The Author’s Corner with Christopher Pearl

conceived in crisisChristopher Pearl is Associate Professor of History at Lycoming College. This interview is based on his new book, Conceived in Crisis: The Revolutionary Creation of an American State (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Conceived in Crisis?

CP: At face value, that question seems simple, and people ask me that question a lot. But, at the same time, it is hard to answer succinctly. So, I apologize for this rather lengthy response.

If I had to sum it up, I think it started out of simple interest–I wanted to understand the causes and consequences of the American Revolution. I love the literature on the American Revolution, but always debated how the interpretations of the more imperial centered histories and domestic revolutionary histories worked together (a rather standard starting place, for sure). We have an extensive body of literature that interprets the causes of the American Revolution through an external lens, particularly through the dispute between the British Parliament and the colonial legislatures over constitutional issues, especially sovereignty. Then, we have another excellent vantage point looking at domestic problems rooted in the intersection of economics and politics. Adding to that, we have a vibrant history of the frontier and the racial, economic, and political motivations for dissent and revolution there, which often bridge the divide between imperial and domestic origins. And then we have investigations of the revolutionary war that see that period as dynamic for the foundation of the United States. I wanted to understand how all of those issues and periods intersected.

I think the other motivation for this book is my interest in governance–both how people in general experience power as structured in a particular government and how they understand what a government should do on the ground. We have a rich history about how early Americans thought about the limits of government, but, the other question, I think, is asking what early Americans thought about the place of government in their daily lives, or, quite simply, what government should and could do?

My book is an attempt to bring those questions together by looking at the structure of government, the practice of governing, and how people wrote and thought about both. I tried to do that in one colony turned state, Pennsylvania (sometimes on a very mundane level). For example, how do debates over the structure of the local courts or the regulation of fishing, hunting, lotteries, wagon wheels, oysters, bread, leather, the quality and price of consumer goods, or something as large and significant as land and property ownership (to name just a few) reveal essential aspects of early American visions of government and governance, and how did that understanding of government and governance shape the causes of the American Revolution and the states that were birthed in that moment? I try to address those questions directly in my book, showing how the dialogue about colonial and imperial governance shaped both the causes of the revolution and how the new states were formed and governed.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Conceived in Crisis?

CP: At a basic level, Conceived in Crisis argues that the American Revolution was not just the product of the Imperial Crisis, brought on by the British Parliament’s attempt to impose a new idea of empire on the American colonies. To an equal or greater degree, it was a response to the inability of individual colonial governments to deliver basic services, which undermined their legitimacy. Factional bickering over policy, violent extralegal regulations, and the dreadful experiences of conducting an imperial war while governing a demographically growing and geographically expanding population all led colonists and imperial officials to consider reforming the colonial governments into more powerful and coercive entities. Using Pennsylvania as a case study, my book demonstrates how this history of ineffective colonial governance precipitated a process of state formation that was accelerated by the demands of the Revolutionary War.

JF: Why do we need to read Conceived in Crisis?

CP: I think my book is important for its investigation of how problems of governance at the localist of levels helps explain the causes of the American Revolution and how colonies became states. Moreover, I think my book is important because it makes us grapple with how revolutionaries understood the basic principles of governance during a foundational moment for the United States. As I look out at the political landscape, I am continually struck by how many Americans don’t quite understand or have a very narrow conception of how the founding generation understood government. We tend to focus on “the founders” and the limits of government rather than how that generation envisioned what governments do and why they do it. I think my book is essential in filling that gap.

Despite my confidence in what I just laid out, I want to emphasize that my book is an attempt. I think more needs to be done to understand the myriad of ways that governments and the governed worked out the basic contours of governance in the revolutionary era.

Happily, many of the issues I see as intimately intertwined with what I tried to do are being done or have been recently done. I think recent works by Brian Philips Murphy, Robert Parkinson, Alan Taylor, Jessica Roney, Cole Jones, Patrick Spero, Ryan A. Quintana, Whitney Martinko, and Max Edling, coupled with some anticipated books by Hannah Farber, Susan Gaunt Stearns, Michael Blaakman, and Matthew Spooner, for instance, are and will be really important. The collective history here, I think, tells a significant story about the revolutionary era in a way that should make us rethink standard narratives, and through that, the thrust of history in the United States. As scholars, we all have individual focuses, and sometimes we disagree, but taken together our work tells a rich history and I think we are in an excellent moment for a new understanding of the revolutionary era.

As I look out at the new and coming literature on the American Revolution, I am energized. It has made me appreciate something Thad Tate wrote about the field in 1977. For Tate, the bicentennial of American Independence influenced scholars, from a host of directions, who tried to come to grips with the American Revolution. Surveying the scholarly scene, Tate thought that “the results were so impressive as to appear to leave limited room for additional work in the immediate future.” Time, Tate concluded, was necessary to digest and make sense of it all. I think that we are in the early stages of something similar, and I am excited.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the sources material you worked with in the writing and researching of Conceived in Crisis.

CP: I wanted to understand the practice of governing in the revolutionary period, so I started by creating a database of petitions to Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature from 1740 to 1775, trying to find common complaints and requests. Through that, I focused on public petitions, or, rather, petitions signed by multiple people asking for legislative action. Once there, it became readily apparent that there was a severe disconnect between how the government and the governed understood the basic elements of governance. Tracking the dialogue between “the people” and the government in other sources, such as court records, legislative minutes, statutes, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and private papers framed the book as it now exists. I think it all came together when I started to see the same requests over and again demanding reform of the judicial system and regulatory policies. Those were key reform issues throughout the eighteenth century. As Laura F. Edwards demonstrates in her book, The People and Their Peace, local legal institutions had a significant impact on the lives of all people in early America. The way they functioned shaped everyone’s economic existence and the security of their communities. In essence, courts and regulatory policies at the most local of levels, shaped by colonial, and, eventually, statewide laws, represented the totality of governance for most early Americans. When I found that those local grievances started to make their way into a wider public political dialogue in the 1760s and 1770s, essentially linking something disparate into something far more oppositional, and then the same ideas for change informed the state constitutions and subsequent legislation by the state governments during the revolutionary war, I knew I had an interesting thread to track down and write about.

JF: What is your next project?

