The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Den Hartog

Jonathan Den Hartog is Associate Professor of History at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, Minnesota, where he is also Chair of the History Department. This interview is based on his new book, Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (University of Virginia Press, January 2015).

JF: What led you to write Patriotism and Piety?

JDH: As a graduate student, I became fascinated by the early republic: so much about American life was determined not in the years of the War for Independence but in the decades after the Constitution was ratified. It became clear to me that understanding the place of religion in American life required extending the story from the Revolution into the early national period. Within that story, the Federalists had a role that had not really been examined satisfactorily. The Federalists were one of the first American political parties and counted many Revolutionary leaders among their numbers, including Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Jay, as well as state-level figures such as Elias Boudinot, Caleb Strong, Timothy Dwight, Jedidiah Morse, and Henry William De Saussure. As a group, their understanding of the place of religion in the new republic needed to be better understood.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Patriotism and Piety?

JDH: The book argues that the decades after the American Revolution were a time, not of religious uniformity and consensus, but of intense conflict over what would be believed and how religion would relate to the state and federal governments. In this milieu, Federalists worked creatively to advance a vision of a public religiosity; in so doing, their activities and outlooks passed through three phases: Republican, Combative, and Voluntarist.

JF: Why do we need to read Patriotism and Piety?

JDH: Readers of the Way of Improvement blog might want to read it in conversation with John’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? More generally, readers should pick up the book to encounter narrative history that describes individuals in the early republic wrestling with important questions that still vex us today about the place of religion in public life and how best to advance claims about ultimate reality in the public realm.

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

JDH: My love for American history was nourished by parents who encouraged me to read and teachers who were simultaneously engaging and demanding. As a college undergraduate, the study of American history opened my eyes to how my experiences were shaped by the traditions I was participating in. That intellectual awakening galvanized my desire to share similar experiences with students and readers.

JF: What is your next project?

JDH: In researching Patriotism and Piety, one figure I spent time with was John Jay–he actually is the central figure for chapter 1. I discovered that he had produced much more material than could be covered in a single chapter and that Jay was a very significant figure who has received much less attention than he deserves. So, I am currently writing a study of Jay’s ideas and politics.

JF: Looking forward to hearing about it. Thanks Jonathan

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner