The Author’s Corner with Robert Caldwell

TheologiesoftheAmericanRevivalistsRobert Caldwell is Associate Professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (IVP Academic, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Ever since my seminary days, I have been fascinated at the interplay between theology and Christian experience or spirituality, most specifically related to Christian conversion. As a scholar working on the First and Second Great Awakenings, I found that many revivalists had a well-developed theology that combined soteriology (doctrine of salvation) with insights related both to how Christian conversion was supposed to be experienced and how the gospel is to be proclaimed. I found that from 1740-1840 there was a rich genre of literature that combined these three elements, which collectively I call “revival theology.” 

Evangelical churches today have given little theological reflection to the nature of Christian conversion and revival. Much of what they do understand is practically oriented and often pre-theological. In this book I examine the numerous schools of theology that evangelicals employed at a time when there was much more theological writing and preaching on the subject. My hope is that Christians today will be both informed and challenged by the various schools of thought presented in the book.

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

RC: Theologies of the American Revivalists argues that American revivalists from the First and Second Great Awakenings (1740-1840) thought, preached, and wrote extensively on what I call “revival theology,” which I define as the three-fold combination of Protestant soteriology, conversion expectations, and preaching practices associated with revival. The book identifies, explores, and charts the historical theological developments of the various different schools of revival theology of the period, with specific attention given to the major controversies and writers.

JF: Why do we need to read Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Revivals have been a fundamental feature of American evangelicalism. My hope is that the book has faithfully explored the multiple theological traditions that have undergirded the revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Theologians and historians will find an in-depth account these various theological traditions and practices. General Christian readers will hopefully come to appreciate the theological backgrounds to evangelical revivals and see just how deep the interplay is between theology and corporate Christian practice. As I mention in the introduction, the book is “fundamentally a theological history about what it has meant to ‘become a Christian’ during the age of America’s Great Awakenings.” (10)

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

RC: I come to American history as a student of intellectual history and historical theology. I have always been fascinated by the interplay of thought and history. Numerous scholars shaped my work during my student days. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I was drawn to the history of science and Isaac Newton’s theology while taking several courses from Dr. Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs in the late 1980s. When I went to seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School I benefitted greatly from courses by Drs. John Woodbridge and Douglas Sweeney, both of whom know how to situate theology deeply in its historical context. There, my interests shifted to the history of theology of American evangelicalism, especially that of Jonathan Edwards. Studying Edwards, his theology and legacy, as well as the First and Second Great Awakenings has required me to become more proficient as a historian. In many ways I still feel like I am becoming an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: I am working on two smaller projects now. The first deals with the lesser-known antinomian controversy that surfaced in the late 1750s upon the publication of James Hervey’s Theron and Aspasio in England (1755). The controversy involved a broad cross-section of American and English non-conformists: New Divinity and traditional Calvinists, Sandemanians, Radical revivalists, Moravians, Methodists, and English Particular Baptists. Another study addresses Jonathan Edwards’s assessment of Isaac Watts. Both Edwards and Watts attempted to do theology while simultaneously engaging the enlightenment. Edwards found Watts’s strategies for doing this woefully inadequate, even though he admired Watts in many ways. Both studies illuminate some of the lesser-known intramural debates that existed among early evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

The Author’s Corner with David Harrington Watt

AntiFundamentalismDavid Harrington Watt is Professor of History at Temple University. This interview is based on his new book, Antifundamentalism in Modern America (Cornell University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Antifundamentalism in Modern America?  

DW: In the late 1970s—when I was still an undergraduate at Berkeley—one of my professors suggested that I read Ernest Sandeen’s The Roots of Fundamentalism. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by Protestant fundamentalism in the United States.   Shortly after I read Sandeen’s book, I began encountering texts in which Muslims such as the Ayatollah Khomeini were referred to as religious fundamentalists.  Within a few years, I became accustomed to seeing texts in which the fundamentalist label was applied to Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists as well to Muslims and Christians.  Antifundamentalism in Modern America is the result of my trying to find out how and why such a broad array of believers—many of whom didn’t seem to have all that much in common with the people Sandeen wrote about—came to be thought of fundamentalists.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Anti-fundamentalism in Modern America?

DW: In the early 1920s North Americans began saying that certain groups of people were fundamentalists.  From then until the present day the concept of “fundamentalists” has been routinely deployed to conjure up a set of dangerous others: men and women who are said to constitute a threat to science, peace, justice, and progress.

JF: Why do we need to read Antifundamentalism in Modern America? 

DW: “Need” is an interesting word, isn’t it?  It raises the dread specter of a “required list of assigned readings.”  I don’t want anyone to feel as though they are being required to read Antifundamentalism in Modern America. Readers who want to know more about the history of fundamentalism might, however, enjoy reading it.  So might readers who want to know more about the creation and evolution of categories that are used to identify people whose beliefs and practices are thought to be problematic.  Readers who are interested in what is lost and what is gained when people who don’t think of themselves as fundamentalists get called that by others might also enjoying reading Antifundamentalism in Modern America. I certainly enjoyed doing the research on which the book is based.

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

DW: There is a sense in which I never did decide that.  As an undergraduate I focused on history.  In graduate school I took courses in American Studies as well as in history.  At Temple University—where I’ve taught for thirty years—most of my work has been in history rather than religion.  But I have warm and friendly relations with Temple’s Religion Department and the book series that Laura Levitt, Tracy Fessenden, and I edit for the NYU Press is (for the most part) devoted to works in religious studies rather than history.   This fall I’m going to begin teaching at Haverford College.  Most of my courses there will have to do with various aspects of Quaker Studies. 

Being a disciplinary nomad has presented a few challenges, but it has had some advantages, too.  For one thing, it has given me a chance to keep track of the truly extraordinary work on religion in the United States that is being produced by scholars in both religious studies and history.   It has enabled me to learn from scholars such as Judith Weisenfeld and Marie Griffith and from scholars such as David Hollinger and Matthew Sutton.   That has been deeply rewarding.

JF: What is your next project?

DW: My next project grows out the current one.  As I was studying the history of antifundamentalism, I repeatedly encountered forms of Protestantism that could be described as “liberal,” “progressive,” or “secular.”  Scholars have already taught us a lot about those forms of Protestantism.   But there is still much work that needs to be done.  I’m especially interested in liberal, progressive, and secular forms of Quakerism and the ways in which those forms of Quakerism have influenced U.S. culture as a whole.  In the contemporary United States many people who would never dream of joining a Quaker congregation gladly send their daughters and sons to schools that are committed to “Quaker values.”  One of the questions I’m interested in exploring is why it is that “Quakers values” sometimes seem to be far more appealing that Quakerism itself.

