The Author’s Corner with Anna Mae Duane

educated for freedomAnna Mae Duane is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on her new book, Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Slave Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Educated for Freedom?

AMD: I was exploring the archives at the New-York Historical Society and I came across a skit included in the records of the New-York African Free Schools. This 1822 skit depicts two students, one student chastising the other for having a slothful mother who keeps him from getting to school on time. I wanted to know what it was like to be a nine–year-old child, and to stand on stage and act out a script that depicted your mother–and by extension the other mothers at the school–as being too lazy, or too ignorant to understand the great importance of getting to school on time. Since that day, I’ve been told many times that this is, perhaps, the wrong question to ask. We can’t ever know how any historical person really felt, and in this case, the evidence made it seem like a particularly futile question to ask. These were children, Black children in a slave nation no less, reading words written for them by white adults, which they dramatized before a public that would judge them on their performance. In other words, we must recognize that these two schoolchildren were utterly subaltern: it’s a fool’s errand to try to hear them speak.

Educated for Freedom is a response to that objection. As I’ve researched the work of the school, and the lives of the two of the remarkable people who have attended it (one of whom, Dr. James McCune Smith, turned out to be one of the kids in the skit), I’ve realized that the historical and the literary documents offer ample proof that these children and others like them were part of broad conversations about the nation, about power and, most particularly, about the future.

So while this book is a biography of two men who became giants of Black abolitionism, I wanted to keep the dialogue open between their lives as adults and their experiences as children by pausing at moments when their “adult” work–in medicine, science, and politics—was shaped by Black children in their lives, sometimes strangers, sometimes fugitives, sometimes their own children. Much work on Black abolitionism has stressed the ways in which the activists sought, understandably, to gain access to a citizenship that was coded both male and adult. I sought to structure the book in a way that braided the personal with the political, the needs of a child, with the demands of a citizen, to reflect how mutually constitutive these terms were in the process of determining how slavery was defined, attacked, and defended in the years leading to the Civil War.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Educated for Freedom?

AMD: The book begins with Black students being told that they could never be fully American, and ends with one of those students speaking before Congress: that journey helps us understand the power of Black political organizing both in the public and private realms.  We can’t understand how the intertwined concepts of freedom and Americanness were transformed in the nineteenth century without fully recognizing the revolutionary work of African American students, parents and activists: people who were never meant to claim the role of free American citizens. 

JF: Why do we need to read Educated for Freedom?

AMD: Well, to start with, the lives of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet are incredibly exciting!  Smith and Garnet are far from household names, but they were players in many of the century’s most momentous events. The  impoverished sons of enslaved mothers, they managed to meet the Marquis de Lafayette, earn a Medical degree, fight off angry mobs, influence John Brown and his fateful raid, speak before crowds of thousands, challenge the terms of white abolitionism, and address Congress. Their lives and work allows us to reimagine  how we imagine the scope of African Americans’ influence in pre-Civil War America.

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

AMD: At first I thought I’d be a literary critic of the Renaissance! And then I enrolled in an early American literature class, and I was hooked. I was immediately intrigued by  how the New England settlers worked so diligently to place their suffering–and the suffering they imposed on so many others–within a coherent symbolic framework. Since then I’ve been fascinated with the stories we tell ourselves about the past, particularly about how often those stories return to the tableau of an endangered child.

JF: What is your next project?

AMD: I have two projects that I’m in the process of developing. The first, tentatively titled “American Orphans” builds on Educated for Freedom‘s argument that children are not bystanders in American history or rhetoric. Instead, they have been key to how the U.S. has explained itself symbolically. I’ll be researching schools, prisons, and other sites to chart how their  subjection to, and resistance of, their national role has shaped definitions of citizenship and freedom. I’m particularly interested in exploring how  the trauma of orphanhood became celebrated as an American rite of passage on the way to independence in ways that justified–even glorified–separating children of color from their homes and communities

My second project–in the very early stages–will be a developing series of biographies of the New York African Free School students aimed for younger audiences.

JF: Thanks, Anna Mae!

The Author’s Corner with Jeffrey Zvengrowski

Jefferson DavisJeffrey Zvengrowski is Assistant Editor of the Papers of  George Washington and Assistant Research Professor at the University of Virginia. This interview is based on his new book, Jefferson Davis, Napoleonic France, and the Nature of Confederate Ideology, 1815-1870 (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Jefferson Davis?

JZ: Even before beginning history graduate studies at the University of Virginia, I was intrigued by aspects of the American Civil War and particularly the Confederacy that I do not think any group or “school” of historians have adequately explained. If nearly all Confederates fervently stood for states’ rights, agriculturalism, and pro-slavery Protestantism, then why did the Confederacy feature such an intrusively powerful central government dedicated to industrialization? Only a handful of slaves ever entered Confederate service as soldiers, to be sure, but why did the Confederacy eventually decide to enlist slaves and promise them manumission? Why did the Confederate cabinet feature a Catholic (Stephen Mallory) and a Jew (Judah P. Benjamin)? And why did many Confederates so intensely hate Confederate president Jefferson Davis as well as Confederates who supported him?

I began reading through Davis’s documentary record to answer such questions in graduate school, and I expected to find that he and likeminded Confederates shared the same beliefs as their Confederate disparagers but were much more pragmatic than the Confederacy’s ideological hardliners. To my surprise, though, the Davis primary sources indicated to me that he and his supporters subscribed to an ideology very different from that of their vitriolic Confederate critics. I wrote my dissertation, “They Stood Like the Old Guard of Napoleon: Jefferson Davis and the Pro-Bonaparte Democrats, 1815–1870” (2015), to explain the nature of that ideology; and to offer solutions for what I take to be outstanding problems in Civil War historiography.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Jefferson Davis?

JZ: I argue in my book that Davis and likeminded Confederates hailed from a venerable faction in the Democratic Party that championed equality among whites and white supremacy while insisting that states’ rights did not preclude the federal government from vigorously exercising delegated powers to help all regions industrialize. Believing that French Bonapartists espoused similar “democratic” values and similarly loathed abolitionist Britain for championing inequality among whites together with racial equality, pro-Davis Confederates were willing to jettison slavery under continuing terms of white rule if doing so would help induce Napoleon III’s France to overtly support the Confederacy against pro-British elements in the Americas.

JF: Why do we need to read Jefferson Davis?

JZ: In addition to answering what are, in my view, unsettled historical questions about the Confederacy, I believe that my book offers a fairly original and therefore refreshing interpretation of the entire Civil War era; one which meshes quite well with world history too. It’s no coincidence that the most war-torn periods in nineteenth-century United States history (the War of 1812 and the Civil War) coincided with the rise and fall of the two Bonaparte emperors (Napoleon I and Napoleon III). We somehow appear to assume that the “War Hawks” who turned the U.S. into a de facto and nearly de jure ally of Napoleon I during the War of 1812 failed to sire any ideological heirs. The pro-Bonaparte faction, however, survived through the interregnum between Bonaparte emperors and returned to prominence under Secretary of War Davis shortly after Napoleon III rose to power in France. That faction’s final descent into irrelevance and subsequent dissolution, moreover, corresponded with the Second French Empire’s unexpected destruction in 1870, shortly before which Napoleon III had hosted Davis as an honored guest in Paris.