CP: I am currently working on a book project that analyzes the development of American executives during the American Revolution by looking at the wartime tenures of the fledgling state governors, presidents, and plural executive councils of five states–Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Such a study seems both timely and necessary considering the prevalence of modern discussion concerning the proper reach and remit of executives (of all stripes) as well as recent trends in the scholarly literature reemphasizing the importance of the war years to the development of the United States. Through this project, I am trying to understand how the war years shaped how executives acted, but more importantly, how people on the ground perceived and debated executive powers. I want to tease out how early Americans, from all walks of life, envisioned and experienced executive power. I think this new project will show how executive action and the public dialogue that it instigated had a lasting impact on a particularly American variety of executive power during the early republic and beyond. Thankfully, I will be a research fellow at The David Center for the American Revolution and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies next year to help complete the project.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

The Author’s Corner with Jessica Marie Johnson

Wicked fleshJessica Marie Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. This interview is based on her new book, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: In 1999, I took my first trip to New Orleans and my research on its history began not long after that as a Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. I was immediately struck by the power of a city steeped in its own history and of a history wrapped in (seeming) contradictions. From its founding, New Orleans has been inundated with African diasporic social, cultural, and political life. New Orleans has also been an intensely racist, colonial city where deep social, cultural, and political rifts rooted in race, class, color, gender, and sexuality become fault lines residents of African descent must navigate with care and at the risk of their own lives. Hurricane Katrina made this aggressively clear; COVID-19 (New Orleans was the second most active hotspot next to New York City) demonstrated it again.

And yet cutting across these truths is also the presence of Black women at every level and in every texture of historical and contemporary life. Black woman professors holding space for students at Tulane, Dillard, and Xavier Universities; Black women laborers work at cafes, restaurants, and bars; Black nuns and Catholic culture suffuse the calendar with occasions for feasts and penitence; Black women guide systems of belief from Spiritual Churches to Santería to vodun; Black women change the narrative as artists and culture workers. Black women in New Orleans are unapologetic in their strategies for play and pleasure. As a historian, I wanted to know more about the roots of this fiercely independent, community-accountable, and geographically rooted practice of living freedom. I wanted to consider the challenges that these practices faced in a city and region that experienced three slaveholding empires (French, Spanish, United States) and grew into an urban space during the Age of Revolution, but became the homebase of plantation empire as the U.S. moved into the nineteenth century.

It became clear very quickly in my research and thanks to foundational work by Jennifer Spear, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Paul Lachance, Virginia Meacham Gould, Daniel Usner, Tom Ingersoll, and connective work by Ira Berlin and Michael Gomez, that African history is where the story of the city begins, that the Caribbean is where the story connects, and that Black women were central to everything we think we know about New Orleans and the Atlantic world. New Orleans is a site of overlapping Atlantics, where diasporic and archipelagic flows splash and crash into each other. These flows have ramifications for all involved, but especially for African women and women of African descent. And yet, historians have not centered Black women when they tell the story of the founding of the city or the African presence in the region. I wrote this book as a way to witness Black women’s foundational work as an archive, history, and legacy.

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

JMJ: Wicked Flesh is a Black feminist history of the founding of the Gulf Coast. In it, I argue that over the course of the eighteenth century, the intimate and kinship strategies of African women and women of African descent reshaped the meaning of freedom in the French Atlantic, laying the groundwork for Black resistance strategies and abolitionist practices of the nineteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: Black women, when mentioned, are often relegated to the footnotes of histories of the early modern, early American, and Atlantic worlds. However, race, sex and gender function as more than categories of analysis for historians interested in molding records and archaic stories. Race, sex, and gender were organizing principles of the early modern world, used by historical subjects in their fight over resources (politics), their relations with each other (society), and in the meaning they made of the world around them (culture). African women and women of African descent, or those who came to be seen as Black (in all of its iterations) and woman (in all of its complications) shaped the slaveholding empires of the eighteenth century. They did so through their presence and through the symbolic labor (to draw on Jennifer Morgan) they were forced to engage in when slaveowners, colonial officials, slave ship captains, husbands, white women, and more used their bodies, their Africanness, their blackness, their assumptions about their sexuality, and the practices they engaged in for their own safety and security as reasons to enslave (partus sequitur ventrem), commodify, exploit, violate, and deny them equivalent access to rights and privileges.

But if that isn’t enough of a reason to read Wicked Flesh, there is more. Part of what I argue in this book is Black women did more than survive these attempts at control and coercion. They reshaped the nature of freedom through each challenge and affront to their survival. At each step in Wicked Flesh, year by year as the slaving process proceeded, crystallized, and evolved, African women and women of African descent refused to abide by the boundaries officials placed on or around them. Their refusal, sometimes physical, sometimes legalistic, sometimes more fugitive and maroon, changed the terms of what freedom (and slavery) meant. In other words, enslavement was a process and as a process has a history that we need to understand deeply and intricately. African women and women of African descent were key players in that history and in contesting enslavement.

None of this means Black women were always successful (and, in fact, this book queries what “success” even means in a world of slaves). In Wicked Flesh, we see how success and failure as a binary of freed (success) or enslaved (failure) are false binaries for understanding African women who were part of New Orleans’ Atlantic World–a geography that in this book stretches from coastal Senegal to the Caribbean to the shores of the Gulf Coast. Instead, exploring Black women’s lives and history offers a different vision of freedom. It offers a fuller history of Black womanhood, Black humanity, and African diasporic early modern life, but it also reshapes how we historicize empire, violence, pleasure, property, aesthetics, refusal and contestation.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you used in the writing and researching of Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: The eighteenth century generated astronomical amounts of material on Africans and people of African descent as slaves, but not always as human beings. So I also drew on contemporary Black feminist theory, Black queer/trans theory, Black women’s literature and poetry to inform my reading of the archive and the documents. Where and when I could, I centered the cultural production of Black women of New Orleans or who claim New Orleans as an ancestral site like Rae Paris, Brenda Marie Osbey, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson, Jeri Hilt and others, letting their cultural work inform my reading of the sources.

JF: What is your next project?

JMJ: Dark Codex: Blackness, History and the Digital explores the way images and texts created out of slavery’s archive resonate across digital and social media. In Dark Codex, I explore research, teaching, and theories that position Atlantic African diaspora history and histories of slavery as the unforeseen and oft-ignored heart of the digital humanities. As a digital humanities scholar, I’ve had the opportunity to explore questions of history, slavery and the digital as the as the curator of sites like African Diaspora, Ph.D. (http://africandiasporaphd.com) and Diaspora Hypertext, the Blog (http://dh.jmjafrx.com). Dark Codex continues this work by exploring the history of the study of slavery (from U.B. Phillips to the Slave Voyages Database) alongside the historical and digital practices of everyday black women and women of color.

I’m excited to be able to spend the Spring 2021 semester working on this project as a fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

JF: Thanks, Jessica!

The Author’s Corner with Nathan Kalmoe

with ballots and bulletsNathan Kalmoe is Assistant Professor of Political Communication at Louisiana State University. This interview is based on his new book, With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write With Ballots and Bullets?

NK: The short answer is that I sought to provide a broader, more representative view of ordinary Civil War Era voters than is typically found in most histories, and I wanted to consider what the violent extremes of that era might tell us about the nature of mass partisanship more generally.

