The Author’s Corner with Evan Haefeli

Evan Haefeli is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University. This interview is based on his new book, Against Popery: Britain, Empire, and Anti-Catholicism (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Against Popery?

EH: I was inspired to put this book together after working for years on the history of religious tolerance in early America. I came across so much more anti-Catholicism than tolerance that it became clear we needed a book to draw our attention to its significance and pervasiveness. Early American anti-popery was so deeply rooted in the British tradition that you cannot understand the one without the other. Moreover, it is such a big topic that no single person can account for the whole, so I recruited an interdisciplinary group of people from (and working on) both sides of the Atlantic.

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

EH: The two sentence argument of the book: Anti-popery was a Protestant prejudice against Roman Catholics but also an unstable ideology of liberty. Its rejection of the political and religious example of the pope favored Protestant cultural hegemony across the Anglo-American world until the mid-eighteenth century, when efforts to enhance imperial authority provoked anti-papists in America to start a revolution that, ironically, increased liberty for Roman Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic.

JF: Why do we need to read Against Popery?

EH: You should read this book because we need to incorporate anti-popery as an essential key for understanding early America and the British Empire. It is already recognized as an important issue in early modern English history, but it was truly inseparable from the religion, popular culture, political ideals, ethnic relations, racism, gender expectations, patriotism, intellectual habits, and art of all corners of what I call the British-American world. The book is also an argument for changing the way we approach the histories of early America, Britain, Ireland, and the first British Empire. Currently, those are separate fields of study based on different national histories, but certainly for the period before 1783 they must be understood as an integrated whole. How it then fell apart remains a problem in need of explanation. Anti-popery was fundamental to understanding both what held the British-American world together and then broke it apart.

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

EH: I was drawn to study American history at the end of college, when I discovered how little we knew about the Native American experience and how fascinatingly complex early America was. I was inspired to go to graduate school to expand our knowledge of Native America and develop an inclusive approach to American history that can account for, and be accountable to, its diversity — the coexistence as well as the conflicts that bind us all together.

JF: What is your next project?

EH: I have a lot of work coming down the pipeline. In February I have a book coming out on the origins of early American religious pluralism with the University of Chicago Press. It traces the establishment of the remarkably diverse range of colonies created, from Massachusetts and Maryland to Rhode Island and more, to the religious politics of early modern England to argue that what we got by the time the foundation of the modern Church of England was laid in 1662 was the unintentional result of conflicting impulses. There was no plan to make colonial English America a religious refuge or lay a foundation of religious pluralism, but that is exactly what happened, hence the books title Accidental Pluralism. Now I am writing about the even more important period after 1660, when the really diverse colonies that deliberately authorized religious toleration, like New York, Pennsylvania, and Carolina, were created. Their origins lie in the very different religious politics of Restoration England, hence my tentative title Pluralism with a Purpose. I have also begun writing a history of the Iroquois Confederacy and how it made peace with its many Indigenous enemies in colonial America, transforming the diplomacy of the eastern woodlands. Then, of course, I will have much more to say about the role of anti-popery in early America, which I am currently developing in several different articles along with a study of the religious politics of colonial Virginia.

Overall, these works are part of a bigger effort to change our understanding of religious, political, and constitutional history of the colonies, the empire, and the early United States to show that we did not easily come by the values we cherish, like religious freedom, nor can we rely on them to persist as somehow intrinsically American qualities. Their origins were fragile, conflicted, and not inevitable, just like the origins of America itself.

JF: Thanks, Evan!

The Author’s Corner with Lisa Tucker

Lisa Tucker is Associate Professor of Law at Drexel University. This interview is based on her new book, Hamilton and the Law: Reading Today’s Most Contentious Legal Issues through the Hit Musical (Cornell University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Hamilton and the Law?

LT: My then-high-school-junior daughter and I were on a road trip, visiting colleges across the Northeast. It was a long week, with lots of miles covered, and we were listening to musical soundtracks and singing along to our favorites. This was the spring of 2018, and so Hamilton was still very much the darling of the moment.

As we listened for about the hundredth time, it suddenly occurred to me that the musical was really an evidentiary record, a narrative of events that led up to the duel in which Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. The various characters offer their various points of view about what occurred, what fostered and fueled the rivalry between these two men. As we drove, my daughter and I started taking notes: Who said what? Would their statements be admissible as evidence? Did the choreography give us any clues as to who intended what? What did the witnesses say?