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

JZ: I was born and raised in Calgary, Canada. In the course of obtaining my BA in history at the University of Calgary, I wavered between pursuing graduate studies in history or attending law school. I opted for graduate school in 2006 because I hoped to make a living doing something I enjoy (studying history), and I am immensely fortunate that I have been able to so. I believe that I explained my specific interest in American history when answering the first question.

JF: What is your next project?

JZ: I am the co-editor for the Papers of George Washington of volume 28 in the Revolutionary War Series, which will be published in 2020 and features transcriptions with annotated footnotes of George Washington’s correspondence from late August to late October 1780. Much of that correspondence pertains to Benedict Arnold’s defection to the British.

In years to come, I would like to write a history of what might be called the first Cold War of the United States, which struggled with the British Empire for dominance in the Americas over the nineteenth century. We seem to have forgotten the important ideological dimension of that struggle, during which the United States generally advocated white supremacy and equality among whites while the British Empire espoused racial equality – at least in the Americas – and inequality among whites. The diminishment of that struggle’s severity by the end of the nineteenth century, I think, coincided with the British Empire becoming more receptive to white supremacy even as the U.S. became more amenable to white inequality.

JF: Thanks, Jeffrey!

Out of the Zoo: Why I Cried in History Class

hamilton curtain callAnnie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects powerfully on the last day of her class on Alexander Hamilton. –JF

Anyone who knows me well knows that it doesn’t take much to make me cry. I shed tears during movies, musicals, worship sets and everything in between. I keep tissues close by at funerals and weddings alike, or if I know I’m going to be laughing really hard. If I’m anxious or overwhelmed, or if someone else is tearing up, I usually cry then too. 

When I took my seat in Frey 241 for the last day of my “Age of Hamilton” class though, I definitely did not expect to be crying by the end. When I entered the room that mid-December morning, the air was thick with excitement. Most of us history majors had finished all of our big assignments for the term, so we could practically taste Christmas break. My friend Chloe chatted excitedly about classmates’ Hamilton research papers, persuading them to let her read their essays in the coming weeks. Even though the fall semester was drawing to a close, Chloe and many others in the class were still hungry to learn everything they could about Alexander Hamilton and the world in which he lived. After wrapping up our discussion of Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr at the beginning of the period, Professor Fea launched into a final lecture designed to bring closure to the fifteen-week class. 

Fea, who played the Hamilton soundtrack frequently throughout the course to complement his lectures, thought it would be fitting to finish the semester with the musical’s last song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” That’s what we historians do, Professor Fea explained to the class. We tell people’s stories. We’re in constant communication with our own world and worlds gone by. No one is around forever, but we as historians make sure they’re remembered once they’re gone. It is our right, and it is our duty. 

Professor Fea pulled up the lyric video for “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” on the projector screen, and the class sat in rare stillness as we watched Lin Manuel Miranda’s words flicker by. It’s impossible to capture the beauty of the song in a few words, but the ballad features several familiar characters voicing their respect for Hamilton and the financial system he created. Hamilton’s wife Eliza steps forward and reveals that she outlived her husband by fifty years. She recounts all the things she’s done to preserve Alexander’s legacy, and even laments that she still may not have done enough. All the while, the ensemble repeatedly voices the song’s title phrase: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

The students who usually spouted-off Hamilton lyrics with passionate fervor were subdued and somber, singing along quietly. I even heard a few lower voices chiming in from the cluster of boys who usually congregated in the back of the room. I hummed along too, thinking about the lyrics–which alone are enough to bring me to tears–and Professor Fea’s speech a few minutes earlier. I thought about the people’s stories I’ve heard, the one’s I’ve shared myself, and all of those that have yet to be uncovered. In those three and a half minutes I was reminded of how grateful I am to give a voice to the voiceless, and how blessed I will be to teach my students to do the same someday. After blinking away a couple joyful tears, I thanked God for giving me this vocation, this duty to tell people’s stories for the rest of my life. 

Sometimes in the midst of final papers and exams I can forget what an important job historians have. We live, we die, but in the meantime we tell people’s stories. We make sure they’re not forgotten. What a beautiful privilege we have.

The Author’s Corner with Laura Lohman

Hail ColumbiaLaura Lohman is Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence and Professor of Music at Queens University of Charlotte. This interview is based on her new book, Hail Columbia!: American Music and Politics in the Early Nation (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Hail Columbia!?

LL: When I was a doctoral student I had come across some early sheet music for songs and a piano sonata commemorating naval battles and the capture of sailors from the Tripolitan War of the early 1800s. I was intrigued by how a songwriter or a composer sought to tell a story about a battle and war for audiences through music. I looked further into songs in this time period and was surprised to find hundreds of songs distributed in weekly and daily newspapers. These songs often had a political focus. They were full of sharp humor, effective propaganda, and a surprising vulgarity of expression. Music scholars hadn’t focused on these songs or on newspapers as a medium of circulating music. I thought this was an important phenomenon to share with other audiences. Because so many of these songs were written to melodies that we still sing or recognize today, like “Anacreon in Heaven” (the melody of our national anthem), “God Save the King,” and “Yankee Doodle,” it’s a topic that non-musicians can relate to as well.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Hail Columbia!?

LL: Music was an essential form of political expression from the nation’s founding. Americans used music to debate crucial political questions, laud and demonize their fellow citizens based on their political beliefs and actions, and construct powerful narratives about the nation’s history, values, and institutions.

JF: Why do we need to read Hail Columbia!?

LL: It shows how much early Americans used music to make sense of the contemporary political landscape and how they used music to persuade others of their partisan vision. It brings to light hundreds of additional songs that can be used when teaching about this historical period. At the same time, I’ve intentionally written it in a way that non-musicians can understand. Much of the power of this music stems from song lyrics and from intertextual relationships, as a songwriter often deliberately invoked older lyrics to make a political point when writing new lyrics. So even if you don’t consider yourself “musically trained,” you’ll be able to understand and benefit from the book.

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

LL: Honestly, it was when I was a graduate student focusing on music performance. I was spending four to eight hours alone in a practice room every day and at a certain point I realized I needed something intellectual to focus on instead. That was when I decided to focus on music history full-time and pursued doctoral study in this area. Fortunately, I had a strong grounding in research and writing about music history from my undergraduate education! I consider myself lucky to be able to continue this research today.

JF: What is your next project?

LL: This year I’m editing a book that will provide a practical introduction to working with relevant sources in music and dance from this time period for scholars in music and other disciplines, such as history and literary studies. It’s titled Researching Secular Music and Dance in the Early United States: Extending the Legacy of Kate Van Winkle Keller, and it will be published by Routledge. It offers an accessible introduction to essential research tools, approaches, and issues for those new to researching music and dance from the revolutionary era through the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Keller was an exceptionally prolific and dedicated scholar who focused on this time period when many music scholars overlooked it. My hope is that this book spurs a new generation of scholars to delve into this fascinating period.

JF: Thanks, Laura!

The Author’s Corner with Owen Stanwood

The Global RefugeOwen Stanwood is Associate Professor of History at Boston College. This interview is based on his new book, The Global Refuge: Huguenots in an Age of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Global Refuge?

