Amanda Moniz is the Associate Director of the National History Center in Washington D.C. This interview is based on her new book From Empire to Humanity: The American Revolution & the Origins of Humanitarianism (Oxford University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write From Empire to Humanity?
AM: I’ve always been interested in how Americans have confronted changes – social, economic, political – in their communities through philanthropy and reform. When I started to do research on the post-Revolutionary years, I was surprised to find American humanitarians working closely with British counterparts. Philanthropy reflects ideas about community, and so the extensive transatlantic humanitarian cooperation after the rupture in the British Atlantic world seemed odd. I wanted to understand the nature of Americans’ and Britons’ moral community after they broke their political bands.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of From Empire to Humanity?
AM: In From Empire to Humanity, I argue that Americans and Britons embraced a universal approach in philanthropy as they became foreigners to one another in the wake of the American Revolution. Before the war, they had collaborated in charitable endeavors based on imperial and Protestant ties, but after the war they adjusted to their new relationship as foreigners by rethinking the nature of their humanitarian cooperation.
JF: Why do we need to read From Empire to Humanity?
AM: Historians have typically examined eighteenth- and nineteenth-century humanitarianism within national parameters or within particular movements and have largely explained developments in terms of shifts in the economy. From Empire to Humanity instead follows a generation of activists who were born in the British Isles, Caribbean, and North America and made their lives in the British Atlantic community before it was fractured by the American Revolution. This approach uncovers the political, professional, and personal reasons for the spread of charitable movements and the expansion of philanthropic aspirations as the Atlantic world was remade.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AM: Since I was a kid, I’ve loved learning about how people in the past have confronted the challenges of their lives and of the world. In college, I thought about becoming a historian – and I knew if I did that I would study the history of American philanthropy – but I couldn’t quite commit. Then a few years later, when I was living in Brooklyn, I went to hear Ron Chernow speak about his biography of magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller. Afterwards, I went up and told Chernow about my senior thesis topic and how I thought it would make a good book. He responded thoughtfully and generously and got me thinking about the craft of writing history. I decided then that I indeed wanted to be a historian.
JF: What is your next project?
AM: My next book project is a biography of Isabella Graham, the immigrant widow who reshaped the charitable infrastructure in early republican New York City. Like the well-off men who are the subject of From Empire to Humanity, Graham moved repeatedly around the Atlantic world and belonged to an far-flung community, in her case of evangelicals. Male philanthropists often found the interconnected world to be exhilarating, but Graham’s experience was one of vulnerability. Her philanthropic agenda differed as a result. I’m excited to explore her life and to write a different genre of book from my first one.
JF: Thanks Amanda!