Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1.  Evangelical Fear and Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump
  2.  Mark Cuban: Don’t Go to College to Study Business. Study the Humanities
  3.  Unpacking the Sweden Incident
  4.  Historian Heather Cox Richardson on Trump’s Muslim Ban: “It’s a Shock Event.”
  5.  Learning to Teach Students to Read With Charity, Humility, and Justice
  6.  The Press Was More Political In Jefferson’s Day Than It Is Today. Yet He Defended It.
  7.  Was George Washington a Christian?
  8.  Yet Another Reason Why Evangelicals Should Be Wary of David Barton’s Pseudo- History
  9.  Readers Respond to My Piece on Evangelicals, Fear, and Anti-Intellectualism
  10.  Andrew Sullivan Tries to Explain Stephen Miller


In Defense of Faculty Scholarship at Small Christian Colleges


In the last six months I have had conversations with at least four different professors at four different small Christian colleges in the United States.  These professors were all lamenting the fact that the administrations at their colleges had recently made decisions to cut funding for faculty scholarship.  One school had severely limited the number of sabbaticals offered each year.  Another school had cut internal grant money for faculty working on scholarly projects.  Two professors said that administrators told them that their primary job was teaching and if they wanted to do scholarship they were certainly welcome to pursue such a course, but it would need to be done on their own time.  According to another professor, an administrator told him/her that faculty scholarship is not a bad thing, but in an “age of prioritization” the funding for such scholarship needed to be cut because, in the long run, it doesn’t put students in the seats.

The emotions of these professors ranged from angry to sad.  They all had really interesting research projects, but they did not have the resources or support to pursue them.  One professor had to turn down an external grant because the administration could not afford to have him be away from the classroom for an entire academic year.

I am sympathetic to the idea that faculty books and articles do not attract prospective students. (Although I am sure that if a faculty member at a small Christian college won a Pulitzer Prize the PR department and the administration would not hesitate to bring attention to such an achievement!).

I also understand that many small schools need to make serious budget cuts in order to keep the doors open.  But to cut funds and opportunities for faculty scholarship at small, largely teaching, institutions is a short-sighted approach that ultimately hurts students.

In the past year or so I have had other kinds of conversations with other colleagues in my field.  They have told me stories of students at small colleges who have won entrance to graduate school or landed jobs precisely because faculty at their institutions had published books and articles that gave the school academic and intellectual credibility.

This is especially relevant for small Christian colleges.  Since many prestigious graduate programs–especially in the humanities–are overwhelmingly secular in orientation, many of the faculty in these graduate programs tend to be suspect of Christian college graduates.  This is unfortunate since many students at Christian colleges are more than capable of doing work at the best graduate schools in the country.  But it is also a reality.  Let’s face it, an absolutely outstanding student at a small Christian college with high test scores needs to have a great vita and letters of reference if they are going to compete for a spot in a graduate program with an above-average student who went to college at Harvard or Yale.

Having said that, it doesn’t take much to convince faculty at prestigious graduate schools that Christian college alums are legitimate.  When graduate committees at these schools are familiar with the scholarly work of faculty at these small Christian colleges it legitimizes the academic quality of such colleges and the students who graduate from them.  I can think of many Messiah College history students who were accepted and funded at top schools around the country because someone in the history department at those schools knew about the scholarly work of one our faculty members.

Just this week I was talking to a history professor at a small Christian college who landed one of his students at a high-powered and very competitive graduate program because one of the graduate faculty in that program had read one of his books and cited it in his own scholarly work.

Also this week I met a student who just got accepted to one of the best graduate programs in his field.  When I learned about this I approached the student to offer my congratulations.  (I should add that I did not write a letter for this student.  I have never taught this student.  I had no idea he was even applying to this particular program.  And to the best of my memory this was the first time I had ever actually spoken more than a few words to him). When we chatted he told me that he was very nervous during his campus interview.  He was was worried about how his Messiah College degree would be received at this elite institution.  But during the course of the interview the director of the graduate program told him that he was familiar with my work and followed me on Twitter.  I have no doubt that this student was accepted to this program on his own merits, but the fact that the director knew the academic reputation of Messiah College certainly helped him. I hope he left the conversation thankful that Messiah supports faculty scholarship. I know I did.

Faculty do scholarly work for a number of reasons.  Some feel called to make contributions to knowledge.  Others may do it to pursue personal glory or prestige at their institutions or in their disciplines.  Still other do it as way of climbing the academic ladder, landing a better job, or securing higher speaking fees.  But we rarely frame faculty scholarship in terms of what it might do for our students. When it is framed this way, scholarship becomes less about the career or even professional development of the individual scholar-teacher and more about an act of service to the young men and women we encounter everyday in our classrooms.

Quote of the Day

revoltFrom Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996):

Both left-and right-wing ideologies, in any case, are now so rigid that new ideas make little impression on their adherents.  The faithful, having sealed themselves off from arguments and events that might call their own convictions into question, no longer attempt to engage their adversaries in debate.  Their reading consists for the most part of works written from a point of view identical with their own.  Instead of engaging unfamiliar arguments, they are content to classify them as either orthodox or heretical.  The exposure of ideological deviation, on both sides, absorbs energies that might better be invested in self-criticism, the waning capacity for which is the surest sign of a moribund intellectual tradition.

The Author’s Corner with Joanna Cohen

luxurious-citizenJoanna Cohen is a lecturer in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London. This interview is based on her new book, Luxurious Citizen: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Luxurious Citizens?

JC: I found my way into this book in three stages! The first step was reading Godey’s Ladies Book in my first year of graduate school. I was fascinated by the elaborate fashion plates and the juxtaposition of those images with numerous stories that praised the virtues of American women’s thrift and economy. These contradictions got me interested in the ways in which consumption habits were framed in overlapping ways in American cultural life, as signifiers of cultural sophistication and national virtue, not to mention the gender norms they promoted. The second step was two graduate courses I took: one on Gender, Nationalism and Citizenship, the other on the History of Consumer Culture in America. Both piqued my interest in different ways. When it came to citizenship I became increasingly dissatisfied with the idea that citizenship was simply a legal relationship. I wanted to explore the ways in which citizens imagined their relationship to the nation-state, especially when it came to obligations. Turning to consumer culture, I read avidly about the politics of consumption in the eighteenth century and picked up the story again in the twentieth century, but found little that explained how one connected to the other. Finally, after only a month in the archives at the American Philosophical Society, I found the phrase “Luxurious Citizens” in a speech given by “Pig Iron Kelley” in front of the Franklin Institute. That phrase summed up my conviction that the histories of citizenship and consumption were intertwined in crucial ways. I set out to trace those connections, wanting to understand the ways in which consumer capitalism shaped the meaning of citizenship in nineteenth-century America.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Luxurious Citizens?

JC: At the close of the Revolution, the newly-formed government expected citizens to serve their nation through self-sacrifice, by limiting their consumption of imported luxuries. But time and again, through war and peace, ordinary Americans demonstrated that they would not accept such limitations on their desires. Instead, they transformed themselves into citizen-consumers, claiming that the freedom to consume could be of service to the nation. In 1861, at the outbreak of war, the Union government not only acknowledged the power of the citizen-consumer, they harnessed that power to the service of the war effort. Using a tariff to harvest much-needed revenue from their citizens’ desires, the Union confirmed that the citizen-consumer was an important member of the body-politic – whose freedom to indulge themselves could save the republic or send it to its destruction.

JF: Why do we need to read Luxurious Citizens?

JC: For readers interested in nineteenth century capitalism, the origins of consumer culture in America, the gendered meanings of citizenship and the political economy that shaped the road to the Civil War, Luxurious Citizens has much to offer. But the book is also timely reflection on the far-reaching consequences of the apotheosis of the citizen-consumer. The idea that a citizen can serve the state through their consumption has a flip side: it also suggests that citizens’ consumer choices can be blamed when the state encounters economic failure.

In 2008, when the United States faced the great crash, the first round of blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of ordinary citizens who had overspent and over extended their credit. Such a story hid the deep-rooted structural failures of the US economy. Luxurious Citizens reveals the ways in which these narratives of individual accountability took root in the United States, often cloaked in the language of civic rights and personal freedoms. It is an exploration of the ways in which Americans imagine the way in which their economy works, and how the state can use and even exploit those understandings. So, at a moment when neo-liberalism as an ideology stands on the brink of collapse, Luxurious Citizens will hopefully remind people that they can re-imagine the nation’s political economy and redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JC: Well officially I decided I wanted to become an American historian when I was doing my final year Honors thesis at Cambridge. I looked at the work of four great female authors and wrote a paper on the way in which those writers constructed (and deconstructed) what it meant to be a woman in nineteenth century America. But unofficially, I have to confess, it goes back to reading Little House on the Prairie and Little Women as a girl. Those stories still fascinate me. I recently re-read them when I got all my childhood books down from the attic for my daughter, and I still find the narratives of survival, ambition, compromise and resilience utterly compelling.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: Right now, I am working on a project that focuses on the ways in which Americans experienced loss in the nineteenth century. I explore how new capitalist, bureaucratic and commercial technologies shaped people’s emotional understanding of losing their homes, possessions and environments.