OS: My first book examined Anglo-American politics and religion during the late-1600s, and when I was conducting research I noticed that everyone was talking about Huguenots–the French Protestants who scattered around Europe in response to persecution by Louis XIV during the 1680s. Some of these refugees came to England and America, but beyond that, English people at all levels of society seemed obsessed with French persecution. This puzzled me because I knew that there were relatively few Huguenots in colonial America, and they had far less demographic staying power than other groups like Germans or Ulster Scots. I wanted to find out what made them so prominent, but I soon learned that to answer the question I would have to move beyond colonial America or even the British empire. So I expanded my gaze not just to Europe but to the global Huguenot diaspora, which included British America but extended to the Caribbean, South America, South Africa and the Indian Ocean. By taking a global approach I finally began to understand why (and how) the Huguenots played such a key role in imperial history.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Global Refuge?

OS: The Huguenots distinguished themselves in a world of empires by simultaneously promoting themselves as religious martyrs and potential producers. They played up their status as chosen people who had suffered under Catholic persecution — which appealed greatly to Protestant leaders — but they sealed the deal by discussing their skills and aptitudes in making things like silk and wine, which made them especially desirable settlers on imperial frontiers.

JF: Why do we need to read The Global Refuge?

OS: When I started writing this book almost a decade ago I had no idea how relevant it would be to our own political moment. Obviously refugees are in the news a lot now, and this book offers a great primer on an era when much of political discourse of refugees originated. (The word entered common English usage in the seventeenth century to describe the Huguenots.) In particular, it shows us that in previous eras, some leaders not only considered it a religious duty to help the Huguenots; they also believed that accepting these newcomers would be an economic windfall. As one political economist noted at the time, sometimes charity and self-interest can go together.

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

OS: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history. I grew up in a small town in Washington state that was especially proud of its past, and I worked as a teenager with local museums and preservation organizations. This interest in local history eventually transformed into curiosity about how North America developed over the longue durée. I love history because it simultaneously allows me to recover lost worlds while also understanding the real world that I live in a bit better.

JF: What is your next project?

OS: I am sticking with the Huguenots but moving back in time more than a century to the 1560s. A group of French Protestants attempted to establish a colony in Florida, which sputtered along for a few years before being wiped out by the Spanish. Despite its short duration I think it was quite important in establishing some of the patterns that would characterize the next few centuries of American colonialism. It also demonstrates how America was linked to the twin processes of Renaissance and Reformation that transformed sixteenth-century Europe.

JF: Thanks, Owen!

The Author’s Corner with Scott Huffard

Engines of redemptionScott Huffard is Program Coordinator of History and Associate Professor of History at Lees-McRae College. This interview is based on his new book, Engines of Redemption: Railroads and the Reconstruction of Capitalism in the New South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Engines of Redemption?

SH: The book had its roots in a graduate seminar at the University of Florida where I explored the spread of yellow fever along Florida’s rail lines in 1888. This led to more and more reading about the New South and it really seemed like there was a dark history of railroad disasters that had not really been told. While southern historians had already noted the importance of railroads in the rise of Jim Crow, I felt that other aspects of the South’s railroad experience needed to be explored.

I also was in grad school during the depths of the Great Recession and the issues I write about in the book–about the power of distant corporations, danger of new connections, and importance of narrative to capitalism–were everywhere. A book is inevitably shaped by the historical moment in which it was conceived and Engines of Redemption is no exception. For example, at the same time I was reading sources calling the Southern Railway an “octopus,” commentators were calling Goldman Sachs a “vampire squid.”

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Engines of Redemption?

SH: In the decades after the Civil War, the South was transformed by the expansion, standardization, and increased connectivity and circulation of the railroad network. Boosters used these new railroads to support the New South story, that capitalism redeemed the South, but this story obscured the ways in which the railroad and capitalism were uniquely destructive in the region.

JF: Why do we need to read Engines of Redemption?

SH: It helps re-center big business and capitalism as key forces in shaping the New South era and it implicates these forces in aiding the rise of white supremacy and many of the era’s disasters and crises. We have seen plenty of recent works (the “New History of Capitalism”) that argue for the capitalist nature of the Old South but Engines of Redemption extends this story into the late nineteenth-century. One of the more resilient aspects of capitalism is how it writes its own history and creates the narratives–like the New South story–that sustain it. We are in a historical moment where we can now more critically assess capitalism and its many disasters and the book hopes to contribute to these conversations and fold new characters and events into the history of capitalism. For example, I write how Railroad Bill, a black train robber active in Alabama in the 1890s, was a fearsome embodiment of the dangerous forces of capitalism for white southerners.

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

SH: My interest stretches all the way back to my elementary school years, when I became obsessed with the Civil War. I grew up in Pennsylvania and got really into the narrative of the war and the horrors of different battles. The idea of a war fought on American soil intrigued me and I remember always trying to get my family to stop at battlefields in Virginia while we were on the way to beach vacations. I saw the South as this foreign and haunted space and I think this fed into my desire to study the region (and its dark past) in graduate school. Now I like how the South has a way of challenging some of the myths and narratives we hold dear about America.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: I am working on a project that looks at the biography and legend of the railroad conductor Casey Jones. He ran the Illinois Central’s fastest mail train and died in a wreck in Mississippi while trying to make up lost time. He has since become perhaps the most famous conductor in America thanks to a whole host of ballads and songs. How did this conductor become the most famous railroad man in America and enter the pantheon of American folklore legends? It should be a fun project to work on and I am excited to jump into more research and writing.

JF: Thanks, Scott!

The Author’s Corner With Stephen Ash

rebel richmondStephen Ash is Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This interview is based on his new book, Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Rebel Richmond?

SA: After finishing another book some years ago, I began searching for a new topic. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone (Civil War-era social history) but was ready to try something new within that field.

I’d never written an urban history. The subject intrigued me, but at first I hesitated to take on Richmond. Several general histories of the city during the war have been published, and numerous books, articles, and dissertations have explored particular aspects of its wartime experience. But in doing research for my earlier books  I’d come across some extraordinarily rich primary sources that were unused, or under-used, by previous tellers of Richmond’s tale. So it seemed to me that the full story of Richmond during the Civil War remained to be told.

The earlier general histories depended heavily on newspapers, city council minutes, and published letters, diaries, and militar reports. This dependency skewed them: they have much to say about elite Richmonders, high government officials, and the battles around the capital, but not much about ordinary Richmonders and their daily struggles. Those sources have all been very useful to me, but the others I delved into—including census reports, soldiers’ military service files, records of Confederate government bureaus and manufactories and hospitals, and the correspondence of the Virginia governors—opened wonderful new perspectives.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Rebel Richmond?

SA: Between 1861 and 1865, Richmond experienced a storm of calamities and transformations like no other American city, before or since, has had to endure. The people–men and women and children, whites and blacks, rich and poor, bosses and workers, civilians and soldiers, secessionists and Unionists, long-time residents and wartime refugees–responded to this unprecedented crisis in very human ways, sometimes nobly and sometimes shamefully, but mostly somewhere in between.

JF: Why do we need to read Rebel Richmond?

SA: It not only tells us much that we didn’t know about the Civil War but also casts light on the broader question of how human beings cope with extreme circumstances.

In making my case, I emphasize the role of religion. Christian belief was at the heart of Richmonders’ understanding of the Civil War. White secessionists believed that God was on their side and would ensure Confederate victory, as long as believers were faithful to His commands. When the war turned against the South in 1863, some concluded that the sins of the Confederate people had cost them God’s favor; but others saw the military setbacks not as a judgment but as a test of their worthiness in God’s eyes.

Black Richmonders, by contrast, saw the war as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, promising freedom to the captives. As the war went on, they drew comfort also from the book of Daniel (11:15): “So the king of the north shall come . . . and the arms of the south shall not withstand.”