I’m a political scientist who specializes in quantitative public opinion research in the modern United States, but I’ve been reading academic and popular histories on the Civil War Era for most of my adult life. In grad school, I began to see that my field’s narrow focus on the survey era of American public opinion (roughly 1950s onward) greatly impoverished our understanding of public opinion across a broader set of contexts, especially for how we understand the bounds of partisanship. At the same time, I saw opportunities to make unique methodological and theoretical contributions to our understanding of the Civil War Era based on my expertise in the political psychology of contemporary public opinion. In doing so, I was careful to consult closely with several historians of the period and to read extensively to ensure that I was appropriately respectful of work by historians and informed enough to identify where interdisciplinary interventions could be useful in each field.

As I read political histories of the war, I began to recognize that partisanship was central to the violence and its politics, both between the sections and within the North, which is the book’s focus. Of course, conflicts over enslavement and white supremacy were at its heart, but the political parties embodied those differences and served as the political instruments that mobilized mass warfare. Partisan coalitions, though newly formed, were powerful vehicles for collective war-making and electioneering during the war. That view of partisanship clashes with the relatively benign views of mass partisanship in my home discipline (due to the field’s myopic contemporary focus), and I saw an opportunity to cautiously integrate disciplines in a way that leveraged the insights from both for mutual benefit.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of With Ballots and Bullets?

NK: The Civil War experience shows the powerful extremes of mass partisanship clearly, but it also shows how bullets can, at rare moments, be an essential means of advancing democracy alongside ballots, not just a force in opposition to it. Partisan identities and leadership are far more powerful forces than U.S. social scientists have generally recognized–especially when fused with other potent social identities like race and religion–including the power to mobilize mass violence and rationalize almost any events to fit prior political beliefs.

JF: Why do we need to read With Ballots and Bullets?

NK: The book helps us better understand the mass politics of America’s most defining crisis, which still reverberates in our politics today. It also shows that ordinary partisanship can be far more powerful than political scientists generally recognize. The book combines insights and methods from history and political science to provide a new and expanded view of extreme partisanship. Taking a comparative approach to recognize similar types and processes, I also raise tentative questions about what Civil War partisanship can tell us about partisanship today – including the threats to democracy we face in the next few months and years.

In particular, I focus on 1) the surprising endurance of partisan voting patterns across party systems in the Northern electorate, despite new party coalitions, analyzing county and state election returns, 2) the rhetoric of the party press and party leaders more broadly in mobilizing war participation and sustaining their electoral coalitions, with systematic content analysis from a representative sample of Northern newspapers, 3) the effectiveness of Republican leaders mobilizing their voters into the Union military effort, more so than Democrats, as seen through enlistment, desertion, and death variations across partisan localities leveraging the service records of over 1 million Union soldiers, 4) the general insensitivity of voters to national and local casualties when casting their votes, with the exception of places that leaned toward Democrats before the war, 5) the general insensitivity of the voting public to the war’s monumental events, including the storied fall of Atlanta in 1864, and 6) the enduring partisan legacy of the war for decades effort in voting patterns, war memorialization, and veterans’ organizations. The results tell us much about partisanship in the Civil War and what ordinary partisanship can do more generally under extraordinary circumstances.

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

NK: I described my professional background and project motivations above, but I’ll add a few related observations here. My passion for the politics of the era was of no immediate use to my work in grad school. The public opinion subfield in political science focuses almost entirely on recent trends, and the study of American history in political science has some stellar practitioners but is generally shunted aside, to our detriment. The earliest ideas in this project were partly an effort to excuse all the time I had spent reading history when I should’ve been doing more relevant work (in addition to the joy of pursuing what I found to be most interesting)! It took another decade to find the data, the time, and the review of past work to bring the book together.

Disciplinary boundaries make it harder to do the kinds of integrative work I aimed for here, and, I would’ve accomplished this work better if I had benefited from greater integration. Luckily, I was able to draw on the expertise of several historians and history-focused political scientists to avoid some of the larger blunders I could’ve made in a project of this ambition. In some ways our more developed fields have moved backwards on this front. The 19th century political histories written in the 1960s and 1970s frequently engaged with cutting-edge public opinion research and often adopted quantitative methods and big-picture analysis like I pursue here. Likewise, mid-century political scientists were much more well-versed in early American history and drew on it much more heavily than American-focused political scientists today.

I’m gratified to see more history-focused work in political science, both to better explain important patterns and developments in the past and to consider the past comparatively to draw better inferences about how democratic politics works across broader contexts.

JF: What is your next project?

NK: My next project is a book called Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Extreme Hostility, Its Causes, & What It Means for Democracy, coauthored with Dr. Lilliana Mason. It analyzes many of the same violent and authoritarian themes found in With Ballots & Bullets. We assess the extent of extreme partisan attitudes and behaviors in the contemporary U.S. using more conventional public opinion methods of surveys and experiments, but with dozens of new questions and tests overlooked by the myopic focus of my field. The book is under advance contract with University of Chicago Press, and we aim to have it in print by the end of 2021.

JF: Thanks, Nathan!

The Author’s Corner with William Barney

Rebels in the makingWilliam Barney is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This interview is based on his new book, Rebels in the Making: The Secession Crisis and the Birth of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Rebels in the Making?

WB: A life-long interest in the Civil War era, probably spurred on by reading Bruce Catton’s books back in high school, led me into teaching and writing U.S. history as a career. During my graduate years at Columbia my interest in the Civil War focused on trying to understand the motives behind Southern secession, the underlying theme running through Rebels in the Making.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Rebels in the Making?

WB: In Rebels in the Making I argue that secession was not a mass democratic movement, but one led from above by a strategically placed minority of slaveholders. What drove secession was the need to protect slavery from the perceived threat posed by the coming to power of the antislavery Republican Party.

JF: Why do we need to read Rebels in the Making?

WB: Rebels in the Making is the first comprehensive, one-volume study of secession in all fifteen slave states, and it places secession in the economic, cultural, and social context of a maturing slave society in which, by the 1850s, opportunities for upward mobility were shrinking for non-slaveholders at the very time that the antislavery, free labor movement in the North was threatening to close off federal territories to the spread of slavery. Secession was designed to resolve this dual crisis while simultaneously demonstrating to the world the moral justice and superiority of slavery as a social system.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you worked with in the writing and researching of Rebels in the Making. 

WB: I cast a broad net in searching for source materials–personal letters, diaries, and journals; slave narratives; legislative and judicial records; religious sermons; and newspapers. As much as possible, the voices of non-traditional political actors such as women, African Americans, and common whites are included.

JF: What is your next project?

WB: Currently, I’m researching how and why the near unity behind the Confederacy achieved in the spring of 1861 unraveled as the war proceeded. Among the issues I’m exploring are the depth of Confederate nationalism; the role of class in Confederate dissent; the Confederate army as a nationalizing agent; and the factors behind the soldier-civilian divide which widened as the war dragged on.

JF: Thanks, William!

The Author’s Corner with Lauren Thompson

book cover (1)Lauren Thompson is  Assistant Professor of History at McKendree University. This interview is based on her new book, Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Friendly Enemies?