For an entire week, we worked on our legal theories.

As we brainstormed, I began to realize that Hamilton, as a story about the Founding and the drafting of the Constitution, surely introduced other legal themes that other scholars with diverse interests would find intriguing. Once I started talking to lawyer and law professor friends about my idea, I found that I was right: they were almost as excited as I was. It turned out, they were, like me, obsessed with Hamilton: An American Musical.

I posted a call for proposals on Facebook, and I immediately got several dozen essay proposals. It looked like I had a book! This wasn’t just a fly-by-night idea; the musical was very meaningful to lawyers and law professors who studied the Founding and the America that followed.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Hamilton and the Law?

LT: Hamilton and the Law argues that the musical has many legal lessons to teach us, many debates to engage us. The word “duel” has multiple meanings in the musical; while a duel with pistols ends the musical, the entire three hours leading up to it consist of ideological duels about society, history, and liberty.

JF: Why do we need to read Hamilton and the Law?

LT: If you’re a fan of Hamilton: An American Musical, you’re probably gobbling up everything you can find about the musical, even five years after its Broadway premiere. And even if you aren’t a lawyer, you’ll be intrigued by the arguments the contributors make. The essays are short–around 2500 words each–and written in a style designed for smart, educated readers who aren’t necessarily lawyers. The essay authors are leaders in their fields: race scholars, gender and sexuality scholars, immigration law scholars, Constitutional law scholars, intellectual property experts, former Solicitors General of the United States. They are male and female; black, white, and brown; younger and older; famous and relatively unknown (yet); liberal and conservative; affiliated with prestigious and lesser-ranked institutions. Their perspectives make for a fascinating read about the Founding through the lens of the musical.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American historian, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

LT: I am not an American historian, but a law professor who was a drama major in college. I love all things law and all things musical theater. When Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton: An American Musical, it was like a dream come true. Although I knew a lot about the Constitution and the Founding, the musical inspired me to learn more.

JF: What is your next project?

LT: I’ve been writing for a few years about issues surrounding open adoption, gender dynamics in family law, and domestic violence. I have an article coming out next month about the role of contract law in open adoption arrangements. Last summer, I taught a course at the Chautauqua Institution about Hamilton and the law; I hope to develop that curriculum into something that can be adopted by high school and higher education teachers.

JF: Thanks, Lisa!

Out of the Zoo: Traditions

Annie 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 Messiah University history department tradition.—JF

Some of my fondest college memories are from Christmas caroling with Messiah University’s history club. We history majors gather on a cold December night, pile into cars with packets of Christmas carols in hand, and weave our way through the greater-Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania area on our way to visit each of our professor’s houses. After singing a few tunes on their doorstep, they invite us in and serve an array of hot drinks, baked goods, and sweets. We chat about our semesters, meet our professor’s spouses, and pet their dogs. They ask whose houses we’ve been to already, and where we’re going next. It’s a beloved tradition, cherished by many, and I hope it continues for a long time.

For a few different reasons, the history club’s Christmas caroling tradition had to take a pause this year. Due to Messiah’s altered schedule this year we won’t be on campus between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I suppose we could have sung “Silent Night” on our professors doorsteps in mid-November, but it wouldn’t have been the same. On top of this, COVID restrictions–which advise against singing in groups and gathering in each other’s houses–added a few more obstacles. We didn’t want to nix our tradition altogether, so we had to be creative. Instead of Christmas caroling, we planned our own little Thanksgiving parade. My friend Chloe, the current president of the history club, planned the event and advertised it as “Thanks-giving back to the professors.” 

Our little caravan wasn’t much when compared to the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. We didn’t have giant balloons or fancy costumes or marching bands, and we had to keep our numbers small and spread out to maintain social distance. But we did have home-made gifts, colorful signs, determined spirits, and grateful hearts.

