The Author’s Corner with Alexander Ames

Ames-CoverAlexander Ames is Collections Engagement Manager at The Rosenbach, a historic house museum and special collections library affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia. This interview is based on his new book, The Word in the Wilderness: Popular Piety and the Manuscript Arts in Early Pennsylvania (Penn State University Press, 2020). Learn more about The Word in the Wilderness, and listen to Cloister Talk: The Pennsylvania German Material Texts Podcast, at https://www.wordinwilderness.com/.

JF: What led you to write The Word in the Wilderness?

AA: The Word in the Wilderness began with the first substantial research paper I wrote after matriculating in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware and Winterthur Museum in 2012. Shortly after arriving at Winterthur, I became fascinated by the various German-language illuminated devotional manuscripts with Pennsylvania provenance that dotted the walls and lined the hallways of the museum. While I soon learned that the documents, commonly called “Fraktur” in Pennsylvania, were well-loved and much-studied as a form of early-American folk art, I never felt quite satisfied with common explanations as to why early German-speakers in Pennsylvania engaged in the manuscript arts. Why deploy Frakturschrift calligraphy as a spiritual enterprise? What texts did scribes write on the artworks, and why? How were the documents actually used by readers? These questions gnawed at me. So, quite naturally, the project grew from a term paper into a master’s thesis, and then into a doctoral dissertation, carrying me from the archives of rural Pennsylvania to Switzerland, Germany, New England, and many other stops along the way.

The project soon focused on two closely-aligned tasks: situating Pennsylvania German devotional manuscripts within broader eighteenth-century German Pietist religious culture, and contextualizing the documents within the general manuscript-making practices of the period. Since beginning my career in special collections libraries, I have made good use of the opportunity to mine Philadelphia-area collections for even more books and documents that shed light on the manuscripts’ meaning. I have reveled in the opportunity to employ the interdisciplinary fields of book history and material culture studies as theoretical foundations for this work—and highlight intriguing artifacts of early American religious history along the way.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Word in the Wilderness?

AA: From approximately 1750 to 1850, the German-speaking residents of southeastern Pennsylvania wielded calligraphy and manuscript illumination as central tools for their Protestant faith practice. The fascinating, if at times seemingly inscrutable, visual and textual artifacts these people left behind allow us to trace the flowering of a rich Christian devotional world in early Pennsylvania, one in which individual believers exercised considerable agency over their spiritual and intellectual lives by means of reading and writing ritually ornamented holy texts.

JF: Why do we need to read The Word in the Wilderness?

AA: The Word in the Wilderness challenges all historians to consider that primary-source documents are not so much clear windows into past worlds as they are richly-textured canvases, on which historical actors inscribed the meaning they found in the world around them. This is an apt metaphor when studying Pennsylvania German illuminated devotional manuscripts, seeing as the documents were intentionally designed as visual artworks. But viewing all books, manuscripts, and other documents simultaneously as texts and material artifacts helps us rethink how the stories of the past come down to us in material form. I hope that my book will be of great interest to anyone who studies the religious, intellectual, and cultural history of early America, but it should also appeal to scholars who wish to explore the potency of material culture and book history as methods of historical analysis.

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

AA: I vividly remember the moment that I first visited a special collections library as a researcher. By the time I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, I had already decided on a career in libraries, but when visiting a local historical society to do some research for a speech I had been asked to give, I realized that I could pursue a career that simultaneously affirmed my passion for libraries and allowed me to immerse myself in my lifelong love of history. The “stuff” of history and the collecting work of cultural heritage institutions have always fascinated me, so I pursued graduate study in public history, material culture, museum studies, and American civilization.

Looking back at my childhood, it seems I was destined for a career in history, though it was far from a given at the time. I had a poster of Winston Churchill hanging above my bed at my family home, and it’s still there today, looming over piles of history books that haven’t accompanied my on my various moves and are probably in need of a good dusting. However, I feel very lucky to have landed on a way to forge a career in museums and libraries that allows me to indulge my passion for historical research.

JF: What is your next project?

AA: While writing The Word in the Wilderness, I did a fair amount of comparative research, unearthing religious and other manuscripts made in communities across the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Atlantic World. Some examples of these documents appear in the book, but I have become convinced that a much more expansive story remains to be told about penmanship, calligraphy, and manuscript culture in the early modern period and beyond. In my next project, I hope to use The Word in the Wilderness as a starting point for a broader comparative study of manuscript culture in the Atlantic World.

JF: Thanks, Alexander!

The Author’s Corner with Noeleen McIlvenna

Early American RebelsNoeleen McIlvenna is Professor of History at Wright State University. This interview is based on her new book, Early American Rebels: Pursuing Democracy from Maryland to Carolina, 1640–1700 (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Early American Rebels?

NM: All my work starts from the premise that the poor are not stupid. They know when they are being used and abused. But, in most eras on most continents, it’s very difficult to do anything about it. Power has all the weapons and they are relentless in their pursuit of more power and wealth. Working people have only numbers. And there is so much to fear: losing one’s livelihood, one’s health, the unknown future. So organizing ourselves to act collectively and then maintaining that solidarity over time and under varying pressures is a very tough road to climb. That’s why revolutions occur so rarely.

This is my third book on southern colonial history. As an immigrant myself, who grew up on one side of the Atlantic and crossed in my early twenties, I identify with the first generation of settlers along the North American coastline. I understand how one carries over cultural baggage and must adjust to a New World. So I write about those people: in North Carolina (A Very Mutinous People), in Georgia (The Short Life of Free Georgia), and now in Maryland.

Early American Rebels began as a prequel of sorts to A Very Mutinous People. While I was in the middle of the Georgia book, a genealogist contacted me and asked if I was aware that one of the Mutinous People protagonists had been in trouble in Maryland earlier. I was totally unaware; North Carolina historians had always felt that the first settlers came from Virginia. So when the Georgia manuscript had been sent to the publisher, I began to follow up, thinking I would write a small article about this story. But very quickly, I realized I had stumbled into a much bigger story: a whole network of activists had organized and organized and organized over two generations, struggling to establish a society based on Leveler ideals. Levelers were the radicals of the English Revolution: they wanted a society with a level playing field: no monarchy, no aristocracy; a vote for every man. Equality. We think of that as a basic American value, but it was revolutionary in the seventeenth century. And too often, Americans are taught that those ideals came from Virginia planters of the eighteenth century. But that is wrong. Poor indentured servants a hundred years before the American Revolution held those ideals and fought for them.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Early American Rebels?

NM: A network of settlers in the Chesapeake region fought for a say in their own governance in the mid-late seventeenth century. American democratic ideals are their legacy.

JF: Why do we need to read Early American Rebels?

NM: It is important for us to understand that we should look to those at the bottom of any society for leadership on how to change it. Early American Rebels gives us a guide on what it takes to create a more equitable world. It warns us how we might fail if the powerful separate us by race and make us compete for the crumbs. I hope you will get a sense of the playbooks of both the rebels and the elite.

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

NM: That occurred in several stages. The most important was the first day of eighth grade, back in Northern Ireland, when my new history teacher wrote the preamble to the Declaration of Independence on the blackboard and told us to copy it into our notebooks. When I got to the phrase, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish [their government],” I looked up and met his eyes. I repeated the phrase to him and he nodded, smiling. As a poor Catholic girl growing up during the Troubles, no one had really said that clearly to me and I knew immediately its significance. We mostly studied European history for the rest of high school, but I was hooked on understanding how some people came to have power and some did not. If someone had told me that there was such a job as an historian and that a poor Catholic girl was allowed to have that job, I would have signed up for it at age thirteen. But I had no concept that such a thing was possible.

I studied History as an undergraduate in Northern Ireland, but still did not grasp that I could become a history professor. No women taught history at that university. It seemed that a woman who loved history had one outlet: teach the subject at the high school level. Fast forward some years, an emigration or two and a few adventures and I was working at the University of Tennessee as a staff archaeologist. I saw lots of women professors and graduate students. When my boss told me I needed an MA and history was close enough to archaeology to suffice, I walked across the parking lot to the History department. The first graduate class I signed up for was Colonial America. That was that.

JF: What is your next project?

NM: I want to write an economic history from the bottom up. That is, how did the seventeenth-century Atlantic World economy function, starting at the workplace of an indentured woman in the Chesapeake and moving up and out until we finish with the King, politicians and financiers in London. We would see how much work she does to earn enough to eat, how the tobacco she works on, or whatever she produces gets sold and resold, who enjoys the profit at what stage and so on.

JF: Thanks, Noeleen!

Back in the Zoo: “Essential”

Annie at Greenhouse

About 15 years ago, I visited Westrate’s Greenhouse with my family. Now, I’m employed there as an essential worker.

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 experience as an “essential worker.” –JF

A little over two weeks ago, I became an essential worker. I finished my last virtual exam on a Friday afternoon and reported for duty at a local greenhouse on the following Monday morning. Some might be surprised that greenhouses are considered essential businesses, especially those that don’t grow food. Surely we can survive without decorative plants in our gardens or baskets hanging from our front porches, but as an agricultural enterprise the greenhouse at which I am employed has not been forced to shut its doors. Further, quarantine has made gardeners out of many of us–my family included–so I’ve had no trouble keeping busy at work.

I never thought I would be an essential worker. After all, I’m not battling the coronavirus first hand in a hospital or re-stocking shelves with toilet paper and cleaning supplies. I’m not sewing masks or making difficult decisions regarding the public health of my community. I’m really just moving flowers around, and planting some every once in a while. Yet I’m going to work every day during a time when many are still stuck at home, so “essential worker” is a label I bear.

There’s no mistaking that labeling some goods and services “essential,” while deeming others “non-essential” has created controversy. Protestors gather weekly across the nation to voice their complaints. Many express their frustration over social media that abortion clinics and news agencies remain open while small businesses and hair salons stay closed. Last week President Trump declared churches and other places of worship essential, and therefore exempt from social distancing rules. Other businesses, like greenhouses growing flowers for instance, stay open even though they’re not necessarily needed to sustain human life. Evidently, the term “essential” is not as straight-forward as it seems.

However, deeming some goods essential and others non-essential is not a new practice. Nearly 80 years ago when the United States fought in World War II, many of the nation’s factories were converted to the production of military items for the Allies. Luxury goods like musical instruments were deemed non-essential and produced in limited quantities–if at all. Thousands of Americans, many of them women, left their households and became essential homefront workers; not only did they help manufacture critical supplies for the war, but they also made do without certain non-essential items that took the back burner during war-time.

Way back in my junior year of high school, I interviewed an incredible woman named Irene Stearns for a National History Day project. Irene (who I wrote about in one of my first blog posts) lived through the Great Depression and World War II. In a way, she lived through her own “unprecedented time” long before this one. Irene worked for Gibson Guitar in Kalamazoo, a factory that earned three Army-Navy E awards of Excellence in wartime production. During World War II, Gibson produced intricate screw machine products, glider skids, and machine gun products–all “essential” products the military needed during the war. But Irene did not produce any of these items. Instead, she coiled guitar strings for the thousands of less-essential musical instruments Gibson produced under the radar between 1941 and 1945.  While not deemed essential, I like to think that the strings Irene crafted went on to play music that brightened many dark days.

I’m still wrestling with what it means to be an essential worker. I still don’t think my job is nearly as important as those “on the front lines.” But like Irene, I go to work and do my part, however small. I’m not making masks or machine gun parts, but I like to think that the flowers I help grow may go on to brighten many dark days.

The Author’s Corner with Trevor Burnard

Jamaica in the Age of RevolutionTrevor Burnard is Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director of the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull. This interview is based on his new book, Jamaica in the Age of Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Jamaica in the Age of Revolution?

TB:  I have always been interested in how Jamaica might be seen as part of Atlantic history; as part of Britain’s involvement in the wider world; and as one of the most important colonies in eighteenth century British America. Because it did not become the 14th colony to join in the American Revolution, its history has been underdone, especially in matters such as why it did not join in that conflict. My belief is that the history of colonial America and the American revolution looks different if Jamaica is included–it starts earlier, with the great slave rebellion of 1760 and finishes later, with abolitionism in 1787-8. That movement became more vital after the scandal of the murder of slaves on the Zong to gain insurance monies became well known in 1783. This work is a natural extension of previous books on Jamaica in the period of the Seven Years War and the American Revolution and is a contribution to Atlantic, British imperial and American revolutionary scholarship.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Jamaica in the Age of Revolution?

TB: Jamaica was the jewel in the imperial crown in the second half of the eighteenth century, an amazingly productive and geopolitically important colony in which rich whites received remarkable rewards while presiding over a very efficient but extremely brutal slave regime that traumatised and oppressed the majority of the inhabitants of the island. It had a different historical trajectory during the Age of Revolution, from 1760 through to 1790, than did the British American colonies that declared for independence in 1776 and that historical experience alters considerably our understanding of the revolutionary period,by stressing the extent of loyalty to the British empire that existed in the plantation colonies of British America and by showing how vital the politics of slavery were within the social and political contexts of this revolutionary age.

JF: Why do we need to read Jamaica in the Age of Revolution?

TB: Recent scholarship on the American Revolution emphasises both how central slavery is and has been to the American experience and that an imperial perspective on the American Revolution, which sees that conflict in an Atlantic rather than just a British North American perspective, illuminates underlying trends in American, British, Atlantic and Caribbean history. This book contributes to both of these approaches to the history of the Atlantic world during the Age of Revolution. Jamaica in the Age of Revolution shows how the most powerful and wealthiest planter class in British America faced challenges to its rule from its brutalised enslaved population, from a British population increasingly outraged by planter cruelties to enslaved people, and from the crisis of an imperial conflict–the American Revolution–which this planter class and its merchants allies did not want but which it suffered from a great deal. This book shows what enslaved people in Jamaica during the period of the slave trade were up against and how difficult it was for them to counter such a powerful ruling class and the economic structures, based on the systematic abuse of enslaved people, that sustained planter and merchant power. I hope people reading Jamaica in the Age of Revolution will understand not just what enslaved people were up against and not just how difficult it was for abolitionists to confront a hugely profitable and powerful slaveholder class in Jamaica but will also get a different understanding of the American Revolution in which slavery, capitalism and imperialism were linked together in important and indissoluble ways.

JF: What kind of sources did you use to write Jamaica in the Age of Revolution?

TB: I was fortunate to get my first academic position in Jamaica which introduced me to the riches of the Jamaica archives, providing me with the empirical data that underpins all the findings in this book. I was also lucky to work for many years in universities near the National Archives in London, which has huge holdings relevant to Jamaican history. And I have benefited massively from an efflorescence in scholarship in the last decade on Jamaican history and in Atlantic history, all of which I have used to deepen and enrich my 30 year engagement with Jamaican primary sources.

JF: What is your next project?

TB: This book has been published almost simultaneously with syntheses of Atlantic and British imperial history. It feeds into work I am doing with Andrew O’Shaughnessy for a book called An Imperial History of the American Revolution. I am also completing a book called The Caribbean in World History and am working with Kit Candlin on a book on Sir John Gladstone as a planter in Demerara. I am also working on the lives of the enslaved with a book called Hearing Slave Voices: Enslaved Women in Berbice, 1817-34 and a study of Jamaican slavery in the period of the slave trade. I am working also with Agnes Delahyde on settler colonialism, Giorgio Riello on global commodities and with Sherrylynne Haggerty on women and business in the Atlantic world. I have two special issues coming out, one on colonialism in the first half of the eighteenth century in the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History and with Natalie Zacek on slave management in the Journal of Global History. With Sophie White, I am publishing in the summer of 2020 a book with Routledge on slave testimony in British and French America and with Joy Damousi and Alan Lester a volume in 2021 with Manchester University Press on humanitarianism.

JF: Thanks, Trevor!

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Richards

Breakaway AmericasThomas Richards Jr. teaches history at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. This interview is based on his new book, Breakaway Americas: The Unmanifest Future of the Jacksonian United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Breakaway Americas?

TR: This book began with two seemingly disparate nineteenth-century histories: Texas and Canada. As a first-year graduate student, I was particularly intrigued by two works on Texas: Andrés Reséndez’s Changing National Identities at the Frontier and the late Andrew Cayton’s essay “Continental Politics: Liberalism, Nationalism, and the Appeal of Texas in the 1820s,” found in the edited volume Beyond the Founders. Both authors argued that the Anglo-Texans who migrated to late Mexican Texas and the Republic of Texas were not US expansionists or filibusters. Rather, they were genuinely attracted to various aspects of life in Texas, much of which they believed improved upon that of the United States.