LT: In the Summer of 2009, I was a Seasonal Park Ranger at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park. At the end of each day, I would make my rounds in the visitor centers before locking up. One evening, I was drawn to an exhibit in the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, entitled “Friendly Enemies.” The exhibit, which has since been replaced when the visitor center received an upgrade, depicted Union and Confederate soldiers trading coffee and tobacco along the Rappahannock River during the Winter of 1863. I kept trying to wrap my head around such strange interactions. The daily tours I gave were all about the bloodshed and carnage. How were men able to brush off those horrors and fraternize with the enemy?

I wanted to see if I could understand, from the soldiers’ themselves, why they traded with their enemy. Initially, I had hoped I could find a soldier or two who could explain it to me. Little did I know, I found dozens of soldiers’ depictions of fraternization across the Rappahannock. While working on my doctorate, I could not help but wonder if fraternization happened elsewhere–at different campaigns and between men in different armies. I visited archives in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia. Their accounts revealed that anytime soldiers opposed one another for extended periods of time, they fraternized. Their interactions went beyond the trade of coffee and tobacco, too. Many times, it was in the form of newspaper exchanges, and, most importantly, the negotiation of ceasefires to limit bloodshed. It was at this point I realized these interactions meant something much greater to these soldiers than I had originally thought. I set out to answer where, why, and how fraternization happened.

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

LT: When citizen soldiers experienced unthinkable hardships, they coped with warfare by carving out spaces of fraternity, reprieve, and survival. Fraternization highlights soldiers’ ability to shed sectional differences and identify with one another’s mutual circumstances.

JF: Why do we need to read Friendly Enemies?

LT: An in-depth analysis of fraternization demonstrates how Union and Confederate soldiers worked together to limit bloodshed amidst the bloodiest war in American History. It is incredible that enemies traded during the siege of Chattanooga on the slopes of Missionary Ridge and had “swimming parties” in the Chattahoochee after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Fraternization, thus, demonstrates a critical nuance in scholarship on the common soldier. We tend to classify soldiers into dichotomies i.e. volunteer v. conscript, courageous v. coward, steadfast v. deserter, etc. At first, I thought, perhaps the men who fraternized were just “bad” soldiers–men who did not want to be there and would do anything and everything to express their dissatisfaction. However, as I read about the men who fraternized, they were anything but cowards–-in fact, many of them received promotions and a handful were Medal of Honor awardees. The overwhelming majority of them were volunteer soldiers, who wrote openly about fraternization (and the benefits it provided) while simultaneously expressing their anger for cowards and shirkers. They also recorded their loyalty to their service and efforts to remain enlisted until the war’s end.

This study also helps us understand postwar race relations. While fraternizing, men did not discuss slavery, sectional strife, or, most importantly, over what terms they would end the war. Thus, common soldiers began a trend that we would see on a national scale after the guns fell silent in April 1865. Fraternization was the prototype for sectional reunion after the war–one that avoided debates over causation, honored soldiers’ shared sacrifice, and promoted white male supremacy.

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

LT: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. My mom loved history and took my brother and I to historical sites in the region–Gettysburg & Antietam–when were in grade school. It was from that point on that I wanted to learn everything about the Civil War. We’d read books, watch documentaries, and go to reenactments. Upon majoring in History in college, I realized there was so much more to learn about the Civil War Era and US History as a whole. It was at that time my advisor encouraged me to pursue my PhD–I wanted to keep learning history and most of all, I wanted to teach it. For any event in history, there are multiple perspectives. I like to uncover and tell the stories we rarely hear about.

JF: What is your next project?

LT: My next project is going to shift gears and jump from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era. I now live and teach in St. Louis, Missouri. I teach African-American History and have become involved in local social justice groups. And, I also really enjoy learning about Sports History. Sports and recreation can be a lens to investigate race, class, and gender. I am researching race relations and recreation in St. Louis, particularly in public parks, youth sports, and high school athletics during the Civil Rights Era.

JF: Thanks, Lauren!

The Author’s Corner with Wendy Raphael Roberts

awakening verseWendy Roberts is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Albany, SUNY. This interview is based on her new book, Awakening Verse: The Poetics of Early American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Awakening Verse?

WR: When I began to study American poetry seriously in graduate school, I simply could not believe that early evangelicalism would have had no impact on verse in early America; yet, it seemed absent from most of the conversation. When it was there, it was a discussion primarily about hymns. I wondered if people involved in the early revivals wrote non-hymnal poetry and what function it served. It turns out they did—a lot of it—and that it was central to their experience and to the development of both American history and literature.

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

WR: Awakening Verse, which is the first history of non-hymnal poetry in British North America, argues that early evangelicalism must be understood as a central aesthetic movement of the eighteenth century; and that to understand early evangelicalism as it first took shape requires sustained attention to its prolific poetry. I show that verse was foundational to evangelical belief and culture because it infused believers with the emotions and feelings necessary for a close relationship with Christ, for living out tensions in theology and society, and for performing lay ministries.

JF: Why do we need to read Awakening Verse?

WR: I think most people will be surprised at the extensive role of poetry in early America. Trying to understand early American culture, and especially evangelicalism, without attention to poetry is akin to trying to understand the last decade without acknowledging the influence of social media. Because the book helps break down a split between “secular” literature and religion, and between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” literatures, it reveals that literature and religious experience are deeply entwined, and that entanglement is important to American history. Even further, this book is important to read now because it shows how revival verse produced evangelical feelings that reinforced certain classed, raced, and gendered structures. Evangelicals have prided themselves on creating a less hierarchal and a more accessible version of Christianity. Yet, the actual history is much more complicated. Right now white evangelicals are reckoning with their complicity with white supremacy; this book can help with that endeavor.

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

WR: I have always loved poetry and analyzing words and rhetoric. But I think that my own experience at an evangelical university and then a secular university made me hyper-aware that textual analysis is crucially tied up in history. At the same time, you cannot get to those meanings outside of the words. To me this pointed toward a beautiful messiness that I thought could produce respectful dialogue between Christian and non-Christian perspectives. This motivated me to study literary history.

JF: What is your next project?

WR: I have two projects: one seeks to answer the question of what the evangelical long poem, which became popular in the eighteenth century, tells us about the relationship of settler colonialism and evangelicalism. The other is a history of the poetic coteries with which Phillis Wheatley, the first Black American woman to publish a book of poetry, interacted.

JF: Thanks, Wendy!