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

SA: I turned thirteen in 1961, the year that our nation began its observance of the Civil War’s centennial. That’s an age at which many people acquire a hobby and a focus, and that’s what happened in my case. I fell in love with the Civil War, read all I could about it in the succeeding years, chose to go to Gettysburg College and major in history, worked as a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg in the summers, and subsequently went to grad school at the University of Tennessee and wrote a dissertation about Middle Tennessee during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In all those years, I never really had any other aspiration besides studying the Civil War. I’m one of the lucky few who turned an adolescent fascination into a career.

JF: What is your next project?

SA: I wish I could answer this question. I think I’ve got at least one more book in me, but I haven’t yet found a topic that really intrigues me. If the readers of this blog have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them (sash@utk.edu).

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

Out of the Zoo: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Hedgehog

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects on Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”. –JF

I did a lot of reading this semester. Being a history major, though, I suppose it comes with the territory. Instead of spending hours in the pottery studio like the art majors, or agonizing over lab like STEM students, history majors write and read—a lot. I read John Santrock in Educational Psychology, lots of Sam Wineburg for Teaching History and Social Studies, and many words from the pen of Alexander Hamilton for my Age of Hamilton class. Since the beginning of September I’ve been exposed to a number of different voices, some clear and others confusing, some of which I agree with and others that I don’t. Nonetheless, the challenge of hearing each one out is a task that has surely made me a better writer, student, and novice historian.

One of the first pieces I read this semester was for my Historical Methods class, an essay by Isaiah Berlin titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” I distinctly remember reading it within a few days of arriving on campus, sitting at one of the picnic tables outside Murray Library when it was still warm enough to do so. Pulling from the Greek poet Archilochus who once wrote “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” Berlin thinks that this statement, taken figuratively, describes a great difference that splits writers and thinkers. Some are hedgehogs, Berlin writes, who “relate everything to a single central vision,” who like to simplify their findings and organize them into a neat and concise conclusion. And then there are others, the foxes, who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory,” who dwell in nuances and complexity, who run in the many different directions that their thinking, writing, or researching takes them. 

In my methods class we talked about how, as historians, we think and write and research somewhere between these two sects. For while we may start a project with a central topic, theme or idea in mind, as we do research we are stretched in many different directions. No matter how much we desire to organize all our findings into a thesis statement that’s orderly and decisive, we sometimes must face the reality that the past is often far too complex to do so to our satisfaction. We have the spines of hedgehogs and the fluffy tails of foxes, or so it seems. 

As I wrap up my final papers for the semester (which I have already written about here and here) I am continuing to realize the truth of this assertion. I’ve spent the whole semester knee deep in research–seeking out sources, following leads, falling down rabbit holes–all in an attempt to answer the questions I set out to answer.  But after all my research, I’m realizing that the questions I asked months ago are not so easily answered. I’m realizing that there will always be paths that remain unexplored, questions that go unanswered; yet with due dates fast approaching I must bring my research to some sort of end.

Thus, it is here that I will remain. In the tension between the one and the many, the simple and the complex, I attempt to bring my months of research together into a cohesive whole. I try to bring my outstretched hands together and weave the fringes of my research into some kind of tapestry. I can only hope that my tapestry will be a beautiful one.

The Author’s Corner with David King

God's internationalists.jpgDavid King is Karen Lake Buttrey Director at the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and Professor of Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. This interview is based on his new book, God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write God’s Internationalists?

DK: As a scholar always seeking to bring an international lens to American history, I have long been intrigued by the untold story of World Vision. Beginning in 1950 as a small missionary agency, the relief and development agency has now grown to become one the world’s largest Christian humanitarian organizations. I felt that World Vision’s story illustrates the role that major faith-based NGOs now play not only in foreign policy and humanitarian work but also in shaping the global imagination of millions of Americans. In many ways, they have taken the public role once occupied by western missionaries. How that transition occurred and what it means, I felt, was important and underexplored.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument for God’s Internationalists?

DK: In chronicling the organizational transformation of World Vision from 1950 to the present, I am making the case that American evangelicals changed in the ways they saw themselves and their world in the period following World War II in ways that push scholars beyond a singular focus only on politics and popular culture. Chronicling the evolution of World Vision’s practices, theology, and institutional development, I also hope to demonstrate how the organization re-articulated and retained its Christian identity even as it expanded beyond a narrow American evangelical subculture illustrating the complexities of faith-based humanitarianism that do not presume the scientific and secular dominance of the humanitarian and philanthropic sector.

JF: Why do we need to read God’s Internationalists?

DK: First, I believe readers will enjoy some of the colorful characters in the pages of God’s Internationalists. World Vision founder Bob Pierce was a larger than life character that traveled the world jumping out of helicopters on the front lines of the Korean and Vietnam wars. Yet, as World Vision grew, Pierce refused to grow with it. After he quit in a fit of rage, he would later go on to start another organization, Samaritan’s Purse, and he mentored Franklin Graham who took over once Pierce passed away. These intertwined histories are obviously still relevant today.

Beyond the immediate relevance of exploring the histories of organizations that still shape the global outlook of many American Christians, I believe it is also important to make the case that American Christians spend far more resources on global missions and international relief and development than they do on domestic politics. While religion and politics get our overwhelming attention for obvious reasons, I believe it is important to broaden our field of vision. Religious relief and development agencies like World Vision demonstrate a complex but oftentimes healthy set of working relationships that mix government, local congregations, private philanthropy, and a wide variety of religious or secular agencies partnering together. In our particular moment, seeing how these partnerships have developed and how they might lead us to common ground, I believe, is worthy of our time. Finally, I believe God’s Internationalists forces us to expand our field of vision beyond domestic issues to see how Christians at home and global Christians abroad have led to new ways of engaging with the world.

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

DK: I majored in history at Samford University and fell in love with the history of civil rights which came alive to me as I explored that history through oral interviews and site visits right there in Birmingham, Alabama, where so much of that history took place. I later focused on American religion with a particular interest in missions history through my work with Grant Wacker at Duke. After I finished a PhD in American religious history at Emory University, I continued to find a way to keep writing as a historian even as my own academic interests have continued to evolve over time taking me now into philanthropic studies, an interdisciplinary field, where I am presently rooted at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

JF: What is your next project?

DK: Speaking of philanthropy, I have just finished an edited volume with Philip Goff of IUPUI, on Religion and Philanthropy in the United States that looks at a variety of religious traditions and particular case studies over the long twentieth century up to the present that will be out with Indiana University Press in 2020. I am also excited to be writing with my colleague Eric Abrahamson a history that intertwines the lives of evangelical philanthropist, Howard Ahmanson, Jr. and evangelical civil rights icon John Perkins. In framing their improbable friendship with one another, we believe the book opens up many untold stories such as the history of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) as well as Ahmanson’s funding of controversial initiatives such as intelligent design and Christian reconstructionism to key global missions such as the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. Like Gods Internationalists, we hope it will open up another lens to explore American evangelicalism.

JF: Thanks, David!

The Author’s Corner with Cole Jones

captives of libertyCole Jones is Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University. This interview is based on his new book, Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Captives of Liberty?