JF: Thanks, David! 

The Author’s Corner with Michael Rapport

the-unruly-city.jpgMichael Rapport is Professor of History at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. This interview is based on his new book, The Unruly City:  Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution (Basic Books, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Unruly City?

MR: I love walking – in the Scottish Highlands, in countryside and along coastline, but also in cities.  When you walk through a city with a long past, like Paris, London and New York (it has been pointed out that New York is older than Saint Petersburg or Versailles) you get a strong sense of the topography, which is often in itself the physical footprint of the past, no matter how much building and reconstruction has taken place over the decades.  And of course you can come across gems among the buildings and spaces – sometimes an entire street or neighbourhood – that bears an historic character.  All of this sparked my curiosity: what were these cities like two-and-a-half centuries ago?  And how did their citizens experience the upheavals and the fight for democracy in my own historical period, the age of the American and French Revolutions?  How were the buildings and the cityscape marked by these struggles?   I chose to write about Paris because it was the beating heart of revolutionary politics in France; New York because I wanted to explore the vicissitudes of revolution, war, occupation and reconstruction (after the fire in 1776)…and because of all American cities I probably know it the best; and London because it avoided revolution, so took an alternative political path.  These are also three cities that I love.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Unruly City?

MR: I start from an apparently obvious point, namely that revolutions take place in a physical space, that they of course erupt over ideology and culture, political power and social change, but that they are also in a very real sense struggles for the strategic and symbolic control of key places and spaces within the cityscape.  How revolutionaries, radicals and their opponents then adapted, embellished and used the buildings, streets and other sites in the city tells us a lot about the revolutionary process itself.

JF: Why do we need to read The Unruly City?

MR: Firstly, and foremost, I hope, out of pure curiosity: I cannot emphasise enough that this is a book that I wrote primarily to be enjoyed.  Secondly, I hope that readers will share in my own pleasure in walking the city.  While this is not a guidebook to Paris, London and New York, it does gently tell readers (either in the text itself or in the endnotes) how they can find each new site where the action unfurls.  Thirdly, the story of the American and French Revolutions, and of the British democratic movement in the same years, reminds us that many of the rights and freedoms that we enjoy were fought for in the past – and that they are still a matter of contest in many parts of the world today.  Finally, many of the streets, buildings and spaces described in the book still exist today, or their imprint does.  Although their association with the tumultuous events of the revolutionary epoch may now often be forgotten, or overlaid by other, more recent developments, they are – or could be – sites of memory, places that connect us directly with the eighteenth-century struggle for democracy.

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

MR: This will take some space to answer…because I am primarily a European historian.  So to begin with ‘when’, we are all, in different ways, students of history throughout our lives.  I’ve been interested in the past for as long as I can remember.  My father, George Rapport – who is, amongst other things, a keen historian – always encouraged my interests in history and, for a few years, he lived in Belgium, a cycle-ride from the battlefield of Waterloo.  As my interests developed – and because I have both Swedish and Russian heritage – I was drawn to European history.  Moreover, although I was born in the United States (in Bronxville, New York) I have lived almost all my life in Europe, particularly France, England and, for the most part, Scotland, so my identity is probably best described as transatlantic.  I’ve always loved the creative and intellectual challenges of writing – short stories, an historical novel, and, above all, history – and in my late teens was drawn to a career in journalism.  But at school I also had a truly inspiring history teacher – Jeremy Barker – who was a zealous devotee of European history, and particularly modern France and the French Revolution.  At the same time, my mother and stepfather Mike moved to Paris, so historical passion aligned with location: I had found my period, and my place, namely revolutionary France.  My mother Anita was always there to remind me that much of history was social history, so the discovery of ‘how people lived’, has become a mantra.  So I’ve always been absorbed, one way or another, in pursuing the past.  That’s the answer to ‘when’.

That leaves the answer to ‘why’: despite my focus on Europe, my American origins have always been in the background – and they were (and still are) regularly foregrounded by frequent return trips to the US.  When we were boys, my brother Allan and I travelled with my father around sites of the American Revolution.  We visited Civil War sites, too: since my father is an alumnus of the Virginia Military Institute, it could not have been otherwise.  My father also wrote a novel about the Fetterman Massacre, during which time my stepmother, Jane, treated us to a trip to Montana and Wyoming as part of the research.  So I’ve had grounding in American history since at least my early teens.  As an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I won the Class Medal in the sophomore survey course on American History and then went on the study, as part of my Honours programme, the social history of colonial America under Alan Day, who had pursued his doctorate under none other than Jack P. Greene.  It also so happened that Helen, a Scottish historian (and, it should be said, a specialist in Scottish urban history) and the woman who became my wife, was in the same seminar group, so (as they say) we were firing on all cylinders.  And though I went on to pursue doctoral work at Bristol University with Professor Bill Doyle on the French Revolution, my focus has always been on the revolution in a wider, international context.  I rapidly discovered that, in order to understand the transnational dimension of the French Revolution – its origins, course and legacy – one must also understand, amongst other dimensions, the Atlantic perspective.  So I find myself pulled, repeatedly, back to the young American Republic and the Americas.

JF: What is your next project?

MR: Rather alarmingly, there are four irons heating up in the furnace.  Firstly, in writing The Unruly City, I came across (rather belatedly) a series of theoretical approaches to space and place that has exercised some historians and cultural geographers, namely the ‘spatial turn’, which engages with the different ways in which space, place and location affected human behaviour.  So I am writing a book on revolutionary Paris which deploys the hardware in this arsenal.  Secondly, I am working on a book for Cambridge University Press, A Concise History of Europe.  Thirdly I’m editing The Oxford Handbook to Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789-1914 and, fourthly, I have edited, with my excellent friend and colleague Ben Marsh of Kent University (and an American historian to boot), a volume on Teaching and Understanding the Age of Revolutions, a collection of essays published by the University of Wisconsin Press by leading and up-and-coming historians on a variety of cutting-edge, innovative approaches to teaching and learning about the many different aspects of the ‘age of revolution’ in the Atlantic world.

JF: Thanks, Michael.  You are a busy man!