Like any other year, we wove through Mechanicsburg and stopped at each professor’s house. At each stop we got out of our cars, held up our signs at the end of our professor’s driveways, and cheered. Some professors waved and thanked us from their windows, while others came outside to chat from six feet away. A few of them requested we sing a Thanksgiving song, and when we couldn’t think of one we laughed and promised that our Christmas caroling would be extra special next year. Some professors still served us sweets, this time prepacked and individually wrapped. I joked that the coffee mugs we dropped off (signed by several history majors) would be worth a lot of money if one of us becomes famous someday. For those few minutes, things almost felt normal again. Even in the midst of all the craziness and change around us, we still found a way to show our professors that we care.

With COVID cases on the rise, schools shutting down and the holidays rapidly approaching, the traditions we love will undoubtedly look a little different this year. History club Christmas caroling may have been the first holiday tradition I’ve had to change, but it certainly won’t be the last. In the next few months my family will have to make tough decisions about gathering with our loved ones. I haven’t seen my grandmother since the summer, but visiting her in the middle of COVID’s second wave could pose a significant risk to her health. As much as I long to go back to church and see all the friends I’ve missed for months, my family might have to have our own candlelight Christmas Eve service at home. We usually head to the cinema to see a movie every Christmas day, but I suppose this year we’ll cook our own popcorn, dim the lights, and pretend our television is about fifty times larger than it is. 

There’s no doubt that a lot of our holiday traditions might have to change this year. But at the same time, a lot will stay the same. COVID-19 may change our family gatherings and our New Year’s Eve parties, but it will never change how much we care about the people we love. It may modify our Thanksgiving dinner, but it will never take away our ability to be grateful for the blessings that we still have. It may alter our church services, but it will never separate us from the love of Christ, Emmanuel, whose birth we celebrate during this season. We can still celebrate him, give thanks and shine his light to our loved ones who are struggling. Our traditions may change, but our love doesn’t have to–we might just have to be a little more creative.

The Author’s Corner with John Oldfield

John Oldfield is Professor of Emancipation and Slavery at The University of Hull. This interview is based on his new book, The Ties that Bind: Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Reform, c. 1820-1866 (Liverpool University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Ties that Bind?

JO: I wrote The Ties that Bind in an attempt to challenge more orthodox histories that tend to place antislavery within narrow national contexts, whether American exceptionalism, in the case of the USA, or Britain’s history of humanitarian interventionism. Antislavery, I argue, should be seen as an international movement that rested on dense networks that brought together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. American abolitionists, particularly so-called “second wave” reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, relied heavily on British antecedents and borrowed many of their ideas, whether it was their use of “agents” or antislavery lecturers, the pledging of “parliamentary” candidates or the importance of grass-roots organization. But these influences also flowed the other way and part of my intention in The Ties that Bind was to explore how figures like Garrison influenced British activists, George Thompson being an obvious case in point. There were always limits to international co-operation, perhaps most evident in British reactions to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). For some British reformers, American abolitionism would always seem too sensationalist, too “popular” and even potentially dangerous. This is what Garrison was getting at when he said that British abolitionists “walked in silver slippers.” Antislavery in Britain, he went on, had “never been tried in the fiery furnace, nor compelled to encounter a single storm of persecution, and therefore is no more a test of English character, than is the opposition of Americans to a monarchical form of government.” So, while there were obvious affinities here, there were also important differences. Finally, I wanted to explore the related question of opinion-building, the processes whereby activists turned an idea (that slavery was wrong) into a social movement. This, again, is a transatlantic story but one not without its stresses and strains, as the British reaction to things such as antislavery songs and antislavery performers makes abundantly clear.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Ties that Bind?

JO: Simply put, The Ties that Bind argues that we should see antislavery as an international movement based on close ties that bound together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, it stresses the importance of opinion-building techniques and, above all, the role of personality in shaping the abolitionist world of the nineteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read The Ties that Bind?

