Work in Progress: Eileen Cheng

Eileen ChengPolitics makes strange bedfellows—even when you're a historian, says Eileen Cheng (history).

Case in point: during and after the Revolutionary War, some American historians retained British sympathies. These loyalists wrote accounts of the nation's birth that painted the revolutionaries as a disorderly, anarchic rabble.

Years later, in the early 19th century, nationalist historians took a different tack. They de-radicalized the Revolution, creating a conservative, orderly vision of the war, Cheng says. This was a way for them to argue against progressive, rebellious factions of their own day.

Cheng studied these two groups of historians during a recent sabbatical. To the surprise of many, she found that the loyalist historians' attitudes had a significant impact on the nationalist historians of the early 19th century. Though they had different political goals, both groups believed that rapid, revolutionary change was dangerous. In fact, nationalist historians of the early 1800s drew heavily on earlier loyalist writers, sometimes to the point of plagiarism, Cheng says. She's now working on a book based on this research.