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 Citizens: 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 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. 

The Author’s Corner with Lisa Lindsay

atlantic-bondsLisa Lindsay is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This interview is based on her new book, Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Atlantic Bonds?

LL: In a biography of a women’s rights advocate in mid-20th century Nigeria, I read that her grandfather had come to Africa from South Carolina in the 1850s and stayed there for the rest of his life.  I was intrigued, because it seemed that this man, James Churchwill Vaughan, embodied connections between the American South and West Africa that we don’t often think about: the “return” migration of African Americans, the effect of the diaspora on Africa, and the similar but also contrasting histories of slavery and white supremacy in the antebellum south and colonial Africa.  So I began to try to find out about this fellow Vaughan.  Once I learned that he had emigrated to Liberia and then Nigeria, been captured in wars feeding the slave trade, led a revolt against white missionaries, and founded a prosperous family of activists who stayed in touch with their relatives in the United States, I was hooked.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Atlantic Bonds?

LL: James Churchwill (Church) Vaughan’s life story forms one thread in a larger fabric of interconnections during a transformative period in Atlantic history: when slavery was abolished in the United States and colonialism began in West Africa, and when black people in both places confronted challenges to their security and autonomy.  Following Vaughan’s journeys from South Carolina to Liberia to several parts of Yorubaland (Nigeria) enables a view of linkages across the nineteenth century Atlantic world as well as a comparison of related and similar phenomena in various settings.

JF: Why do we need to read Atlantic Bonds?

LL: The book brings together the histories of the United States, Africa, and the African diaspora–whose practitioners do not often engage substantially with each other’s scholarship–and of slavery and colonialism, which are generally studied separately.  This wide, comparative view yields two sets of revelations often missed by specialists who focus exclusively on one place.  First, it reminds us that American slavery was part of a connected, Atlantic world of bonded labor, one where slavery and freedom were not stark opposites but rather framed a continuum of dependency relations.  Second, the book probes the relationship between diasporic Africans and the politics of African colonialism, showing how consciousness of the diaspora informed opportunities and strategies in Africa.

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

LL: Actually, I’m an Africanist historian.  My first monograph was on colonial Nigeria.  But I have always been interested in the interplay between the local and the global in African history, and in comparative history.  As a graduate student at the University of Michigan I had the good fortune to work with Rebecca Scott, Tom Holt, and my adviser Fred Cooper, who were collaborating on a project about postemancipation societies.  So from early on I was intrigued by cross-regional comparisons, particularly as they relate to slavery and its aftermath.  At UNC-Chapel Hill, I’m in a department with a distinguished faculty in US, and particularly Southern, history.  And so when I became interested in the story of Church Vaughan, it gave me the chance to bring together the expertise I had already developed on Nigeria with new challenges and rewards in studying American history.

JF: What is your next project?

LL: I keep moving back in time and to larger geographic frames.  The next project will center on the history of women in the Atlantic slave trade, tracing such topics as the enslavement of women, women in the middle passage, and women in the antislavery movement over roughly the 16th to the 19th centuries.

JF: Thanks, Lisa!

The Author’s Corner with Philip Gorski

american-covenantPhilip Gorski is Professor of Sociology at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write American Covenant?

I began writing the book nine years ago, during the 2008 Obama campaign. My initial aim was to place Obama’s campaign rhetoric within the civil religious tradition originally identified by Robert Bellah a half century ago, in his 1967 Daedalus article. It then evolved into an attempt to recover that tradition and to distinguish it from its historic rivals: radical secularism and religious nationalism. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Covenant?

America’s civil religious tradition is a synthesis of prophetic religion and civic republicanism or “prophetic republicanism.” Although it has evolved and expanded as America has become diverse and powerful, prophetic republicanism has always been the vital center of our public life.

JF: Why do we need to read American Covenant?

The Trump Presidency represents a mortal threat to the vital center.  Only a broad alliance of committed democrats that cuts across the usual cultural and political divides will be strong enough to withstand his efforts to abolish the American Republic and replace it with an un-American regime of authoritarian populism. This book identifies the core values that are at stake in the present conflict and places the current struggle within a deeper context.  The analysis of religious nationalism also helps uncover the deeper roots of Trumpism and illuminates the puzzling appeal to a certain sort of Christian conservative. Likewise, the critique or radical secularism should remind secular progressives of the religious roots of many of their most deeply held values and commitments — and of the dangers of denying them. 

Though the book was always intended as a public intervention aimed at a broader audience of educated Americans, it is also a work of serious scholarship that will, I hope, outlast the Trump regime, and appeal to academic specialists as well. As such it will appeal to American religious historians as a deep history of the modern culture wars; to political philosophers interested in the proper role of religion in public life, and to theological ethicists concerned with the role of civic engagement in religious communities.

JF: When and why did you decide to study American history/social history?

I was originally trained as an early modern Europeanist. I began studying the US in preparation for a comparative project on the divergent religious trajectories of the US and Western Europe since the late 19th Century.  I then got “sidetracked” by this project on civil religion.

JF: What is your next project?

I am currently working on the connection between religion and populism. Populism is usually thought of as a “secular” phenomenon, rooted in class conflict, cultural pluralism and party competition. While economic inequality, mass immigration and political gridlock are surely part of the explanation for the current populist resurgence, religious factors are also crucial.  This is true not only in notoriously religious countries such as India and the United States, but also in Eastern and Western Europe. 

JF: Thanks, Philip!

The Author’s Corner with Judith Weisenfeld

New World A Coming.jpgJudith Weisenfeld is Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University. This interview is based on her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write New World A-Coming?

JW: I have been interested in the black new religious movements of the Great Migration period since I read Arthur Huff Fauset’s 1944 ethnographic study, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, in an undergraduate course. Fauset was concerned with questions about what the religious creativity fostered by the migration and urbanization of African Americans in the early twentieth century revealed about the dynamics of black religion, particularly with regard to connections to African religious traditions. In this way he was participating in a broader scholarly conversation among anthropologists about “African retentions” in African American culture. As I thought about revisiting some of the groups Fauset had profiled and my fascination with their charismatic leaders, distinctive theologies, and novel rituals and social organizations grew, it became clear to me that I brought different questions and tools to the project than had Fauset.

Two aspects of Fauset’s approach remained important for me as I researched and wrote the book, however. First, although a number of wonderful historical and ethnographic studies have been published in recent years examining the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, congregations of black Jews, and the Moorish Science Temple – the groups on which I focus in New World A-Coming – most examined a single group of a number of groups under the same religious umbrella. Like Fauset, I wanted to think comparatively and, as a historian, to think about what gave rise to these novel movements in the early twentieth-century urban North, about commonalities, and differences. Second, Fauset attended not only to the leaders of the movements and their theologies but to the members, asking questions about what appealed to them and what they gained in joining these groups. Trying to recover some sense of the experiences of members of the groups was what really motivated me to take up the project, and the challenge of finding sources to do so was both exciting and frustrating at times.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of New World A-Coming?

JW: Through attention to the theologies and religious practices of the leaders and members of these groups, I explore how people of African descent debated the nature of racial categories and discussed their impact on political, social, and spiritual opportunities. I argue that the appeal of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews lay not only in the new religious opportunities that membership in them afforded, but in the novel ways they formulated an inseparable, divinely ordained religio-racial identity.