At the same time, I started researching the 1838 “Patriot War” on the US-Canadian border, in which Americans invaded Canada in an effort to restart the failed Canadian Rebellions. As with Texas, this struggle has often been portrayed as American filibusters seeking to expand US territory. Yet, American Patriots rarely mentioned the United States, and, if they did, it was with disdain – just like many early Anglo-Texans. After all, the United States in the late 1830s was mired in economic depression, social unrest, and political dysfunction. To my surprise (and delight as a historian), American Patriots even routinely references the Republic of Texas to explain their goals, as they hoped to create a “northern Texas” that offered them land and prosperity, in contrast to a US seemingly on the decline.

After seeing such similar rhetoric in such disparate places, I widened my gaze: what did Americans in Oregon Territory think about the United States? Or those in Mexican California? What did the Mormons think as they moved to the Salt Lake Valley (then part of Mexico)? Or even “removed” Natives in US Indian Territory? If both Anglo-Texans and American Patriots forecasted a permanent US decline and better alternatives beyond US borders, what did these other groups think? Sure enough, they held similar notions of the future – although the ideals each group sought to realize were markedly different.

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

TR: Until the mid-1840s, a majority of Americans did not believe US expansion would occur in the near future, and therefore those who migrated beyond US borders sought to create their own “breakaway Americas” that improved upon the United States. Yet, while their prediction was quite logical, it turned out to be utterly wrong, as a series of unforeseen and unlikely contingencies drastically changed the trajectory of US politics, making what once appeared unlikely to become “manifest destiny.”

JF: Why do we need to read Breakaway Americas?

TR: For three reasons. First, from a historiographic standpoint, this book proves that explaining US expansion through the ideology of “manifest destiny” needs to be permanently abandoned. While historians have long demonstrated that this ideology masked the violence and racism of US conquest, most continue to assume that a majority of Americans – both within the United States and beyond its borders – predicted and supported US expansion. This was simply not the case.

Second, from an informational standpoint, this book brings together a wide range of people and groups rarely examined together (and sometimes hardly examined at all): Mormons, Removed Natives, Anglo-Californians, Anglo-Texans, Americans in Oregon Territory, and even the American Patriots who invaded Canada. All of these groups are fascinating, both for their shared prediction that US borders would forever stop at the Rocky Mountains, and for how much they differed among one another, all while embracing various aspects of American culture and society.

Third, from a presentist standpoint, this book places a great deal of weight on the concept of historical contingency, by which I mean that the past is just as much shaped by unlikely and unpredictable in-the-moment events as it is by larger structural forces. For those who lament our current political dysfunction and seemingly unbreakable cycle of hostile partisanship, the concept of contingency offers hope for the future. To be sure, it can also offer despair – no one knows how the next unpredictable event will play out (indeed, my book laments the violence of US expansion that resulted from the contingencies of the late 1830s and 1840s). Yet, at the very least, just as nothing was destined in the past, nothing about our present moment is “baked in.” Change can happen in unforeseeable ways.

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

TR: Ironically, my personal story directly contradicts the argument of my book: there is almost nothing contingent about my journey to becoming an American historian. Indeed, it may have been “baked in” as early as age three, when my father took me to Gettysburg for the first time. In kindergarten, I wrote a story about Ben Franklin. I majored in history as an undergraduate at Penn, and immediately started teaching it at a Philadelphia high school the following year. No one who knew me was surprised when I returned to graduate school at Temple to get my Ph.D. in history. While I have other historical obsessions beyond simply the early American republic–Byzantium, for example–I cannot read ancient Greek, so American history was the most logical obsession to pursue.

JF: What is your next project?

TR: I am writing a trade book that will tell the story of early American politics through the lens of the various “roads not taken” – or, more accurately, roads taken that eventually led to dead ends. For example, I’m writing a chapter on the rise and fall of female suffrage in early New Jersey, and another chapter on the Kentucky court fight of the mid-1820s, in which two courts claimed legitimacy and sparred over economic relief measures for the poor. Once again, I’m placing an importance on contingency: these moments that seemed so alien and anomalous in retrospect, could have, under only slightly different circumstances, turned into the norm.

JF: Thanks, Thomas!

The Author’s Corner with Allison Fredette

Marriage on the BorderAllison Fredette is Assistant Professor of History at Appalachian State University. This interview is based on her new book, Marriage on the Border: Love, Mutuality, and Divorce in the Upper South during the Civil War (The University Press of Kentucky, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Marriage on the Border?

AF: I started this project because I wanted to understand the conflicted regional identity of people in the border South, both in the past and today. I was born in Indiana and then lived in southern California for eight years before moving to West Virginia at the age of 11. Having lived throughout the country before settling in the South (and yes, I think West Virginia is in the South), I was fascinated by the confusion with which West Virginians themselves might answer the question, “Are you from the South?” I wanted to understand how West Virginians’ identities got so complicated and messy. Knowing that I wanted to analyze this through the lens of gender, I initially looked at married women’s property laws before my father, an archivist in the West Virginia and Regional History Center in Morgantown, unearthed a box of divorce cases from Wheeling and sent me down an investigative rabbit hole.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Marriage on the Border?

AF: Marriage on the Border argues that the marriages and marital roles of mid-nineteenth-century white Kentuckians and West Virginians reflected the hybrid nature of the border on which they lived. As the Civil War approached, white border southerners sought marriages based on mutuality and individualism–and embraced theories of contractualism to end them when they failed to meet those standards–civil all while living in a society with a deeply racist, hierarchical slave system.

JF: Why do we need to read Marriage on the Border?

AF: Marriage on the Border is about a region of the country that is often overlooked. Historians of gender and marriage often focus on New England or the Deep South, and similarly, studies of southern households before, during, and after the Civil War usually take the plantation as their starting point. Studying the border South and thinking about the formation of a variety of types of southern identity is pivotal for understanding the entire region, as well as how we construct our own identities today.

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

AF: I probably decided, on some level, to be an American historian when I read the Little House books in the second grade. I loved getting lost in the past and learning about families that seemed so different from mine. Although I have read many books since then, I am still an American historian, and I am still a historian of the household.

JF: What is your next project?

AF: My next project, Murdering Laura Foster: Violence, Gender, and Memory in Appalachian North Carolina, revisits the infamous 1866 Wilkesboro murder case that inspired the ballad, “Tom Dooley.” I put Laura Foster, the victim, back at the center of the story by using gender analysis to study the murder, trial and folk song.

JF: Thanks, Allison!

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Leahy

President without a partyChristopher Leahy is Professor of History at Keuka College. This interview is based on his new book, President Without a Party: The Life of John Tyler (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write President Without a Party?

CL: This book is a dramatic revision and expansion of my doctoral dissertation. To start, I wanted to focus my attention on a president most people knew nothing about, thinking that might help my publishing prospects. There had been no full-scale biography devoted solely to John Tyler since 1939, so I thought a fresh look at his life and career was warranted. As a political historian, I had always been interested in the dynamics of the two-party system, and by how that system both energized and constrained our presidents. That led me to the larger thematic question of what it meant to be a president who had been excommunicated by his party. I wanted to know how President Tyler’s banishment from the Whig ranks affected him personally, how it impacted his agenda, how exactly it affected his chances to win election in his own right, and what all of this had to say about the importance of political parties to presidential politics in the mid-nineteenth century.

I also became fascinated by how a former president of the United States, one whose father (whom he idolized) had played a small role in creating the Union out of the American Revolution, could have turned against the country he once led and formally ally himself with the government of the Confederacy.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of President Without a Party?

CL: John Tyler was portrayed by his contemporaries and by many historians as an ideologue whose rigid devotion to states’ rights and strict construction of the Constitution forestalled compromise and made him a failed president. While the view of him as an ideologue contains merit for his pre-presidential career, I argue that he largely favored a middle-of-the road, bipartisan approach to the nation’s problems once he became president, and that it was his status as a president without a party and rejection by both the Whigs and opposition Democrats that doomed his presidency.

JF: Why do we need to read President Without a Party?

CL: I don’t think we can fully understand the long process that led to secession and civil war without understanding John Tyler. For one thing, his career-long defense of the South and slavery provides a case-study of why the planter class turned against the Union and led the South to secede in 1860-61. Moreover, his successful pursuit of the annexation of Texas as president re-ignited the sectional controversy over slavery’s expansion into the nation’s territories and served as a long fuse for the start of war in April 1861.

There is also an aspect to Tyler’s experience that speaks more broadly to the presidency itself. All of the nation’s chief executives have maintained that the press has harassed them and that they suffer unfair attacks at the hands of their opponents. John Tyler, however, likely wins the prize for partisan abuse—and his opponents could be found in both parties. My book demonstrates the lengths to which the Whigs and Democrats went to undermine his presidency.