CJ: When I began to study history professionally in 2007, the United States was deeply mired in the seemingly unending “War on Terror.” What had begun as largely conventional conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had devolved into complex counterinsurgencies in which the enemy did not abide by the laws of armed conflict as codified in the Third Geneva Convention of 1949. In a war against a tactic—terrorism—instead of a nation state, enemy prisoners posed thorny political questions. To treat Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters as prisoners of war eligible for exchange would implicitly acknowledge their legitimacy. Instead, U.S. forces held them indefinitely as illegal combatants. While the American populace responded in horror to news of abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention centers, official policy towards enemy captives remained unaltered.

This was the political context in which I began to think about America’s first war—the Revolutionary War. At the time, historians and pundits drew a stark contrast between contemporary Americans’ conduct of war in the Middle East—especially their treatment of enemy captives—and the apparent “humanitarian” actions of the “Founding Fathers.” I was intrigued by this juxtaposition and wanted to learn more. How had the American Revolutionaries negotiated the political and military challenges posed by prisoners? The answers I uncovered in the archives challenged my preconceived notions about the American Revolution and the war waged to secure it.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Captives of Liberty?

CJ: By analyzing the treatment of prisoners of war, Captives of Liberty recovers a revolutionary transformation in the conduct of the war that created the United States. Over the course of the struggle, British atrocities and loyalist resistance—both more often imaginary than real—galvanized ordinary Americans to wage an extremely violent war for vengeance that the decentralized revolutionary government could not contain.

JF: Why do we need to read Captives of Liberty?

CJ: Captives of Liberty is a cautionary tale about the power of revengeful rhetoric to escalate violence. The over 17,000 British and allied prisoners who suffered in American hands testify to the dangers of dehumanizing political opponents and to the fragility of law in the face of emotion. Revolutionary Americans had entered their conflict with Great Britain determined to demonstrate to the world that “Americans are humane as well as brave.” They failed to live up to this lofty aspiration of limiting war’s violence, but that does not mean that we should jettison their ambition. Instead of trying to live up to the standards set by the founding generation, we should strive to do better.

I also hope that my book restores the war, and its attendant suffering, deprivation, and death, to the political history of the American Revolution. Tearing down monarchical governance and establishing a republic came at a terrible cost that historians are only recently beginning to emphasize. American politics and society were profoundly shaped by the eight-years of civil war: a struggle every bit as revolutionary in character as its European successors. It is time, I think, for historians to abandon the antiquated and inaccurate title “The War for Independence” and to start calling the conflict what it really was: “The American Revolutionary War.”

JF: Why did you decide to become an American historian?

CJ: I grew up in the Hudson River valley of New York, surrounded by small vestiges of America’s colonial past. I have been fascinated by the American Revolution for as long as I can recall. The popular narrative of “Good American Patriots” versus “Bad British Redcoats” always troubled me. The causes, conduct, and consequences of the Revolution seemed so much more complicated than those platitudes suggested. I carried my interest in the Revolution into college where I caught the bug for historical research. After doing archival research on both sides of the Atlantic and loving every minute of it, I committed to the Ph.D. program in early American history at Johns Hopkins University. I count myself very fortunate to be able to read, write, think, and teach about American history for a living.

JF: What is your next project?

CJ: I am currently at work on two projects. The first is a short book, under contract with Westholme Press, that examines the opening stages of the Revolutionary War in North Carolina, culminating in the climactic battle at Moore’s Creek Bridge in 1776. The second more substantial project is a history of the war west of the Appalachian Mountains, currently entitled Patrick Henry’s War: The Struggle for Empire in the Revolutionary West. In short, it is a history of the rise and fall of Virginia’s empire during the era of the American Revolution.

JF: Thanks, Cole!

Out of the Zoo: Holidays Make Us Historians

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The beginning of the Christmas season in my hometown (Kalamazoo) is marked by the appearance of “Candy Cane Lane” in Bronson Park.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about the upcoming Christmas season. –JF

It seems as if the Christmas Season is in full swing. While I (shamelessly) started listening to Christmas music and watching Hallmark movies on November first, on the day after Thanksgiving the entire world seems to turn shades of red and green. Michael Bublé comes out of hiding and sings out on radio broadcasts, coffee shops and supermarkets alike play festive tunes for their customers. Netted fir trees strapped atop SUVs become a regular appearance on highways, supplemented by the occasional Amazon or UPS truck packed to the brim with black Friday orders. Every year after Thanksgiving my family ventures into our dusty attic to retrieve our Christmas decorations; we pull out our snowy Disney Princess village, our singing Christmas clock, and our many, many farm-themed ornaments for the tree. 

I traveled back to Messiah on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was welcomed by a campus decked out for the Christmas season. After a long nine hour drive from Michigan I was greeted by house-mates Chloe and Amy, hard at work assembling a faux Christmas tree in our living room and stringing lights outside. I’m sure first-year dorms are busy at work decorating for Messiah’s annual “Deck the Halls” competition.

The Christmas season is pretty special on a Christian college campus. Once December hits Messiah’s worship teams dust off the Christmas songs in their repertoire and play them at chapel and other services on campus. Murray Library hosts a Christmas tea and crafting event for students each year, serving homemade scones and striped candy canes. Students flock to Lottie-Nelson Dining Hall for Christmas dinner the week before exams to stuff themselves with comfort food and seasonal desserts. Teachers tell students about their Christmas plans and share their favorite holiday traditions.

I love the Christmas season. I adore the lights, the food, all the time with family and friends; but one of my favorite things about Christmas is that it has deep roots in history. The task of the historian is to remember the past and to recreate it in the present; when we celebrate Christmas that’s exactly what we’re doing. As a Christian I believe that Christ’s miraculous birth was a real event that happened about two thousand years ago, a real event from the past that should be brought to life in the present for the world to see. When we sing Christmas songs, set up our nativities or light our advent candles, we do just that; we resurrect Christ’s story and remember that our God is not just the God of heaven, but He’s also God on earth, God with us, Emmanuel.

Christmas isn’t the only holiday with deep roots in history. All holidays have historical beginnings–even if they’re often entangled with myth, distorted by exaggerations, or littered with omissions along the way. Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Easter, for example are all meant, in one way or another, to remember and celebrate an event that happened in the past and shape the meaning it retains in the present. When the holiday season comes around, we are all historians, in a sense. We remember, resurrect, and make meaning out of things that happened. Then, as historians, it is up to us to sort fact from fiction, reality from myth. We examine the events and the meanings that they hold all wrapped up in bows and lights and “Christmas magic.” Instead of getting caught up in all the glamour, we seek out what really happened.

The Author’s Corner with Cynthia Kierner

inventing disasterCynthia A. Kierner is Professor of History at George Mason University. This interview is based on her new book, Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Inventing Disaster?

CK: Oddly, the event that inspired the book was Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Jersey Shore (and New York City) in 2012. Because I grew up going to the shore, and still go there every summer, I found the news coverage of Sandy and the disaster relief efforts after the storm absolutely fascinating. I also noticed that the sorts of stories told about disaster victims and survivors—and the people who helped (or sometimes did not help)—were pretty much the same as after other recent disasters. This led me to wonder about the origins of this way of responding to disasters—what I call a culture of disaster.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inventing Disaster?

CK: Inventing Disaster traces the gradual coalescence of this modern culture of disaster over nearly three centuries, in the British Atlantic world and then in the independent American republic. In the book, I argue that this new response to calamity grew out of three developments that scholars associate with the Enlightenment: the spread of information via trade, travel, and print; the belief in human agency and progress; and the growing influence of the culture of sensibility.