JF: Why do we need to read New World A-Coming?

JW: The book provides a fresh look at the black religious movements of the Great Migration period, emphasizing the experiences of both leaders and members who proposed new ways of thinking about black history, individual and collective identity, and sacred future. The book’s attention to African American religious diversity is also significant. Because religious African Americans have largely been affiliated with Protestant denominations, the field has focused on church history. Yet, African Americans have demonstrated great religious creativity and have challenged black Protestant orthodoxy in ways that have important implications for our understanding of the history of religion in American life.

New World A-Coming also adds to the literature on the history of race in the U.S. by highlighting the work of black peoples to challenge or redefine categories of race. Moreover, by locating religious identity and narrative at the core of the study, the book demonstrates the critical role that religion has played in shaping understandings of race in early twentieth-century African American life. As a study of modes of interaction between religion and race in the American past, the book also provides valuable insight into contemporary trends, particularly in light of racially-inflected religious discourse and religiously-inflected racial discourse in American public culture. Current discussion of America’s achievement of or failure to reach the status of post-racial society have taken place without full understanding of the complexities of black racial identity in nation’s past. The book breaks the limited binary of racial/post-racial and provides a more complex picture of racial identities and discourses.

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

JW: I came to the study of American history through Religious Studies. My undergraduate work as a Religion major at Barnard College explored the transnational history of black theology in connection with the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and, in deciding to go to graduate school in Religion, I knew I wanted to focus on African American religious history specifically. In fact, I proposed a project something like New World A-Coming in my application, but ended up writing a dissertation on another aspect of African American religion in the period: a history of African American women’s political and social activism in the New York City Young Women’s Christian Association. I remain fascinated by early twentieth-century African American religious history, particularly in arenas outside of churches and denominations, and I enjoy the archival challenges of telling these sorts of cultural histories.

JF: What is your next project?

JW: My current research examines late nineteenth and early-twentieth-century psychiatric discourses that connected race, religion, and mental illness among African Americans and explores how these racialized discourses shaped the approaches of mental hospitals, courts, and prisons to people psychiatrists deemed disabled by virtue of religiously grounded mental illness.

JF: Thanks, Judith!

The Author’s Corner with William Thomas Okie

georgia-peachWilliam Thomas Okie is Assistant Professor of History Education at Kennesaw State University. This interview is based on his new book, The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Georgia Peach?

TO: I came to the project from two directions. As a scholar, I’m trained in environmental history, and so I’m fascinated with the ways we humans deal with the plants, animals, weather, and dirt we usually call “nature.” I started studying environmental history as the field was turning its attention to agriculture – arguably the most important site of human-nature interaction. When I got to graduate school, I found, to my surprise, that although we had books about oranges, rice, bananas, and tobacco (to name just a few), very little had been written about the peach, one of the South’s most visible agricultural symbols.

At the same time, the peach seemed like an obvious choice because of my childhood. Since I was very young, I’ve catalogued wildflowers, planted gardens, saved seeds, and experimented with asexual propagation. I grew up near the center of the Georgia peach industry, and my father was a stone fruit breeder (think peaches, plums, apricots) for the USDA experiment station in Byron, Georgia. I guess you could say – and I apologize in advance for this – that the peach didn’t fall far from the tree.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Georgia Peach?

TO: The Georgia Peach is famous because peaches emerged as a cash crop at a critical juncture for the South around the turn of the century, when evidence was mounting that the South was socially, environmentally, and culturally ugly. That historical phenomenon created the myth of the Georgia peach, which helps to explain the crop’s staying power as a cultural icon well into the twenty-first century – which in turn suggests that we routinely underestimate the power and the historical dimensions of beauty.

JF: Why do we need to read The Georgia Peach?

TO: I’ll give you two reasons. First, If you’ve ever wondered about the peachoid on I–85 (or its competitors on I–59 and I–75), or “The Peach State” moniker – especially if you’ve learned that California and South Carolina produce many more peaches than Georgia – then read this book to understand how Georgia became the peach state in the first place. Second, although it’s easy for the prosperous to forget in the midst of today’s “permanent global summertime” agriculture matters. The Georgia Peach examines the interplay of the biological and cultural features of a particular crop (especially the fruit’s perishability and popularity) with the economic and social features of a particular place (especially the cotton economy and the impoverished labor force on which that economy depended).

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

TO: I’ve always loved plants and animals; I’ve also always loved stories. As an undergraduate at Covenant College, I had the surprising privilege (the department had only three historians!) of taking Paul Morton’s American Environmental History course, which taught me that I could marry those two great loves in a field that told stories about nature. After graduating with a history degree, working as an administrative assistant, living in Honduras, and teaching middle school social studies, I decided to try studying further. American environmental history seemed like a natural fit, but it was also a practical choice: my first child was born just a few months before I started graduate study, and I knew that American archives would be easier to access.

JF: What is your next project?

TO: Right now I’m writing a piece about nineteenth-century horticulturists (fruit breeders, landscape designers, kitchen gardeners) as environmental thinkers and actors, which will hopefully give me a chance to work out some of the themes I could only touch on in The Georgia Peach. In the longer term, I’m working on an environmental history of Christian relief and development, in which I’ll examine the role of American non-governmental organizations and missionaries in imagining and reshaping the environments.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

The Author’s Corner with Lawrence Hatter

citizens-of-convenienceLawrence Hatter is Assistant Professor of History at Washington State University. This interview is based on his new book, Citizens of Convenience: The Imperial Origins of American Nationhood on the U.S.-Canadian Border (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Citizens of Convenience?

LH: Citizens of Convenience, like most first books, is based on my doctoral dissertation. I first encountered the Canada merchants who are the main actors in my study while working as a graduate research assistant at the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia. I discovered the edited volumes of a prominent Detroit merchant, John Askin. I wrote a seminar paper on Askin during my first year at UVa. and the project grew from there to embrace research in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S.

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

LH: The American people were not present at their birth; rather, the imperial projects of U.S. policymakers and their agents on the ground used the border to distinguish the American people as a distinct sovereign community during the early nineteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read Citizens of Convenience?

LH: Because it will put my kids through college(?!).  More seriously, my book helps to reveal the ways in which American nationhood and empire were intertwined during the Founding. It is clear that the American Revolution was not an expression of national awakening; rather, my book shows how the United States realized nationhood by colonizing the West. Citizens of Convenience explains how U.S. imperialism worked at different scales, from the local to the international. This is why the Canada merchants at the heart of my study are so revealing: their transatlantic lobbying apparatus and transcontinental commercial networks influenced politics from high level diplomacy in the great European capitals to everyday interactions between traders and U.S. agents in places like Detroit and Saint Louis.

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

LH: I abandoned plans to become a barrister when I was about 16 and decided that I wanted to be a lecturer. I read mostly 17th and 18th century British and American history as an undergraduate in the U.K., so it was an unthinking decision to become an Americanist (though, like many of my generation, I tend to look outward from the thirteen colonies, rather than inward).

JF: What is your next project?

LH: I am beginning work on a study of American overseas merchant communities during the Age of Revolution. Looking at how merchants managed to negotiate the dangers and opportunities of Independence in places like Algiers and Canton will hopefully offer new insight into how the United States managed to establish its credentials as a sovereign nation in the global community of nations.

JF: Thanks, Lawrence!

