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.

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Fox-Amato

exposing slaveryMatthew Fox-Amato is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Idaho. This interview is based on his new book, Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Exposing Slavery?

MFA: I was (and still am) interested in how social movements have used the power of culture to effect change. I also wanted to better understand the role that images of suffering have played in shaping modern experience and, more specifically, American politics. Initially, a project about abolitionist photography seemed the way to pursue these interests. I was aware of the many photos of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth as well as certain images that abolitionists circulated during the Civil War, such as the “Scourged Back” (1863), in which a fugitive slave poses with his flagellated back towards the camera. My plan was to examine how abolitionists drew upon this new visual technology to fight racism and expose the violence of bondage.

But the project changed as I began finding evidence in the slave South. I came across a few digitized photographs, commissioned by enslavers, of enslaved people in the 1850s. I found written sources suggesting enslaved people actively engaged the medium, as in, for instance, a newspaper article about African Americans purchasing photographs from an itinerant daguerreotypist in a small town in Alabama. These and other sources led me to revise how I was conceptualizing antebellum photography. The medium was more than simply a tool for abolitionists: it served as a cultural middle-ground, through which various historical actors–in both the North and South–made claims about themselves and the world. How, I now asked, did photography influence the culture and politics of slavery? And how was the medium shaped in the process? My book aims to answer these questions.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Exposing Slavery?

MFA: Photography exacerbated the political crisis over slavery. In turn, those most invested in the potential futures of slavery–enslavers, enslaved people, abolitionists, and Civil War soldiers–turned photography into a political tool.

JF: Why do we need to read Exposing Slavery?

MFA: It is abundantly clear that the digital world has reshaped the intertwined relationship between media and U.S. politics–whether one looks to changes in newspapers or the influence of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. To make sense of these changes, we need a more textured understanding of how media have shaped politics in the past. My point in Exposing Slavery is not that the emergence of photography simply helped promote freedom and equality and diminished anti-black racism. It is, instead, that photography catalyzed conflict, because actors from across the political spectrum seized on it for different political goals–much like we see with social media today.

I also want readers to come away with a new approach for conceptualizing historical actors. Exposing Slavery puts visual culture at the center of American history in a very specific way. Not only does it analyze images as evidence (rather than simply illustrations), but it also foregrounds how non-artists helped produce images and delves into the ways in which they circulated, displayed, and gazed upon those images. I show, for instance, how some enslaved people preserved photographic portraits of their loved ones, a practice that enabled them to maintain familial ties amidst the disruptions of the domestic slave trade. Likewise, I reveal how white Union soldiers helped craft interracial scenes during the Civil War. These images, which routinely pictured black men kneeling beneath and serving white soldiers, reinforced racial hierarchy as slavery crumbled. These and other instances demonstrate how non-artists shaped history through photography. We see the past anew once we begin to grapple with the many consequential ways that ordinary historical actors (not just trained artists) have used and made meaning from images.

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

MFA: I was riveted by my first serious work in an historical archive. When I was writing my undergraduate thesis about the Hollywood Production Code (film censorship enacted in the 1930s), I spent time at the Margaret Herrick Library in LA, poring over letters between Code executives and studio producers. I was captivated by the letters I read–documents full of conversation about what should be kept, altered, and cut in various film scripts. I felt like I had a front-row seat to the creation of popular culture, and was struck by the idea that my thesis would be dramatically shaped by the questions I asked about these sources. It was in this moment that I knew I wanted to study the past for a living.

JF: What is your next project?

MFA: I’m beginning a new book-length study about the historical relationship between visual journalism and the White House. The project examines how sketch artists and photojournalists have visualized the presidency, and how administrations began to create and disseminate their own news pictures. I’m fascinated by connections between visual media and the uneven development of democracy. This book explores one part of that larger story.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

The Author’s Corner with Carl Guarneri

Lincoln.jpgCarl Guarneri is Professor of History at Saint Mary’s College of California. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln’s Informer: Charles A. Dana and the Inside Story of the Union War (University Press of Kansas, 2019).

JF: Why did you decide to write Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: I hatched plans for Lincoln’s Informer many years ago when I learned that Charles Dana, whose experience at the Brook Farm commune I had covered in my first book, The Utopian Alternative (Cornell University Press, 1991), moved on to a fascinating—and virtually unstudied—Civil War career. My interest was piqued when I learned that Dana’s war memoirs, published in 1898, were actually ghostwritten by the muckraker Ida Tarbell and, I discovered, riddled with mistakes. I took the absence of a trove of personal Dana papers as a research dare, along with the several thousand wartime telegrams sent by him that are recorded on microfilms at the National Archives. Although the Civil War had not previously been my scholarly focus, I had been teaching it for three decades, which stimulated my desire to do some original scholarship in the field. Several other book projects clamored for my attention first. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the long delay because it enabled me, once I returned to the Dana project, to benefit from so much fine Civil War scholarship that appeared in the intervening years.

As an Assistant Secretary lodged in Washington’s corridors of power and a special agent sent by Lincoln and Stanton to the front to file confidential reports, Dana, I sensed, was a wonderful source for telling the inside story of the Union war. My friends kept pointing out that he bore a resemblance to a fictional character (like Forrest Gump) who just happened to be present in the middle of a series of momentous historical events. But Dana was real, and he did more than observe history; he made it. His reports helped to make Union generals like Grant and break others, such as McClernand and Rosecrans. Meanwhile, at Washington he supervised Union spies, lobbied legislators for Lincoln, and helped police the contentious Union home front. My research brings out Dana’s important behind-the-scenes role, while the book’s sideways approach allows me to take the measure of Union leaders like Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant without adding to the leaning-tower pile of their published biographies.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: This is not primarily a thesis-driven book but a dramatic and (I hope) colorful narrative that clarifies along the way many controversies about Civil War battles, generals, and events, and offers a fresh look at Lincoln, Stanton, Grant, and Union leaders. Its cumulative effect is to highlight Dana’s substantial contributions to Union victory, and, more generally, the indispensable role that people most readers have never heard of–special agents and bureau chiefs in the War Department–played in organizing and sustaining the Union’s massive war effort.

JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: Scholars and history buffs who can’t get enough of the Civil War will, I trust, not require strenuous convincing! For them, and for students and other readers, Lincoln’s Informer addresses important and perennially fascinating Civil War questions (Why did northerners reject secession? Who freed the slaves, and why? How did Lincoln finally find the right generals? Did the President’s use of patronage help or hinder the war effort? Was there a Confederate conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln?), but it does so from a fresh angle by excavating the actions and views of a little-known confidant of Union war leaders, an administration insider with surprising influence. The book’s narrative suggests some “revisionist” answers to these questions. Equally important in my view, as Lincoln’s Informer tells its story in detail it gives a feel for the way the Civil War’s momentous events unfolded day-by-day in the eyes of key participants.

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

CG: In retrospect, our autobiographical paths always seem clearer, even predestined. As a curious kid in a home-bound, working-class Italian-American family, I found escape in the vicarious travel of poring over maps and collecting stamps, and in the backward time-travel of historical fiction. I had the benefit of encountering inspiring history teachers in high school and college, too. But the truth is that I studied economics and art history as an undergraduate, and only in approaching graduate studies did I turn—or return—to history. It was a professor of French history who urged me to focus on the United States—which I had not studied in college—and to examine its transatlantic and global connections. It turned out that studying US history this way satisfied my curiosity about other times and places while also illuminating our own. Since then I have veered between “ballooning”—assessing the US in global perspective—and “burrowing”—digging deeply into specific events and primary sources, rejoicing that practicing history allows me to do both.

JF: What is your next project?

CG: Deconstructing Charles Dana’s ersatz memoirs has whetted my appetite for exploring issues raised by Civil War memoirs as problematic historical sources, which can be mined—always with caution— for information about wartime events, but can also be examined as explorations in the workings of memory, as survivors’ attempts to fix historical legacies, and as interventions in ongoing military and political controversies. I’m hoping to pursue this further. Meanwhile, in keeping with my interest in transatlantic history, I am preparing an edition of Dana’s newspaper reportage of the 1848 Revolutions in Europe.

JF: Thanks, Carl!

Out of the Zoo: Wins and Losses

IMG_20191020_185428_01Annie 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 what it means to “win” as a historian. –JF

Messiah College had its homecoming last week. Various decorations made their yearly appearance on campus, sprucing up Messiah’s grounds for visitors. Banners reading “Messiah College Homecoming,” numerous flyers, and bouquets of blue and white balloons were strategically placed around the college to announce homecoming festivities. My school, normally relatively quiet on weekends, buzzed with alumni and their families who bounced between class reunions, open houses, and athletic events. 

Homecoming weekend also brought Messiah’s annual powderpuff tournament. This year, my team of sophomores (affectionately named “Green Machine” for our green shirts) had bi-weekly practices leading up to our yearly match. Our coaches wrote out numerous plays for us to learn, patiently explained them, and even let us come up with a creative name for each after they introduced it to us. They assigned positions, ran drills, and even sent us photos of our plays to study over fall break.

When game day came around, we were confident. Our coaches had done everything they could to prepare us for our row with the class of 2021. However, after a hard-fought bout with the juniors we pulled up short, losing 12-20. The whole team was pretty disappointed, and to be completely honest I was too. I’m not usually a competitive person, but I’ll admit that losing a game we had worked so hard for struck a painful chord. We were humbled, to say the least. However, the fun we had, the new things we learned, and the friendships we forged throughout the process afforded us a different sense of victory.

So what qualifies as a “win” for history students? Some might think that to be a successful historian you need to make some groundbreaking discovery or tie up all your research into a perfect conclusion. As a history student myself, however, I’m learning that this kind of victory is virtually impossible, even for the best scholars. Just like football, the study of history is defined by struggle. It’s characterized by setbacks and unexpected challenges that have to be met in stride. Sometimes we’re faced with complex or conflicting sources that we don’t understand. Or other times archives crumble (like the one in Cologne in 2009), burying thousands of documents in rubble. Still more frequently our own convictions and biases block us from our end goal of portraying the past honestly and objectively. No matter how much time we devote to a project, there will always be loose ends, lost sources, and unexplored paths that we never get to travel.

Challenges, struggles, and losses never fail to humble us, whether we’re playing football or doing historical research. No matter how hard we work at practice, there will always be something we could have done differently in the game. No matter how much effort we put into our research, there will always be something we don’t quite understand fully. If history students aren’t reminded of this truth—that although the study of history is rewarding, it comes with its own unique set of challenges—they will spend their days agonizing over a goal that is impossible to attain. 

So, as cliche as it may sound, perhaps we need to re-define what victory means in the realm of history. It shouldn’t mean scoring the most points in a trivia game, being able to find the most sources, or even conducting the most comprehensive study of the past. Instead, real victory is attained when we show up, put in the effort, and wrestle with the struggles that come our way. We win when we can pursue our passions in spite of challenges, and all the while humbly accept the fact that there are some things we will never know.

Out of the Zoo: “We’re a union just by saying so!”

Newsies

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 one of her favorite movies. –JF

Newsies might just be one of my all-time favorite movies. Starring a young Christian Bale as the fictional main character Jack Kelly, the nearly three-decade old film offers a musical retelling of the Newsboys’ strike of 1899. The said strike, which took place on the streets of New York City in protest of high newspaper prices, ended after two weeks when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsies at the end of each day. 

The movie, interwoven with a beautiful Alan Menken score and lively dance breaks, throws around a lot of terms like “union,” “demands,” and “scabs,” each of which could easily be heard inside a U.S. history classroom. However, as much as I love Newsies, I must admit that the film fails to explain these terms with any complexity; it does not place them in their broader historical context either. As a musical theatre geek in high school I found it easy to cheer when Jack Kelly and his chorus of newsboys triumphantly sang, “We’re a union just by saying so!” But as a student I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about what a union was, much less how or why it was formed.

Although Newsies might be entertaining, it remains a shadowy fictional representation of the issues that shaped the reality of the Gilded Age. There are far better ways for students to comprehend the complexities of labor disputes than watching Christian Bale dance across a television screen (sorry Disney). Mr. Anderson, one of the United States history teachers at Northern High School, showed me one such way last week when I got to sit in on his class for my Sophomore field observation. Anderson led his class through an exercise that not only helped his students gain a better understanding of unions, but also allowed them to relate the past to their lives in the present. 

Instead of lecturing for days about organized labor, Mr. Anderson provided the necessary historical context–fleshing out the themes and complexities that defined the Gilded Age–and let his students do the rest of the work. He briefly taught about the two prominent Gilded Age unions, but then let students form a union of their own, dubbed “The United Students of NHS.” First, students broke into small groups and listed all their grievances–issues ranged from passing time between classes to club funding. After narrowing down their complaints, the entire class circled up to decide which eight requests they would draw up and deliver to the school’s administration. 

While he raised his voice occasionally to direct attention to the task at hand, Mr. Anderson let his students take the lead in the entire process. When the whole class collaborated on the final eight grievances, students spoke up from around the circle suggesting a procedure or speaking out in defense of one of their demands. While his students engaged in discussion, Mr. Anderson told me that he thinks that students shouldn’t have everything planned out for them. Instead, educators should leave room for learners to experiment, take charge, and figure things out on their own–always taking time to reflect afterwards about what went well and what could have gone better.

I couldn’t have agreed with Mr. Anderson more. His students were passionate and eager to apply what they learned about unions and the Gilded Age to their everyday lives. They learned to cooperate with each other, compromise when necessary, and innovated if their process became inefficient. And all the while they gained an increasingly thorough and nuanced understanding of the past. It is this kind of history classroom, one where students are invested, engaged, and challenged, that I want to emulate someday.

The Author’s Corner with Niels Eichhorn

liberty and slaveryNiels Eichhorn is Assistant Professor of History at Middle Georgia State University. This interview is based on his new book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Liberty and Slavery?

NE: The project started in my freshman year in college when I took a Civil War history class (senior-level class), where I became interested in German-U.S. relations. I was especially curious about Rudolph Schleiden, Bremen’s diplomatic representative in the United States. Schleiden, a former 1848 revolutionary, who had tried in April 1861 with a visit to Alexander Stephens in Richmond to stop the war, seemed to have a unique story to tell. I wanted to know more about him. As I continued in graduate school, I expanded to include other Schleswig-Holstein revolutionaries of 1848 and how they translated their experiences from Europe to the United States. Aware that this was still a narrow subject matter, I went even larger and decided to also include Irish, Polish, and Hungarians, who shared a similar set of arguments about political and national oppression with the U.S. South. All four of these migrant groups had important leaders involved politically or militarily in the U.S. Civil War. Born was Liberty and Slavery, European revolutionaries facing southern secession.

JF: In three sentences, what is the argument of Liberty and Slavery?

NE: Liberty and Slavery illustrates that separatism was a universal experience across the Atlantic World during the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the various movements intellectually and personally influenced each other. European separatists who had feared political or national enslavement in Europe frequently looked to a southern minority forcing its will on, enslaving, the United States, whereas the vast majority of European migrants supported the Union against an aristocratic-looking minority intend on destroying or at least dominating the United States, eliminating the beacon many European separatists had looked to for help and inspiration during their own rebellions. Their European background and interpretation of the sectional struggle influenced their decision to side with Union or Confederacy.

JF: Why do we need to read Liberty and Slavery?

NE: Because it is a really important book … humor aside, Liberty and Slavery illustrates that residence alone did not determine allegiance. Only because Hungarians resided in the North did not mean they automatically sympathized with the United States. The book aims to illustrate the complexities of the ideological baggage migrants brought with them to the United States, especially revolutionaries, and their difficulty of translating their arguments and experiences into the United States. Furthermore, while the Irish are a relatively well-known group fighting in the Civil War, the Hungarians and Polish are much less familiar. The book has a heavy dose of European history in the first two chapters because scholarship of 1848 revolutionaries in the United States often overlooks the background these revolutionary migrants bring with them, their language and experiences, creating the perception that they are Union-loving, liberty-embracing anti-slavery advocates when they get off the boat. It was not that simple. Liberty and Slavery illustrates the complexities of nationalism and the construction of identity, especially when in a foreign country.

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

NE: Well, there are some out there who have openly wondered if I am actually a U.S. historian, I do think so, even if my approach is rather unique. The first spark came when my VHS recorder gave out on the last hour of Gettysburg–I had school the next day and could not stay up until midnight. It was incredibly tough finding any literature about the U.S. Civil War in German bookstores. That is where I started to read about U.S. history, mostly books brought home from vacations in the United States. The decision to pursue history professionally, came in my freshmen history class when I realized that German-U.S. relations had no literature. Thus I went from military history-interested to diplomatic history to transnational history.

JF: What is your next project?

NE: The difficulty here is that Liberty and Slavery has two concurrent projects. While working on this book, I have also been working with my friend and colleague Duncan Campbell at National University in San Diego on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism, the first-ever study placing the Civil War in a global context. I also have forthcoming later this year The Atlantic World in the Nineteenth Century (Palgrave), which takes a broad look at the Atlantic region and how people, ideas, commodities, and money continued to crisscross the Atlantic during the nineteenth century and how that helped to create a coherent and vibrant Atlantic community. These three were concurrent projects. About two months ago, I asked myself the same question you asked, what next. I am/was torn between two projects that really interest me going forward: a nineteenth-century history of the South to illustrate continuities within the region or my long thought about work on Civil War diplomacy. I have opted for the latter for the moment since I have most of the research in hand, but as I am going through the thousands of microfilm scans and archival-material photographs, I am not sure where this project will lead yet.

JF: Thanks, Niels!

The Author’s Corner with T.H. Breen

the will of the peopleT.H. Breen is William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University. This interview is based on his new book, The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America (Belknap Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Will of the People?

THB: Unlike the histories of other revolutions—the French and Russian, for example—in which ordinary people figure centrally in the story, accounts of the American Revolution have focused on a few celebrated leaders or on the battlefield. I wanted to restore the missing piece to our understanding of the nation’s origins, people in small communities who experienced fear, called for revolutionary justice, complained about the betrayal of the cause by other Americans, sacrificed a lot to sustain the fight for independence, contemplated revenge at the end of the war and yet through it all managed to sustain a compelling vision of a new republic. Without them, we would not have achieved independence.

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

THB: The American people did not initially set out to achieve independence or to organize a genuine revolution. But the actual experience of so many new men coming to power in small communities—of making judgments on revolutionary committees about their neighbors—transformed a colonial rebellion into a genuine revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read The Will of the People?

THB: Unlike other studies that depict the Revolution largely as an intellectual event or as the achievement of a small group of Founding Fathers, The Will of the People shows how ordinary people sustained resistance to Great Britain for eight years and in the process brought forth a new political culture that endures to this day.

JF: Tell me a little about your research and sources for this book.

THB: The book draws on contemporary newspaper accounts, town records, and personal papers to reconstruct how Americans gave meaning to the revolutionary experience.

JF: What is your next project?

THB: My next book will be entitled The Man Who Saved the American Revolution. It is a study of a remarkable early 19th-century printer Peter Force, who collected thousands of revolutionary documents that were at risk of being destroyed.

JF: Thanks, Prof. Breen!

Out of the Zoo: Hindsight is 20/20

election_2016-1

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 reminds us that history “finds character in its unpredictability.” –JF

Though three years have passed since I sat inside my 11th grade world history classroom, I can still picture it vividly. Our tables were arranged in a horseshoe shape which opened up to face our teacher’s desk, a large whiteboard, and a projector screen that extended from the ceiling. Another table in the front of the room displayed a few miscellaneous figurines including one mangled statue of Santa Claus donning Michigan State gear. 