The Author’s Corner with Warren Milteer

North Carolina's Free People of ColorWarren Milteer is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This interview is based on his new book, North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 is derived from my interests in my family history. My passion for researching my family roots led me to conducting research in archives and courthouses. The information that I uncovered encouraged me to ask broader questions about the experiences of free people of color, both my ancestors as well as others who shared the same status. Free people of color became the focus of my academic research during my undergraduate studies. I continued my work through graduate school and wrote my dissertation on the topic. North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 is a revised and expanded version of my project from graduate school.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: The book argues that intersections among freedom status, racial categorization, gender, wealth, occupation, reputation, and other forms of hierarchy created a wide range of experiences for free people of color in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North Carolina. The story of North Carolina’s free people of color challenges previous understandings of the American South as a place organized under a strict racial hierarchy, suggesting instead that free people of color lived in a society with a much more malleable social order that permitted some free people of color to become relatively successful while others struggled for their subsistence.

JF: Why do we need to read North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 offers us with a fresh understanding of the origins and status of free people of color in North Carolina and to some extent the South more broadly. I provide readers with a careful analysis of the development of “free people of color” as a sociopolitical category in addition to exploring the diverse experiences of free people of color. Unlike most studies of free people of color in the South, I focus not only on the African origins of free people of color but also consider the importance of Native peoples in the growth of the population. This study of free people of color bridges the divide between the histories of people of African and Native descent in the South. My book highlights the importance of various forms of hierarchy in the daily lives of free people of color. The rights and privileges of free people of color were defined by their racial categorization but also by whether they were men or women, rich or poor, or considered respectable by their neighbors. Life for poor free persons of color differed significantly from the experiences of financially successful free people of color. Free men of color enjoyed privileges unavailable to free women of color. Furthermore, nearly one in eight of the South’s free people of color lived in North Carolina, making North Carolina a particularly appropriate site to examine in order to understand how freedom and slavery coexisted pre-1865 America.

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

WM: I have been interested in history since childhood. As a teenager, I developed a passion for historical research, which continued through college. During college, I decided to pursue the study of American history as a career.

JF: What is your next project?

WM: My next project focuses on free people of color in what would become the U.S. South from the colonial period through the Civil War. The project examines the evolution of the political debates concerning free people of color and how free people of color responded to the back and forth of social acceptance and political attacks.

JF: Thanks, Warren!

The Author’s Corner with R.B. Bernstein

The education of john adamsR.B. Bernstein is a Lecturer in Political Science at the City College of New York and teaches in the Skadden, Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies at the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership. This interview is based on his new book, The Education of John Adams

JF: What led you to write The Education of John Adams?

RBB: I often tell people that the source of my desire to write a book about John Adams was the coincidence of a movie and a mentor. In 1971, I saw the movie 1776, and I was captivated by William Daniels as John Adams and the late Virginia Vestoff as Abigail Adams.  That movie got a lot of us into the history field from the generation who are now in their late 50s and early 60s. But that wasn’t enough. Was what was enough was a chance remark by my mentor, Henry Steele Commager. I was helping him with the proofs of his book Empire of Reason, a study of the European and American enlightenments in which John Adams played a prominent role. Suddenly he looked at me and said, “Young Bernstein you should write a book about John Adams.” I took it as a mandate, and I promised myself that I would fulfill it.  To be candid, there was a third cause. In 2001, I bought and read John Adams by David McCullough. And I was profoundly disappointed, in particular because it did not make sense to me that so large a book left his ideas on the cutting room floor. I vowed to do better.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Education of John Adams?

RBB: In understanding John Adams, we must understand his ideas and his character and how the two influenced each other. I have tried to write a biography that takes both aspects of his life seriously and that shows how they are related.

JF: Why do we need to read The Education of John Adams?

RBB: You should read my book on John Adams because I have sought to bridge the gap separating the two prevailing treatments of him. Most studies of John Adams look at his character without his ideas, and most of the rest look at his ideas without his character. I have tried to show how both his ideas and his character shaped and reflected each other. I have also written a concise book that will not put too many demands on the reader, a book that I also worked very hard to make as clear and direct as possible and as free from scholarly jargon as possible.

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

RBB: I have been interested in American history as long as I can remember. It was a matter not of choosing to be interested in history but of choosing which era of US history to be interested in and which kinds of issues and problems seemed to me most worth exploring. That is why I ended up as a constitutional and legal historian seeking to understand the era of the American revolution and the nation’s founding. I am pretty sure, for example, that I am the first biographer of John Adams with legal training and experience, which helped me to understand more deeply this man of law.

JF: What is your next project?

RBB: I actually have a few projects in view. I am writing two short books on Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson for the Oxford University Press series Very Short Introductions. After that, I will turn to writing The Man Who Gave Up Power: A Life of George Washington. That book rounds out a trilogy on the first three presidents of the United States. I also plan to write a modern biography of John Jay and a monograph on the First Federal Congress.

JF: Thanks, R.B.!

Back in the Zoo: 1920 Meets 2020

1920 meets 2020Annie Thorn is a junior 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 visit to North America’s largest auto museum during a pandemic. —JF

North America’s largest auto museum is ten minutes away from my house. However, despite its close proximity to my childhood residence, I’ve only been there a handful of times. Evidently my parents took me there when I was in a stroller, but I don’t remember it one bit.  I have a vague memory of attending a graduation party in a white tent on the museum’s lawn, and a much clearer one of getting a side-splitting cramp on a cross country course that stretched around its 90-acre grounds. Yet it wasn’t until very recently that I explored the Gilmore Car Museum for myself.

Shortly after I returned to Michigan in March, museums and other non-essential businesses closed due to COVID-19 and the Gilmore Car Museum was no exception. Three months later, with Barry County in phase four of six in Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Safe Start plan, the institution has re-opened with stringent social distancing measures in place. Looking for something new to do after months of lockdown, curious about what it would be like to visit a socially distanced museum, and suddenly eager to explore the piece of local history immortalized just ten minutes from my house, I decided to make the six-mile trip on a Saturday afternoon. 

With several barns and buildings filled with exhibits and over 400 vintage automobiles, the Gilmore Car Museum is a sight to behold. In one building you can see the first Model A ever produced, which Henry Ford gave to his friend Thomas Edison hot off the assembly line. Another car barn–my personal favorite–houses the “Women Who Motor” exhibit. In addition to an antique Shell gas station and a walk-through timeline of automation in the museum’s main building, Gilmore also displays a mint green Cadillac that I think looks just like Flo from the Pixar movie Cars.

While I was impressed by the exhibits at the museum, I was even more impressed with Gilmore’s strict adherence to social distancing guidelines. When they weren’t answering our questions or directing us through the exhibits (from 6 feet away of course), the limited museum staff kept themselves busy cleaning exhibits and highly-trafficked areas. With the exception of an occasional held door, museum patrons were also diligent about maintaining six feet of social distance. Signs, hand sanitizing stations, and floor markings reminded us of our duty to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy. With the exception of two teenage girls who pulled their masks back over their faces when we came into view, virtually everyone at the museum wore face coverings. I saw more masks there than I’ve seen at the grocery store, the gas station, and the restaurant where I get take-out. 