The Author’s Corner with Lee Farrow

sewardfollyLee Farrow is Professor of History at Auburn University at Montgomery. This interview is based on her new book, Seward’s Folly: A New Look at the Alaska Purchase (University of Alaska Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Seward’s Folly?

LF: I took a cruise to Alaska a few years ago. I realized I knew very little about the purchase, so when we landed in Sitka, I went to the only bookstore in town and looked for something to read on it.  There was nothing. When I got back home, I did a little research and realized that the last book on this subject for adults was published in 1975. I decided this should be my next project, and I contacted the University of Alaska Press and they agreed it was time for a new book on the subject.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Seward’s Folly?

LF: The Alaska Purchase—denounced at the time as “Seward’s Folly” but now seen as a masterstroke—is well known as a key moment in American history, but few know the whole story. This book gives an overview of just what the Alaska Purchase was, how it came about, and its impact at the time, and discusses its implications for foreign policy and international diplomacy far beyond Russia and the United States at a moment when the global balance of power was in question.

JF: Why do we need to read Seward’s Folly?

LF: Russia, and the question of Russia-American relations, is back in the news and the subject of much concern and controversy. In addition, Alaska has been at the center of various debates in recent years, some involving global climate change and the environment, some involving questions of domestic energy reserves. There are also those in Russia who believe the Russian-American Treaty of 1867 was not really a sale, but a lease, and that Russia has a rightful claim to Alaska. While this argument is incorrect and not likely to be taken seriously in most corners, it is part of the story of the complex Russian-American relationship.

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

LF: I’m actually a Russian historian, but in recent years, I have become interested in the history of Russian-American relations. In 2014, I published a book called Alexis in America: A Russian Grand Duke’s Tour, 1871-72, that examined the visit of Russian Grand Duke Alexis, Tsar Alexander II’s son, to the United States. Among other things, Alexis visited Chicago after the Great Fire, hunted buffalo with Buffalo Bill and Custer, and was in New Orleans for the first daytime Mardi Gras celebration, and was treated as a celebrity wherever he went. I became interested in Russian history in high school in the early 1980’s when an older friend of mine went off to college and started studying the Russian language.

JF: What is your next project?

LF: I am currently working on the republication of several memoirs by American women who witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917. One of these, Louise Bryant, was the wife of John Reed and was played by Diane Keaton in the film, “Reds.”

JF: Thanks, Lee!

The Author’s Corner with Kyle Roberts

evangelical-gothamKyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. This interview is based on his new book, Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860 (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Evangelical Gotham?

KR: The scholarship I found most exciting in graduate school was about the history of evangelicalism. So many great books came out in the 1990s and early 2000s – Heyrman’s Southern Cross, Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival, Lambert’s Inventing the Great Awakening, Noll’s America’s God – but so few focused on evangelicals in cities. For a while I thought evangelicals only existed in the rural hinterland.

As for Gotham, I was regularly crossing through New York as I took the Amtrak back and forth between my home in Boston and graduate school in Philadelphia. I felt like historians had sort of figured out Boston (Puritan) and Philadelphia (pluralistic), but the story of New York was still waiting to be told. When scholars did write about religion in nineteenth-century New York, they often focused on eccentrics, such as Johnson and Wilentz’s Kingdom of Matthias, or religious communities who settled themselves in urban spaces built by others, such as in Orsi’s glorious Madonna of 115th Street. I wanted to know more about the religious beliefs, practices, and worldviews of the mainstream folk who built the city in the first place.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Evangelical Gotham?

KR: In Evangelical Gotham, I argue that the astonishing rise of the nation’s leading city and its dominant Protestant religious movement were intricately intertwined between the end of the American Revolution and the outbreak of the Civil War. Inherently pluralistic and syncretistic, evangelicalism provided a broad range of New Yorkers with a meaningful and adaptable, if at times contradictory, urban religion that helped them respond to, locate themselves within, and significantly contribute to the growth of the city and the nation over a crucial eighty-year period.

JF: Why do we need to read Evangelical Gotham?

KR: I think we miss a key part of the American experience if we ignore the place of religion in the development of the nation’s cities. There are two important things that surprised me in writing this book:

First, evangelicals were really innovative. Earlier scholars of nineteenth-century urban religion have discounted evangelicals as failures who could not think beyond transplanting rural models in urban spaces. What I found couldn’t be more different. Evangelical New Yorkers were remarkably creative people, eager to put the secular resources of the city to sacred ends. Take, for example, their rethinking of sacred space. They had some of, if not the, earliest storefront churches in the country, dating back to the 1760s; they perfected a vernacular style for meetinghouses that well suited the realities of urban real estate; they threw out centuries-old modes of funding churches and created a series of Free Churches on a radically new plan; and they adapted everything from theaters to ship decks into places for preaching the gospel. Even the briefest glance at the extent, plan, and scale of their publishing ventures confirms how forward-thinking they were.

Second, evangelicalism was not all about social control. It’s easy to caricature antebellum evangelicals as pious, middle-class do-gooders. Many of them were. But reducing their faith to some form of class control isn’t fair to my historic subjects and misses the point. I wrote each chapter around the story of one or more New Yorkers so that readers could get a sense of what their faith meant to them and how it inspired them to act upon it. Some, like Lewis Tappan and Phoebe Worrall Palmer, are still remembered today; others, like Charles Lahatt or Michael Floy, have been forgotten – but have much to tell us.

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

I think it was the summer after my junior year in high school that I made peace with the fact that I was destined to be an Americanist. I had spent that summer at MASP – the Massachusetts Advanced Studies Program – sort of a nerd camp for public school kids held at Milton Academy. There I discovered that I hated economics and loved writing. So, I gave up my thoughts of becoming an insurance agent like my father. I jumped feet first into American Studies when I got to Williams College and haven’t looked back. Along the way I also embraced my calling as a public historian and digital humanist.

JF: What is your next project?

KR: I’m trading evangelical New Yorkers for Midwestern Catholics. When I arrived at Loyola six years ago, I knew I wanted a locally-based research project through which I could teach the digital humanities, public history, and the history of religion. My first week there I made an appointment with University Special Collections to see what they had for materials related to the history of the library. (It wasn’t a completely random question, I had just spent two years in London creating Dissenting Academies Online (http://www.qmulreligionandliterature.co.uk/research/the-dissenting-academies-project/dissenting-academies-online/), a recreation of the holdings and borrowing records of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dissenting academies.) The archivist brought out a detailed manuscript library catalog from the school’s first decade. I knew at that moment that I had found my next project.

Over the past few years I’ve worked with dozens of bright undergraduate and graduate student interns on the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project (https://jesuitlibrariesprovenanceproject.com/). It has provided some on my most rewarding teaching and confirmed the value of collaborative research. We’ve recreated Loyola’s first library catalog in a virtual library system, tracked down and documented most of the nearly 1500 titles still surviving from the original library, identified library catalogs and collections at other Jesuit colleges and universities, and even started to reconstruct the Catholic book trade in the 1840s Mississippi Valley from a massive ledger kept by Jesuits in St. Louis. The goal is now to bring this all together in a monograph that asks readers to rethink Catholicism, print, and nationalism from the perspective of the nineteenth-century Midwest. Let’s just say Lyman Beecher actually had something to fear when he published his Plea for the West in 1835!

JF: Thanks, Kyle!

The Author’s Corner with Daniel L. Dreisbach

reading-the-bible-with-the-founding-fathersDaniel L. Dreisbach is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.  This interview is based on his new book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?

DD: I am a student of the role of religion in the American founding.  In my reading of primary sources, I have encountered numerous quotations from and allusions to the Bible, including references to biblical texts that I did not expect to see in this literature.  This prompted my interest in the place of the Bible in the political discourse of the age. 

Although scholars have noted in passing that the founding generation was well acquainted with the Bible and frequently referenced it in their private expressions, few have examined closely the Bible’s influence on the political culture of the age, giving attention to specific biblical texts and themes that appealed to the founders and may have informed their political pursuits.  Indeed, some historians contend that the era, sandwiched between two great spiritual awakenings, was an enlightened age when rationalism was in the ascendancy and the Bible was, if not rejected outright, relegated to the sidelines.  Because so little scholarly attention has been focused on the Bible in the founding era, at least compared to the extensive scholarship on Enlightenment and republican influences, I thought this topic merited further inquiry.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?

DD: I contend that the Bible had a significant, yet often overlooked, influence on the political thought and discourse of the American founding and, therefore, it should be studied alongside other influences on the founding generation, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical and civic republicanism.  The book examines the extensive and diverse uses of the Bible in the political discourse of the founding era, combining careful historical research, elementary political theory, and biblical interpretation.

JF: Why do we need to read Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?

DD: If I am correct that the Bible was an important, yet often ignored, source that informed the political thought and discourse of the founders, then this book will enrich our understanding of the founding.  The Bible was the most frequently cited literary work in the political literature of the founding era.  Simply counting the number of biblical citations in the founders’ rhetoric, however, tells us little about the Bible’s contributions to the founding.  I hope this book advances the conversation beyond the observation that the founders frequently quoted the Bible and engages deeper questions about how the Bible was used in political discourse and how it may have influenced the founding project.     

Among the questions that excite my curiosity are these:  which biblical texts appealed to the founding generation, how did they use the Bible, and why did they think these texts were so pertinent, so vital to their own time and place?  I emphasize in the book that a study of the founding generation’s uses of the Bible must be attentive to why and how the Bible was used and not merely to the fact that the Bible was read and referenced.  Drawing on some of the most familiar rhetoric of the era, I examine the founders’ diverse uses of the Bible, ranging from the essentially literary to the profoundly theological.  Recognition of these distinct uses is important insofar as it is misleading to read spiritual meaning into primarily literary, political, or rhetorical uses of the Bible or vice versa.

Another question worth exploring, I believe, is did the Bible inform the founding generation’s political thought and influence their political and legal projects?  I see evidence that the founders looked to Scripture for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority and other concepts essential to the establishment of a political society.  Many in the founding generation saw in the Bible political and legal models – such as republicanism, separation of powers, and due process of law – that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their polities.  The political discourse of the founding, for one example, is replete with appeals to the Hebrew “republic” as a model for their own political experiment.  In an influential 1775 Massachusetts election sermon, Samuel Langdon, the president of Harvard College and later a delegate to New Hampshire’s constitutional ratifying convention, opined:  “The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, . . . was a perfect Republic. . . .  The civil Polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model …; at least some principal laws and orders of it may be copied, to great advantage, in more modern establishments.”  Most of what the founders knew about the Hebraic republic they learned from the Bible.  These Americans were well aware that ideas like republicanism found expression in traditions apart from the Hebrew experience, and, indeed, they studied these traditions both ancient and modern.  The republican model found in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, reassured pious Americans that republicanism was a political system favored by God.

More generally, but no less significant to the founders’ political vision, many in the founding generation believed the Bible was an indispensable handbook for republican self-government.  In a republican government, the founders believed, the people must be sufficiently virtuous that their personal responsibility and discipline would facilitate the social order and stability necessary for a regime of self-government.  And the Bible was an ideal tool for developing civic virtue.  Believing that “without national morality a republican government cannot be maintained” and that “[t]he Bible contains the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that ever was conceived upon earth,” John Adams described the Bible as “the most republican book in the world.”  In other words, the Bible nurtures the civic virtues that give citizens in a republic the capacity for self-government.  Such sentiments were commonplace in the political discourse of the founding. 

A study of the Bible in the political culture of the founding era gives us insights into one source of ideas that shaped the founders’ political thoughts and the political and legal systems they sought to establish.  These insights, I hope, will enhance our understanding of ourselves as a people, our history, and the American experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law.

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

DD: My parents loved history and reading about history, and they passed on that love to me, exposing me to great works of history and biography.  In graduate school and law school I was drawn to political and constitutional history.  Specializing in church-state law encouraged me to develop this interest because, as Supreme Court Justice Wiley B. Rutledge observed in 1947, “No provision of the Constitution is more closely tied to or given content by its generating history than the religious clause of the First Amendment.  It is at once the refined product and the terse summation of that history.”  My first book, Real Threat and Mere Shadow (1987), examined the Court’s use of history in church-state jurisprudence.  Much of my subsequent research has expanded on the questions and themes raised in that book, especially questions about the prudential and constitutional role for religion in American public life.

JF: What is your next project?

My frequent collaborator Mark David Hall and I have co-edited several books that examine religion’s influence (or lack thereof) on the political thought and actions of both famous and forgotten founders.  In that same vein, we are currently editing a collection of original essays that looks at religion’s influence on important American jurists from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!  This is great stuff.

The Author’s Corner with Jeremy C. Young

theageofcharismaJeremy C. Young is Assistant Professor of History at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah.  This interview is based on his new book, The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Age of Charisma?

JY: Growing up, I was inspired by politicians from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era such as William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson; I often wished modern American politics contained such larger-than-life figures.  I came to graduate school wanting to write a hagiographic dissertation about Wilson and the League of Nations, which, well, wouldn’t have been a very interesting book.  My advisor, Michael McGerr, encouraged me instead to think about why I found these figures so inspiring.  After digging through primary and secondary sources, I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt this way about turn-of-the-century leaders.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of ordinary Americans had been transformed through emotional connections with politicians, evangelists, and social activists.  This was the real story, I decided: not the leaders who made emotional appeals, but the followers who responded to them and the relationships followers and leaders built together.  Why did Americans of this period experience such profound emotions when interacting with leaders?  What could these emotional experiences tell us about the development of American society and culture?  Those were the questions that motivated my research, and, in the end, I think my book answers them.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Age of Charisma?

JY: The Age of Charisma argues that the modern relationship between American leaders and followers grew out of a unique group of charismatic social movements prominent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Drawing on hundreds of letters and testimonials, the book illustrates how “personal magnetism” in public speaking changed the culture of leadership by enabling a shift from emotional remoteness to emotional availability – thereby enhancing American democracy and creating a culture in which today’s leaders appeal directly to Americans through mass media.

JF: Why do we need to read The Age of Charisma?

JY: My book reshapes our understanding of American history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a number of ways.  It outlines the origins of the strange, singsong speaking style used by turn-of-the-century leaders and shows how central that style was to American culture.  It offers a fresh interpretation of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, centered on the unique relationship between leaders and followers of the time.  It uses the testimony of followers to challenge common assumptions about popular civic participation by defining charismatic followership as a meaningful and historically-significant activity.  It demonstrates how individual emotional experience shapes large-scale historical trends.  Finally, it explains why Americans today demand that their leaders shake hands, kiss babies, deliver speeches, and forge emotional connections with their followers – something Americans of the mid-1800s neither expected nor wanted – and why these emotional connections are a positive and necessary feature of American democracy.