JF: Why do we need to read Inventing Disaster?

CK: What’s not to like about hurricanes, plagues, and exploding steamboats? Seriously, although the book includes engaging disaster stories and vivid contemporary illustrations, I believe that understanding the historical and cultural roots of our own culture of calamity is a prerequisite for assessing how we approach prevention, relief, and recovery efforts in these disaster-ridden times.

For instance, our approach to disaster today, as I said, is rooted in an Enlightenment-inspired confidence in humanity’s ability to conquer and control nature. Is that confidence sustainable now—was it ever? Should disaster prevention be a matter for government mandates, or for community voluntarism? Should disaster relief be a social priority, and, if so, which people or entities should provide aid to disaster victims and how should it be funded? Is disaster relief first and foremost an expression of sympathy, or an effort to maintain social order? How do disaster stories, in the media and elsewhere, shape our often-conflicted understandings of why disasters happen and how we should plan for them and react in times of crisis? These questions, which were first pondered during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, continue to drive the debates we have about disasters in twenty-first-century America.

For those less interested in current events, the book also offers a different perspective on topics ranging from the changing role of the state (in the British Empire and later in the American Republic) to the evolution of print and visual culture in post-revolutionary America.

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

CK: I decided to be a historian when I was in college. I entered university expecting to go to law school. But then I met some law students, saw what they were reading (and writing), and decided that history would be much more fun. I was torn between doing British and American history. Being an early Americanist seemed like the perfect compromise.

JF: What is your next project?

CK: I have several. First, I am coediting a collection of essays on American disasters. I also have two smaller-scale early American projects: a cultural history of the earliest U.S. censuses and an article-length study of a remarkably interesting and outspoken woman in revolutionary North Carolina. My next book-length project, however, will likely be a biography of Joan Whitney Payson, art collector, patron of the arts, horse enthusiast, and founding owner of the New York Mets.

JF: Thanks, Cynthia!

The Author’s Corner with David Hall

the puritans a transatlantic historyDavid Hall is Bartlett Professor of New England Church History Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School. This interview is based on his new book, The Puritans: A Transatlantic History (Princeton University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Puritans?

DH: The Puritans: A Transatlantic History grew out of my ambition to understand the British side of the story more fully; or, to say this otherwise, to replace the paradigms that accompany all versions of “American” Puritanism with paradigms appropriate to an older, richer, and much more significant phase of religious and political history.

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

DH:  I answer (to my satisfaction) the question of “Who were the Puritans?” by rooting the British movements firmly in the context of the Reformed international, and I link the immense difficulties of the 1640s, when a promising alliance between Covenanter Scotland and the Long Parliament broke down, to a straightforward theological question, the nature of the church.

JF: Why do we need to read The Puritans?

DH:  For anyone who knows next to nothing about Reformation Scotland and the remarkable insurgency of 1637-38 (my ignorance was complete before I decided to invest myself in Scottish history), fresh light is  thrown on every aspect of the Puritan movement, and especially its political travails and triumphs.  On the English side, my substantial survey of the “practical divinity” and its problems–up to and including the emergence of “Antinomianism” in the years 1620-1650–is a persuasive alternative to the (tired) history of English “Calvinism,” an alternative more fully attuned to devotion and  the rhythms of spiritual life.  My survey of a “reformation of manners” brings social history into the story, as well.

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

DH: As a child I began to read historical fiction, some of it dating from the end of the C19 (books belonging to my parents or grandparents), books that cast a spell over me that has never quite vanished.  I also fell in love with American literature after being introduced to it in a serious manner in college and, briefly, pondered doing a Ph.D. in English, the compromise being American Studies.  It was accidental that my earliest books were on the seventeenth century, as I really wanted to be writing about the nineteenth; but the turn toward “popular” religion/culture in early modern studies captured my imagination and the rest is (history).

JF: What is you next project?

DH: The Puritans was a very challenging book to write, so I’m turning to something simpler, probably an edition of two seventeenth-century manuscripts.

JF: Thanks, David!

Out of the Zoo: Young Life

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Six of Boiling Springs’ eight Young Life leaders at Lake Champion in Glen Spey, New York.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about her work with a ministry to high school kids. –JF

At the end of March last year I got placed as a Young Life leader at Boiling Springs High School. As a Young Life leader, I spend several hours a week hanging out with high school students. Along with a team of six other leaders, we create opportunities for kids to have fun, build relationships and learn more about Jesus. Whether we’re running our weekly gathering called “club,” leading students through a bible study before school called “campaigners,” or supporting our high school friends at their activities or athletic events, we devote our time to meeting new kids and giving them a chance to hear the Gospel.

The goal of Young Life is to make the Gospel accessible to kids. Some kids–most kids, really–who come to Young Life are just beginning their relationship with Christ. Some students who come to club, campaigners, or fall weekend with us hear about Jesus for the first time through Young Life. And that’s precisely the point of what we do as leaders; we seek out kids who don’t know Jesus in the hopes that they will want to come and see what he’s all about.

So, when we give club talks or campaigner lessons, we don’t try to impress our kids with fancy words or theological debates. Instead, we just try to show them, in their own terms, how much God loves them and wants to be in a relationship with them. We seek to demonstrate, through our own lives and through scripture, just how awesome it is to live life with Jesus. We strive to show them not only what God has done for them, but why he did it, why it matters, and why the story of a man who walked the earth 2000 years ago is still relevant to their lives today.

I think some, if not all, history teachers can learn something from Young Life, namely that there’s something valuable in presenting stories to kids in ways they can understand. There are plenty of historians who know the importance of understanding the past on its own terms–but there are few history teachers who are truly skilled at presenting the past, in all its complexity, to students in their own terms. Of course teachers need to tell their students what happened in the past–just like Young Life leaders need to show high schoolers what Jesus did for them two millennia ago. But if they cannot show students why they are learning what they’re learning, or why what happened in the past is still relevant to their life in the present, they have failed. If students cannot see how the past actively shapes what they experience in the here and now, they haven’t truly grasped a full understanding of history.

I realize this is no easy task. The past is foreign and strange, and the prospect of relating it to what students experience in the world today remains daunting. It takes extra effort for teachers to explain the past in a way that is relevant to students; it requires educators to invest in their pupils, to build relationships with them and uncover their seemingly ever-changing interests. Yes, teaching students why they’re learning what they’re learning is no easy task. Yet it is one worth striving for.

The Author’s Corner with David Prior

between freedom and progressDavid Prior is Assistant Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. This interview is based on his new book, Between Freedom and Progress: The Lost World of Reconstruction Politics (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: I stumbled into the project through primary source research. When I started my graduate work, my advisor encouraged me to look at U.S. foreign relations during Reconstruction. In the process of doing that, I wrote an early seminar paper on American interest and involvement in an insurrection by Greek Orthodox Christians on the island of Crete against Ottoman imperial rule from 1866 to 1869. I was struck by how people in and from the United States, including former Confederates, not only discussed the insurrection, but argued over its meaning through competing sets of analogies to slaveholders, Apaches, Mormons, Poles, and Russians. Those analogies, and the underlying worldview they stemmed from, became what my book was about. I researched a number of seemingly disparate case studies that people at the time connected to each other and to Reconstruction, which is itself a term borrowed from Europe through analogy. I found myself attempting to fathom why these events, places, and individuals all called out for attention from people who, one would think, would have been narrowly focused on the South and its relation to the Union.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: In the broadest sense, the aim of the book is to take a new look at the cultural, intellectual, and political landscape inhabited by Reconstruction’s partisans—those who struggled over and with Reconstruction’s core issues. Between Freedom and Progress does this by recovering why and how they imagined themselves as actors in world history, and in particular how a belief that struggles for freedom and progress transcended the globe stood in creative tension with a closely related assumption that history was about and made by coherent, distinctive groups of people (nations, races, religions, tribes) with their own characters.