Unlike hand sanitizer and toilet paper, there’s no shortage of people calling 2020 a historic time. We look back at the moments of our past and catalogue the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the terrorist attacks of 9/11, World War II, and other events that have shaped the nation. Even standing in the middle of a reconstructed past at the Gilmore Car Museum, walking alongside Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and many 20th century automobile-collectors, I was constantly reminded–by the masks, the signs, the floor markings–of our nation’s present moment. The world looked a lot different in 1920 than it does today, and that’s a strange, beautiful, and fascinating thing.

As we continue in our own historic time, we need to remember to check our rear-view mirrors every once in a while.  Often times looking back and tracing our steps is the best way to chart a course forward. Delving into our past through research, books, even socially-distanced museums can help us stand our ground even in the most tumultuous times. In order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been.

The Author’s Corner with Jeffrey Einboden

Jefferson's Muslim Fugitives Cover PhotoJeffrey Einboden is Presidential Research, Scholarship and Artistry Professor at Northern Illinois University. This interview is based on his new book, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives: The Lost Story of Enslaved Africans, their Arabic Letters, and an American President (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives?

JE: Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives marks the culmination of an archival search spanning the past decade, during which I sought to recover Arabic writings by Muslims enslaved in early America. Crucial to my search’s first years was a 2011 NEH Fellowship, supporting my translation and teaching of such lost manuscripts by enslaved West Africans. To my surprise, I experienced best success in locating these rare and rich sources among the papers of some of the most prominent figures of the early Republic: professors, politicians, and ultimately a U.S. president. This ironic facet of my research process also shapes the book’s narrative, which not only reveals extraordinary acts of authorship by enslaved Muslims, but recounts the improbable dissemination of their Arabic writings, ascending to even the highest halls of U.S. power.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives?

JE: Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives uncovers the astonishing story that surrounds a date now wholly lost to U.S. history: October 4, 1807–the day that Thomas Jefferson was handed Arabic writings penned by two African Muslims resisting captivity in rural Kentucky. Straddling borders of race, religion and region, the book argues that these Arabic manuscripts formed a vital part of the President’s life-long engagement with Islam, while embodying a broader tradition of literary exchange between enslaved Muslims and the early American elite that has remained largely hidden for two centuries.

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

JE: Accessible in style and narrative in structure, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives reveals for the first time a range of historic sources that hold urgent contemporary relevance. Straddling polarities–America and Islam; captive West Africans and a U.S. President; the history of slavery and Arabic literacy–the book sheds new light on the fraught legacies of a Founding Father, while also uncovering lost witnesses to a profound heritage of African American authorship. Interweaving manuscript images into its readable account, the book offers direct access to its landmark findings, exhibiting the Arabic sources circulated by Jefferson and his contemporaries, including a previously unseen document from 1788 Georgia, which I identify as the earliest surviving instance of Muslim slave writings in the newly-formed United States.

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

JE: Looking back, my journey to the field of American History now seems somewhat unlikely. My fascination with the national past was fostered internationally, first sparked during my undergraduate years in Toronto, Canada, and deepened during my graduate work in Cambridge, England. I was most drawn to the field not by traditional topics, but by what seemed lacking in accounts of early America, especially the pivotal but overlooked role played by Middle Eastern languages and literatures in the life of the young Republic. Ironically, it was my early language learning–studying Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian during my degree programs–that proved most decisive for my later pursuit of American historiography, permitting recovery of crucial archival sources that have gone unnoticed precisely due to their Middle Eastern idioms.

JF: What is your next project?

JE: I’m currently working on two books, each of which form differing sequels to Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives. The first is a study of Jefferson and Native American languages, revealing the critical role played by Orientalism in shaping Indigenous philology, as well as the Middle Eastern interests that infuse the first Cherokee and Dakota newspapers during the decades following Jefferson’s death. The second book is a history of Islam’s startling impact on Civil War-era rhetoric, with Muslim idioms and identities helping to define Lincoln’s own life and legacy specifically. Recovering neglected Arabic manuscripts and military records, the book interweaves Civil War memorials of Muslim slaves and soldiers together with the Orientalist portraits of President Lincoln which pervaded U.S. newsprint at the very height of the nation’s defining struggle.

JF: Thanks, Jeffrey!

The Author’s Corner with Daniel B. Rood

the reinvention of atlantic slaveryDaniel B. Rood is Associate Professor of History at the University of Georgia. This interview is based on his book, The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Great Caribbean (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: Arguments over the role of enslaved people in the growth of modern western capitalism had always intrigued and inspired me, but I found contemporary scholars often lapsed into abstract phrases when actually making the case.  Sugar plantations were “industrial,” planters were “rational” and “innovative,” there were railroads and machines in slave societies, etc., etc. I felt like, in depending on these loaded terms, there was a bit of a black box effect going on. What does “industrial” mean, exactly?  What is that machine in the artist’s rendering of a plantation?  What is it doing there?  Why do we care? So, I wanted to open that box back up and re-build arguments about slavery and capitalism from the ground up, i.e. from examining and reflecting upon the micro-processes of labor, technology, and ecology on plantations and in workshops, factories, warehouses, transport systems, and markets.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: In an age of industrial growth and expanding antislavery movements, ambitious planters in the Upper US South, Cuba, and Brazil forged a new set of relationships with one another to sidestep the financial dominance of Great Britain and the northeastern United States. Hiring a transnational group of chemists, engineers, and other “plantation experts,” they sought to adapt the technologies of the Industrial Revolution to suit “tropical” needs and maintain profitability, while depending on the know-how of slaves alongside whom they worked.

JF: Why do we need to read The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: First, my book shows that a cotton nexus connecting the Deep South to Lancashire mills and Liverpool banks was far from the only story to tell about antebellum slavery and capitalism. I also demonstrate that sustained attention to how commodities are made and moved around can generate broader insights into the histories of slavery, the African diaspora, and race. Among other things, the book shows that changes in racist ideology were profoundly entangled with changes in capitalist productive technologies.  Modern “white” commodities like sugar and flour emerged together with transformed “white” and “black” racial categories in the same mid-19th century Atlantic World matrix. It is a flashy thing to assert, but I work hard to substantiate it. I think the journey is worthwhile for the reader, whether or not they are always convinced.

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

DR: I’m not sure I ever did. I was an English major as an undergrad. I only remember taking one history class; I mostly remember reading lots of Keats and Wordsworth.  A faculty mentor encouraged me to do American Studies at NYU, which was a deeply generative, if sometimes cringe-inducing, time for me. That was when I first spent a lot of time with Marx’s writings, and where I was introduced to scholars like Eric Williams, CLR James, and Sidney Mintz who centered the African Diaspora in the making of the modern world. I was fascinated by the questions they were asking, and wanted to explore more.  Becoming a historian, and becoming an Americanist, happened accidentally on the way.

JF: What is your next project?