The Author’s Corner with Mark Lempke

My brothers keeper.jpgMark Lempke is a visiting instructor  at the University at Buffalo–Singapore. This interview is based on his new book, My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write My Brother’s Keeper?

ML: When I was an undergraduate at Houghton College- an evangelical school in New York’s Southern Tier- I wrote a research paper on the 1972 election for one of my history classes. I was just curious how anybody could lose forty-nine states—especially to Nixon! In the process, I discovered an intriguing tidbit: George McGovern’s father, a Wesleyan pastor, had been an early alum of Houghton. Back then, it felt like every evangelical I had encountered was a conservative Republican, so it seemed very strange to me that perhaps the most leftist figure ever nominated by a major party had ties to that tradition. Over many years, curiosity gave way to research, and I found that George McGovern’s life could serve as a useful narrative arc to study the fortunes of Christian social justice in American politics.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of My Brother’s Keeper?

ML: Despite its reputation for secularism, left liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s was deeply indebted to a religious tradition rooted in the social gospel and ecumenical activism. George McGovern’s use of the prophetic tradition on the campaign trail acted as something of a conduit, channeling support from both mainline and evangelical Protestants concerned with social justice.

JF: Why do we need to read My Brother’s Keeper?

ML: My Brother’s Keeper tries to shed some light on the question of why a “Christian Left” has been so elusive. One of the big differences between the postwar “Christian Right” and the “Christian Left” is that the latter views its activism as essentially prophetic in nature. That means eschewing nationalism while supporting the vulnerable and marginalized, but it also means a willingness to strike it out on your own as well. You can’t very easily tell a prophet what to do or who to vote for! In electoral politics, there is no such thing as a “caucus of prophets;” it’s a bit like herding cats.

Each faction of a theoretical Christian Left had its own understanding of what it meant to speak prophetically against injustice. And the problem was made worse by the longstanding political, cultural, and theological disagreements between mainline and evangelical Protestants. I spend a chapter on McGovern’s visit to Wheaton College during the ’72 campaign as an act of evangelical outreach. One reason why the visit is unsuccessful is because McGovern insisted on speaking as a theological liberal. When he used words like “redeem,” he purely meant social redemption, not redemption of the soul. Even evangelicals at Wheaton who were sympathetic to McGovernism would have found that message difficult to swallow. So when the Evangelical Left took shape under Jim Wallis and Ron Sider soon after the campaign, they went to considerable lengths to distance themselves from the mainline. They often cast liberal theology as backsliding and heretical, even if they shared many of the political priorities of Clergy and Laity Concerned or the National Council of Churches. In a way, it was a form of identity politics, with evangelicals viewing themselves as a historically disadvantaged group that was just now learning to take pride in what made them distinctive.

As readers of TWOILH are probably aware, we’re had an outpouring of great scholarship on postwar social justice evangelicals recently, with David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway leading the way. Mainliners, too, have seen a revival of top-notch work—just look at Elesha Coffman, Kristin Du Mez, David Hollinger, Jill K. Gill, and many others. Each of these historians produced insightful scholarship that influenced my own, but I came to understand that the mainline and evangelical stories needed to be told in tandem. Their mutual distrust toward one another goes a long way toward explaining why Progressive Christians have struggled to be effective in the public square.

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

ML: Like most eventual historians, I was a pretty strange kid. When the Mini Page children’s newspaper published a special edition on the U.S. presidents when I was five, I took to memorizing the presidents and interesting facts about them. It was fun to learn, but it was just a cool parlor trick that my grandparents loved showing off to their friends. As I grew older, some great teachers helped me see the value of a more thorough understanding of the past. My social studies teachers in high school, Jeff Jennings and Danielle Hugo, pushed me hard to make connections and explain my reasoning. When I took a class at my local community college, the late Bill Barto mesmerized me with his compelling lecture style and strong focus on narrative. At Houghton, Cameron Airhart ran the First Year Honors Program, where two dozen or so undergrads spent a semester of their freshman year abroad learning the gamut of Western history using the city of London as a resource. When you have such sharp, incisive mentors in your life, it’s hard not to want to emulate them. Once I learned that history wasn’t just facts—it could be debated, observed, touched, or turned into a story—I knew it was the career I wanted to pursue.

JF: What is your next project?

ML: After all this time in McGovernLand, I think I would like to work outside of my immediate field for a short while. My next project will explore the questions that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame raises for public history. I think that one of the great challenges of our time is the seeming contest between populism vs. intellectual expertise. Every year, music industry insiders nominate and induct a set of rock and roll artists, usually from a diverse range of subgenres that include R&B, rap, alternative, and even disco. And just as surely, every year rank-and-file rock and roll fans are angered that their favorite bands have been snubbed, believing in their hearts that it is a travesty that Grand Funk Railroad or Styx isn’t in the Hall. There is a very public debate over who controls rock and roll which taps into the anti-elitism that seems so rampant today. While some common themes do emerge, this is certainly a very different project from George McGovern and the Christian Left!

JF: Thanks, Mark! 

The Author’s Corner with Gideon Mailer

John Witherspoon.jpgGideon Mailer is Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. This interview is based on his new book, John Witherspooon’s American Revolution:  Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States  (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write John Witherspoon’s American Revolution

GM: Since my undergraduate days, I have always been interested in the links between Anglo-Scottish unionism and the formation of American religious, intellectual, and constitutional identity. I first came across Witherspoon in undergraduate work on religion in colonial America. I had just been working on New England religious foundations for a previous module. I had read much about the “Puritan Origins of the American Self” (I was a big Bercovitch fan!). Yet I found out that the only clergyman to sign the American Declaration of Independence was a Scottish Presbyterian; not a New England Congregationalist or a Virginia Anglican.

Fast-forward a decade, to a four-year postdoctoral research fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and an Assistant Professorship at University of Minnesota, Duluth: Witherspoon continued to provide a rich case study to explore the wider intellectual, religious, and constitutional framework of the American Revolution. After all, he fought on behalf of Britain against Jacobite rebels in 1745, yet only a few decades later supported the American revolutionary cause against that same British state.