Our A.P. World History instructor, Mr. Minehart, used a variety of tactics to foster our understanding of course content–many of which involved food. After learning about Hinduism and Buddhism at the beginning of the year we took a trip to a local Hindu temple, stopping at a buffet for Indian cuisine before heading back to the high school. Months later we held a Cold War cocktail party, mingling with other students posing as world leaders while sipping on glasses of punch and eating snacks.

There’s another day of class in particular that I can picture clearly–November 8, 2016. It was the day of the long-awaited Presidential election between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, and the whole country seemed to be holding its breath. When election day finally came around, Mr. Minehart, out of his own curiosity, asked if any of us thought Donald Trump would win the presidency. In a class of nearly 30 students, only two raised their hands. Needless to say, most of us were in for a surprise.

History, though so often defined by a search for patterns, finds character in its unpredictability. The ugliness of the 2016 election was nothing new–American politicians have spewed insults at each other in the press since the founding era. Yet President Trump being elected was something very few of us (at least very few of us high school students) could predict. 

If I’ve learned anything from studying history, it’s been that things never happen the same way twice. It proves true that we humans have been known to make the same mistakes time and time again, but every year, every day, every hour even something else happens that no one saw coming. I doubt Jackie Robinson knew when he was nine years old that he would be chosen to break baseball’s rigid color barrier; likewise I’m confident Barack Obama had no idea as a child he would be the United States’ first African American president. Surely British colonists in the early 18th century would not have been able to predict that in 100 years they would be calling themselves Americans.

When we study historical figures, we must always keep in mind the fact that our past is their present. Sure, we can look back and see the way events unfolded, make claims about causes and point out warning signs, but we must remember that we see their lives from an entirely different perspective.  Just because we, as historians, can look back and learn about how people’s lives turn out doesn’t mean they were afforded any such privilege. For in truth none of us can be sure about what the next year, the next month, or even the next day will bring. We can take some educated guesses, but in reality we don’t know with any kind of certainty what the future has in store. Yet in 100 years historians will look back on our lives and see many things we couldn’t see at the time. We must remember that when we study the past, though we may have a widened scope, we must never forget about the uncertainty that defines the present.

Out of the Zoo: “American Gospel”

American GospelAnnie 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 her viewing of a the documentary American Gospel.  –JF

I spent a portion of my Saturday last week watching American Gospel: In Christ Alone in the lounge juxtaposed between Miller, Grantham, and Hess residences. The said lounge is affectionately named “the fishbowl” by Messiah students because of its’ floor-to-ceiling windows. I heard about American Gospel over the summer when my old youth pastor Kenneth Price  shared his admiration of it on Facebook (read more about Kenneth’s impact on my life in one of my previous blog posts). I had been meaning to watch the documentary since then, so when one of my house-mates told me she was planning to watch it one afternoon, I opted to join her.

I could go on and on about all the points American Gospel argues, but I’ll let you watch the two and a half hour documentary on your own time. As for me though, I’m glad I remembered to bring my journal because I ended up with four and a half pages of notes. The film primarily takes a shot at the American prosperity gospel–a movement with figureheads like Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn and Todd White who espouse the false doctrine that faith in Jesus will always result in an easy life full of blessings and miraculous healing. It calls such doctrine dangerous and false. If you don’t agree, please take it up with Ray Comfort or Matt Chandler or one of the documentary’s many contributors, not with me.

American Gospel emphasizes the reality that when we come to faith, while we may get to witness miraculous healing or experience prosperity, what we are really called to do is to suffer, endure trials, die to ourselves, and to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

American Gospel also got me thinking about my future as a history teacher. Christians who expect following Jesus will be easy are like educators who believe their students will never talk back or forget a homework assignment. If teachers decided to start teaching because they thought it would be a painless or affluent undertaking they would have abandoned their posts long ago. Proponents of prosperity gospel are like historians who think they will always be able to construct a perfect, concise narrative every time, confidently tying up every loose end in a neat bow. Instead, the reality is that historians are to dive deep into the messiness of the past and meet challenges as they come–and they will come.

Some people believe that the right path to take is the easiest one, or the one that will fetch the most earthly wealth or happiness. They think one’s choices should be contingent on their own wants and desires. If I thought like this I wouldn’t have gone to college for a history degree, and I certainly wouldn’t be working towards a career in education. If David wanted to take the easy route he would have never faced Goliath. If the Apostle Paul shared this view his name would probably still be Saul. If Jesus decided to live an easy life he certainly wouldn’t have sacrificed himself for us on the cross. So instead of taking the easy way out, we are called to follow Christ’s example, keeping our eyes on him through every tragedy and every triumph.

The Author’s Corner with Carlton Larson

The Trials of AllegianceCarlton Larson is Professor of Law at University of California Davis School of Law. This interview is based on his new book, The Trials of Allegiance: Trials, Juries, and the American Revolution(Oxford University Press, 2019)

JF: What led you to write The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The book’s origins date to the spring of 1996, when I was trying to develop a topic for my college senior thesis. I became fascinated by the “forgotten founder” James Wilson, one of America’s most eminent lawyers and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. I discovered that Wilson had defended men accused of treason against the state of Pennsylvania during the American Revolution, and this immediately sparked my interest – how did Americans come to prosecute other Americans for treason when the American Revolution was itself an act of treason against Great Britain? I thoroughly enjoyed writing the thesis, and I returned to the subject of treason several times as a law professor, now armed with a stronger understanding of law and the legal system. I began developing the material into a book in 2010. Now, twenty-three years after I began, the book is finally out.