I am also working on a collaborative project with Zara Anishanslin, that explores how people “came to terms” with the ends of conflicts in the Atlantic World. Privileging visual and material culture as a source, this project asks how people made their peace with violence and war through the things and images they had in their lives.

JF: Thanks, Joanna!

The Greatest Sports Call of All Time

In my opinion it does not get any better than Al Michaels and Ken Dryden on February 22, 1980. (It happened on George Washington’s birthday).  There was a time during my teenage years when I had Michaels’s call of the final minute of this game memorized.  I can still recite some of it.  One of the overlooked parts of this call was legendary Montreal Canadian goalie Ken Dryden, a Canadian, saying “unbelievable” as the game ended.  He was clearly shocked by what he had just witnessed. (Dryden is also know for saying “the U.S. team is relying a little too much on [goalie] Jim Craig, he’s making too many good saves” seconds before Michael’s interrupted to call what turned out to be the game-winning goal: “ERUZIONE, MIKE ERUZIONE!!!!“)

More Reader Response on Evangelicals, Fear and Anti-Intellectualism

Read the original piece here:

A reader from Tennessee (a history professor) writes:

As the essay notes, the 76% of evangelicals supporting the EO closely correlates to the 81% who voted for Trump. I won’t pretend to be a sociologist, but with most social movements that’s pretty close to speaking with “one voice.” Which raises these questions about these leaders: do they have followers? And are they themselves meaningfully evangelical by anything other than a narrow theological definition?

Do these evangelical leaders have followers?  Of course they do. And their following is very large.  But if I have learned anything from scholars who study popular religion in America, there is not necessarily a one-to-one correlation between what a religious leader says on a given issue and the way followers appropriate the message.  If history is a guide, the most ardent follower of a popular religious leader does not necessary follow him/her on EVERYTHING.

Was George Washington a Christian?


This comes from the archives.  I wrote it back in 2011 when I was doing a weekly column at Patheos.  Here is a taste:

On Monday we will once again celebrate George Washington’s birthday. (He was actually born on February 22, 1732.) Over the course of the last year I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about Washington for my book on Christianity and the founding of the American republic. In a chapter entitled “Did Washington Pray at Valley Forge?” I explore his religious beliefs and wonder whether or not we can truly call him a Christian. Washington’s faith is not easy to pin down.

I am not the only one who has wondered whether or not Washington was a Christian. His contemporaries also wondered. Reverend Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and one of the leaders of the evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening, felt confident that Washington was a Christian, but he was also aware that “doubt may and will exist” about the substance of his faith.

Today, Washington’s faith has become a minor battlefield in America’s ongoing culture wars. Tim LaHaye, an evangelical minister and the coauthor of the best-selling Left Behind novels, has called Washington “a devout believer in Jesus Christ” who, in good evangelical fashion, “had accepted Him as His Lord and Savior.” Peter Lillback, the current president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, has written over 1,100 pages in an attempt to prove that Washington was “an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ . . .” In contrast, Joseph Ellis, a historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing about the American founders, has described Washington as a “lukewarm Episcopalian.” Writer Brooke Allen recently concluded that “there are very real doubts as to whether Washington was a Christian or even whether he was a believer at all.”

Who is right? Or, more importantly, what is at stake in deciding who is right? In recent years Washington’s faith has become heavily politicized. It is often used to promote a particular political platform in the present. The argument goes something like this: “If George Washington was a Christian, then America must be too” or “If Washington was not a Christian, then he must have desired the United States to be a secular nation.”

Most historians agree that Washington was quiet about his faith. Unlike John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin, he did not leave behind definitive statements about what he believed. Neither was he particularly curious about theology or other religious matters. His religious reading was confined largely to sermons purchased by his devout wife, Martha.

We do know that Washington was a firm believer in what he called “Providence.” He used this term 270 times in his writings, usually employing it as a synonym for the Judeo-Christian God. This was an omniscient, omnipotent, and loving God who created and ordered the universe, but whose purposes remained mysterious. Washington’s God was active in the lives of human beings. He could perform miracles, answer prayer, and intervene in history to carry out his will. Yet Washington never tried to predict what God was doing in history. Instead, he acted in history—often with great valor and determination—and let God’s purpose be done.