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

CL: I became interested in American history, and specifically American presidents, as a child. I went to college, however, intent on becoming an attorney. When I was an undergraduate, I read the first volume of William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion. The book sparked my interest in antebellum politics, and it made me think that I’d like to research and write and become an historian. I was fortunate to take courses in college with professors who were riveting lecturers as well as demanding instructors. In speaking with them over the course of my college years, I got to understand the life of an academic historian and decided that I wanted to pursue that career.

JF: What is your next project?

CL: My wife, Sharon Williams Leahy, and I are collaborating on a biography of First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler. Sharon has published an academic journal article in New York History that overturns a key piece of the historiography on Julia Tyler and we have published book chapters for two anthologies that re-orient the historiography on her. So, we are off to a great start on our work!

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

The Author’s Corner with Richard Haw

Haw_Engineering America_cover, 2ndRichard Haw is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. This interview is based on his new book, Engineering America: The Life and Times of John A. Roebling (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Engineering America?

RH: The simple answer would be that I wanted to understand the person who envisioned and then designed the Brooklyn Bridge, about which I’d written a couple of books.  And I wanted more broadly to understand the world in which that bridge could come into being.

The more complex answer is that I wanted to understand a person who thought deeply about a host of different things—about science, politics, religion, national culture, philosophy, immigration, commerce, race, medicine, economics—and yet seemed to be composed almost wholly of contradictions. Roebling was a man of science who also attended séances and believed in spiritualism; he was capable of designing and erecting great works of engineering but he also wrapped himself up in a wet sheet most nights and ate charcoal on a daily basis; he was a man of great self-certainty but also quick to seize on a whole host of fads; he held deep religious beliefs yet loathed the established church; he read widely in Hegel, Emerson, and Channing, but also in Andrew Jackson Davis, Swedenborg, Baron Carol von Reichenbach.  I wanted to explore how one person could be naive and fallible while also brilliant and visionary.

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

RH: That John Roebling was a thinker, a seeker, and an ideas man. He had thousands of ideas during his lifetime and while most of them missed the mark in one form or another, some didn’t, and those ideas helped change the face of a nation.

JF: Why do we need to read Engineering America?

RH: John Roebling hasn’t fared well in the hands of historians.  The last biography written about him was published over 70 years ago and since then our understanding of him—not helped by his son’s rather harsh memoir of his father, long available to researchers but only recently published—has ossified into something both unfair and unflattering.  His genius has always been acknowledged but our sense of him as a person has become stuck in realms usually reserved for Hollywood Germans: overly formal, unbending, authoritarian, dispassionate, devoid of humor or humanism and prone to violence.  The real John Roebling was a far cry from this.

In addition, we tend not to write about engineers outside of the narrow confines of … well … engineering.  We write about politicians and soldiers and writers all the time but engineers are arguably just as central to our world although we rarely ask what they thought they were doing, outside of simply solving mechanical problems.  To put it another way: engineering is central to our world, but engineers are rarely central to the writing of history.  And even less central to the writing of biography. 

But engineers are often deeply engaged people who think of themselves as performing a social or political role.  Raymond Merritt once referred to engineers as “functional intellectuals” and that’s certainly how I think of Roebling.  He believed in the moral application of technology, that bridges, railroads and the Atlantic Cable would band people together, heal divisions, make neighbors out of rivals, and free people out the oppressed or enslaved.  He thought that railroads would help bring democracy to Russia, for example.  And he believed and said all these things over two decades before Walt Whitman was writing about “the strong light works of engineers” and their unifying, ethical potential.

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

RH: I grew up in the north of England and I wasn’t at all interested in history.  Or school or going to college.  Until that is I’d had some experience of trying to get along without either ‘A’ levels (the British equivalent of a High School Diploma) or a college degree.  When I did finally go to college in my mid-20s I didn’t really have any sense of disciplines.  I was interested in periods—Victorian Britain, for example—but I couldn’t find a program that allowed you to look at a thing or a period from lots of different perspectives. The only degree that let you do that was American Studies, so I took American Studies, not really knowing the first thing about America!  And I loved it.  I loved thinking about Film Noir movies and the Cold War; I loved discovering the Hudson River School during a class on Jacksonian America; I enjoyed reading Virgin Land and The Machine in the Garden; and most of all I loved interdisciplinary thinking. 

From there, I think I slowly made myself into a historian, albeit a rather ill-defined one.  As an undergraduate, I think most of my interests were in the arts but that changed through my graduate training and my career at John Jay College.  Over many years, I’ve come to think of most intellectual work (in the Humanities at least) as being about texts or about people.  It’s a simplification of course, but broadly true in my understanding.  And while I love teaching and talking about texts, I’m not terribly interested in writing about them.  I’d much rather write about people and events. 

JF: What is your next project?

RH: I’m writing a book about a somewhat forgotten New York artist called Leon Bibel who was very active during the late 1930s thanks to the New Deal.  (Most people encounter Bibel as the first man in the breadline at the FDR memorial in Washington, DC.  He was molded by his great friend George Segal, the sculptor commissioned for the memorial.)  Like many New Deal artists, Bibel was deeply committed to social justice and he produced lots of great art attacking racism, fascism, political hypocrisy, war, and injustice of all stripes.  If not for the New Deal, Bibel might have spent his life working as a carpenter like his brother.  But he didn’t.  He enjoyed a brief, precious moment when a government program enabled a person to be an artist.  And because of that, Bibel’s art is housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, among other prestigious museums.  I find those aspects of history fascinating.

JF: Thanks, Richard!

The Author’s Corner with Michael E. Woods

Arguing until DoomsdayMichael E. Woods is currently Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. Starting in August 2020, he will be Associate Professor of History and Director/Editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This interview is based on his new book, Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Arguing until Doomsday?

MW: Initially, I envisioned Arguing until Doomsday as an article, not a book. The inspiration came from two sets of sources I encountered during the research for my first book (Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States [Cambridge, 2014]). The first surfaced in the archives: I spent some time exploring Stephen A. Douglas’s papers at the University of Chicago and was struck by the amount of supportive mail he received from Republicans, including staunchly antislavery Republicans, during the late 1850s. The second appeared in the Congressional Globe, a staple for anyone doing work on antebellum political history: the extended debate between Douglas and Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis in May 1860, which unfolded just as their Democratic Party was tearing itself apart over selecting a presidential candidate and writing a platform. Together, these sources suggested that we needed to rethink the relationship between antebellum sectionalism and the Democratic Party. Specialists are familiar with the Democratic split in 1860, but in some narratives it appears almost out of nowhere. Yet there were portents of the rupture—such as Douglas’s rather surprising fan mail in 1857 and 1858—that appeared well before 1860. I decided to use Davis and Douglas’s careers to tell the longer history of that intraparty conflict. And because I wanted to situate both men in the contexts of their home states, I realized that I would have to write a book-length study.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Arguing until Doomsday?

MW: The 1860 rupture of the Democratic Party was the product of long-term conflicts over balancing property rights and majoritarianism: Stephen Douglas’s primarily northern faction pressed for localized white men’s majority rule, while Jefferson Davis’s primarily southern faction demanded the federal defense of slaveholders’ property rights. In the context of rapid expansion and heightened pressure from pro- and antislavery activists, Democrats like Davis and Douglas could not permanently reconcile these competing agendas, and their efforts to control the party ultimately tore it apart.

JF: Why do we need to read Arguing until Doomsday?

MW: The book reexamines a vital topic—antebellum sectional strife and the origins of secession and the Civil War—from a fresh perspective, enlivened by a dual-biographical approach. Davis and Douglas are typically paired with Abraham Lincoln, but Arguing until Doomsday revisits them from the vantage point of a rivalry that played out within the Democratic Party but across sectional lines. This perspective helps us to understand how sectionalism and partisanship intertwined in sometimes surprising ways. Some southern Democrats, for instance, called for secession in the event that Lincoln or Douglas won the 1860 presidential election. Simultaneously, there were southern critics who denounced Davis as too soft on defending slavery, even as northern Democrats worried that Davis would destroy the party by forcing a proslavery platform on them. These dynamics become much easier to understand if we trace the long rivalry between Davis and Douglas, who began speaking for frankly sectional constituencies when they entered Congress in the mid-1840s.

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

MW: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by American history, but my inspiration to make a career of it came near the end of my undergraduate studies, when I took a seminar (on Chinese history, actually). History is all about conversations, whether carried out in person in the classroom or in print, from one scholar to another. I relished participating in both types of conversations in that seminar and I decided I wanted to continue with them, as a teacher and a scholar.