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

JY: While I am in fact an American historian, I tend to think of myself as a writer who works in the field of American history.  I’ve always known that I needed to produce and share creative work in order to feel fulfilled.  When I went to college, my career goal was to become a concert pianist; I decided I needed a backup plan in case I wasn’t successful, so I added a history major.  About halfway through school, I realized two things: I didn’t enjoy practicing piano, which seemed like a bad sign for someone planning a career in that field, and I did enjoy writing history papers. So I switched emphases and focused on history instead, and I haven’t looked back.  I chose American history over other subfields because I wanted my work to have some impact on current events. There is a message about strategies of activism in The Age of Charisma, but you have to work hard to find it; I don’t spell it out in the book.

JF: What is your next project?

JY: I’m currently in the early stages of a book project that will explore nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans’ fascination with alternate realities.  Over the past hundred and fifty years, a broad swath of Americans have demonstrated a belief in a hidden world beyond the reach of everyday experience – a longing for a secret reality available only to a select few.  This belief in imagined realities has been shared by science fiction authors and religious leaders, philosophers and conspiracy theorists.  At the same time, a number of Americans have obscured their own private realities of trauma through fictitious public performances of gender; burlesque performers, escape artists, con artists, evangelists, and pinup girls have all participated in this type of identity performance.  The persistence of alternate realities, I argue, suggests that a large group of Americans have never accepted or felt comfortable in modern industrial society – and, consequently, that the American social order is far more fragile than we might think.

JF: Thanks, Jeremy!

The Author’s Corner with Spencer McBride

pulpitandnationSpencer W. McBride is a historian and documentary editor at the Joseph Smith Papers. This interview is based on his new book, Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Pulpit and Nation?

SM: Pulpit and Nation grew out of my doctoral dissertation. In graduate school, I set out to discover the actual role of religion in the American Revolution and the process of state and national formation that followed. Through my research—which included reading numerous diaries of early American clergymen and the lay men and women who sat in their congregations—I became fascinated with the curious interrelationship that I encountered: the political utility of religion and the religious utility of politics. I wrote this book that enabled readers to understand the power, limitations, and lasting implications of early national leaders using religion as a tool for political mobilization.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Pulpit and Nation?

SM: In the founding of the United States of America, early national political leaders deliberately created an alliance with the country’s religious leaders, an alliance designed to forge a collective national identity among Americans. Accordingly, while religious expression was common in the political culture of the founding era, it was as much the calculated design of ambitious men seeking power as it was the natural outgrowth of a devoutly religious people.

JF: Why do we need to read Pulpit and Nation?

SM: Religion mattered in the founding of the United States, but not in the way many Americans think that it did. There is certainly no shortage of controversy surrounding the role of religion in politics, particularly where the founding era is concerned. Talk of America’s founding as either a “Christian” or “secular” nation remains a common theme among politicians, pundits, and certain segments of the general public despite scholars’ warnings against such overly-simplistic constructs (warnings that include your own timely Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?). I present Pulpit and Nation as an example of how the history of religion in early American politics appears when viewed in all of its complexity, an elucidation of how its relationship to power structures looks when we delve into the motives behind the religious utterances of men seeking to mobilize the public to one cause or another. My book demonstrates that by eschewing the “Christian Nation” question altogether and engaging broader themes and narrower questions, religion’s significant in the politics of the Revolutionary era is more apparent, albeit more complex.

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

SM: I actually decided that I wanted to be a historian at age 13. My father majored in history in college and, as a result, our house was filled with history books and historical discussion for as long as I can remember. This means that I was exposed to the study of the past from a young age. Then, in 8th grade, I had a phenomenal United States history teacher named Ron Benovitz who taught the subject in such an engaging way that I was absolutely hooked from that point on. I knew that I wanted to be a historian, although I had no clue what such a career would actually look like. As I progressed in my education and the details and options of working as a historian became increasingly clear, my passion for the discipline continued to grow. I consider myself quite fortunate to be doing as an adult what I dreamed of doing as a teenager.

JF: What is your next project?

SM: I am currently working on two projects that I am particularly excited about. The first is a documentary history of New York’s Burned-over District. The book will feature primary source documents that illuminate the cultural and social transformation of western New York amid the waves of religious revivals that swept through the region during the Second Great Awakening. The second project is a book about Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign, and how the controversial Mormon leader’s little-known run for the White House illustrates the political obstacles to universal religious liberty in nineteenth-century America.

JF: Thanks, Spencer!

The Author’s Corner with Paul Harvey

boundsoftheirhabitationPaul Harvey is Professor of History and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado. This interview is based on his new book, Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Bounds of Their Habitation?

PH: First, I was approached by the historian John David Smith, editor of a particular series called “American Ways” published by Rowman & Littlefield (in this series is also a wonderfully fun book called How America Eats, basically a history of American foodways, that I highly recommend for holiday serious/fun reading). He asked me if I wanted to write a book for the series. Previously I had published a book called Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity with Rowman & Littlefield, so I was pleased they wanted me to do another.

At the same time, I was beginning work on an edited volume for Oxford University Press on race and religion in American history. I thought writing this book, a “long-range” view of race and religion in American history, alongside editing the Oxford Handbook of Race and Religion in American History, which involves corralling 35 authors doing various essays, would be a fun and interesting experiment. And so it was/has been, and continues to be as we (my co-editor Kathryn Gin Lum and myself) finish up the Oxford volume. I wrote up a book proposal for Bounds, it was enthusiastically accepted, and it is now published pretty closely to how it was conceived in the first place.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bounds of Their Habitation?

PH: Religious ideas created racial categories and imposed race upon individual human bodies – what scholars refer to as “racialization.” But religious ideas also helped undermine racial hierarchies.

JF: Why do we need to read Bounds of Their Habitation?

PH: In this book, I aim to show how the terms “religion” and “race” (both highly malleable terms undergoing constant change), while always contested, ultimately solidified into social formations that fundamentally shaped American life. However constructed “race” may be, it acts as a real force in history; and however much the term “religion” is always being redefined and reformed, it has been a central ordering force in the most basic conceptions of American nationalism. My book tries to translate this story through piecing together the individual biographies of diverse people over four centuries. In this way, I hope it “translates” higher-order scholarly discussions of religion and race into narratives that any ordinary reader could pick up and understand.

Racial constructions remain a central ordering fact of religious life. Americans remained united by an unusually high association with faith, with religious belief, but divided by faith since the institutions reflecting those beliefs are still largely divided by race, culture, and politics. Given the history of race and religion in America, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. And yet, given that history, it is possible to envision it being otherwise.

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

PH: I was for 2 years a biology major in college, intending to go to law school (don’t ask). One day I was perusing the college catalog, and the light from Damascus hit me – I was going to be an historian. I can’t explain it, other than it was just blindingly obvious. I have pursued that love ever since, in college, graduate school, postdocs, periods of unemployment, and now as Chair of a History Department. My colleague at the University of Colorado, when asked if we could offer a particular course that a visiting person could teach, said “sure, of course, I’m in favor of the history of anything.” I totally accord with that – I find the history of virtually anything to be fascinating.