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

CL: The law of treason was central to the American Revolution, encompassing a host of issues from debates over the legitimacy of resistance activities to the treatment of Loyalists. Although a variety of institutions addressed potential disloyalty, ranging from the military to committees of safety, juries proved surprisingly lenient of accused traitors, reflecting a deep-seated belief that the death penalty was an inappropriate punishment for treason.

JF: Why do we need to read The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The book emphasizes several aspects of the American Revolution that have often been overlooked.

First, the American Revolution was a violent, bloody civil war that pitted neighbors against neighbors and fathers against sons. Everyone was potentially a traitor, either to Great Britain or to the United States. The leaders of the Revolution were deeply concerned that internal enemies, loyal to Great Britain, were lurking in the background, waiting for just the right moment to strike. Inevitably, the desire to take pre-emptive action against these perceived enemies clashed with traditional notions of Anglo-American liberty. This book shows how the founding generation addressed the competing goals of liberty and national security during a time of national crisis and significant internal division.

Second, colonial Americans began accusing other Americans of “treason against America” long before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Indeed, in trials before committees of safety in 1775 and early 1776, persons were convicted of this offense and sentenced to imprisonment. These trials demonstrated the functional establishment of American sovereignty and independence and the development of an American national identity well before the formal assertion of independence.

Third, one would not expect that persons accused of loyalty to Great Britain would fare particularly well before American juries during the Revolution. But grand juries repeatedly refused to indict persons accused of treason; trial juries refused to convict; and, in the few cases in which they convicted, trial jurors sought clemency for the defendant. In so doing, the jurors consistently treated treason differently than other capital crimes. Persons accused of treason were not incorrigible criminals, but friends and neighbors who had chosen the opposite side in a political dispute and thus were capable of reformation and assimilation back into the community. Eventually, even people who had fled to Great Britain were welcomed back; only Benedict Arnold, the arch-traitor, remained beyond possibility of redemption.

Finally, there has been very little written about how criminal juries actually operated in revolutionary America. This book provides a careful look at what were perhaps the most important jury trials of the Revolution, where ordinary men would sit in judgment of the allegiance of their peers. The book explores who served on juries, and how defense counsel shaped the jury through the creative employment of peremptory challenges on the lines of religion, age, wealth, ethnicity, and militia service.

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

CL: When I was six years old, my family spent a summer in Massachusetts and we visited many historic sites associated with the American Revolution. I have been fascinated by American history ever since. I majored in American history in college, and, although I do not have a Ph.D. in history, I have continued to write and teach about legal history as a professor at the UC Davis School of Law.

JF: What is your next project?

CL: My next project is a trade book with Ecco Press, tentatively titled Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law. This book carries the story of treason forward from where The Trials of Allegiance leaves off. Look for it in 2020!

JF: Thanks, Carlton!

Out of the Zoo: “A Perfect Fit”

Kalamazoo to mechan

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 for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about matters familiar to the readers of this blog. 🙂  –JF

I spent the first 18 years of my life in the same small town near Kalamazoo, Michigan. For 18 years I lived in the same old white farmhouse, climbing the same trees and sledding down the same steep hill in my backyard. For thirteen years I went to the same school district, graduating with many of the kids that were in my kindergarten class. My family switched churches a few times while I was growing up, but I was always surrounded by the same community of believers that helped raise, support and mentor my triplet siblings and I from the day we were born to the day we moved off to college. “It takes a village,” my Mom would always say. 

You can probably imagine that leaving my “village” and moving nine hours away to Messiah wasn’t easy. During my first few months at school I constantly caught myself thinking about home, sometimes to the point that it was hard to focus on schoolwork. As time passed it got easier, and I got used to life away from my family and friends back in Michigan. I learned to talk  about my feelings instead of bottling them up inside, and more importantly to trust the Lord when I was struggling. Even so, homesickness remained a familiar affliction for quite some time.

Homesickness was also a familiar feeling for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth century protagonist of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. This past week my “Age of Hamilton” class read Professor Fea’s essay that inspired the book. We read about Fithian’s life–his upbringing in rural New Jersey, the education he received at Princeton and his experience tutoring in Virginia, as well as his return to Cohansey. In class we compared his coming-of-age story with Alexander Hamilton’s, and discussed their shared desire to rise up and better themselves. However we also learned that Fithian, unlike Hamilton, was constantly burdened by homesickness–whether he was studying at Princeton, tutoring in Virginia, or performing duties elsewhere. While I am not a student at Princeton, nor do I live in the 1700s, I did find Fithian’s story to be strikingly similar to my own.