JF: What is your next project?

MW: I’m working on another biographical project that focuses on John H. Van Evrie, a shadowy figure who was one of the most extreme and outspoken racist propagandists of the mid-nineteenth century. Born in Canada, Van Evrie built a twenty-five year career in New York City as a writer, newspaper editor, and publisher who dedicated himself to promoting white supremacy—a phrase he actually introduced into popular usage. Van Evrie is neither sympathetic nor inspirational, but I think he can help us to trace precisely how ideas about race and slavery and freedom circulated at a time when information was moving more cheaply and swiftly than ever before. We usually think of the nineteenth-century communications revolution, made possible by innovations like the telegraph and the rotary printing press, as a good thing. But Van Evrie’s career exposes a sinister side of that revolution. New communications technologies are only as edifying as the messages they carry and the people who use them.

JF: Thanks, Michael!

Back in the Zoo: The Church Has Left the Building

FB_IMG_1532791182356 (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 writes about what it means to be the church in the midst of a global pandemic–JF

Back in 2018, the summer after my Senior year of high school, I went on one last service trip with my youth group. I had spent all year on my church’s leadership team and looked forward to spending one final week with my Gracespring family before moving away for school. My friend Becca and I were in charge of the Vacation Bible School portion of the trip, and we had been busy writing lessons and planning activities for the kids that we would meet in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Before loading up in our caravan of vehicles, we posed in front of a few dozen parents and family members snapping pictures of us on their smartphones. Our shirts were red with bold black script reading “The Church Has Left the Building.” We tossed around a few different ideas for the shirts, but I was glad we settled on this one. The saying reminded us that the Church was not the building we worshiped in. Instead, we were the Church, the body of Christ meant to go out and do his work in the world. 

Nearly two years later, churches around the world have also “left the building.” Ever since our governor limited large gatherings back in March, my church–the same church that sent me to Pawleys Island back in 2018–has been using the phrase on repeat. For even on Easter, when sanctuaries are usually packed with congregants gussied up in pastel-colored wares, pews were empty and doors remained closed. Some still dressed up and took family photos in their living rooms, others stayed in their pajamas and streamed a service from their couches, but almost everyone stayed home.

Obviously, this is not an ideal situation. We like worshiping alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. We look forward to chatting with them after the service. We cherish having a place where we can gather, socialize, and drink a cup of coffee. We appreciate packed-out sanctuaries, well-executed sermons and meticulously planned music sets. It’s certainly not wrong to enjoy these things, or to long for the day when we can have them again. But we must understand that they are not the Church–we are.

I love the book of Acts. Maybe it’s because I’m a historian, or maybe it’s because Acts was the first book of the Bible I read after re-committing my life to Christ, but I could read stories of Paul, the apostles, and the early Church over and over again. Sometimes when we study the past, or read Bible stories, they seem foreign and strange to us. But more often than not, we catch glimpses of familiarity too. Two thousand years ago when the Church was just getting started there were no coffee shops or praise bands or packed-out sanctuaries. When Paul brought the Gospel to the Gentiles he couldn’t do it from the stage of a megachurch. Instead, he shared the love of Christ wherever he was. He was creative, he was zealous, and he was bold. He wasn’t quarantined at home, but he was jailed, beaten, and shipwrecked–and let nothing hinder his witness.

Acts reminds us that the Church is so much more than the place we worship. It shows us that we can share the Gospel no matter where we are. It assures us that Christ’s love can not be hindered by any hardship, trial, or global pandemic. May historians remember 2020 as the year the Church left the building.

The Author’s Corner with Gracjan Kraszewski

Catholic ConfederatesGracjan Kraszewski is Director of Intellectual Formation at St. Augustine’s Catholic Center at the University of Idaho.  He is also Instructor of Construction and Design at Washington State University. This interview is based on his new book, Catholic Confederates: Faith and Duty in the Civil War South (The Kent State University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Catholic Confederates?

GK: My personal story, geography, and a lifelong interest. In respective order, I am a Catholic and so I suppose a lot of people find it natural to write about something from their own daily, lived experience. Secondly, I attended grad school in the South, in Mississippi, and the Civil War is, still, omnipresent in this region, and the archives and sites close by facilitate undertaking such a project. Third, growing up in Pennsylvania I think I must have visited Gettysburg more than ten separate times as a boy, minimum. I was always fascinated by the Civil War. These things in tandem produced a perfect storm, and made my topic something of a no brainer. (Plus, super fun too!).

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

GK: You do not have to wait until the 20th century, until JFK and the Second Vatican Council and ethnic identity-leveling suburban sprawl, to see evidence of Catholic assimilation into American life. During the Civil War, Southern Catholics ‘Confederatized’ (‘Americanization’ via the Confederacy) into their surrounding society with ease—supporting secession and the war as fervently as their more well known Protestant neighbors—and found this devotion returned, winning the approbation of Confederates elite and common alike, serving in key posts throughout the conflict, and remaining at the epicenter of events, a fact often buried in historiographical obscurity.

JF: Why do we need to read Catholic Confederates?

GK: Because not enough Civil War historians know about the role Catholics played in the Confederacy, not enough scholars of American Catholicism know enough about the South—let alone the Civil War South—and the general body of American Catholics (and Protestants as well) too readily accept that anything ‘Catholic’ and ‘American’ must revolve exclusively around issues, problems and people like ‘the North,’ immigration and demographics, Humanae Vitae, Boston, New York, Vatican II, Chicago, John Paul II, Pope Francis. Few would ever consider that Catholics might have been visible and important in the 19th century ‘Bible Belt;’ American Catholics just don’t know this part of their own history. This book remedies all three of these blind spots simultaneously.

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

GK: My father is a poet and a literature professor. And I love my father. So I think I always associated the academic life, the teaching and the writing, with what grown-ups do because my dad did that and I grew up with it. The American history specificity probably has a lot to do with those Gettysburg trips, but also that from a young age I was ‘good at history.’ Memorizing the dates, knowing who was who and who went were, that stuff kind of came natural to me. I was reading Civil War books as a ten year old and I never thought that was weird, like ‘why don’t I pick up some comics or something?’ I liked history then and have never stopped liking it.

JF: What is your next project?

GK: There’s two taking shape at the moment. I’m working on, nearly done with, a maximalist, absurdist-comedy novel that is set around the year 2100 (although it is not, in any way, science fiction; never, haha) that treats the American pursuit of happiness in a post-postmodern world. It’s centered around a progressive academy in the New Mexican desert— ESSNWNAU-AL: East Southwestern South Northeastern West North American University of the Arts and Logic—and is parts philosophical, theological, economic and atomic, i.e. scientists who build something much more powerful than the Tsar Bomba and so, what now? It’s pretty long already (more than 300,000 words) and has been appearing via short story excerpts in publications the past few years, most recently in the Canadian journal Riddle Fence this month. The second book stems from my work as Director of Intellectual Formation at the Univ. of Idaho’s St. Augustine Center. Each month I give a 30 min. lecture—on Catholicism and politics, Catholicism and sports, contrasting superheroes and saints, etc.—and we’re hoping to compile what will be essentially a collection of essays into a book sometime next year, maybe summer 2021?

JF: Thanks, Gracjan!

The Author’s Corner with Robert Watson

George Washington's Final BattleRobert Watson is Distinguished Professor of American History at Lynn University. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington’s Final Battle: The Epic Struggle to Build a Capital City and a Nation (Georgetown University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write George Washington’s Final Battle?

RW: I have always admired George Washington and loved the capital city–the majestic government buildings, world-class museums, the National Mall, and the city’s history. However, I have always been surprised and a bit dismayed that most Americans know very little about the capital’s history, the difficult and unlikely story behind the location and design of our national seat of government, and Washington’s role in building the city that bears his name. Yet, it is an intriguing and inspiring story, one that mirrors the forging of the Republic.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Washington’s Final Battle?

RW: We know George Washington as many things–heroic general, first president, a man of honor and discipline, and so on, but too often we fail to appreciate that he was also a visionary and a man possessing formidable political skills (when he wanted or needed to deploy them, which was the case while building support for the capital city). Both these sides of Washington are on display in his struggle to build a grand capital city.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington’s Final Battle?

RW: In building a grand capital city along the Potomac, Washington not only realized a personal passion but helped strengthen the fledgling Republic and federal government, imbue his countrymen with a sense of national pride and American identity, and give the new nation credibility in the eyes of Europe.