JF: What is your next project?

PH: I want to write a book on the history of race, religion, and citizenship in American history, from 1790 to the present. The last election campaign obviously brought those issues up in full force, but the long history of how citizenship has both a narrow legal and a broadly social component in its definition is of great interest to me. I’ve also been asked to write a short (200 p.) biography of Martin Luther King Jr., for Rowman & Littlefield’s African American Lives biography series. I might take that one on next year, but I haven’t decided for sure yet.

JF: Thanks, Paul!

The Author’s Corner with Kristalyn Shefveland

anglonativevirginiaKristalyn Shefveland is Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. This interview is based on her new book, Anglo-Native Virginia: Trade, Conversion, and Indian Slavery in the Old Dominion, 1646-1722 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: During my PhD program at the University of Mississippi, I took two seminars on the American colonies, with emphasis on the Southeast. One was a history seminar in which we discussed at length the Chesapeake school and the evolving issues of race, particularly as it related to the work of Edmund Morgan and Winthrop Jordan, and the seminal work of Powhatan’s Mantle. The other was an anthropology seminar in which we were introduced to the body of scholarship on the Eastern Woodlands and the emergence of the trade in skins and slaves. Out of these two courses I came away with many questions about the Stegg/Byrd family and the role of Virginia in the Indian slave trade. I was inspired by the work of Alan Gallay, Robbie Ethridge, and Charles Hudson and wanted to know more.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: Anglo-Native Virginia argues that attempts to regulate and control trade and indigenous peoples via a tributary system was at the foreground of Virginia’s native concerns from Governor Sir William Berkeley to Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. This tributary system and its accompanying categories and rules represent an era of deep upheaval in the indigenous communities of the coastal plain and piedmont, resulting in the enslavement of native peoples as the colonies used the frontier exchange economy to finance their emerging plantation complex.

JF: Why do we need to read Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: As an interdisciplinary work of ethnohistory, I hope this book finds an audience in a number of venues, including but not limited to scholars of Atlantic trade, colonial settlement, Southern Studies, slavery studies, and Indigenous peoples. The book asks us to consider the central role that indigenous and colonial interaction played in the larger narrative of the plantation South. It asks us to look more closely at how trade with Native peoples shaped Virginia history as it transitioned from a fledgling colonial outpost to a settler society dependent upon slave labor. I argue that the Southeast cannot be understood without understanding Virginia and one cannot understand Virginia without understanding the tributary system. The framework of this project came from my interest in demonstrating the importance of Native history for broader narratives. Until fairly recently, Native peoples of Virginia have been in the background of important studies that have focused on the Atlantic slave trade, mercantilism, and the plantation economy. A full understanding of the important role that Virginia tributary and foreign Natives played in the trade in skins and slaves as it relates to the Atlantic economy and mercantilism has been the subject of important recent scholarship and I think my work complements this emerging field.

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

KS: I started writing stories at an early age and they always had a historical element. I split my childhood between the small Mississippi river town of Wabasha, Minnesota and a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I was always drawn to the historic sites of the two very different communities, one barely 2,500 people and the other a sprawling rustbelt town where suburbs converged into one another. In Minnesota, I was raised on the history of Euro-Native interaction, trade and settlement, and the folklore of the river valley. Across the river in Wisconsin was the Big Woods that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about and the town of Maiden Rock. In sum, I always loved a folktale and a yarn, a lifelong love affair that my parents greatly encouraged by going through historic towns and stopping at roadside markers, even when it added an hour or three to our regular road trips to Minnesota or Florida. In Ohio, I had the opportunity to work with an incredible high school teacher, Steven Abbey, who allowed me to take independent studies on a wide variety of historical topics and then I had the pleasure to attend Bowling Green State University where I studied under the Great Lakes historian, Edmund Danziger. He fostered my love of stories and helped to guide my scholarship towards the field of ethnohistory. In his seminar courses as well as the eye-opening classes I got to take with the Latin American historian, Rob Buffington, I knew that I wanted to pursue the field of history beyond undergrad. I was lucky to land at the University of Mississippi to work in interdisciplinary collaboration on indigenous peoples with Sheila Skemp and Robbie Ethridge. In a bit of kismet, I moved south to study peoples who came originally from Lake Erie.

JF: What is your next project?

KS: I am currently at work on a book on historical memory of indigenous peoples in Florida, particularly the town of Vero Beach, on the Indian River. This is a project of personal importance to me as it is a place I have known all my life and yet its deeply manicured history of settler pioneers and adventurous rogues reveals an incomplete narrative. I came to this study because of a large Spanish-mission style building that overlooks the town center with a relief carving of Pocahontas. Indian River produce advertisements from the 1880s-1970s depict idyllic jungle scenes, complete with friendly and noble Indians of vaguely Plains motifs—a vision at odds with the region’s indigenous past. Yankees, calling themselves pioneers and colonizers, moved to the region in waves throughout the early 20th century, viewing Southerners with scorn as the wealthy Northern investors built empires of citrus and sugar.

The Indian River Farms Company of Davenport, Iowa made the greatest strides toward conquering Florida. While settling the region, the company created a romantic narrative to sell land to potential Yankee colonizers. Street names included Seminole, Osceola, Cherokee, Mohawk, Kickapoo, and Ute. Buildings included the Chief Sleepy Eye Lodge and the Pocahontas Arcade. All names considered “picturesque” by would be settlers. Situating these endeavors within the broader context of Yankee imperialism in the Caribbean, particularly Cuba, I am reconsidering the legacy of a colonial southern past alongside the emergence of the vacation south to explore its potential impact on studies of the Indigenous south.

JF: Thanks, Kristalyn!

The Author’s Corner with Andrea Turpin

ANewMoralVision.jpgAndrea Turpin is Assistant Professor of History at Baylor University. This interview is based on her new book, A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837–1917 (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A New Moral Vision?

ATDuring my PhD program at Notre Dame I was reading up on the changing role of religion in American higher education when I noticed something quite striking: the leading books on that topic hardly mentioned women at all. This widespread omission in an otherwise excellent body of scholarship was stunning because American women first entered higher education in large numbers during the exact decades when more and more leading colleges and universities abolished required religious instruction and worship: the 1870s through the 1910s. I wanted to find out how these concurrent trends interacted, and what effects that interaction had on the education of both sexes and the subsequent ways male and female graduates shaped American society.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A New Moral Vision?

AT: A New Moral Vision argues that a group of reformers I call “evangelical pragmatists” led the initial push for women to enter American higher education in the decades before the Civil War, but that in the changed intellectual environment after the war leaders of trendsetting men’s, women’s, and coeducational colleges and universities all drew on women’s new presence in higher education to articulate a compelling alternative to previous evangelical approaches to student moral formation. In place of fostering conversion, these religiously liberal educators sought to foster in students of both sexes a surprisingly more gendered ideal of character and service than had earlier evangelical educators of either men or women, and this new moral vision expanded graduates’ opportunities in some ways but restricted them in others, which contributed significantly to the changing shape of American public life.

JF: Why do we need to read A New Moral Vision?