As I soon realized, a lot of what we have come to call “The American Enlightenment” – the consolidation of rational thought and a growing trust in individual moral perception – has been linked to Witherspoon’s influence after his arrival in America. Having left Scotland, he is said to have brought aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment to America. Yet I was intrigued by the associated paradox: how could an evangelical theologian, focused on sin and damnation, have inspired Enlightenment ideals in America? And how could a religious proponent of Anglo-Scottish unionism help to inspire American revolutionary ideology?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

GM: The book questions whether the United States could have been founded according to Enlightenment principles – notions of innate sympathy, rationality, and ethical discernment – even while those principles accompanied the onset of rebellion and the chaotic disintegration of an empire. Tracing the wider meaning of Witherspoon’s move from Scotland to America, the book uncovers the broader constitutional and civic contexts that framed Witherspoon’s use of moral sense reasoning, but which also afforded him an opportunity to critique its role in religious and political discourse.

JF: Why do we need to read John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

The book is useful, I hope, in its attempt to integrate the political and religious influences of the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England on subsequent American history. It traces the tension between the Scottish Enlightenment and Protestant evangelicalism and the place of that tension in the developing philosophies of American independence and American constitutionalism. That America’s founding incorporated potentially contradictory philosophical ideas is important to note – and perhaps explains a lot about subsequent history! More broadly, the book contributes to an expanding field on the role of Presbyterianism in the political theology of the American Revolution and the subsequent founding.

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

GM: I was one of the last cohort to study for the old style “A-Levels” at school in the UK. By sheer luck, one of our teachers was able to offer a module in colonial American history. Most A-Level history students in the UK, at that time, studied the Tudors and Stuarts, Victorian Britain, and 20th century World History. I was lucky to study American history. I was attracted to the field, thinking it would provide an escape from kings, queens, and capricious European dynastic alliances. I was a little naïve, therefore; but wanted to become an Americanist since then.

JF: What is your next project?

GM: The project is tentatively titled The Character of Freedom: Slavery and the Scottish Enlightenment. It builds on research I have begun to synthesize. It assesses the relationship between American moral philosophy (particularly as inspired by Scottish Enlightenment and Scottish Presbyterian thought) and slavery from the colonial era, through the American Revolution, and into the antebellum period.

JF: Thanks, Gideon! 

The Author’s Corner with Jennifer Van Horn

The power of objects.jpgJennifer Van Horn is Assistant Professor of Art History and History at the University of Delaware. This interview is based on her new book, The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America?

JVH: The genesis of this book came from my surprise at the difference between two portraits. I was looking at two paintings of early American women completed by the same artist (John Wollaston) in two different places: New York City and Charleston, South Carolina. I was intrigued by why Wollaston, a British painter who toured the American colonies, painted such radically dissimilar portraits of these women (different poses, different costumes, different sized canvases). Both sitters were elite women who wanted to signal their politeness through their portraits so what led them to do so in very different ways? This question got me thinking about the uses that elite residents of port cities had for objects of many sorts (portraits, dressing tables, gravestones). Eventually I concluded that the similarities between objects made in specific port cities were visual bonds that allowed colonists to cohere into communities. By assembling networks of similar objects early Americans created civil spaces at the margins of empire. It was through their relationships with artifacts that Americans constructed a nation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America?

JVH: Artifacts were key players in forming Anglo-American communities in early America and eventually of citizenship. Consumers in port cities assembled networks of objects (from portraits and city views to gravestones, dressing furniture, and prosthetic devices) not simply as markers of status or political identification, but as active agents to bind themselves together and to distance themselves from Native Americans and African Americans.

JF: Why do we need to read The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America?

JVH: On the whole, in history we don’t talk about objects well. Historians tend to use material or visual culture (artifacts or art works) to illustrate the arguments that they have already figured out using documentary evidence. But if you read this book you will see that when we take objects seriously and use them as evidence (in tandem with documentary sources, but not subsidiary to them) objects have a lot to tell us about people in the past. Take Gouverneur Morris’s wooden leg, for example. Morris’s wooden leg—donned after a brutal carriage accident—is the only lower limb prosthesis to survive from early American and it contains many stories: fears over men’s virility in the early republic, Americans’ positioning of themselves as virtuous through physical props, concern over material things’ power over people, and, finally, how Morris could stand in for George Washington as a model for the most famous sculpture of the first president. It can be hard work to study material artifacts; it takes patience and training (just like learning to draw evidence from different types of documents), but the pay-off is great.

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

JVH: I fell in love with the artifacts made and used in early America in graduate school. Getting a master’s degree in the Winterthur Program at the University of Delaware (WPEAC) and having the chance to explore the unbelievable collections at Winterthur Museum sold me on material culture and the study of the past. Material artifacts are like time capsules that we can open in the present. The people who made them and who used them left their hopes and fears, their opinions and world views, in plain sight just waiting for someone to come along and take the time to look closely. And I’m really pleased that some of the artifacts I first encountered in graduate school appear in the book. I have been thinking about them for a long time!

JF: What is your next project?

JVH: My next project examines the role enslaved African Americans played as producers, viewers, and destroyers of portraits in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century plantation South. The book recovers the actions of enslaved people on both sides of the canvas: as laborers who ground pigments in painters’ studios and as enslaved domestic workers who stared upon slave holders’ portraits and formed their own creative understandings of these artworks. In particular, looking at portraits that include representations of enslaved people illuminates how these likenesses functioned differently for various audiences, white and black; paintings allowed some viewers to re-assert slaves’ status as property and enabled others to affirm enslaved people’s humanity. Following the interrelationship between African Americans and art into the Civil War, I consider the importance portraiture held for freedmen and women who engaged in acts of iconoclasm—destroying and repurposing former masters’ paintings—and of patronage as they commissioned portraits themselves. Overall, the book uncovers enslaved people’s acts of artistic resistance.

JF: Thanks, Jennifer!

The Author’s Corner with Maurizio Valsania

JeffersonsBodyMaurizio Valsania is Professor of American History at the University of Turin, Italy. This interview is based on his new book, Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Jefferson’s Body?

MV: I have always enjoyed reading biographies of American founders and past figures in general. However, wonderful though many biographies are, I often feel that something is missing. Biographers make forays only into the several corporeal dimensions that make us who we are—so that the reader can get basic information about how tall, imposing, elegant, or gentle the subject of that life was. Biographers look for the character, the intellect, the mind, the spirit. But they do not turn the body into the main subject of their analyses. And yet, philosophers and anthropologists have made clear that the body is more than just an appendix or the external coat of the self: it is through the body that we come to be who we are. Our consciousness, cognitive processes, deepest emotions, and beliefs are usually shaped and structured by corporeality and corporeal interactions. This means that our body is often the main actor—at least as important as the mind—of the ongoing drama we call life. By writing Jefferson’s Body, I’ve answered my need to push biographers’ comfort zone a little further up (or, better, further down), and to make the genre more materialistic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jefferson’s Body?