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

RW: I grew up in central Pennsylvania, not far from Gettysburg and a Saturday drive away from Valley Forge and Philadelphia. Some of my earliest and most cherished memories were of visiting the many important historic sites in the area. So, I supposed it was through osmosis that I developed a passion for history. I know I picked the right occupation because I never tire of visiting museums, battlefields, and historic sites around the US and internationally.

JF: What is your next project?

RW: A book on the Civil War and another book project on the capital city.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

Back in the Zoo: “Heil Whitmer?”

Heil Whitmer

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 coronavirus protests in her home state–JF

A woman donning blue jeans, a puffy jacket and sunglasses stood proudly on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol last Wednesday. In gloved hands she held a poster painted with the phrase “HEIL WITMER” in red and black letters. A crimson swastika took a prominent place on the upper right-hand corner of the sign. Another poster, this time taped to the back of someone’s black pick-up truck, also bore Nazi imagery. This one had a photo-shopped image of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, toothbrush mustache and all, in a Hitler salute with a Nazi flag flying behind her shoulder. In bold white letters the bottom of the sign read, “AMERICAN FLAGS ARE NOT ESSENTIAL ITEMS.”

Frustrated with new stay-at-home restrictions, the individuals who crafted these signs were some of a few thousand Michiganders who traveled to Lansing last week for “Operation Gridlock.” In a lot of ways, I can empathize with their frustration. I like having the freedom to go where I please, when I please, for whatever reason I wish. I don’t like being stuck at home, unable to go to school or church or my favorite restaurant. There is nothing wrong with protesting (safely), voicing your opinions, and holding leaders accountable for their actions; in fact, I have been to a few protests myself in the past. There is nothing wrong with being frustrated, or wanting to go back to work. But equating Gretchen Whitmer and her stay-at-home order with Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich takes things much too far. They are not the same.

I’m no expert on Nazi Germany, but I know enough from my “History of Modern Europe” class that our current suffering in no way compares to that of Jews living under the Third Reich. When Hitler ruled Germany, Jews lost their citizenship under the Nuremberg laws. They lived in ghettos and starved to death in the streets. Millions more were sent to Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, and several other concentration camps where they were immediately gassed or forced into hard labor. Under Hitler’s discretion, the Third Reich exterminated over six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of other individuals in an attempt to establish the Aryan race. Gretchen Whitmer is not Adolf Hitler. Some may not like her or agree with her, but to equate her to a fascist is inaccurate and callous. 

At the same time, though, I am well aware that President Trump has also been caricatured as a Nazi time after time. Before his inauguration back in 2017 and during his impeachment this past year, scores of signs, social media posts, and opinion pieces compared Trump to Adolf Hitler. And yet, since the election of President Trump in 2016, most Americans have not had to re-live the Holocaust. Some may not like him or agree with him, but to equate President Trump to a fascist is also inaccurate and callous.

As a student of history, I can’t help seeing the present through the lens of the past. We historians do not typically wear rose-colored glasses, but we do carry flashlights. We seek to illuminate, to expose, and to make known. As we step into the shoes of those who lived in the past, we try our noble best to shed light on the path we walk in the present. It is our job, and it is our duty. And I will complete it with honor in the years to come.

The Author’s Corner with Zachery Fry

A Republic in the RanksZachery Fry is Assistant Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. This interview is based on his new book, A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write A Republic in the Ranks?

ZF: I’ve always been fascinated by the history of political debate. There’s a great deal of literature out there already on how intense the partisan divide was among the Union Army’s high command during the Civil War, and I grew up reading a lot of that. As I waded into the army’s story myself, though, what I found more and more intriguing was the heated political divide further down the chain of command at the level of captains, majors, and colonels. This was especially true in the Army of the Potomac, the army that hardly ever fought more than several days’ march from Washington. What made the Army of the Potomac such an intriguing topic was that its soldiers went from worshiping George B. McClellan as commander in 1862 to voting against him for president in 1864.

Most historians have examined this political debate in the army by prioritizing diaries and letters home to family as the best evidence. What I found engrossing, though, was the tremendous number of letters and opinion pieces from soldiers at the front to newspapers back home. It was clear to me that newspaper editors, many of whom were intensely partisan, were capitalizing on the army’s role as conscience of the nation to influence the political dialogue. And soldiers were willing and eager to lead the nation’s political debate because they were convinced the importance of the moment demanded it.

The result of all this research is, I hope, a much richer picture of Civil War soldier ideology than readers have previously had.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Republic in the Ranks?

ZF: The Civil War was a political awakening for thousands of young soldiers serving in the Union Army of the Potomac, and the men who guided that process were the junior officers who had received their commissions from home front politicians. The result of this awakening, much of it acrimonious and heavy-handed, was an army that led the national dialogue by shunning antiwar protesters and earnestly supporting Lincoln’s policies.

JF: Why do we need to read A Republic in the Ranks?

ZF: It’s important to understand why soldiers fought in the Civil War. My book offers something genuinely new to that topic by examining how extensively Union soldiers, led by their officers, set the terms of debate in national politics. The angry words of Union officers and men against the “Copperhead” Democratic peace movement—truly a language of revenge and even extermination—are genuinely chilling to read. But it’s also fascinating to see how earnestly these soldiers supported Abraham Lincoln and the policies that won the Civil War. For the hard-luck Army of the Potomac, rallying behind the Republican message gave downtrodden men an inspiring sense of purpose to continue the fight.

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

ZF: What’s interesting to me as a military historian is how many scholars in our field can trace their professional interest back to childhood. I’m no different. I’ve wanted to write and teach history since I was in elementary school. I saw Civil War movies, read anything I could find on the conflict, and started touring battlefields at age seven. My parents were incredibly indulging, and I was able to meet some gifted historians as a youngster who inspired me to pursue a similar path. I also had some supportive high school teachers and, later, professors who expanded my interests well beyond those four years of “The War of the Rebellion.” Now I put that training to work everyday teaching military history to Army officers, and it’s the most rewarding career I could ever imagine.

JF: What is your next project?

ZF: I’m currently at work on a study of the 1864 presidential election between Lincoln and McClellan, almost certainly the most important election in our nation’s history. It’s been a while since readers have seen a new account of this event, so I’m excited to finish it.

JF: Thanks, Zachery!

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Back in the Zoo: Coronavirus Diary

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The sunsets have been particularly beautiful here since quarantine started. Perhaps I’m just noticing them more now, or perhaps God knows I often need to be reminded how capable he is of turning darkness into light.

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 shares some thoughts from her coronavirus diary–JF

If I have a history classroom of my own in a few years, I’m sure I will teach my students about the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020. For while the virus is consuming virtually every part of our lives right now, soon enough it will be a part of our history. Soon enough students, teachers, and historians will look back on our Facebook posts, television advertisements, and journals to speculate what it was like to live through it all. I’ve started collecting primary sources to use in my classroom someday, and have even written a few diary entries of my own. If you would like to help future historians, future history teachers, and future students, I suggest keeping a journal, a diary, anything that will help them step into your shoes and see the world through your eyes.

Professor Fea has posted a couple coronavirus diary entries, so I thought I’d give it a go. Here’s my diary entry from yesterday, April 14, 2020:

It’s been a little over three weeks since Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued her shelter-in-place order for the state of Michigan. I’m becoming numb to it all in some ways, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I used to obsessively check Michigan’s case count multiple times a day, my anxiety heightening as the virus crept closer and closer to my hometown. Three weeks ago, 200 new cases in a day caused a panic. Last week there were 200 deaths in one day in my state and I kind of just numbly accepted that this is the way the world is right now.

I’ve been trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, as much as I can during this strange time. I get up at 6 A.M. and go to sleep around 10 P.M., just like I did when I was still at Messiah College. Before my first Zoom session of the day I try to do an hour and a half or so of work for this job. All of my Professors have been using video chat instead of pre-recorded lectures, so my class schedule has stayed pretty much the same too. My boyfriend and I still Skype every Friday and Sunday, just like we do when we’re nine hours apart. I can’t say all couples are listening to social distancing guidelines right now, but the ones that are have certainly been facing new challenges they never thought they would have to deal with. Nolan and I are frustrated we can’t see each other, but we realize that over a year of long-distance has left us surprisingly prepared to face a global pandemic.

A few new habits have made their way into my life too. My family has started “supporting local businesses”–that is, ordering takeout from local restaurants–once a week on Saturdays. Since I no longer have access to a gym, I’ve started running outside instead of on the treadmill. It’s more challenging to run on hills and in all kinds of weather, rather than on a flat conveyor belt in the temperate climate of the Falcon Fitness Center, but running is especially comforting for me right now. It reminds me that every breath is a gift, and to be thankful that I have healthy lungs with air flowing through them. I’m also trying to text people more often, usually with a song, a few words of encouragement, or a couple verses from scripture. It isn’t much, but I know from personal experience that a simple check-in or a few positive words can go a long way.

