoscopic world, nor to replace “material” explanations with purely ideological ones. It is, instead, to appreciate the interplay of ideas and circumstances, of aspirations and situations, within particular stages of recoverable history.One of these cultural shifts began in the United States during the late 1780s, after the narrow victory of the Federal Constitution over more localized hopes for the new states. With the creation of the “extended republic” came a widespread effort to uproot households and communities from their provincial identities and to align them Beyond the Farm National Ambitions in Rural New England JPG with national judgments of self and success, value and virtue, public need and personal worth. While trying to turn a specific kind of ambition into an organizing principle of national life, this effort also took aim at alternate, more familiar, and typically more viable forms of aspiration for those living in a rural social order of laboring households and interdependent neighbors. More and less than a set of adaptations to market expansion and integration, “the installation of ambition” was a discernible project, a drawn-out campaign that entailed innovations in both the imaginative and discursive realm (how people thought and ideas operated) and the institutional and social terrain (how people were conditioned and resources deployed). It also occasioned a moral controversy that mostly ensued, not between social groups or political factions, but within communities, families, and individuals. This book offers a social history of that personal and cultural struggle-a story of restless sons and ambivalent fathers, resilient women and defeated men, bright-eyed reformers and hard-bitten neighbors.The restless sons were the focal points of the changes and conflicts at hand, because they, more than their sisters, stood to inherit both the local properties that brought independence and the national society that promised (and demanded) something more. For this reason, young men predominate in the pages that follow. But how to study them? Who to investigate and who to leave out? Any attempt to generalize about the young men of the young republic will tend to exaggerate the appeal and momentum of the project to promote ambition. It will also miss the inner struggles that ambitious striving brought (and still brings). A resort to biography, on the other hand, would lose the collective sway and texture of the larger effort in the details of a single life. By way of both narrative design and methodological compromise, then, I have crafted this history of ambition around six young men who found that passion to be compelling, inspiring, or necessary in their lives, and who therefore sought to transcend a social world and personal identity built on independence. — Jason M. Opal in “Beyond the Farm National Ambitions in Rural New England”
  • Of all the keynote speakers who addressed their respective states on July 4, 1788, the Rev. Enos Hitchcock of Providence, Rhode Island may have had the most difficult task. Two weeks earlier, New Hampshire, the requisite ninth state, had approved the Federal Constitution; a few days after that, leading Federalists from Providence had tapped him to make a “suitable” oration on the approaching holiday. Like most Providence residents-and almost every Congregationalist pastor-Hitchcock supported the new Constitution as a vital reply to social unrest and fiscal chaos. The rural majorities of Rhode Island, however, overwhelmingly opposed the plan, and on the night of July 3rd, hundreds or possibly thousands of them (some armed) marched to the seaport and told the authorities to banish any mention of ratification from the next day’s festivities. The event should herald independence only, they insisted. Meanwhile, black residents planned another celebration, one that would suitably applaud the state’s recent decision to criminalize the slave trade. “May Unity prevail throughout all Nations,” they toasted. Rev. Hitchcock shared these enlightened aspirations and tightly associated them with the Federalist cause. But he also knew that his listeners would include slave-owners as well as Anti-Federalists, and that these men had very different hopes for the new nation than he did.As it happened, Hitchcock may have been the perfect man for the delicate job. Contemporaries recall him as an affable gentleman who enjoyed creature comforts and social harmony. Having married into independent wealth, he had a talent for looking on the bright side of things and promoting the virtues espoused by his church, the First or Benevolent Congregational Society. Noting that religion was a blessing to “all nations of the world,” its charter welcomed “any good man” to a fellowship based “not on the prejudice of party, but on the broad basis of Christian philanthropy.” Ever since his settlement in 1783, Hitchcock had tried to heal the sectarian rifts that raged with special intensity in his adopted state. All of his public addresses during the 1780s stressed the virtues of denominational harmony, and at least two of them closed with his stated hope for a future in which “universal love smiles on all around.” If anyone could please everyone, it was the Benevolent pastor.However unique he was for his geniality, though, Hitchcock was not a seminal interpreter of either Christian or Enlightenment morality. Even admiring members of the Benevolent Church recall that he was “seldom original” and “not profound” in the pulpit. Compared to the Rev. Samuel Hopkins of Newport, Rhode Island, among others, Hitchcock was a theological lightweight. And although he belonged to the Society of the Cincinnati and knew many of the leading lights of the infant republic, he had little influence in national politics. Hitchcock’s significance derives instead from his earnest, even caricatured embrace of a moral and political identity that peaked during the 1780s; he is important for what he reflects rather than what he accomplished. Along with a wide range of public figures, this pastor considered “liberality” the indispensable quality for the people and institutions of a presumably enlightened age. He was determined both to be liberal and to spread liberal values, and never more so than during his July 4th, 1788 oration. — Jason M. Opal in “Exciting Emulation: Academies and the Transformation of the Rural North, 1780s-1820s,” Journal of American History, 91 (September 2004)”