MV: As a typical 18th-century a man who lived in the age of theater and amid all the excitement coming from the emerging middle-class standards, Thomas Jefferson was singularly engaged with his own corporeality. His body, and not only his mind, took up many challenges and made him into an “appropriately” modern, natural, and masculine type—while setting this same type apart from the other bodies (Native American, African American, and female bodies) that were considered less-than-normal.

JF: Why do we need to read Jefferson’s Body?

MV: Over the last 15 years or so, excellent studies of single dimensions of American 18th-century corporeality have emerged, from clothing and fashion to manners, from medical sciences and dietary habits to consumption, from whiteness and masculinity to sexuality. Relying on more and more sophisticated methodologies, these studies have discovered many new elements. Readers may find it interesting to go through a book that encompasses these different fields and, for the first time, applies different methodologies to tell the corporeal biography of one of the most singular, challenging, and at times peculiar man.

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

MV: When in the late 1990s I did my PhD in intellectual history, I became fascinated by a strain of radicalism crossing Europe and reaching the shores of the Atlantic colonies during the second half of the 18th century. “Reshaping the world anew” became the catchphrase of many philosophers, politicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The new American nation has remained my repository of case-studies since.

JF: What is your next project?

MV: I’m well into drafting a corporeal biography of one of the most beloved American hero ever, George Washington. I promise I will deliver a man not many Americans are familiar with.

JF: Thanks, Maurizio!

The Author’s Corner with Adam Jortner

Blood From the Sky.jpgAdam Jortner is Associate Professor of History at Auburn University. This interview is based on his new book, Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Blood from the Sky?

AJ: I was trying to write about conversion, and I kept running into miracles. Reports of supernatural occurrences pop up all over the early republic, but historians usually write about these things as color commentary, not as a subject.

So I wondered what would happen if I gathered all these reports together and took them seriously—does the presence of an emergent supernaturalism tell us something about life in the early U.S.? And it turns out it does.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Blood from the Sky?

Miracles mattered: as the meaning of the supernatural changed in the early republic, religious thought and practice adapted to a revitalized world of wonders and prodigies. At the same time, there was a political response that denied the validity of miracles and sought to expunge them from the body politic, so that the rise of miracles prompted the growth of American sects and a forgotten age of political invective against supernatural belief that sought to destroy those sects.

JF: Why do we need to read Blood from the Sky?

AJ: Blood from the Sky asks questions about religion and citizenship, and America is once again at a crossroads regarding religion and citizenship. What did the founding generation think about religious beliefs? What kinds of beliefs were beyond the pale? What kind of beliefs percolated and organized under conditions of religious freedom? And under what conditions does dislike of a religion translate into violence against that religion? I think it’s a very timely book, although I wish it wasn’t.

But Blood from the Sky is not just a book about politics. It’s also an effort to demonstrate that a vast corpus of historiography on miracles and the supernatural is applicable to American history. I think American historians have largely pushed the supernatural out of our post-revolutionary narrative, but while interpretations of the supernatural changed, they remained a critical part of American religious and cultural life. Blood from the Sky is therefore also an effort at historical reclamation, trying to demonstrate that healings, angelic visitations, visions, and mystical turnips are not just humorous anecdotes, but important sites of historical analysis.

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

AJ: I was an actor for several years before I became a historian, so I can say I went into academia for the money.

JF: What is your next project?

AJ: I’m continuing my work on religion and citizenship, trying to understand how states and localities defined religious liberty and how they enacted ideas of the United States as a “Christian nation.” To do that, you really need to look at how non-Christian whites in the U.S. practiced their religion and sought to establish their freedom—which essentially means you need to look at the story of the Jews in early America. My next project examines Judaism and citizenship in the early republic, with particular emphasis on the famed Jew Bill of Maryland, which sought in 1818 to give Jews the right to hold public office. It didn’t pass.  

JF: Thanks, Adam!

The Author’s Corner with Eric Hinderaker

BostonsMassacre.jpgEric Hinderaker is Professor of History at the University of Utah. This interview is based on his new book, Boston’s Massacre (Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Boston’s Massacre?

EH: The book is about the Boston Massacre, which occurred on March 5, 1770, when a group of British soldiers fired into a crowd of civilians and killed five of them.  Initially, I was interested in the eyewitness testimony, which is voluminous but fundamentally irreconcilable.  As my research progressed, I became fascinated with the problem faced by commander-in-chief Thomas Gage and his subordinate officers, who had to manage military-civilian relations throughout the colonies of British North America at a time when many thousands of troops were stationed there.  In the end, I realized that, above all, the book is about memory: how we interpret what we see and argue about events when they’ve just happened, how we commemorate them to solidify a particular interpretation of their significance, and how they are eventually reshaped through selective remembering and forgetting.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Boston’s Massacre?

EH: As the apostrophe in the title suggests, the book argues that the “massacre” belonged to the town of Boston: the town created the conditions that gave rise to the shootings; it championed the view that the shootings were a massacre rather than an “unhappy disturbance,” as the soldiers’ defenders would have it; and it kept the memory of the massacre alive in print, in commemorative orations, and in local culture throughout the war of independence.  Boston was the crucible of the American Revolution—its indispensable community—and the Boston Massacre was the catalyzing event that forged the town’s collective sense of grievance and purpose.

JF: Why do we need to read Boston’s Massacre?

EH: Today, when we inhabit an era of sharp and continuous political disagreement, many people look fondly on the past—and especially the era of the American Revolution—as a time of widespread consensus and rational political behavior.  Boston’s Massacre makes clear that the politics of the revolutionary era were no less divisive than our own.  Nor were opinions shaped by an impartial press or high-minded statesmen.  Fundamental principles were at stake, then as now, and people disagreed about everything, including the bare facts of an event like the Boston Massacre.  Were the townspeople innocent and aggrieved victims of excessive force, or were the soldiers being assaulted so fiercely by a mob that they had no choice but to shoot?  Boston’s Massacre allows us to observe the process by which confused impressions were deployed in the service of competing narratives, and then to trace the evolution of those narratives across a long span of time, even into our own.