Quarantine brings out the creativity in all of us. We pick up new hobbies, and come back to old ones. We discover new ways to keep in touch with our friends, even when we can’t be physically together. My Young Life team has found several creative ways to use Zoom in order to stay connected with our students. We had a scavenger hunt, a talent show, an area-wide trivia match, and we’re even in the process of planning a virtual Bingo tournament for next week. Last weekend my parents tried to find a way to play Euchre over video chat with my brother and his girlfriend. I see families building blanket forts, hosting movie marathons, and competing in kahoot tournaments. And not only that, musicians have been giving free, live concerts over social media, churches are streaming their worship services, and Tom Hanks even hosted Saturday Night Live from his home last weekend.

For the first time in several weeks, it seems like there might be an end in sight. Some speculate that the United States has passed the virus’s peak. Gretchen Whitmer cautiously told Michiganders yesterday that they’re starting to see the curve flatten and the case total stabilize. We don’t know when the end to all this will come, or even what an “end” would entail, but we sense that it’s there somewhere. My family and I are continuing to press into the Lord, to continuously remind ourselves that He is in control and somehow, some way will use it all for His glory. So now we wait, in this period of forced rest, for the world to go back to normal. What that “normal” will be, I’m still not so sure.

Back in the Zoo: The Hidden History of Battle Creek

ellen white at gc session 1901

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 finding history in her own backyard.  –JF

Rumor has it, if you walk around in downtown Battle Creek you can smell cereal wafting through the streets. Home to Kellogg’s, Post, and Raltson foods, Battle Creek well-deserves the nickname “Cereal City.”  Battle Creek is also home to Binder Park Zoo, where you can feed giraffes pieces of lettuce in the summer or go trick-or-treating at the annual “Zoo Boo” in the fall. It also has my favorite grocery store, Horrocks, and an indoor water park where kids used to have their birthday parties.

I usually don’t advertise that I’m from Battle Creek. In fact, in the very name I chose for this column, I pledge my allegiance to Kalamazoo, not “Cereal City,” which lies about 25 miles to the east. In reality, I live in Augusta which is half-way between the two towns. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Battle Creek. My church, my school, my grandma’s house were all in Kalamazoo, so I just have a lot more memories there. And, after a year studying at Messiah College I’ve discovered most people haven’t heard of Battle Creek, much less know where it is. Plus, you have to admit that “Out of Battle Creek” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So, as you can imagine, I was pretty surprised when Battle Creek came up in my “Origins Controversy” class last Friday. It was my first Zoom session of the day, and my professor Dr. Ted Davis was lecturing on the history of scientific creationism. A few slides into his presentation, Dr. Davis introduced us to Ellen G. White, who co-founded the Seventh-day Adventist church and was one of the first to vocally advocate for the young-earth, 24-hour day creation view held by Ken Ham and his team at Answers in Genesis today. While her ideas didn’t really take off outside Seventh-day Adventist circles until George McCready Price and later Henry Morris wrote about them, she remains an important figure in American religious history. Not only that, she was a strong and influential female leader in a time when women still hadn’t gained the right to vote. 

Next,  Professor Davis showed us the black-and-white photograph reciprocated above, of E. G. White at a podium, Bible open, speaking to a congregation of men. He asked us to read the description to find out where it was taken. Much to my surprise, the caption read “Battle Creek Tabernacle,” and I excitedly told my class that Battle Creek was only 30 minutes away from my house. Professor Davis continued by explaining that Battle Creek played an important role in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist church, and that the denomination had even founded a college in Michigan. Davis went on to mention that the Kelloggs were also Seventh-day Adventists who first produced cereal as a vegetarian alternative to a traditional breakfast–many Adventists back then chose not to eat meat. 

I finished class that day excited about all the history that took place practically in my backyard. I couldn’t believe that I had grown up twelve miles from Battle Creek and had no idea who Ellen G. White was. My house is even closer to the Kellogg Manor House, yet I had never bothered to learn much about the family’s history. I was blind to the rich history my community had to offer. 

Every community, big or small, has a history. It has a history because it has people–people who lived and worked and impacted other people in a world far different from our own. Sometimes that history is not easy to find, but I challenge you to look for it. You don’t have to live in Gettysburg or New York City or Paris to dig up some fascinating information about your community’s past. There’s history all around you. Sometimes you just need to open your eyes.

The Author’s Corner with Ryan McIlhenny

To Preach DeliveranceRyan C. McIlhenny is an independent scholar living and working in Shanghai, China. This interview is based on his new book, To Preach Deliverance to the Captives: Freedom and Slavery in the Protestant Mind of George Bourne, 1780–1845 (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write To Preach Deliverance?

RM: To Preach Deliverance is a substantial revision of my dissertation from the University of California, Irvine. I have had quite a diverse journeyman experience since completing my PhD in 2008, making it difficult for me to devote my time to the manuscript. A few years ago, however, I was offered an exciting opportunity to work in Shanghai, which has provided the much-needed time for research and writing. Within a couple months of relocating to the Middle Kingdom, historian James Brewer Stewart, a leading historian of abolition, author of Holy Warriors, and founder of Historians Against Slavery, sent me an encouraging email about a review I did of a new anthology on Wendell Phillips for the Journal of the Early Republic. Knowing that Jim, a Phillips scholar, was editor emeritus of LSU’s reputable “Antislavery, Abolition, and Atlantic World” series, I asked if he would be willing to get his thoughts on my work. He enthusiastically agreed and read it. This has led to a very fruitful correspondence over the last couple years. Jim’s very constructive suggestions encouraged me to rewrite the introduction and conclusion and include a whole new chapter (Chapter 1). Jim remained supportive throughout, as did historians Richard Blackett, Edward Rugemer, and Mark Noll.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of To Preach Deliverance?

RM: To Preach Deliverance is an intellectual biography, written in the mode of cultural history, of George Bourne (1780-1845), the pioneer of immediate anti-slavery as well as the pioneer of the anti-Catholic escaped-nun genre in American literature. Bourne’s radicalism, his uncompromising opposition to slavery, shaped by a conservative Protestant outlook that became increasingly hostile to Catholicism, allowed him to formulate a unique concept of liberty that rested not on evangelical revivalism, which had a profound impact on reformist movements, but upon historic-confessional Protestantism.

JF: Why do we need to read To Preach Deliverance?

RM: There are only two biographies on Bourne. One written by his son Theodore in the late 1880s and another by John Christie and Dwight Dumond in the late 1960s. These biographies, however, focus on Bourne’s antislavery activities, ignoring for the most part his anti-Catholic sentiments. Contemporary historians have, for the most part, dismissed anti-Catholicism as either irrational or symptomatic of some kind of paranoid style in American life. I find such explanations unconvincing. My work attempts to make sense of what may seem to be in the contemporary mind two conflicting issues: a battle against human chattel bondage with an equally virulent battle against Catholicism.

Bourne was a highly influential polymathic figure engaged in a variety of nineteenth-century American issues: slavery, race, and citizenship; the role of women in abolition; Christianity and republicanism; the importance of the Bible; and the place of the church in civil society. To Preach Deliverance provides a small window into the complexities of revolutionary liberalism, the place of the Bible in antislavery, and the centrality of religious tolerance to a free society. It peels back yet another layer of the complexities of religious reform in nineteenth-century America.

Another important goal of the book—as it is for most historical monographs—is to show the relevance of the past on the present. In one important sense, history has more to do with the present than the past. In the case of To Preach Deliverance, I want readers to consider the continued legacy (or perhaps the “unfinished” realities) not only of slavery, its existence in new forms, but also religious intolerance, especially anti-Catholicism, in American culture.

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

RM: I wish I could tell you that I had always aspired to become a professional historian. I’ve always been interested in a number of disciplines—the arts, theology, political science, history, and philosophy. I had an opportunity to choose graduate studies in at least three of these areas. I eventually chose a program that allowed me to combine most of my interests. Graduate school added to my interdisciplinarity in that I came to appreciate the material dialectics and cultural texts that produce both ideas and identity. Despite my success during those formative years in grad school, it wasn’t until my mid-30s, a few years after completing my PhD, that I finally understood what it meant to be a historian. And notwithstanding the challenges that many of us face in securing a tenure-track position, given the market’s (and neoliberal administrators’) aversion to all things humanities, I don’t regret becoming a historian, a cultural historian at that. Given the cultural/linguistic turn in scholarship that often conflates artifice with artifact, fact and fiction, the historian, I believe, is needed to sift through these distinctions today more than ever.