Washington was christened into the Anglican Church. His mother, Mary Ball Washington, was known in Virginia plantation circles for her piety. George’s religious upbringing included regular reading of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. He attended Anglican (later Episcopal) churches most of his life and even served his Virginia parish in leadership roles.

Read the entire piece here.  Happy Birthday, George!

Readers Respond to My Piece on Evangelicals, Fear, and Anti-Intellectualism

Read the piece here.

A distinguished professor of religion at a church-related, non-evangelical liberal arts college writes:

Well done, John. Though I’d want to push on the anti-intellectualism a bit. We want to go beyond attention to verifiable evidence to also encourage clarity of analysis and sound interpretation.

This scholar and church-person is absolutely correct.

But as someone who spends a lot of time with evangelicals and evangelical students, I am finding it more and more necessary to go back to square one.  Last week I was a guest on a NYC-area radio program talking about this very thing.  I  told the host, a fellow academic, about my experience last Fall teaching students how to write Chicago-style footnotes. What was once a rather mundane part of my course took on a new sense of urgency.  Yes, analysis and interpretation is much needed, but it always begins with good evidence and the dogged pursuit of truth.

Evangelical Fear and Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump


Here is a taste of my latest column at Religion News Service:

(RNS) Seventy-six percent of white American evangelicals supported President Trump’s recent executive order temporarily banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations as well as all refugees, according to Pew Research (59 percent of all Americans disapproved of the order).

The strong evangelical support for Trump’s action is telling in light of a recent letter sent to him and Vice President Mike Pence from 500 evangelical leaders who condemn the executive order.

The letter was signed by Tim Keller (author and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church), Richard Mouw (former president of Fuller Theological Seminary), Max Lucado (author), Bill Hybels (founder of Willow Creek Community Church) and Shirley Hoogstra (president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities),  to name only a few of the prominent evangelicals who endorsed its message.

Read the rest here.

Learning to Teach Students to Read With Charity, Humility, and Justice

smithYesterday, the first day of the 2017 Messiah College Humanities Symposium, I attended a great lecture from Calvin College professor David I. Smith titled “Charity, Humility, Justice: Learning to Read and Inviting Virtue.”  I don’t have time today to write-up a nicely crafted post, but I do want to share some random ideas I gleaned from the lecture.

Smith drew heavily from the work of Paul Griffiths and Alan Jacobs.

Griffiths, in his book Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion, distinguishes between two kinds of reading: “religious reading” and “consumer reading.”

When we read religiously we read repetitively.  The reading of a particular text is ongoing.  For example, we don’t read the Gospel of John once and then never return to it again for the rest of our lives.  When we read religiously there is an implicit assumption that the author of the text knows more than we do.  We cede authority to the text and expect it to make moral demands on our lives.  Finally, religious reading is done in community.  It implies that what people have said about the text, in the past and present, is important.

Consumer reading, on the other hand, is what we do when we read the Internet, or a restaurant menu, or (God forbid!) a blog post.  When we read as consumers we get what we want from the text and then we dispose of it.  Consumer reading is mastery-oriented.  We control the text.  Moreover, we expect to be the same person after reading the text than we were before we started to read it.  No one’s life is transformed from reading a restaurant menu.

Griffiths suggests that religious reading and consumer reading are both essential in our everyday lives.  But there are more “mechanisms” in our culture prompting us to read as consumers.  At this point in the lecture I could not tell whether Smith was speaking for himself or still summarizing Griffiths (I have not read Griffiths), but he suggested that education was one of the main reasons that consumer reading is so dominant.  Our system of education sees books as something we”check off.” (Again, few people read the Bible or another sacred text for the purpose of getting it off their bucket list).  Students do not see any need to revisit a text because, as they see it, they “read that one already, why do they need to read it again?”  This attitude implies that they are consuming the text–mastering its content for a brief period of time so that they can take a quiz or pass an exam.

Smith then turned to Alan Jacobs’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  Jacobs describes reading in terms of “lingering.”  Rarely do students “linger” on a text.  Smith used the example of a poem about the Holocaust.  He suggested that there might be something wrong about reading the poem ten minutes before class and gleaning just enough information about it to impress the professor in the class discussion.  Smith said that the students are not to blame for the reading habits they have developed.  If a professor assigns 5o pages of reading a night he or she is inviting students to skim.