As historians, our task is to step into the shoes of the people we study–to empathize with their struggles and see the world through their eyes. Sometimes this proves a more difficult task than we expect. We get discouraged and find ourselves, like Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters, trying to jam our toes into glass slippers that are far too small. Or perhaps more frequently the shoes fit, but we find them uncomfortable or unfashionable and toss them aside.

Other times though, the historical narrative makes this an easy task. Instead of laboriously trying to squeeze our feet into a pair of slippers, we find they’re a perfect fit. When I read Professor Fea’s essay on Fithian, I felt like I could have been reading an excerpt from my own biography.  I read about how Fithian missed “hearing good Mr. Hunter preach,” (478) and was reminded of how hard it was for me to be away from home last Easter. Fithian wrote about missing Elizabeth Beatty and I thought about my own long distance relationship that began a few months after moving to school. Fithian would set aside his studies to look out the window towards home, just like I would swipe through old pictures from Michigan when I felt homesick. When I read about Fithian, I knew exactly what he was going through. I found it easier to step into his shoes not because I’m academically skilled or an expert historian, but because I’ve worn them myself.

Out of the Zoo: When Historians Ask “Why”

 

march for our lives

Some friends and I participated in a “March for our lives” in Kalamazoo back in March 2018.

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 for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about her gun violence and her current research paper.  –JF

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I prefer not to think about my middle school years. I had braces, acne, and wore virtually the same outfit every day of the week. A self-proclaimed tomboy with a secret girly side, a goody-two-shoes who still wanted to be seen as “cool,” I still had a lot of things to figure out. I guess there were some good things that happened to me in middle school too– I got to learn history from Mr. Bussies, one of my favorite teachers of all time, and started what would become a six year track and field career. But all this being said, there’s no denying that middle school was a dark time.

At any rate, my middle school years were also dark for another, more serious reason. I was in seventh grade when a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut sent the nation reeling. I had always been pretty aware of current events growing up–I would hear about major hurricanes and earthquakes as they occurred, and I even knew about the movie theater shooting that took place in Colorado earlier that year–but I had never heard about anything like this. I remember my family turning on the news to find it plastered with reports of twenty-seven lives lost, flashing images of an elementary school surrounded by flashing police lights and a maze of crime scene tape. The next day in my current events class we learned more about the tragedy and discussed it together. All I remember thinking was why? Why would someone kill so many innocent people? Why could something like this happen? Why an elementary school of all places? 

Fast forward half a century into 2018. Yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, shocked and outraged students, teachers, and lawmakers around the country. Students organized walk outs and marches and cried out for reform. Even then, six years later, we still asked why. Why would someone do this? Why did it happen again? Why are we still fighting this battle?

As it turns out, we’ve been fighting this battle for much longer than I originally thought. I came across the topic of school violence yet again when mulling over potential subjects for my Historical Methods (HIST 258) research paper this semester. After nixing a few ideas for the essay, I thought it might be beneficial for me, a future teacher, to research something related to education. After a few minutes of brainstorming and Google searching, I discovered that one of the first major incidents of school violence not only took place in Michigan, my home state, but it occurred nearly a century ago, in 1927. This tragedy, a bombing at Bath Consolidated School, claimed 44 lives–as much as Sandy Hook and Parkland combined.

I’ve only just begun researching the Bath tragedy. Even so I find myself asking the same question I did back in 2018 and 2012: Why? However as I continue to study the tragedy, and as I learn more about the discipline of history, I am reminded there is rarely a simple answer to such a question. There is rarely a simple answer to any historical question for that matter. People don’t often fit into the neat little boxes we try to cram them into–even mass murderers, especially mass murderers, are far more complex than that. We try to decipher causes, try to put ourselves in century-old shoes, but our undertaking always turns out to be more ambitious than we planned. That’s why studying history is so hard sometimes. When we ask why, we tend to want a simple, neat answer that we can easily turn into some groundbreaking discovery or concise thesis statement. But what we have to learn to accept is the fact that the past is messy. People are messy. So it is up to us to decide whether or not we want to dive right into the mess.

The Author’s Corner with Sarah Pearsall

Polygamy An Early American HistorySarah Pearsall is University Senior Lecturer in the History of Early America and the Atlantic World at the University of Cambridge. This interview is based on her new book, Polygamy: An Early American History (Yale University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Polygamy?

SP: When I started working on this project, fierce debates over same-sex marriage erupted at the center of U.S. politics, and marriage controversies also kept emerging in my research and teaching. In the course of research on my first book about Anglo-Atlantic families, I started to notice a negative version of the ideal marriage: the harem, supposedly ruled only by lust, greed, and fear, never true love. In an undergraduate course I was teaching on early American travel narratives, depictions of polygamy appeared over and over again. Why were people so fascinated—and sometimes so horrified— by other people marrying in what they felt was the wrong way? What did differences over marriage highlight about society and politics? Polygamy seemed a good way to open up these vexing issues. Yet I could find few books about it, and none focused on colonial America. With a few notable exceptions, most studies of early American colonialism treated disputes over polygamy as something like mere local color in the background of a borderlands drama. Yet sometimes different ideas about households were not the backdrop; they were the drama. I wanted to know more about this drama, and the women and men who shaped it.