JF: What is your next project?

RM: I’m not sure how long I’ll be here in China; indeed, I look forward to securing a position at a college or university in the states. But, for now, life in Shanghai has afforded me the time to maintain a healthy schedule for writing. I’m working on a more focused study of Spiritualism in the antebellum period and another on some of the forgotten features of American pragmatism at the turn of the twentieth century, employing a similar methodology used in To Preach Deliverance. I’m also working on two larger works—one related to religious intolerance in American history, the other on the dialogue between religion and radicalism.

JF: Thanks, Ryan!

Back In The Zoo: Trust in the Valley

Erasmus Club dinner

Messiah students engaged in discussion at the latest Erasmus Club dinner with Dr. Bernardo Michael. Photo by Keanan Wolf

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 discussion with fellow history major about COVID-19 –JF

How will COVID-19 be remembered in 50 years? What about 100 years? What about 500?

Will future generations condemn us for the way we handled the pandemic? Will they look down on us for not doing enough? How will the hardships we experience today compare to the sufferings experienced by the generations that came before us?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and I’m not convinced anyone does right now. Yet, it is these questions, and many more, that we wrestled with at the history department’s Erasmus Club dinner earlier this month. We pushed two round tables together in Martin Commons, piled our plates with various dining-hall entrees and began our discussion. We were supposed to discuss the intersection of history and memory, but within minutes our conversation veered off course and steered toward the coronavirus. No one consciously tried to bring it up, but because COVID-19 was already on everyone’s minds the topic was inevitable. The Saturday before the dinner, I found out that the first two cases of coronavirus had been discovered in Pennsylvania. Now, three weeks later, there are a few thousand cases in Pennsylvania and my home state of Michigan is a week and a half into a stay-at-home order. It’s crazy how fast things change.

How will I remember COVID-19? Right now it’s hard to be sure. Cases are still rising, the markets are still plummeting, and it’s hard to tell just how big of an impact it will have on my life, and on the lives of the people I love. I have never experienced anything like this in my entire life, and neither have my parents or my grandparents. It seems like whenever I think I have a grip on what’s going on, things change yet again.

But in the midst of all the uncertainty, I am sure of one thing: I worship a God who is working all things out for my good and his glory. At the beginning of the year, I started reading this book called Trusting God by Jerry Bridges. My boyfriend and I started it as a kind of New-Year’s resolution for the two of us. The book is all about trusting that God is in control, even when bad things happen. Even when we lose our job, even when our vacation is rudely interrupted, even when death and disease run rampant, God is still sovereign and worthy of our confidence. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God doesn’t promise that bad things won’t happen. As long as we live on this side of eternity, there will be trials, there will be suffering, and there will be tears. But he does promise to be with us through it all. He promises us peace and strength to endure. He tells us that when our foundations are shaken, when the world falls apart before us, He still remains. Isaiah 41:10 says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” 

I hope that future historians will be able to look at this season in my life and see that I trusted God with everything. I hope they will see that I chose to trust God even when it wasn’t easy, even when I didn’t feel like it, even when my heart ached. I am not there yet, but I hope I will get there someday. Will you join me?

The Author’s Corner with John Turner

They Knew They Were PilgrimsJohn Turner is Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: A few years ago, I had finished writing the second of two books about the Latter-day Saints. I wanted to write about a new topic, but one that had some continuity of themes, namely religious persecution, exile, a quest for the true church. Obviously, the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and the founding of Plymouth Colony are well-worn subjects. But I discovered that most historians neglect the story of Plymouth after the first Thanksgiving, perhaps returning to the colony with the advent of King Philip’s War. I found that there was a great deal more to the story.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Americans inaccurately have praised the Mayflower passengers for planting the seeds of republicanism that bloomed at the time of the American Founding. I argue instead that we need to examine the debates about liberty–religious liberty, political liberty, and the enslavement–present in Plymouth Colony on their own, local, seventeenth-century terms.

JF: Why do we need to read They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: It’s not quite as essential as physical distancing during a pandemic, but… we think we know the story of Plymouth Colony. The Mayflower passengers are the most famous colonists in American history, their lives scrutinized by armies of genealogists. I did not realize how poorly I had understood them until I began the research for this book. I begin my book with Robert Cushman, who as of 1603 was an apprentice to a grocer in Canterbury. He was excommunicated for posting “libels” on church doors, dabbled with something akin to antinomianism in Canterbury, became a wool comber in Leiden, had a falling out with the other organizers of the colony, and preached a remarkable lay sermon during his very brief stay in Plymouth. If you think you know the Pilgrims, think again. I promise that what you’ll learn in this book will surprise you.

I also discovered that the seventy-year history of Plymouth Colony contains a host of remarkable episodes about a variety of peoples. If you read They Knew They Were Pilgrims, you’ll learn about an expanded cast of characters: an African American slave who became one of the first “English” casualties in King Philip’s War; the decades-long struggle of Quakers for religious liberty; a female sachem who held her community together for two decades amid war and dispossession. In addition to fresh material about seventeenth-century understandings of liberty, there are a lot of gritty human stories in this book.

JF: You have now written books with subjects based in the 20th century (Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ), 19th century (Brigham Young), and now the 17th century (Plymouth). What are the challenges of writing across such a wide historical spectrum?

JT: The foremost challenge is getting up to speed on the existing scholarship. Let’s face it – there’s a tremendous volume of books appearing on so many elements of American religious history. It’s a golden age for the field, from my vantage point. So many scholars are writing deeply researched and eloquently written books. It’s very hard to keep up! Just think about the deluge of titles published in the last decade on twentieth-century evangelicals or on the Latter-day Saints.

At the same time, though, I’ve found it very refreshing to immerse myself in new places and times. We require our students to study things with which they are unfamiliar, so it’s good for us to do so as well, at least from time to time. I also love meeting new people, both people from past centuries in archival sources and new scholars who work on various subjects.

My research strategy has always been to immerse myself as much as possible in a new subject and its sources. I really marvel at the many people in our field with the ability to trace a phenomenon or group across time and place. Many recent examples come to mind, such as Erik Seeman’s Speaking with the Dead in Early America, David Silverman’s This Land Is Their Land, or to mention some slightly older but even more expansive and synthetic books, Colleen McDannell’s Heaven or Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries.

JF: What is your next project?

JT: I’m writing a biography of Joseph Smith. It seems that despite my penchant and preference for new subjects, I can’t quite get away from early Mormonism.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Brian Luskey

men is cheapBrian Luskey is Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University. This interview is based on his new book, Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Men is Cheap?

BL: My book illuminates three interests of mine–the importance of middlemen in the nineteenth-century American economy, the cultural conversation about bad businessmen in this era, and the economic history of ordinary people in the Civil War–and constitutes my attempt to show that these themes intersect with each other.

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

BL: Fought to uphold the ideal of “free labor,” the war for Union encouraged Northern entrepreneurs, employers, and soldiers to envision their impending success through the accumulation of capital, and Yankees often sought the independence that capital purchased by employing laborers whom the war had made vulnerable. The war seemed to offer some Northerners opportunities to get rich because it clarified that other Americans were poor.

JF: Why do we need to read Men is Cheap?

BL: My book shows how the Civil War and the wage labor economy shaped each other. It is about labor brokers–failed businessmen, recruiters, officers, soldiers, and bounty men–who facilitated the movement of workers–Irish immigrants, former slaves, Confederate deserters, and Union soldiers and veterans–to work in the army and in northern households during the Civil War. The economic activities of these brokers and the cultural conflict about them reveal the nature and limits of free labor ideology as northern employers sought to benefit from the destruction of slavery and slavery’s capital during the war.

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

BL: I’ve been interested in American History since a family trip to the Gettysburg battlefield when I was eight years old. My parents bought me Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War and I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I was a student at Davidson College when mentors such as Vivien Dietz, John Wertheimer, and Sally McMillen taught me not only how to be a good historian but also that being an academic historian was a career option. I fell in love with historical research and writing under their tutelage, and the rest is history.

JF: What is your next project?

BL: Honestly, I don’t know what my next book will be about, but I’m preparing to write an article about the relationships Abraham and Mary Lincoln forged with laboring people and the ways the Lincolns served as labor brokers in the Civil War Era.

JF: Thanks, Brian!