ATIf you’re an American historian, you need to read it because it makes the case for the centrality of higher education to the development of American culture, hopefully in a way that will be useful for teaching and research in a wide variety of fields within American history. For example, it explains how the contours of separate male and female cultures of public service during the Progressive Era trace back in part to leading participants’ undergraduate experiences. For historians of religion, the book also posits a new way of thinking about what we normally call the “secularization” of American higher education—and to some extent American culture—that I believe to be fairer to the religious liberals who oversaw this transition. For women’s and gender historians, its narrative is a striking example of the difference it makes to our understanding of the history of both sexes when we recover the role of women in aspects of American history where they have still been overlooked. The book explains how the entrance of women into higher education changed men’s higher education too and why this new reality meant that educating both sexes did not translate into as egalitarian a society as might have been expected.

Finally, I’d like to think the book will also be of interest to educated Christian laypeople for two reasons: First, it tells the story of a time and place when conservative Protestants were surprisingly more egalitarian in their gender ideals than liberal Protestants, and this fact calls into question some of our contemporary assumptions about the connections between theology and gender. Second, it provides a fuller backstory to contemporary Christian higher education by exploring the effects different approaches to that project have had in the past.

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

AT: Little-known fact: I started college as an astrophysics major! A couple months in I had a vocational de-conversion experience while staring at the board in a basement laboratory as the professor explained standard deviation. Suddenly I just saw Greek letters. I realized I didn’t want to spend my life doing that type of work, and that I preferred writing papers to doing problem sets. I loved the ideas of science, but not the practice. Fortunately, that semester I was also taking a wonderful history of western civilization class taught by Princeton professor Anthony Grafton and excellent preceptor Erika Hermanowicz (now at the University of Georgia). That experience convinced me to switch my major to history of science, which I loved. I particularly enjoyed investigating the interplay between science and religion. For my graduate work, I built on my initial interest in the history of scientific ideas by broadening out to intellectual history. Meanwhile, I chose to concentrate on American history to combat the ease with which we can take our culture for granted and assume that’s just the way things are. I wanted to help my students and readers realize that the culture we see around us is the product of a long trajectory of historical change—and that it is therefore changeable, by us. As American citizens, we have the great responsibility to discern what is good and fight to keep it and discern what is bad and fight to change it.

JF: What is your next project?

AT: My second book project is a history of women’s participation in the Protestant fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century, a debate whose ramifications extend into the present culture wars. My working title is A Debate of Their Own: Women in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. Even recent scholarship on this controversy has continued to focus on the beliefs and actions of men because men dominated the pulpits, periodicals, and even businesses that shaped much of the public conversation surrounding the debate. Meanwhile, historians interested in how gender played into these disputes have primarily focused on the theology of gender roles that these men articulated. Thus, even scholars concerned with the debate’s impact on women have focused on male sources. My book project examines the voices of the women themselves who entered into the religious tousle between the two parties. I ask what these women actually cared about—to what extent their concerns mirrored men’s and to what extent they voiced different priorities and took different approaches to conflict, especially as women often worked together in separate women’s organizations or auxiliaries.

JF: Thanks, Andrea.

 

The Author’s Corner with Gergely Baics

feedinggothamGergely Baics is Assistant Professor of History and Urban Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Feeding Gotham?

GB: Working on a research paper as a graduate student, I came across a vernacular sketch of African American dancing contests at Catharine Market in 1820 in Shane White’s wonderful article, “The Death of James Johnson.” The drawing captivated me for its intimate depiction of the vibrant and cosmopolitan public spaces of Early New York City. Catharine Market—its economy, social organization, and everyday life—became the subject of that paper. Over time, I realized that that small sketch of Catharine Market opened up a much larger subject: the vast and complex landscape of food provisioning in America’s first metropolis.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Feeding Gotham?

GB: Feeding Gotham brings the critical question of food access to the center of our understanding of nineteenth-century urban life and living standards. It argues that the antebellum deregulation of food markets created a new structural inequality, similar to health and housing conditions, that defined and shaped the development of the American city.

JF: Why do we need to read Feeding Gotham?

GB: Feeding Gotham examines the vital problem of food access in a city experiencing unprecedented growth, with its population rising from thirty thousand to nearly a million. It presents a comprehensive account based in political economy and the social and geographic history of the complex interplay of urban governance, market forces, and the built environment in provisioning New Yorkers. The book’s narrative traces how access to food, once a public good, became a private matter left to free and unregulated markets. In situating the deregulation of food markets within a broader matrix of public and private goods, it underlines the highly contested and open-ended outcomes of antebellum political economy debates. Moving beyond the debates, the bulk of the book studies the stakes involved. Most critical, Feeding Gotham brings the subject of food access to the center of our understanding of nineteenth-century urban living standards, a conversation thus far dominated by concerns over housing and sanitary provisions. The book documents how unequal access to food, much like shelter and sanitation, became a structural condition of inequality, part of the modern city’s increasingly stratified built and social environment. Importantly, the analysis extends to the understudied subject of food quality. It documents that the city’s surrender of all regulatory oversight of its food supplies contributed to deteriorating quality, which disadvantaged especially the rising rank of working-class immigrant populations. Central to the book’s approach is the systematic application of geographic information system (GIS) analysis. Feeding Gotham is the first book that maps the food system of a major nineteenth-century city, and one of few that deploys GIS systematically to study a specific problem in urban history. GIS mapping—from data creation to interpretation—provides a theoretical framework, methodological approach, and empirical base for the book’s main arguments. The extensive cartographic material was carefully created and designed to present a systematic and layered spatial analysis of food access in the nineteenth-century American city.

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

GB: First, I became an urban historian, and second an Americanist. I cannot recall when my fascination with cities began—probably, growing up in Budapest has a lot to do with it. It was during my undergraduate years that I discovered that I could become an urban historian, and this felt like an obvious intellectual path for me. My attraction to America also began with cities. I watched films like The French Connection or Serpico as a kid, and I was thrilled by the images of gritty New York City. Over the years, I found myself again and again seeking to study in the U.S., and becoming intellectually fascinated by the extraordinary complexity of this country. American cities, their history of immigration, booms and declines, deep inequalities, layered geographies, perplexed and fascinated me. Focusing on transnational urban economic and social history for my Ph.D., I found my topic in the food system of nineteenth-century New York City. What began as a project in urban history, over the years also became a project in U.S. economic and social history. Today, I consider myself both an urbanist and Americanist. I am most fortunate to have a joint-appointment in History and Urban Studies.

JF: What is your next project?

GB: I am currently at work on a new monograph, tentatively titled, The Transitional City: Economic and Social Geography of New York in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. My ambition is to study empirically (with the systematic application of GIS mapping) and then to theorize the spatial processes that propelled the transition from what historians describe as the walking city of the early nineteenth century to the segregated metropolis of the late nineteenth century. In addition, with a coauthor we have been writing a series of articles linking back to this larger work, and making use of advanced GIS methods, focusing on land use, the street grid, and the experiential geography of nineteenth-century Manhattan. Finally, with two colleagues we are developing a new project on the spatial history of late nineteenth to early twentieth-century Copenhagen, making use of new crowdsourced GIS data. In all of these projects, besides the specific urban historical questions at stake, I am also interested in advancing methods of spatial history.

JF: Thanks, Gergely! Sounds like some great stuff.