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

SP: Most Americans, even (early) American historians, presume the history of polygamy in North America only really began with Western controversies surrounding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in the nineteenth century. In fact, I argue that what happened to the Mormons was near the end, a decisive battle in a long-standing war for monogamy which reveals a great deal about women, men, households, and power in early modern encounters.

JF: Why do we need to read Polygamy?

SP: This book places women and men, and their intimate, sometimes physical, relations, at the center of an analysis of colonialism and nationhood. This somewhat unusual perspective yields some compelling surprises and fascinating stories. Many of the major actors in this narrative were Native American or African American. I hope that the book prompts readers to question their own assumptions about this allegedly “backwards” form of marriage. Even more significant, though, is that readers take away that centering marriage changes how we think about major events and processes, including the Pueblo Revolt (which I first discussed in an article in the American Historical Review), King Philip’s War, and even the American Revolution. The book ranges widely but deeply across many times and places, so even specialists should learn something new. Finally, one friend jokingly suggested that displaying a copy would make the reader look hip and attractive, but I could not possibly comment on that.

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

SP: Strangely, I became an American historian when I left the United States and went to study in England. I came to Cambridge University as a master’s student to study British history. While there, I increasingly felt the pull of early American history. An exceptional high school teacher, Melinda Hennessey, as well as many amazing teachers at Yale had already ignited my passion for history. I was fortunate to be able to return to the U.S. to do my PhD in early American history at Harvard with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, with a strong interest in British and Atlantic history. My first book reflects those joint interests. In the end, I fell in love with early American history because it is at once familiar and alien. It also involves so many rich and dynamic encounters between different people; for better or worse, these contacts continue to shape our world. I hope my new book gives a flavor of them.

JF: What is your next project?

SP: I have enjoyed working on this topic so much that I am now writing a global history of polygamy with a long temporal span. I also have a project on the American Revolution in the works, as well as one on slavery and marriage.

Out of the Zoo: “The Age of Hamilton”

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English major Rachel Hungerford, theater major Brooklyn Duttweiler, and history major Chloe Kauffman strike a signature Schuyler sisters pose before “Age of Hamilton” on Monday.

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 for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about her “Age of Hamilton” class at Messiah College. 🙂  –JF

I remember the first time I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack in the fall of 2015. It was my sophomore year, and I was deep in the throes of my musical theater phase. During this unique period of my life I exclusively listened to show tunes, spent all my money on seeing musicals, and obsessed over all things Broadway. Into this era of my life entered Hamilton.

If I remember correctly, I first discovered Hamilton on Instagram when a promotional video for the show popped up on my explore page. After watching Lin Manuel Miranda and his cast of diverse founding fathers hip-hop dance across my phone screen I turned to my mom and told her excitedly, “I think there’s a new musical about Alexander Hamilton!”

I spent the entirety of the next day listening to the soundtrack non-stop. Soon enough I knew all the words by heart, and couldn’t resist bursting into song whenever someone mentioned the show or said anything that remotely reminded me of it. A year later, I even got the chance to see the musical in Chicago, the day after Donald Trump claimed the presidency (my sister wrote a reflection on our experience here). With the passage of time, though, the Hamilton lyrics I memorized gradually faded back into the recesses of my mind–that is, until I registered for Professor Fea’s “Age of Hamilton” course.

As I entered Frey 241 last Wednesday, I soon realized that “Age of Hamilton” might be the most diverse upper level history course I’ll ever take at Messiah. Usually, non-history majors and minors steer clear of challenging history classes, but this course proves an exception. While a little over half half of those I observed in class on the first day were history majors, seats were filled by students from across the academic spectrum–some were theater majors, others study English or Biblical and Religious Studies, still another is pursuing a future in athletic training. Thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, now everyone loves Alexander Hamilton–not just the history majors. I anticipate that our class discussions will be deeply enriched by the variety of perspectives students bring to the table.

The second day of class we discussed Hamilton as a form of “people’s history.” As a preview to his lecture Professor Fea showed us a YouTube clip from the 2009 White House poetry jam, during which Lin Manuel-Miranda performed an early version of Hamilton‘s opening number. My friend Rachel and I smiled sheepishly at each other when we heard Miranda’s unique voice ring through the speakers. Immediately several students began to mouth the lyrics to each other, and soon enough the entire classroom burst into song.

It still baffles me that students from across disciplines will gather every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to learn about the United States’ first secretary of the treasury. Who knew that, because of a musical of all things, so many people would be able to rap about Hamilton’s immigration from the West Indies to New York. Soon enough though, our class will be able to do so much more than spout off song lyrics about Alexander Hamilton. Instead, we will gain a deep and thorough understanding of who he really was. While we will certainly continue to discuss the Hamil-mania that has swept the nation, we won’t be satisfied by a staged portrayal of his existence. Rather, we will read Hamilton’s words, discuss them, and wrestle with the complexities that defined his life. This class will surely broaden all of our horizons.