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

EH: I majored in history in college, but I did not initially intend to become a historian.  When I did decide to apply for graduate school, I thought I wanted to study modern European history.  But I had the good fortune to arrive at the University of Colorado at the same time that four brilliant early Americanists joined the department: Fred Anderson, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Gloria Main, and Jackson Turner Main.  I was introduced to early American history at a moment when the field was undergoing a renaissance, and I discovered that its core issues resonated deeply with my own curiosity and interests.

JF: What is your next project?

EH: I have three main projects in the offing.  With Rebecca Horn, my colleague in colonial Latin American history at the University of Utah, I am working on a very broad-gauge account of the colonization of the Americas.  François Furstenberg of Johns Hopkins University and I are writing a reinterpretation of Frederick Jackson Turner that casts him as a colonial historian rather than a western historian, and that argues for his extraordinary prescience in anticipating the current shape of the field.  And on my own, I am just beginning work on a project that will explore the outpouring of energy and capital in the Restoration era (ca. 1660-1690) that reshaped England’s colonial enterprise in North America.  I hope they’ll keep me busy for awhile!

JF: Thanks, Eric!

The Author’s Corner with Sharla M. Fett

RecapturedAfricans.jpgSharla M. Fett is Professor of History at Occidental College. This interview is based on her new book, Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Recaptured Africans?

SF: This book has deep roots! While I was researching my dissertation, which became Working Cures, archivists at the Virginia Historical Society showed me a ship log written by a white doctor serving as a U.S. agent traveling with recaptive Africans to Liberia.  Then I learned that the recaptive men, women, and youth on that particular ship had been sold to slave smugglers working at the mouth of the Congo River.  In fact, Harper’s Weekly had published a large engraving of these same West Central African recaptives aboard the slave ship Wildfire upon their 1860 arrival in Key West, Florida. Together, the doctor’s log and the Harper’s image struck me deeply on a personal and intellectual level.  As a child of medical missionaries, I had visited the coast where the massive Congo River pours into the Atlantic.  The devastating history that linked those childhood memories to recaptives’ enslavement and displacement spurred me to learn more about recaptive African journeys resulting from U.S. slave trade suppression efforts. I also wanted to understand how illegal transatlantic slave trafficking—often sidelined in American history—shaped the turbulent politics of slavery in the years before the Civil War. So, the seeds of this book were planted quite a few years ago. By the time I finally began to work on the book in earnest, Atlantic world scholarship had expanded considerably, aided by digital history collaborations such as the Voyages: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, African Origins and Liberated Africans databases.  This new scholarship offered essential context for the particular stories I traced.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Recaptured Africans

SF: This book argues that recaptive African youth and adults, rather than being “liberated” upon their release from illegal slave ships, entered a new phase of captivity defined by death, forced migration, and U.S. racial politics.  Under these conditions, shipmate relations between recaptives vitally shaped the particular strategies by which both child and adult slave ship survivors attempted to rebuild their social worlds in the midst of profound displacement.

JF: Why do we need to read Recaptured Africans?

SF: 2017 is a significant year for considering how long and difficult the road to a just emancipation can be.  For some time now, scholars like Saidiya Hartman have challenged the idea of a clear transition from the time of slavery to the time of freedom.  That was certainly the case for African children, women and men seeking to survive their “recapture” from illegal slave ships.  Their story underscores the human costs of slave trade suppression practices molded by U.S. racial inequality and political conflicts over slavery.  Many historical studies have looked at antebellum slavery politics primarily through the lens of sectional battles over domestic slavery.  By showing how Atlantic world slaving and emancipation deeply shaped responses to hundreds of African recaptives in U.S. custody, Recaptured Africans offers readers a new perspective on U.S. slavery debates in a much broader geographic context.

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

SF: As I tell my students at Occidental College, I don’t study history to bury myself in the past, but instead to understand our current world better, to gain perspective on American histories of race and slavery, and to broaden my vision of alternative paths humans can take in our troubled times.   Although I majored in Biology as an undergraduate, I always felt the pull of my elective classes in history, anthropology and politics. I credit my Carleton College history professor Robert Bonner for helping me discover that history was about interpretation not memorization of facts. After several years of high school science teaching and non-profit work, I finally took the plunge and applied to graduate school, pursuing a PhD in American History. I was lucky to take classes from Estelle Freedmen in women’s history during my MA program at Stanford.  At Rutgers, the opportunity to work with Suzanne Lebsock and Deborah Gray White affirmed my interest in U.S. southern history, women’s history, and the history of slavery.  I was particularly drawn to the study of antebellum U.S. slavery, a field at the time defined by imaginative new studies of enslaved community and culture.  The diasporic dimensions of African American history and the Atlantic World context for slavery studies became increasingly important in my research.  Recaptured Africans reflects my interest in how displaced Africans individually and collectively, navigated the daily realities of their condition resulting from the large-scale developments of Atlantic slaving and its abolition.

JF: What is your next project?

SF: In the long term, I have interests in exploring African American involvement with Belgian Congo between the 1880s and 1930s, especially in regard to Black women missionaries whose lives bridged the periods of American slavery to European colonization of Africa.  Currently, I’m working on several projects in American women’s history, including Black women’s activist networks and the nineteenth-century Colored Convention movement in California, in conjunction with the national digital humanities Colored Conventions Project.  Mid-nineteenth-century California is another venue where the fictions of the “free state” can be critically examined through studying the history of Black thought and collective action.

 

JF: Thanks, Sharla!

The Author’s Corner with Richard Brown

Self Evident TruthsRichard Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on his new book, Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Self-Evident Truths?

RB: I wrote Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War because I wanted to understand how men who declared “all men are created equal” could launch a nation that maintained slavery and other forms of privilege: religious, gender, and class especially.  Was the Declaration simply a fraud, or was the founders’ statement of equality intended seriously–and if it was serious, to what extent was that goal realized?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Self-Evident Truths?

RB: SelfEvident Truths argues that providing equal rights was a goal for some in the founding generation; but existing customs and institutions blocked realization of equal rights. Moreover the commitment to individual rights included a commitment to heritable private property, which was and remains a barrier to the actual possession of equal rights.

JF: Why do we need to read Self-Evident Truths?

RB: People need to read Self-Evident Truths so as to understand the founding of the United States, its history, and our own times. People need to comprehend how the ideal of equal rights was created and the extent to which Americans have, or have not, made equal rights a reality.