The Author’s Corner with Cara Burnidge

APeacefulConquest.jpgCara Burnidge is Assistant Professor of Religion at University of Northern Iowa. This interview is based on her new book, A Peaceful Conquest:  Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: A Peaceful Conquest is the result of me thinking about the American social gospel movement as both intimately connected to Christian ideas of proper governance, particularly American democracy, and as an example of American religious movements responding to their global context. 

As a graduate student, my primary research area was on the work of white social gospel ministers and the women of the settlement house movement. I knew from the primary sources that these themes were present, but when it came time to write a proposal for my dissertation, I had a hard time finding a hook that could make this project make sense without being the cliche of a PhD candidate who couldn’t speak succinctly about their own research. While sharing this conundrum in a meeting with a mentor, she asked simply “What about Woodrow Wilson? Have you thought about him?” I hadn’t. I didn’t consider myself a presidential historian and, to be honest, the vantage point of suffragists colored what limited considerations of Wilson I had had at that time. To be fair and start with the most obvious intersection between “on the ground” reformers and politicians, I began reading the The Papers of Woodrow Wilson and the most recent biography of Wilson at the time. I hoped to find a connection that would show that local and regional social gospel efforts made an impact beyond domestic policy concerns. Rather than a connection I could point to then move on, I found a treasure trove of of memos, letters, telegrams, speeches, and policy conversations that demonstrated the pervasive influence of social gospel thought in American foreign relations. The combination of primary and secondary sources convinced me that I had a different perspective to contribute to the existing historical conversation about Wilsonian liberal internationalism and American religion in this era based on my understanding of the social gospel movement.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: I argue Woodrow Wilson’s religious identity, shaped by both southern evangelicalism and social Christianity, influenced his liberal internationalism and its legacies for American religion and politics in the twentieth century.

JF: Why do we need to read A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: It should come as no surprise that I am not the first person to write about President Wilson and that others have written great works examining the role of religion in Wilson’s presidency. In fact, Wilson is often the go-to example of a president whose religion “mattered.” What makes A Peaceful Conquest different from these works is its intentional placement of Wilson in the greater American religious landscape and its reconsideration of how we think of presidents and their religious identity. Methodologically, I consider Wilson’s religious identity as I would any other historical figure—intersectional. Race, class, gender, and religion are not separate “lenses” to clarify or frame figures, but constitutive parts that must be held together to understand the whole person and their historical context. Some readers may find this approach helpful for understanding recent public conversations about Wilson’s legacy. It also allows scholars to place Wilson in historical perspective as Americans think (and rethink) the place of white evangelicalism in American identity and the role of America in the world.

A Peaceful Conquest should be added to your reading list if you want to know more about how American religion shaped international politics; if you’re interested in how religious identity does (and does not) shape presidents and their policies; if you’d like to think about the peculiar ways religion is both present and absent from American democracy; if you’re wondering how the social gospel could have been central to American culture yet seemed to disappear after World War I; and if you’re wondering how or why the so-called “God gap” became central to the Democratic Party’s identity.

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

CB: As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune of having professors and mentors who treated me and other history majors as their equals. The History professors at Washburn University impressed upon us that history is a conversation among historians and they treated us as members of the guild well before we earned our credentials. Those conversations—arguments, debates, and more than one pontification on how history can save the world—convinced me that I was an American historian. More good fortune, generous mentors, and hard work helped me get to the position I am in now.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: My next project examines the King-Crane diplomatic mission, which surveyed residents of mandated territories of Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan to determine who they preferred to oversee their development toward democracy. I am considering how the State Department approached the role of residents’ religion and race in its commitments to advancing national self-determination and democracy in the Middle East.

JF: Thanks, Cara! Sounds like some good stuff.

The Author’s Corner with Patrick Spero

frontiercountryPatrick Spero is the Librarian and Director of the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia. This interview is based on his new book, Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Frontier Country?

PS: Frontier Country began with my fascination with the Paxton Boys’ Rebellion. The conflict began in December 1763, when a group of frontiersmen massacred the Conestoga Indians in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  A larger group of colonists from the frontier counties of Lancaster, York, and Cumberland then marched to Philadelphia in what was likely the largest political mobilization in colonial Pennsylvania’s history.  I wanted to know what led these men to commit this heinous act and to figure out what the larger significance of the event was for the coming of the American Revolution.  As I dug deeper into archives, I soon discovered a number of important related events, like a border war between Maryland and Pennsylvania, that preceded this event, and began to see how the legacies of this earlier history shaped the Paxton Boys’ movement and how these events also helped inform the coming of the American Revolution.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Frontier Country?

PS: Frontier Country argues that the imperial crisis on Pennsylvania’s frontier, which was marked by rebellions, open violence, and apparent anarchy, only makes sense if you understand the profound political disagreement that was happening between self-described “frontier people” and those who governed them over the location of frontiers and the government’s responsibility to such zones.  To fully understand the coming of the American Revolution in western Pennsylvania, I suggest we must understand what frontier meant to colonists and governing officials living in early America.

JF: Why do we need to read Frontier Country?

PS: Frontier Country tells some remarkable and largely unknown stories that, together, I hope tells a history of colonial and revolutionary Pennsylvania that will seem new to historians and Pennsylvania history enthusiasts.  For instance, the book includes a chapter on a war Pennsylvania fought with Maryland in the 1730s and a chapter on the wars the colony later fought with Virginia and Connecticut.  These episodes have often been studied on their own, but I hope by putting them together in a single history, colonial Pennsylvania itself will look very different.  I like to say it is a history of Pennsylvania as told from the perspective of the west.  By doing so, we can have a greater understanding of the politics in Pennsylvania, especially the way in which the interplay between western settlers, eastern elites, and Native Americans created a dynamic and explosive situation in the 1760s and 1770s in the Middle Colonies.

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

PS: I discovered what I wanted to do as an undergraduate at James Madison University.  I always liked history.  I remember reading the Diary of James Cook as, I think, a fifth grader for a book report.  But it was in a research seminar at JMU that being a historian, rather than a student of history, really clicked.  In that course, I was given the freedom to find a topic to write a paper on, to use primary sources to come to my own conclusions, and then use these sources to make an argument all my own.  It was an extraordinarily liberating experience – to research and write on my own and to try to say something new about the past that other people could read and respond to. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to figure out a way to keep doing it.  Reading primary sources and giving them meaning, which is what I consider is the work of a historian, remains one of the most exciting things to do.

JF: What is your next project?

PS: I have just completed a manuscript tentatively titled 1765: The Struggle for Independence on the American Frontier which builds on my first book by focusing on the Black Boys Rebellion, which was a frontier rebellion in 1765 that is relatively understudied, and the figures that collided during this event.  The Black Boys, so called because of the charcoal frontiersmen used to hide their identity, destroyed a pack train of goods intended for a peace treaty with Native groups who had been at war with Great Britain.  They then laid siege to a British fort and created an inspection regime that searched all travelers in the area.  Meanwhile, imperial officials were desperately trying to squash the rebellion and establish peace with Native groups.  It is a very dramatic event that, as I hope to show, reveals a great deal about the origins of the American Revolution on the frontier.  I could only use a small amount of the material I came across on the Black Boys in my first book.  I hope this second project will be a “popular” book, which is to say shorter than my first book and potentially of use to undergraduates in their courses and of interest to educated but casual readers of history.

JF: Thanks, Patrick!