Smith then turned to a fascinating discussion about the place of “speed” in the classroom.  Studies show that teachers often measure the intelligence of a student based on how quickly they are able to answer a question in class.  The student who answers quickly and talks fast must be intelligent.  Speed is thus rewarded in the classroom.  Smith pointed at the irony of it all: “do we really believe that the student who speaks with the least forethought is the most intelligent?”  He even suggested that when it comes to the end of the semester, and a teacher is deciding whether to give a student an A- or a B+, the teacher might remember the speed in which the student raised his or her hand in class and factor that into the grade choice.

In other words, we do not reward “lingering.”  This kind of lingering, however, becomes a symbol of charity to the text.  It requires attentiveness. It means we listen to a text and do not read it to provide a platform for our own views.  Charity requires believing the best about the author for as long as you can.   Humility requires that we enter a text with the purpose of trying to learn from it. Most of our courses are structured in such a way that is NOT conducive to the cultivation of these virtues.

Smith spent the rest of the lecture discussing how he incorporates these ideas in a German literature class that he teaches at Calvin.  He left me with a lot to think about it.  Much of what he said intersected with some of the ideas I put forth in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, but Smith pushed me to take this kind of reading more seriously in my classes.  Finally, Smith’s examples were mostly about reading fiction.  How is this kind religious or charitable reading done when students are reading the William Penn’s 1692 Frame of Government or the Federalist Papers?

Great lecture.  It was an excellent way to kick-off the 2017 Messiah College Humanities Symposium.

Christians and “America First”

america-firstLast week I did a post titled “Can a Christian Embrace ‘America First’?”  The post called attention to Fordham theologian Charles Camosy’s argument that “Trumpism” is a heresy because it places the nation over the gospel.

Today, over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gerhz of Bethel University historicizes Camosy’s claim.  In his post “The Christian History of ‘America First’,” Gehrz reminds us that the original “America First” campaign had a lot of Christian support.

Here is a small taste:

But while I continue to believe that “America First” as our president seems to mean it is inconsistent with Christian belief and witness, it’s also worth noting that the pre-World War II isolationist movement that pioneered that phrase actually had considerable support from a wide range of Christians.

There were actually two such groups. The first, more explicitly Christian America First (founded 1939) was a right-wing women’s movement affiliated with Gerald L. K. Smith, a firebrand preacher who entered politics via his association with Huey Long and published the conservative magazine, The Cross and the Flag. In a 1994 article for the journal Diplomatic History, Laura McEnaney argued that the self-styled “Christian mothers” of that America First fused religion, patriotism, and isolationism into “a defense of the nuclear family structure and the conventional gender roles that made this movement’s vision of social and sexual purity possible and sustainable.”

More famous is the America First Committee (AFC), an ideologically diverse group founded in September 1940 by law student R. Douglas Stuart. (You can learn more about AFC from Philip, who posted about it last month at The American Conservative.) A member of the anti-war Yale Christian Association, Stuart’s father and grandfather were both executives at Quaker Oats, a company that plays a key role in Tim Gloege’s history of “corporate evangelicalism.”

Read the entire piece here.

Unpacking the Sweden Incident


Here is what Trump said on Saturday at his Melbourne, Florida rally:

Here’s the bottom line. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this. Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels.

Trump seemed to suggest that something had happened in Sweden the night before the Melbourne rally. It sounds like Trump was suggesting that a terrorist attack occurred in Sweden on Friday night.

Most of the world was baffled by Trump’s remarks, including former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt:

The so-called “Sweden Incident” now rivals the “Bowling Green Massacre” as another piece of fake news.  It received so much attention that Trump was forced to respond:

Here is the story that Trump references in this tweet:

I have no idea how much of this Fox News story is accurate.  Frankly, it seems a bit sensational.  The fires blazing and the black-hooded refugees instill fear in ordinary Americans.  Both Tucker Carlson and the filmmaker are anything but objective in the course of the interview.  It seems obvious that Fox is running this story for political purposes.  They want to show what can happen in the United States if more refugees were welcomed into the country.  Carlson and the filmmaker seem absolutely baffled by the idea that the people of Sweden care about humanitarianism.

So here is what happened.  On Friday night Trump saw this story.  On Saturday night he got confused.  He confused the running of the story on Friday night with some kind of terrorist attack that he believed happened in Sweden on Friday night.

This would be an honest mistake for most people, but Donald Trump is not “most people.” Donald Trump is the President of the United States.

