Harry Stout is the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, American Aristocrats: A Family, a Fortune, and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2017).
JF: What led you to write American Aristocrats?
HS: In 2012 I was awarded a year-long fellowship to the Huntington Library. I was free to pursue any subject that I wanted that was included in their archives. On my first day there I discovered a frontier family named Anderson whose patriarch, Richard Clough Anderson was a Revolutionary War hero and subsequently the Surveyor-General for the Virginia Military District, a vast body of land in present-day Kentucky and Ohio reserved for Virginia military veterans. There are nearly 2,000 letters and papers in collections at the Huntington and elsewhere. I began reading the day of my arrival on Labor Day and did not stop until I left for home Memorial Day. In many ways they were very different from my world but I sensed a strong connection that drew me to them in very powerful ways.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Aristocrats?
HS: While this is a family history, it differs from my family histories in that its focus—and my argument—features land as the central protagonist and anxiety as the interpretive theme that drives the narrative. Anderson family members participated in the greatest middle class land grab in world history and private property surfaced as the magnet that would draw Andersons and countless other millions to American shores in pursuit of an unprecedented American dream.
JF: Why do we need to read American Aristocrats?
HS: Many Americans correctly see political republicanism as the primary driver of independence and nation-building in American history. But for republicanism to work it also required material abundance and capital leverage to “reward” republican self-government. Many countries today are unable to establish successful republics because they lack the underlying wealth necessary to make the “dream” come true. America’s unrivaled abundance in land, sea, and minerals meant that striving American citizens would be rewarded for their experiment in democracy in unprecedented ways that made the nation compelling attractive and, at the same time, incredibly anxious over gaining and preserving their abundance.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
HS: I had always enjoyed history and in my sophomore year in college determined on a career in history. Like many historians, I was drawn to the profession by the example of compelling professors who modeled a way of life and work that I found compelling.
JF: What is your next project?
HS: In addition to this book, I also served as General Editor of a Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia that was published within a week of American Aristocrats. Between the two of them I’m quite busy and the “next project” is still in process. One possibility is a work on World War II that features a diary of my late father that I just discovered for the first time last year. It outlines his experiences in the Battle of Okinawa and offers a compelling example of the sacrifices and sufferings that ordinary sailors experienced in that horrific war.
JF: Thanks, Harry!