Category Archives: diplomacy

Abigail and Thomas

I probably can’t call Thomas Jefferson a metrosexual in my dissertation, but that’s why I have a blog.

Abigail Adams is famous for bringing out the best in her correspondents, but Thomas’s letters to her are particularly striking, perhaps because we have so little to compare them to. He burned his wife’s letters shortly after her death, Maria Cosway was hardly an intellectual equal, and if he wrote to Sally Hemings it is no surprise the documents do not survive.

His letters to Abigail are full of humor, political philosophy, and shopping. Yes, Abigail and Thomas shopped for each other when they lived in Europe, while John Adams was the American Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James and Thomas Jefferson held the equivalent position at Versailles (1785-1788). She ordered shirts and table linens for him in London. He bought her lace and shoes in Paris. But my favorite example is his quest for the perfect statuettes, described in his letter of September 25, 1785:

I could only find three of those you named, matched in size. These were Minerva, Diana, and Apollo. I was obliged to add a fourth, unguided by your choice. They offered me a fine Venus; but I thought it out of taste to have two at table at the same time. Paris and Helen were presented. I conceived it would be cruel to remove them from their particular shrine . . . At length a fine Mars was offered, calm, bold, his faulchion not drawn, but ready to be drawn. This will do, thinks I, for the table of the American Minister in London, where those whom it may concern may look and learn that though Wisdom is our guide, and the Song and Chase our supreme delight, yet we offer adoration to that tutelar god also who rocked the cradle of our birth, who has accepted our infant offerings, and has shewn himself the patron of our rights and avenger of our wrongs. The group was then closed and your party formed.

Unfortunately the little statues were not properly wrapped and broke apart on their journey. But the shoes always made it over intact.

Quote from “Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams. Paris, 25 September 1785.” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008. [accessed 03 Apr 2011]
To see the letter in its original context (complete with scholarly annotations) click on the link. If you do not have access to the Rotunda American Founding Era the letter can also be found in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Main Series, Volume 8.

Republicans of Letters

Here are the slides for my January 26th talk at Brown University’s Center for Digital Scholarship, “Republicans of Letters: Historical Social Networks and The Early American Foreign Service Database.”

The abstract ran as follows, “Jean Bauer, an advanced doctoral candidate in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia and creator of The Early American Foreign Service Database, will discuss her use and creation of digital tools to trace historical social networks through time and space. Drawing on her research into the commercial, kinship, patronage, and correspondence networks that helped form the American diplomatic and consular corps, Bauer will examine how relational databases and computational information design can help scholars identify and analyze historical social networks. The talk will include demos of two open source projects Bauer has developed to help scholars analyze their own research, Project Quincy and DAVILA.”

Some of the slides are pretty text intensive, so if something catches your eye, go ahead and hit pause!

It’s [A]live!

It is with great pleasure, and no small amount of trepidation, that I announce the launch of the Early American Foreign Service Database (EAFSD to its friends). While the EAFSD has been designed as an independent, secondary source publication, it also exists symbiotically with my dissertation “Revolution-Mongers: Launching the U.S. Foreign Service, 1775-1825.”

I created the EAFSD to help me track the many diplomats, consuls, and special agents sent abroad by the various American governments during the first fifty-years of American state-building. Currently the database contains basic information about overseas assignments and a few dives into data visualization (an interactive Google map and Moritz Stefaner’s Relation Browser).

I have been a reluctant convert to the principles of Web 2.0, and I keenly feel the anxiety of releasing something before my perfectionist tendencies have been fully exhausted. The pages of the EAFSD are therefore sprinkled with requests for feedback and my (hopefully humorous) under construction page, featuring Benjamin West’s unfinished masterpiece the “American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain.”

Over the next few months (and coming years) I will be adding more information to the database, allowing me to trace the social, professional, and correspondence networks from which American foreign service officers drew the information they needed to represent their new (and often disorganized) government. I will also be enhancing the data visualizations to include hypertrees, time lines, and network graphs.

This launch has been over two years in the making. As I look back over that time, I am amazed at the generous support I have received from my colleagues at the University of Virginia and the Digital Humanities community writ large. I wrote an extended acknowledgments page for the EAFSD, my humble attempt to recognize the help and encouragement that made this project possible.

Launching the EAFSD also gives me a chance to test, Project Quincy, the open-source software package I am developing for tracing historical networks through time and space. The EAFSD is the flagship (read guinea pig) application for Project Quincy. I hope my work will allow other scholars to explore the networks relevant to their own research.

To that end the EAFSD is, and always will be, open access and open source.

Normality: For or Against?

I wrote this post a year ago, when the Scholars’ Lab Blog was just getting off the ground. To see the post in its original context (including the interesting conversation it sparked in the comments), click here.


I’m a historian who is currently designing and/or building four databases. As I work through the complexities of each project, I’m struck by two thoughts.

First: I’m overworked.

Second: I like the way relational algebra makes me think.

Good database design involves breaking a data set into the smallest viable components and then linking those components back together to facilitate complex analysis. This process, known as normalization, helps keep the data set free of duplicates and protects the data from being unintentionally deleted or unevenly updated.

As I research merchants in the eighteenth century and how they connected people and empires with far-flung locations and transfered goods and ideas across oceans, I find it helpful to break those multivalent connections into discrete units. Who wrote to whom? Who worked for whom? Who became a diplomat or consul for the United States? Who recommended him for that position? And so on. Each question has become a relationship in my design for the Early American Foreign Service Database (EAFSD), and by linking all this (and more) information together, the EAFSD will track how the U.S. Foreign Service developed over fifty years. But there is a catch.

When the database is done, I plan on publishing it online so that other researchers can have access to its data. However, I cannot deny that the EAFSD was designed to answer questions specific to my dissertation. Other researchers looking at information gathered from the papers of diplomats, consuls, and merchants will (hopefully) want to ask other questions which my database may or not be able to answer. For example, I only focus on merchants who had a clear connection to the U.S. government (i.e., received positions in the Foreign Service), which means that a large segment of the merchant community will not appear in the database.

Along with the completed database I plan on releasing the source code (both for the database itself and the web application that permits the data migrations and the basic query structure) under an open source license, hopefully making it easier for other scholars to create their own relational databases to track social networks and institutional development. Once those databases are published similar issues will arise.

When a scholar decides to use a relational database in her research, she is making a decision about methodology — not theory. A relational database does not dictate what scholars will find in a given data set, but rather shapes their search in ways that need to remain in the forefront of all our minds, even if the methodological discussions get relegated to footnotes or appendices. If an astronomer has to state the specifications of the telescope along with the data received, a digital humanist should be clear about the choices she made (and why) in designing a database to facilitate her analysis and the analytical limits of the final design.

I became a historian because I see the world as a complex and contingent place that doesn’t respond well to being forced into a constraining model. While having the EAFSD is a necessary condition of my dissertation it is not a sufficient one.

There are real world ambiguities and unpredictable turns in my subject matter which should not be modeled in a relational data structure. High on this list are the many mistakes made by early American diplomats: John Adams picking a fight with the French Foreign Minister in the middle of the Revolutionary War (subject of my Master’s Thesis), James Monroe being recalled by a furious George Washington after denouncing (accurate) rumors regarding a new treaty with Great Britain, Thomas Jefferson breaking the Law of Nations to help Lafayette write the Rights of Man and Citizen, the list goes on and on. On the other hand, while the database also fails to capture the sheer brilliance of Benjamin Franklin it does hint at John Quincy Adams’ compulsive attention to detail. None of these stories or personalities map into the database, but they are all crucial to understanding how the newly United States interacted with the larger Atlantic World.

Designing the EAFSD has sharpened my historical analysis but narrative prose blurs the edges back into the delightfully abnormal lives of the people I seek to understand.