DR: I am currently writing a book on the history of plantations from 1500-present. I have also been working sporadically over the past few years on a micro-history of post-emancipation black landowners in and around Athens, Georgia. Finally, I plan to write a history of southern forests from pre-Columbian times to the present. After that it’s back to Keats and Wordsworth.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

The Author’s Corner with Chad Anderson

the storied landscape of the iroquoiaChad Anderson is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Hartwick College. This interview is based on his new book, The Storied Landscape of Iroquoia: History, Conquest, and Memory in the Native Northeast (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Storied Landscape of the Iroquoia?

CA: I started with the vague and lofty goal of wanting to write a different kind of book that could approach a familiar topic from a fresh perspective. My research began when I was reading accounts of Euro-American settlers in central New York, who traveled on trails created by the Haudenosaunee (the Iroquois Six Nations), sought clearings where the Haudenosaunee had farmed, and even commented on their crops—at the same time that ideas that Indians had done nothing to shape the land circulated in popular culture. Finding a contradiction is a great way to begin research because it demands an explanation and indicates that there is a more complicated story to tell. That piece of the puzzle is where I started because I knew that the blank canvas Euro-Americans imagined the “wilderness” to be wasn’t so blank. From there, I began to put together the big picture spanning the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. I found that Iroquoia (the homelands of the Haudenosaunee) was full of fascinating places and stories: ancient ruins, mysterious monuments, important villages, and so forth. I wanted to know how these sites continued to influence American culture, both Euro-American and Haudenosaunee, into the nineteenth century.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Storied Landscape  of the Iroquoia?

CA: The Haudenosaunee had shaped one of the most geographically significant homelands in North America, and for centuries layers of history had been written on their landscape. Central to the Euro-American conquest of Iroquoia was a significant, but ultimately contested and incomplete erasure of that Native imprint on the land.

JF: Why do we need to read The Storied Landscape of the Iroquoia?

CA: If we think of American history as a story, I believe historians have put forth a good effort to restore Native Americans to the plot, but the setting—and therefore important aspects of the characters’ lives—is often missing. This oversight is all-the-more striking when you recognize how much of North America remained Indian Country for hundreds of years after European colonization began. Nobody aimlessly wandered around early America. It was a well-connected place full of settlements where trade, diplomacy, and all sorts of exchanges happened. There was a significant Native American built environment, but that landscape was more than a collection of wood homes and farm fields. Memories connected to important places on that land. Ranging from ancient myths to recent events, that history created meaningful homelands. For the Haudenosaunee, like many Native nations in the East, the emergence of an aggressively expansionist American republic meant a dramatic reduction in their territory, which included many of those important places. However, a fundamental principle of historical scholarship is continuity and change. Even as Euro-Americans eventually conquered and re-settled most of Iroquoia, they could not entirely erase the land’s indigenous history and begin the country anew on a blank slate. And so, the story of that contested conquest and reinvention is really at the heart of the nation’s founding—a new republic built on North America’s old world. As such, I hope that readers with a wide-variety of interests will find something worth considering in the book.

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

CA: I always had interest in becoming a historian, but actually went to college as a business major because it seemed so much more practical. At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I ended up meeting and working with some excellent mentors from both the history and philosophy and religious studies departments. Those classes were when I really felt like I was doing what you were supposed to be doing at a university—examining complicated narratives, developing logical arguments, and so forth. I think back on my journey quite often, as I watch the decline (perhaps collapse) of history in higher education and wonder what experiences we want for our future undergraduates, who also want an education that is practical and meaningful. As for American history, I became interested in the early American republic because its people and dilemmas seemed both distant—the past as a “foreign country” that historians imagine exploring—and modern, with understandable and still relevant concerns. To a significant degree, I believe that my initial fascination informs my current work, which narrates the stories of people living in the 1820s and 1830s (for example, the Tuscarora historian David Cusick, the Prophet Joseph Smith), who looked to an ancient landscape in the midst of a modernizing America.

JF: What is your next project?

CA: “The Great Wolf Massacre,” a tale of hardship, scandal, the memory of America’s founding, and, perhaps, wolves.

JF: Thanks, Chad!

Back in the Zoo: My Struggle with Anxiety

IMG_20170813_202144_011

I took this photo at a protest in Kalamazoo following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

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 honestly about mental health in the midst of our current moment. —JF

On Monday, I logged into my computer for my first virtual counseling appointment with Desert Streams Christian Counseling. Many don’t know this about me, but I have struggled with anxiety for the past couple years. It’s by no means constant or dangerously severe, but it hits me every once in a while–especially in seasons of unexpected change or hardship. Because of my anxiety, I worry more than most. Sometimes I worry about specific things–like school, COVID-19, the people I love, or the uncertainty of the future–but other times, there’s just a general sense of unease that settles in the pit of my stomach.

Perhaps you have felt a similar  sense of unease over the past few weeks. Despite reports of the curve flattening, COVID-19 cases continue to rise. The reopening of businesses and restaurants across the nation brings joy to some and anxiety to others who fear it’s still too soon for the country to reopen. More Americans are still plagued with job loss and economic hardship caused by the pandemic. I won’t deny that life is hard right now. Whether or not you struggle with anxiety like I do, it’s not hard to find things to be stressed about in our current moment. Yet the recent murder of George Floyd–and the tumultuous events that followed–reminds us that these sources of worry pale in comparison with the constant hatred, anxiety, and injustice that has weighed on the shoulders of black Americans for the past 400 years.

Because I struggle with anxiety, I am no stranger to fear. Yet because I am a white, straight, middle-class, Evangelical Christian woman, there are many anxieties from which I am spared. I am spared from  the multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans whose ancestors were forced into chattel slavery, grandparents were lynched or parents were burdened by Jim-Crow era segregation. I don’t have to fret about people judging me because of my race, or thinking less of me because of the color of my skin. When my Dad drives to work, I don’t have to worry about him getting pulled over just because he looks suspicious. If my brother throws on a hoodie and walks to 7-Eleven at night to buy some skittles, I can know with virtual certainty he won’t be attacked. When my boyfriend goes for a run in the middle of the day, I don’t fear that he’ll get chased down and shot.

I’m not trying to belittle my own anxiety, or that experienced by others. Mental health struggles are serious and real, especially in times like these. Yet I know that for every obsessive thought and irrational worry that makes its way into my mind, there are real, ever-present sources of fear and anxiety for America’s black community. 

When injustice seems to have the upper hand and righteousness seems so far out of our reach, let us remember to listen–especially to those who are different from us. When fear is ever-present, let us remember that the creator of the universe is a God of love, peace, and justice.

To quote my professor, Dr. James LaGrand, who I exchanged emails with last week:

“Even this week, God is God. God loves justice; in fact he’s the author of justice. And it is with perfect justice and peace and shalom that his story will end for his people and his whole creation. It’s hard to wait for this. But it is coming.”