JF: Why do we need to read Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: To recover a sense of the otherness of the past, even while we continue to acknowledge the ways that racism and inequality link the United States and the world today back to the contested politics of the postbellum decade.

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

DP: I loved history, as well as economics, going back to high school and double majored in college. When I started thinking about graduate school, I decided I enjoyed history a touch more, although I’ll admit I’ve always missed being able to engage with both disciplines.

JF: What is your next project?

DP: Right now I am working on an edited volume entitled Reconstruction and Empire that looks at the various ways in which the legacies of the Civil War and abolition shaped the imperial moment of the late 1890s and early 1900s.

JF: Thanks, David!

Out of the Zoo: Hamilton’s Deathbed Conversion

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Alexander Hamilton’s grave in Trinity Church Cemetery.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about her paper on Alexander Hamilton’s religious faith. –JF

My “Age of Hamilton” class is well into its second act. After taking a couple weeks to discuss the musical Hamilton, we took a deep dive into the life of America’s 10-dollar founding father. We started off the semester discussing Hamilton’s childhood in the West Indies and his education in New Jersey and New York. Next we paraded through the Revolutionary war alongside Alexander.  Then we discussed his contributions to the Constitution—at the Constitutional Convention and through the 51 Federalist papers that he wrote. At long last we’ve reached what seems to be the pinnacle of the course—Hamilton’s stint as the first secretary of the treasury—and soon enough we will come to Weehawken New Jersey, the stage of his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

As “Age of Hamilton” reaches its close in the next month or so, my classmates and I will be striving to finish our lengthy research papers for the course. As we scramble to gather sources and organize our thoughts for the assignment, we surely have gained a new understanding of the question Hamilton repeatedly poses: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” Nonetheless, our minds are “at work” as we seek to flesh out various aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s life.

As you can imagine, the topics my classmates and I are pursuing for this assignment are quite diverse. My friend Chloe is researching Hamilton’s relationship with fellow revolutionary John Laurens. Another fellow history major is writing on Hamilton’s role in the Battle of Monmouth. My roommate Rachel is learning about 18th-century courtship for her paper, and several more classmates are researching the Reynolds Affair. While all of these potential topics intrigued me, I decided to take the semester to inquire into Alexander Hamilton’s religious faith.

My paper thus far is centered around Hamilton’s “deathbed conversion,” an event which, even after hours of research, still fascinates me. I’ve recently discovered that a large portion of Hamilton’s career was characterized by the apparent absence of religious devotion. Yet, at the end of his life, after a fatal shot through the abdomen from the pistol of Aaron Burr, Hamilton asked multiple times to receive communion from his deathbed. Hamilton first requested the sacraments from Episcopal bishop Reverend Benjamin Moore, who denied Hamilton’s wishes because he did not condone the practice of dueling.  Hamilton then turned to Presbyterian minister John Mason, who, like Moore, also refused. After some time though, Reverend Moore returned to Hamilton’s bedside and obliged to administer communion.

As I worked on this project over the weekend, I’ve realized there is still much work to do. I’ve researched and written some about Hamilton’s exposure to religion throughout his life, and have continued my inquiry into his “deathbed conversion.” Yet, at this point I am left with more questions than answers. What did Hamilton really believe about God? Why were the sacraments so important to him that he still desired them even after being turned down twice? Where will Hamilton spend eternity? Surely not all of these questions belong in my paper, but my research has led me to ask them nonetheless. As I seek solutions to some of these questions, I’m starting to realize that most will not be so easily answered. Some people living today cannot even articulate what they believe about God; therefore it’s no easy task to do the same for someone who died over 200 years ago. Thus, I will try my best to tread carefully, to keep my eyes open, and to do justice to the complexity that defined every aspect of Hamilton’s life, religious and otherwise.

The Author’s Corner with Erik Seeman

speaking with the dead in early americaErik Seeman is Professor of History and History Department Chair at the University at Buffalo. This interview is based on his new book, Speaking with the Dead in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Speaking with the Dead?

ES: In my large lecture class, “Death in America,” Spiritualism is one of my students’ favorite topics. I had long wondered how a religious movement with such a specific starting point–the Fox Sisters’ communication with a ghost in 1848–could claim “millions” of adherents within a decade (leave aside for a moment that the claim was likely exaggerated).

So I started Speaking with the Dead with a simple question: Where did Spiritualism come from? But I quickly became dissatisfied with previous historians’ answers, which had focused on relatively marginal movements in the 1830s and 1840s: Shakerism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism. The deeper I dug, the more I found examples of people imagining communication with the dead, not only in the nineteenth century, but going back to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century England.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Speaking with the Dead?

ES: Protestantism is a religion in which the dead play a central role. From the Reformation forward, many Protestants have maintained relationships with the dead, a tendency that increased over time and culminated in what I call the antebellum cult of the dead.

JF: Why do we need to read Speaking with the Dead?

ES: Historians have long insisted – as in one recent account of the Reformation – that “Protestantism stripped religion of mediation and intimacy with the dead.” Speaking with the Dead offers countless examples from historical, literary, and material culture sources to demonstrate that such assertions must be revised.

To use categories formulated by the religious studies scholar Robert Orsi, historians have usually conceived of Protestantism as a religion of “absence,” in contrast to Catholicism, which is seen as a religion of the “presence” of supernatural beings other than God and Christ (saints, deceased loved ones, the Virgin Mary). In my account, Protestantism is very much a religion of presence.

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

ES: I went to college “in Boston” (as Harvard grads like to say, evasively). I was a History major but not at all on a path toward becoming a historian, until I started primary source research for my junior-year paper, sort of a mini-thesis. I started taking the T and the commuter rail to the Mass Archives at Columbia Point and the Essex County Courthouse in Salem. I couldn’t believe they handed over stacks of eighteenth-century wills and inventories and letters to an untested twenty-year-old. The next year I continued my research on the social history of the Great Awakening, expanded my geographic compass, and spent so much time in the archives that I got a D on my Icelandic Saga midterm. At that point I asked my Teaching Fellow, Mark Peterson, “How do I do what you do?”

JF: What is your next project?

ES: Continuing the Boston theme, I’ve just started a book I’m calling “The Pox of 1721: Boston’s Deadliest Epidemic.” It’s going to be a social history of the sort I started writing as an undergrad. This is the smallpox epidemic famous for the “inoculation controversy”: Cotton Mather and Zabdiel Boylston favored the new (or new to Euro-Americans) practice of inoculation, while William Douglass and others strongly opposed it. This controversy left an ample published record that has drawn lots of scholarly attention. But what about ordinary people? How did this epidemic play out among the unfree as well as the free, the poor as well as the well-to-do? We’ll see if I’m able to unearth enough sources to tell that story.

JF: Thanks, Eric!

