Framing a Chapter

April 30, 2004

People, family members mostly, ask me why the dissertation is taking me so long. I explain that I have trouble framing my arguments, and they don't quite understand what I mean by that.

I am in the middle of revising chapter two yet again, let me review some of the ways I have tried to structure this story.

The chapter was always going to be about how American notions of religion and the state changed between the Revolution and Constitution that is the subject of chapter one and the rise of the national benevolent societies that are the subject of chapter three. It is a transition chapter talking about life after the Revolution.

I forget how I first tried to handle this. The bit I remember is that I decided to frame the chapter in terms of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. The three guys were together at the Declaration, they were together in France in 1786, and while Franklin went home and helped with the Constitution, Jefferson and Adams watched the early days of the French Revolution from Paris and London respectively before coming home and taking up major positions under the new Constitution. More, the conflict of the 1790s featured a religious war between the Trinitarian supporters of Unitarian Jefferson and the Trinitarian supporters of Unitarian Adams, both of whom were explained by their supporters in terms of their civil religion.

More, I was thinking at the time that the book that would grow out of this dissertation would be something that undergraduates could read to get a handle on the transition between the late colonial era and the late antebellum era, the long version of the Early American Republic. So, I explained the French Revolution and its relationship to American politics. This was in part a think piece helping me figure out these events, but it was also an attempt to meld political history with sweeping intellectual history.

The experiment failed - I bogged down in the politics and did not dig enough into the ideas.

So, I cut out the details and wrote it again framing it solely in terms of Jefferson. That worked so so, but it still did not cohere well. Jefferson was strong in the beginning and reviled in the end, but somewhat missing in much of the middle section. I had a long discussion of Burke and Paine, a good discussion of Jedediah Morse and the Illuminatti hooplah, and an extremely awkward reading of Joseph Story and the Girard Will case of 1844.

The current attempt at the chapter is focusing more on Joseph Story - thus the recent reading in JS. I am going to be looking at the conflict between two Republicans, Jefferson and Story, both of whom were Unitarians but who held completly different understandings of American Civil Religion.

I will work out the basic tenets of civil religion and then show how the two men tried to handle the contradictory aspects of those tenets - everyone believes that religion is a matter of reason and conviction and that beliefs can not be adjusted in response to force and violence (paraphrasing Mason and Madison), but many people also believe that because there is a relationship between religious beliefs and future actions, that people and society have a meaninful interest in the private religious beliefs of other people and especially of magistrates.

So, I am now coming up with the third or fourth, depending on how you count, different major swing at the same material. Each is better than the previous - more clearly written, more thickly sourced, more coherently argued. But, each takes a great deal of time.

My only hope is that the final dissertation will be solid enough that it will not take TOO long to turn it into a book. But I know that the book process will also take FOREVER.

And back to work, revised 20 pages today.

Posted by Red Ted at April 30, 2004 01:20 AM | TrackBack

Too painful to even read this article. I think with most PhDs the contents are the easy part. It's finding a satisfactory way to present the ideas that causes problems.

Posted by: Claire at May 3, 2004 10:57 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?