About Jason M. Opal

  • “Through the lives of six ‘ordinary’ rural men who left their fathers’ farms in search of something better, Jason Opal explains how ambition came to stand near the center of U.S. national character. Both a collective biography and a sweeping historical synthesis, Beyond the Farm sheds new light on the transformation of civil society and boldly revises our understanding of the emergence of capitalism.” — Catherine E. Kelly, University of Oklahoma
  • Rural Americans in the early republic discovered that they were capable of being much more than what their fathers had been. This assumption, that hard work–what was then called enterprise and self-improvement– could make one better than one’s original lot, was a fundamental change in how young rural American men thought about their own identities and lives. It required, first, recognizing that change was good, and that one could and even should reject one’s family’s longstanding practices. The second, central to J. M. Opal’s argument in this insightful, well-written book, was ambition–the fostering of a desire to improve one’s self, to better one’s own lot in life…..
    No institution was more important than the academy. In Opal’s best chapter, he demonstrates how the national elites’ goals for the new republic spurred the proliferation of private academies around New England….
    Democratic ambition rejected the classical fear that ambitious elites would threaten society. Instead, it redefined ambition as a healthy spur to self-improvement for all citizens. If today that drive has led to a materialistic, shallow, overly individualistic society, we cannot forget that in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War it also liberated the human spirit. Let us thank Opal, therefore, for historicizing ambition and its public spiritedness in the past and hope with him that if ambition “worked differently in the past it might do so in the future” (p. 192). — Johann Neem (Department of History, Western Washington University), H-SHEAR (August, 2008)
  • This elegantly written and carefully argued article examines those rural private academies that were :the primary educational innovation of the new republic,” their effort to impose discipline and encourage student achievement by “emulation” (essentially encouraging students to follow the example of others who excelled), and the resistance the academies provoked within their communities. Although situated within the larger debate over preindustrial mentalités, the article deemphasizes the signifi cance of an emerging market economy. Both sides in the debate over academies worked within the constraints of a developing capitalistic system; both, moreover, could claim justifi cation within the ideology of the revolution. And yet their responses to an initiative that emphasized liberal education over basic skills and individual achievement over corporate eff ort marked an important divide in early American society and culture. By sympathetically interpreting those responses, tracing their roots, and explaining their implications, Opal provides a fresh, evocative perspective on an important part of post-revolutionary America. — Bruce Levine, University of California, Santa Cruz; Pauline Maier, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chair; and James H. Merrell, Vassar College, upon awarding the Organization of American Historians’ Binkley-Stephenson Award in 2005 for the best scholarly article published in the Journal of American History during the preceding calendar year
  • “Professor Opal is one of the best professors at Colby. He is intelligent, compassionate, fair, challenging, interesting, bold and cultured. I could not respect him any more than I do.”…
    “Amazing professor – incredibly passionate and transfers the same passion to his students. A must at Colby – you have to take a class with this man, and take advantage of his open door office hours…. Super approachable and endlessly helpful.”…
    “He’s the best professor I’ve ever had! I hate history and now I want to take another class with him.”…
    “He’s the best professor I’ve ever had! I hate history and now I want to take another class with him.”…
    “I love the class. He is so passionate about the subject you can’t help but be interested too! He is very helpful outside of class, too, and is a great prof. to just have a quality conversation with.”…
    “I love him. His classes are so interesting, and organized, he always has a very detailed syllabus, and he’s a very helpful paper-grader. He also tastefully sprinkles his lectures with jokes, baseball analogies, and references to The Onion.”…
    “sooo engaging, really into the material, young enough to relate to the students.”
    “Prof Opal is a really great teacher and is really enthusiastic about the material. I am definitely going to take another class with him….”
    “Really great lectures… good guy too… I’d take another class!” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Monday, February 16, 2009 at 1:17 AM

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