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

RB: I became committed to the study of American history as a college sophomore because I believed it would help me understand American society, its trajectory, and my place in it.

JF: What is your next project?

RB: During my career I have moved back and forth between close, microhistorical studies and broad interpretive works, sometimes–as in Self-Evident Truths–combining the two.  In my next work I plan to narrate and analyze the great fire that in 1811 destroyed most of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and the separate trials ten years apart wherein two teen-aged brothers were convicted and sentenced for arson, one to five years in prison, the other to death.

JF: Thanks, Richard!

The Author’s Corner with Jessica Yirush Stern

the-lives-in-objectsJessica Yirush Stern is Associate Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton. This interview is based on her new book, The Lives in Objects: Native Americans, British Colonists, and Cultures of Labor and Exchange in the Southeast (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Lives in Objects?

JS: Since I was an undergraduate, I considered myself a closet anthropologist. I never thought I would have the chops to do fieldwork, but I enrolled in a lot of anthro classes and was intoxicated by their theories. So when I entered Johns Hopkins as a graduate student in history, I immediately went over to the anthro department and convinced Jane Guyer to preside over one of my MA fields of study in economic anthropology, her specialty. She exposed me to some great theorists: David Graeber, Arjun Appadurai, Nancy Munn, Nicholas Thomas, Marilyn Strathern. After studying with her, I started reading historical monographs about early Native American and English colonist economic exchange and I felt that we were a few steps behind anthropologists in how we analyzed exchange, so I devoted myself to writing a new book on the subject.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument The Lives in Objects?

JS: Southeastern Indians and British colonists both understood and utilized a wide variety of social and asocial modes of exchange, from gift giving to commodity exchange, and thus the groundwork was laid for them to easily establish sustainable economic relationships. But simmering beneath these similar cultures of exchange were divergent beliefs about the value of the people who created and traded these objects, and the obligations of those who consumed these cross-cultural goods, which caused exchange to become the site for colonial actions and anti-colonial protests.

JF: Why do we need to read The Lives in Objects?

JS: I don’t think you can read The Lives in Objects and still believe that Native Americans were simply gift givers whose societies and cultural systems were toppled by European ideologies of modern commerce. This pernicious idea still pops up repeatedly in popular culture, and I think this book helps to put a nail in that coffin.

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

JS: My mom is a microbiologist and my dad is a lawyer, and they exposed me to both methods of exploration, so I entered Reed College as an undergrad confident that I could pursue either a degree in science or the humanities. Then I took my first history course, on Colonial America, and read James Axtell’s The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial America. I never turned back. In retrospect, I think this interest in cultural contact in Early America has a lot to do with my upbringing. My grandfather narrowly escaped Europe during the Holocaust, but his first wife and son were murdered at Auschwitz. Although I never met him, I spent my childhood watching his second son, my father, deal with the questions of assimilation and home that I think a lot of children of refugees inherit. By studying contact in early America I am grappling with similar questions on a different stage.

JF: What is your next project?

JS: I am working on an intellectual biography of Roger Williams, most famous for founding the colony of Rhode Island and being a vocal advocate for religious toleration. But instead of looking at Williams solely through the lens of religion, I am using the fact that he was interested in economic theory, natural philosophy, world history, and ethnology to write a new history of Atlantic New England. I am indebted to the team at Brown University, led by Lucas Mason-Brown and Linford Fisher, who started translating the shorthand notes that Williams took in a couple of books he owned. I am continuing to translate these notes, which reveal how Williams was reading and engaging with Peter Heylyn’s Cosmography and Thomas Bartholin’s Bartholins Anatomy. My goal throughout the book is to extend an argument I made in a 2011 article I published in Early American Studies: we cannot understand Williams’s intellectual development without acknowledging the effect his contact of New England Native groups had on his world view.

JF: Thanks, Jessica!

The Author’s Corner with Andrew Shankman

Original Intents.jpgAndrew Shankman is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University at Camden.  This interview is based on his new book, Original Intents: Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the American Founding (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Original Intents?

AS: I was excited by the charge given to me by Oxford University Press—to write a book that would advance scholarly knowledge of the nation’s constitutional, political, economic, and financial origins, but that would be entirely accessible to any reader and that could be completely understood without any prior knowledge of subject.  Oh, and to keep it under 200 pages!  That was an exciting challenge.  Scholars are very good at writing for other scholars, and some of them get good at writing for a general audience.  That such a prestigious press wanted me to write a book that the general public could enjoy and learn from, and that would not sacrifice any complexity—would not “dumb it down”—and so would benefit scholars too—that seemed such an exciting and a great idea, and a very worthy challenge to take on.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Original Intents?

AS: Original Intents examines the political, constitutional, and economic ideas and policies of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison from the American Revolution through the early 1790s.  Original Intents argues that Jefferson and Madison had profound disagreements with Hamilton about the meaning and purpose of the Constitution and the future of the nation, and that the ideas of all three were shaped, evolved, and changed by their ongoing and heated arguments with each other.

JF: Why do we need to read Original Intents?

AS: Original Intents recreates in close to real time the step by step ways in which Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison came to realize what they thought and who they were.  They came to their understanding through intense engagement with each other during the most significant, creative, and productive period of their lives. The arguments the three had with each other from the American Revolution through the early 1790s (mostly it was Jefferson and Madison agreeing with each other and seriously disagreeing with Hamilton) established the framework for how Americans came to understand their Constitution.  Their arguments also began the debates that continue to our day about the proper relationship between the national and state governments, how much and in what ways governments should tax and take on debt, and what sort of nation we the citizens should aspire to have.  In their different ways, all three of them believed the United States was an ongoing experiment, that its institutions were only as strong and durable as the citizens who made use of them, and that the Constitution provided the basis and the beginning for a never-ending conversation among citizens and between those who governed and the people they were governing.  Original Intents explores how all that began, and how three of the people most responsible for shaping and overseeing the new Constitution quickly discovered that they disagreed about what it said and what it meant.  Understanding their ideas—their differing original intents—allows us to better understand the immensely important historical legacy we have inherited, and the tremendous burdens, responsibilities, and also privileges that come with being a citizen.