Out of the Zoo: Time Travel

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about a recent George Will lecture on campus. –JF

Especially among my history major friends, time travel is a popular subject of conversation. Many of us raised on books like The Magic Treehouse, movies like Back to the Future or shows like Doctor Who, we can easily entertain ourselves by talking about what it might’ve been like to live in another time. While I have yet to meet a real-life Marty McFly who can actually travel back in time, my friends and I still have fun imagining what our lives might have have looked like if we lived 10, 100, or 1000 years ago.

This past Thursday Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will visited Messiah’s campus. After attending a dinner President Kim Phipps held in his honor that afternoon, I made my way down to the High Center where Mr. Will gave his lecture. After “depressing” us with dismal statistics about the nation’s growing debt, the faltering social security system, and the staggering price of modern medicine, George Will sought to end his lecture on a high note. In an attempt to lift our spirits, Will brought his own inquiry about time travel to the table. 

Will asked his South-Central Pennsylvania audience this question: If you could be as rich as John D. Rockefeller (the world’s first billionaire) was in 1916, but had to live in 1916, would you take the money or would you stay put on 21st century soil? He took a quick poll of his audience before launching into his argument.

Sure, Will said, if you had a billion dollars in 1916, you would be the richest man (or woman) in the world. Yet, even if you were the richest woman in the world in 1916, you still wouldn’t be able to vote in most states. Sure, you could live in a mansion and buy the most expensive watch on the market, but as Will emphasized, 1916’s most expensive watch wouldn’t keep time nearly as well as the cheap timepiece you can purchase from Walmart nowadays. If you filled the shoes of the world’s first billionaire you would surely be able to afford the best doctors 1916 had to offer, but there was still a one in 10 chance you would suffer from a perpetual toothache.

Progress. That’s what rested at the center of Will’s point. While the United States may have its flaws–flaws which Mr. Will was not ashamed to point out–advances in science, technology, and industry over the past century have greatly improved the American way of life. Essentially, Will argued Thursday that despite the problems our nation faces in the present, our lives are much better now than they would have been a hundred years ago. 

I agreed with Will’s argument in some respects. I can not deny that our nation has made steady, if not exponential progress in the areas of medicine and technology since 1916. And, as a white female, I know full well that the life I live now is much more comfortable than the one I would have lived a century ago. But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. It is our natural tendency to view the chronology of time as a journey from destitution to prosperity. When we look back on the past we like to see progress, and sometimes even go out of our way to find it and to blow it out of proportion. Full of prideful optimism, we like to point out the inefficiencies of the past rather than focusing on our flaws in the present. As historians, though, we need to keep our eyes on the past, the present, and the future. That’s when real progress is made.

The Author’s Corner with John Brooke

there is a northJohn Brooke is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History and Professor of Anthropology at Ohio State University. He is also Director of the Ohio State University Center for Historical Research. This interview is based on his new book, “There is a North”: Fugitive Slaves, Political Crisis, and Cultural Transformation in the Coming of the Civil War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write “There is a North”?

JB: I am thrilled that my book is out, and want to thank the University of Massachusetts Press for doing such a nice job with the production. I began thinking about this project in 2010 for two reasons: I wanted to write about how people experience “events,” and I wanted to address the central issue of the history of the republic. Here, I was dissatisfied with the dominant narrative, which focuses on why the South seceded. The new literature on the politics of slavery during the American Revolution and Early Republic makes it plain that the South would secede whenever the slaveholders faced a fundamental threat to “the institution.” 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of “There is a North”?

JB: The central question regards how and when the fundamental threat to slavery emerged. It is equally clear that, while the abolitionists worked long and hard, they had not before the 1850s convinced a strategic block Northern opinion to stand up against slavery.

JF: Why do we need to read “There is a North?

JB: Readers should consider “There is a North” because it describes this conversion between the fall of 1850 and the spring of 1856, focusing on the way in which the Fugitive Slave Law was turned into a cultural weapon against slavery through the efforts of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also the efforts of hundreds of other authors, musicians, and theatrical producers and performers. This process involved a fundamental though fleeting creolizing encounter of black and white American cultures, unfolding in a contested by real confluence of black and white interest against slavery and the Slave Power. By the time that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, this drawn out “media event” had reshaped public opinion. While both the political and cultural dimensions of this story have been the subject of important works, “There is a North” is the first to focus on both equally, and on their synergies.

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

JB: My interests in American and also world history have their origins in my childhood, and were nurtured at Cornell and then at Penn, where I became an early American historian, eminently advised by Michael Zuckerman and his many colleagues. “There is a North” is my fourth book on society and culture in the American North from the Age of Revolution to the Civil War.

JF: What is your next project?

JB: Teaching global environmental and climate history at Tufts and Ohio State led to my global book, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. The next several years will be devoted this project, producing a 2nd edition and a spin-off undergraduate text.

JF: Thanks, John!

Out of the Zoo: The 5 C’s of Christianity

Why Study History

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about the relationship between historical thinking and her understanding of the Christian faith. –JF

I was first introduced to the “five C’s of historical thinking” when I read Professor Fea’s book Why Study History? for an introductory history course last year. The five C’s—context, continuity and change, causality, contingency, and complexity—are tools historians use on a regular basis to gain a full and accurate understanding of the past. These skills continue to crop up in my history classes here at Messiah, whether I’m examining a primary source for Historical Methods or learning how to teach them in my future classrooms. Frankly, I’ve learned so much about the five C’s over the past several months that I could probably recite them in my sleep. Joking aside, over a year of working with these tools has shown me that the five C’s are not only vital for historical scholarship, but can give us a deeper understanding of the Christian faith.

The first C of historical thinking is context. I’m no religious scholar, but I do know that if you take scripture out of context, you can make it mean nearly anything you want it to mean. When someone pulls an individual verse from the Bible without considering the text around it or the historical situation from which it emerged, they can easily bend it out of shape. They impose their own views on scripture, rather than letting it take the form the author had originally intended. By considering the context of each verse, each passage, each book of the Bible, we learn to see the Word for what it really is, instead of what we want it to be. We see it as God’s overarching story, rather than a disjointed collection of anecdotes.

Continuity and change go hand-in-hand with context. Anyone who opens up the Bible can tell that the human race has changed in a lot of ways since the days of Moses or David, or even the days of the Apostle Paul. Even though as Christians we can have confidence that the message of the Gospel never changes, we cannot forget that the past is a foreign place where people do and see things differently. Yet in many ways, we are not far from our brothers and sisters who walked the earth two thousand or more years ago—we have the same sinful nature and the same fears, but many of us also have the same gift of hope in Jesus Christ.

Causality is the third of the five historical thinking skills. The scriptures remind us time and time again that our actions have consequences. Just as historians seek to discern causes, Christians have found that the never-ending cycle of sin causing death, and Jesus’s sacrifice causing redemption has defined and will define our human narrative until Christ’s second coming.

Professor Fea describes contingency as “the free will of humans to shape their own destinies.” (11) As a believer, I am convinced that the choice to follow Jesus is the most important, most influential decision someone could ever make in their life. It is certainly the one that has shaped my existence until this point, and will continue to do so for the rest of eternity.

The fifth C of historical thinking is complexity. Perhaps the coolest thing about the Christian faith is the complexity of the God we worship. I mean, how else would you describe an all-powerful being who decided to join his creation on earth by becoming a baby? How else could you possibly characterize the one who, through His own death, brought life everlasting for all of humankind? Just as historians struggle to untangle the complexities of the past, Christians must come to terms with the fact that they worship a complicated, awesome God who they will never completely understand.