I am concerned about two things here:

First, the POTUS is getting his knowledge of what is happening around the world from watching television news.  Trump is the most important and powerful person in the world. One would think that he would have a better source of information than Fox News.  Doesn’t he read his briefings?  Wouldn’t he have known if a terrorist attack occurred in Sweden before he saw it on Fox News?  (Again, just to be clear, there was no terrorist attack

Second, the POTUS is once again using false information to scare people.  Fox News is doing the same thing.  Knowledge is an antidote to fear.  Trump’s presidency thrives on people who do not think critically about their world.  This is how strongmen stay in power. The light of knowledge that exposes the lies, fake news, and false information also exposes the strongman.  The veil is pulled back on the Wizard of Oz and all that is left is a little insecure man.

Introducing Josh Lowrie

lowrie-photoIn case you missed it, Season 3 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast is underway.

Episode 17: “The Way of Improvement Leads to Mount Vernon” dropped this morning.

Episode 17 is the first episode we cut with our new studio producer Josh Lowrie.  Josh is replacing our regular studio producer Mikaela Mummert while she is studying radio in Nashville this semester.

Josh is from East Stroudsburg Pennsylvania. He is a junior Broadcasting and Media Production major at Messiah College. Josh works part time during the school year (full time in the summer) as a part of Messiah’s tech crew and is spending this semester as an intern in the Conference Services Office where he is expanding his technical knowledge and learning about event planning and management. Last semester Josh studied in Nashville at the Contemporary Music Center (the same program in which Mikaela is currently enrolled).

In his free time, Josh likes to spend time with his fiancée, listen to music, and watch TV and movies. When he graduate colleges he wants to find work as a monitor engineer in the touring concert industry.

Welcome aboard, Josh!  Drop him a note in the comments section or via one of my social media feeds and welcome him to the The Way of Improvement Leads Home team!

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Gutzman

thomas-jeffersonKevin Gutzman is Professor and Chairman of the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University. This interview is based on his new book, Thomas Jefferson- Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Thomas Jefferson?

KG: The idea of writing a book about Thomas Jefferson’s radical statesmanship came to me as I was working on my most recent previous book, James Madison and the Making of America, a biography of Jefferson’s best friend and closest ally. Madison’s correspondence is devoted almost exclusively to politics of a somehow constitutionalist variety and various business and family matters. Jefferson, on the other hand, was—this is trite because true—a multifaceted genius, one whose influence on our world is in many of its manifestations unremarked. I also believed on the basis of prior work that some of Jefferson’s chief commitments and projects had been misunderstood. I wanted to explore that genius and to clarify the record.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Thomas Jefferson?

KG: Thomas Jefferson remains the most significant statesman in American history. Additionally, much of Jefferson’s radical program has been misapprehended, so that even experts are apt to see in Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America a different Jefferson from the one they have known.

JF: Why do we need to read Thomas Jefferson?

KG: Experts need to read Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America for new insights concerning the radical end of the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson in particular. The general public needs to read it as a corrective to Federalist Chic à la Lin-Manuel Miranda.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KG: I became interested in American Revolutionary and constitutional history in summer 1987, when as part of my joint-degrees program in law and public affairs at the University of Texas I completed a summer internship on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In between work days in the office of a member of the House of Representatives, I exploited the constitutional bicentennial by reading a couple of dozen books of constitutional history and public policy and seeing myriad local sights. The final decision to become a historian arose out of my experience of legal practice as a very dull matter indeed.

JF: What is your next project?

KG: My next project, The Virginia Dynasty: Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020 (forthcoming)), will be – believe it or not – the first such book ever published. I am well along in doing the research.

JF: Thanks, Kevin. 

Episode 17: The Way of Improvement Leads to Mount Vernon

podcast-icon1History always matters, but in times of great political change, good historical thinking is especially important. And since it’s Presidents’ Day, we thought the best place to start Season 3 is at historic Mount Vernon. In this episode we discuss George Washington’s leadership, paying special attention to his 1796 Farewell Address. We are joined by Douglas Bradburn (@douglasbradburn), the founding director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the study of George Washington (@gwbooks) at Mount Vernon.

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Evangelicals, Trump, and the politics of charisma

David Frum: How to Build an Autocracy

Michael Novak, RIP

The invention of segregation

John Turner reviews Robert Orsi, History and Presence

Remembering Executive Order 9066

Moral wood and William Penn

Place and race

Robert Darnton on fake news

Are you watching The Young Pope?

Does Trump’s narcissism cloud his moral concern?

Remembering the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act

Robert Levine talks Frederick Douglass


Keeping change and continuity in tension in the American history classroom

The William Henry Harrison Museum

Jackson Lears reviews Stephen Kinzer, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire

Books for President’s Day

Homespun and resistance