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

AS: From an early age I knew I wanted to study history.  I loved mythology, the middle ages, the Civil War, the old west.  But I decided to try to become a professional historian and specialize in late 18th and early 19th century American history in the fall semester of my junior of college at Northern Illinois University, in 1991.  That semester I took a course in American diplomatic history to 1898 with a wonderful professor who died this past December named Carl Parrini.  The first eight weeks were all about the 1780s and 1790s.  Learning about Hamilton’s financial system, the crazy 1790s when Americans were accusing each other of being secret British agents scheming to restore monarchy, or of being crazy radical operatives of revolutionary France plotting to erect a guillotine in Philadelphia—all that stuff was amazing to me.  The paintings make all these 18th century folks look like boring wax figures wearing wigs.  To learn that they weren’t that at all, to learn just how fascinating and passionate and complex they all truly were, and how wild and wooly it all really was, I was hooked, and I’ve stayed hooked.

 JF: What is your next project?

AS: My next book moves forward in time to the period between the end of the War of 1812 (1815) and the Nullification Crisis (early 1830s), which was when South Carolina argued that it could nullify federal law within its state borders.  I’m looking at a group of younger (for the most part) followers of Jefferson, who came to be known as the National Republicans.  By the end of the War of 1812 the National Republicans began to fear that much of what they had expected to be true about the United States was not going to happen.  They had assumed three things: first, that the U.S. could and should remain almost exclusively agricultural.  Second, that the national government could be very inactive most of the time, especially domestically.  And third, that slavery would naturally grow less and less significant over time.  Between 1815 and 1825 people like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Mathew Carey, Richard Rush, and many, many others came to believe that none of those three things was true or was going to happen.  My book will be about why they concluded that, what they tried to do about it, and why, by the early 1830s, they had provoked a large national movement in opposition to them that defeated them.  I’m writing a story of thoughtful, principled, and often deeply flawed failure.  I plan to title it The National Republicans: Capitalism, Slavery, and the State during the Long 1820s.

JF: Thanks, Andrew!

The Author’s Corner with Craig Thompson Friend

AlongtheMaysvilleRoad.jpgCraig Thompson Friend is CHASS Distinguished Graduate Professor of History and Director of Public History at NC State University. This interview is based on his new book, Along the Maysville Road: The Early American Republic in the Trans-Appalachian West (University of Tennessee Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Along the Maysville Road?

CTF: I came across a map exhibited at the Kentucky Historical Society. Drawn by Victor Collot, a French traveler, “Road from Limestone to Frankfort in the State of Kentucky” (1795) is upside down—north is down and south is up. I wanted to know why, and that initial and rather simple inquiry gave rise to a dissertation about American settlement along an old buffalo trace during the “frontier” stage of Kentucky’s history, roughly the 1770s through 1812. The road provided me a stage on which to examine how themes of the Early American republic—republicanism, democracy, urban development, evangelical Christianity, and nationalism—shaped the construction and evolution of American communities and cultures. It also allowed me to imagine these themes as more fluid and mobile, traveling up and down the road with politicians, preachers, merchants, common people, slaves, church-goers, and thousands of migrants.

When I transformed the dissertation into a book, however, I recognized that its story needed to extend into the 1830s with the buffalo trace’s evolution into the Maysville Road which, in 1830, became the focus of President Andrew Jackson’s internal improvements veto. So, I researched an entire other book, taking the story from 1812 to 1836. This allowed me to incorporate themes that had not fully evolved in the earlier story—racial slavery, refinement, the rise of a middle class. I came to realize later, with the completion of my second monograph Frontier Kentucke, that intellectually I had been constructing a narrative bridge from the “frontier” to the “Old South” in Kentucky’s history. By stopping in the 1830s, however, I failed to grasp that thematic possibility at the time.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Along the Maysville Road?

CTF: Along the Maysville Road, American settlers competed to shape communities and cultural landscapes through “large interwoven patterns of cultural transformation” (those themes of Early American Republic which I previously listed). Those contests framed the values, beliefs, and aspirations of the Americans who settled along the road, manifesting in the evolution of the road itself and culminating in the political battles over its internal improvements.

JF: Why do we need to read Along the Maysville Road?

CTF: So often, “frontier” histories are formulated as stories on the margins, on the borderlands of the American nation. I imagined the old buffalo trace and its settlement as reflective of the new nation’s cultural evolution as Philadelphia.

Maybe a better reason to read it, however, is to see how a historian evolves in his thinking. I think our profession expects us to hatch from graduate school fully advanced in our understanding of the past and how to apply that knowledge to anything that we study. A discerning eye will uncover in my book, however, a clear evolution in historical thinking between the pre-1812 chapters (first conceived for the dissertation) and the latter chapters (added for the book). Not all of us bloom fully with the first monograph, or even the second. Now, twenty years into the profession, I am more excited than ever about what I want to say about the past.

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

CTF: As I note in the acknowledgements to Along the Maysville Road, I decided I’d be a historian in eighth and ninth grade. I had yet to imagine how I would be a historian, but there was no doubt that I would somehow practice history as a career. It’s a testament to the power of inspiring teachers who can excite students about history and make it relevant to their lives. When I graduated college, however, I was unprepared to move on to graduate school. Instead, I began teaching in public schools, which required continuing education credits for renewal of my teaching certificate. At one of the continuing education programs, when I heard another inspiring educator, Theda Perdue, speak on the Cherokees and racialized enslavement, I had my “conversion experience” and realized that I wanted to become an American historian, researcher, writer, and teacher at the collegiate level.   

JF: What is your next project?

CTF: I have three projects underway—a monograph, a textbook, and an edited collection.

The monograph is a biography of Lunsford Lane, an African American born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1803. He purchased his freedom in 1835, worked to purchase the freedom of his wife and six children, was tarred and feathered by a working-class mob, and run out of the state. In 1842, he wrote a narrative that was widely read among northern audiences, and that is as much as most people knew about Lane. There is so much more, but I will save those revelations for the book.

The textbook is a collaboration with Jim Klotter on a revision of The New History of Kentucky. I am finding it quite a challenge to sustain the spirit of Lowell Harrison, who originally collaborated with Jim on the original edition and who passed away in 2011, and reshape the narrative to reflect the most recent scholarship and my own interpretation of early Kentucky.

The edited collection is another collaborative project with Lorri Glover, with whom I have produced two previous collections. This time we are creating Rewriting Southern History, a worthy successor to John Boles and Evelyn Nolen’s masterwork Interpreting Southern History (LSU, 1987) and the equally pivotal predecessor Writing Southern History, edited by Arthur Link and Rembrandt Patrick (LSU 1967).

JF: Thanks, Craig!

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!