The Author’s Corner with Ann Tucker

Newest Born of NationsAnn Tucker is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Georgia. This interview is based on her new book, Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of the Confederacy (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Newest Born of Nations?

AT: The question of southern identity has intrigued me since my childhood; how and why did the South develop such a strong sense of regional identity? In college, I also developed a passion for Italian history when I studied abroad in Venice, where I became increasingly interested in the making of the Italian nation. This book grew out of my attempt to combine these interests in Italy and the South. Through my Italian studies, I had already identified some key parallels between the US and Italy, as both nations had undergone wars about nationhood in the mid-nineteenth century, and both nations had faced conflict between a more industrial North and an agricultural South. With these similarities in mind, as I started researching, I wanted to know what white southerners thought about Italy, and how those thoughts on Italy might have shaped the complicated concept of southern identity. It only made sense to me to start in the Civil War Era, when both Italy and the US fought to defend their nationhood, and when white southerners sought to create a separate southern nation.

I found a much more complex, varied, and, ultimately, significant story than I had initially imagined. White southerners’ thoughts on Italy, and on European nationalist movements more broadly, were not incidental, nor were they straightforward or homogenous. My research uncovered several strands of white southern thought on European nationalist movements, sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing, but always playing a critical role in shaping southern thought on their own nationhood. White southerners used comparisons with new and aspiring European nations like Italy to clarify their beliefs about their own nationality, and they used these international perspectives to develop and defend the idea of a southern nation.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Newest Born of Nations?

AT: White southerners in the antebellum and Civil War periods used their analysis of nineteenth century European nationalist movements to shape their idea of what a nation could and should be, to begin to conceive of the South as different than the North on issues of nationhood and to develop the idea of the South as a potential nation, and to defend and legitimize secession and the Confederacy. The international perspectives that white southerners developed by drawing comparisons and contrasts with new and aspiring nations in Europe thus played a critical role in the shaping of southern nationalism.

JF: Why do we need to read Newest Born of Nations?

AT: Newest Born of Nations reframes the American Civil War as part of the larger nineteenth century age of revolutions and nationalism. White southerners saw their actions as part of the ongoing struggle for national independence and reform that played out throughout the Atlantic World. Far from an exclusively domestic conflict, the American Civil War had profound implications for the evolving nineteenth-century Atlantic World ideas of freedom, rights, and nationalism, and white southerners used this international context to develop southern nationalism and the Confederacy.

The internationalization of the Confederacy was not straightforward, even at the time; by identifying three competing international perspectives that white southerners used to defend their preferred visions for the South’s nationhood, Newest Born of Nations reveals how complicated and complex the process of creating a southern nationalism was. While secessionists developed both liberal and conservative international perspectives to justify secession, southern Unionists also used international comparisons to argue for a continued American nationalism for the South. Although white southerners were divided on the lessons that an international context taught for the South, they agreed that the South’s nationhood could best be understood and defined through international perspectives. By placing secession, the Confederacy, and the American Civil War within this transnational context, Newest Born of Nations expands and complicates our understanding of the Confederacy and Civil War.

This work also challenges our understanding of the Age of Nationalism by showing that the ideas of liberal nationalism that inspired revolutions throughout the Atlantic World could also be manipulated and re-defined in attempts to justify movements very different than the original revolutions.

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

AT: I have always been interested in history as a way to understand how and why our world developed as it did. As a southerner, I have been particularly interested in issues of southern identity. I wondered why the South had such a strong regional identity, and I wanted to understand the inconsistencies within that southern identity. I chose to study American history in order to answer my questions about the development of a distinct regional identity in the South.

As I began my studies as an academic historian, however, I found myself equally intrigued by Italian history and the parallels I saw between Italy and the US. These parallels and interests encouraged me to approach American history through a transnational perspective. Although I am an American historian, I am also a transnational historian, because, to me, American history, and history in general, is best understand in a larger transnational framework.

JF: What is your next project?

AT: My next project is the “sequel” to Newest Born of Nations! I am interested in understanding how former Confederates’ international perspectives helped them shed their Confederate national identity, and adopt and remake their American national identity, during Reconstruction and in the decades following the Civil War. I have already found some very interesting results; in particular, I have found that in the immediate aftermath of Confederate defeat, former Confederates used comparisons with defeated nations in Europe to draw limits around what they would accept as legitimate actions by the government during Reconstruction. (This first portion of my next project was published as “To ‘Heal the Wounded Spirit’: Former Confederates’ International Perspective on Reconstruction and Reconciliation,” in Reconciliation after Civil Wars: Global Perspectives, ed. Paul Quigley and James Hawdon, Routledge, 2018). I am excited about continuing my research and considering the use of international perspectives to shape and influence issues such as Confederate monuments, the Lost Cause, and Confederate memory.

JF: Thanks, Ann!

The Author’s Corner with Aaron Sheehan-Dean

reckoning with rebellionAaron Sheehan-Dean is Fred C. Frey Professor of Southern Studies at Louisiana State University. This interview is based on his new book, Reckoning with Rebellion: War and Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century (University Press of Florida).

JF: Why did you decide to write Reckoning with Rebellion?

ASD: During the research for my previous book (The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War), I realized how many participants in the Civil War referenced foreign conflicts. Following that thread, I recognized that thecivil  three (nearly) contemporary conflicts at the heart Reckoning–the Indian Rebellion, the Polish Insurrection, and the Taiping Rebellion–were touchstones for Americans and others around the world.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Reckoning with Rebellion?

ASD: Putting the US Civil War in the context of other civil and national conflicts in the mid-nineteenth century helps us see three commonalities: people who used irregular warfare rarely achieved success; the likelihood of foreign support or intervention hinged, in large measure, on how people interpreted the language of rebellion and revolution; and the winners in these conflicts (the US, and the British, Russian, and the Qing Empires) shared a high degree of centralization, a willingness to use violence to maintain their sovereignty, and the importance of clothing their actions in the language of liberalism.

JF: Why do we need to read Reckoning with Rebellion?

ASD: We have not appreciated the degree to which participants in the Civil War thought about their conflict by comparing it to similar ones around the world. Doing so helps us better understand the nature of the global transmission of ideas and practices in the mid-nineteenth century.

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

ASD: I decided to become a historian while working on Capitol Hill for a U.S. senator in the 1990s. I realized that I could have more impact in a classroom than I did from my perch on the Hill. Doing research on policy issues, I had come to appreciate how important historical context was to making any intelligent decision about legislation.

JF: What is your next project?

ASD: Reckoning sets the Civil War in a spatial framework; my next project puts it in a new chronological one. I’m working on a comparison of the English Civil War(s) of the 17th century and the US Civil War of the 19th. The former shaped American thinking about rebellion and war into the 1860s, and participants in the US conflict used the English conflict as a reference point–comments about Cromwell and Parliament abound.

JF: Thanks, Aaron!

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!