JO: I think two points are relevant here. The Ties that Bind, like my previous books, makes the case for seeing antislavery as an international movement. Abolitionists, from Granville Sharp to William Lloyd Garrison, saw themselves as “citizens of the universe” and that outlook dictated their political outlooks, as well as the policy choices they made. American abolitionists learned a great deal from their British counterparts and Garrison, in particular, played on these Atlantic affinities; hence his preoccupation with celebrating 1 August, the anniversary of emancipation in the British Caribbean. Of course, American abolitionism was always more than a pale imitation of British antislavery but it is instructive, I think, to stress the importance of these international “connections.” My second point leads on from the first. One of the things I was keen to do in The Ties that Bind was to emphasize the importance of antislavery for activists today and for broader histories of humanitarianism. I think there are a number of issues at play here. One is the importance of grass-roots organization. On both sides of the Atlantic, abolitionists created complex networks that linked center to periphery, being careful at the same time to give rank-and-file members a chance to air their views. This mix between guidance and independence, I would argue, kept the movement fresh and relevant, and it is a model that has been adopted successfully elsewhere, notably in US campaigns around gun rights, tobacco control and drunk-driving reduction. Another crucial factor, which again has implications for activists today, was the willingness of abolitionists (not all of them, admittedly) to engage with electoral politics. Historians may question the effectiveness of the Liberty Party, to take an obvious example, but there is little doubt in my mind that such initiatives helped to divorce the federal government from the idea of slavery. Finally, as I have already said, antislavery was an international movement, based on close ties that bound together British and American reformers in dense transatlantic networks. Indeed, cosmopolitanism was an important dynamic within nineteenth-century abolitionism, evident in common political attitudes and assumptions that flowed from east to west and from west to east. In this sense, antislavery was never a parochial British or American affair, any more than the US Civil Rights Movement or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were narrow parochial affairs.

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

JO: I was an undergraduate in the UK during the 1970s, a decade that seemed to be dominated by the USA, not always for the right reasons. Whether it was the Vietnam War or the unfolding drama surrounding the Watergate break-in, it was difficult not to be affected by these events in some way, inside or outside the classroom. The 1970s also witnessed a remarkable outpouring of revisionist studies of US slavery, from John Blassingame’s The Slave Community (1972) to Eugene Genovese’s magisterial Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). Collectively, these books not only seemed to speak to the contemporary situation in the USA but also to break new ground, not least in their use of sources (slave narratives, for instance) and their openness to other disciplinary approaches. As a result, I found myself drawn to courses on US history and to anything that dealt with the American South or slavery, race, and identity. I guess this was the start of my journey towards becoming an American historian. After graduating, I went on to graduate school, choosing to write my PhD thesis on the nineteenth-century black leader, Alexander Crummell (1819-1898). Over the past forty years, my research interests have broadened and today I would consider myself as much a historian of the Atlantic World, as an American historian. I have also developed a lifelong interest in the history of antislavery, both at a national and international level. But I have always taught US history and in many ways The Ties that Bind marks a return to many of the themes that first excited me as an undergraduate.

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Good question! I am currently co-editing a volume on European colonial heritage, which should appear in the second half of 2021. Beyond that, I want to build on the work I did in The Ties that Bind on William Lloyd Garrison and George Thompson, using it as a template to explore other transatlantic friendships that centered on reform. Then there is the ongoing debate here in the UK about the history and legacy of slavery, which is bound to quicken in pace as we inch ever closer to 2033 and the bicentenary of emancipation in the British Caribbean. Now more than ever there is a need for an “integrated” history of British antislavery, which not only commemorates the achievements of people like William Wilberforce but also recognizes Britain’s deep and tragic involvement in both the slave trade and the wider business of slavery.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Richard Pointer

Richard Pointer is Professor Emeritus of History at Westmont College. This interview is based on his new book, Pacifist Prophet: Papunhank and the Quest for Peace in Early America (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Pacifist Prophet?

RP: As sometimes happens, this book, and more specifically Papunhank, found me rather than the other way around. I was doing some research on Pennsylvania-Native American relations in the 1750s and ‘60s and he kept popping up in a range of Quaker, Moravian and government source materials. I also began to notice his name briefly mentioned in a few recent secondary accounts. But it quickly became clear that no one had yet put together the various pieces of his life. Two considerations eventually persuaded me to attempt a biography: first and foremost, I discovered his to be an utterly fascinating and important story that should change some of what we think about Indigenous peoples in early America; and second, reconstructing his life offered a chance to put a small dent in the ongoing preoccupation of early American biography with white men.

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

RP: In a mid-eighteenth century world filled with political turmoil, racial hatred, and deadly violence, Papunhank, like most Native Americans, sought a secure homeland for his people. But unlike most Indigenous leaders and prophets, he rejected warfare and promoted a principled pacifism that kept hundreds of his followers alive and contributed to a longer and wider Indian peace tradition.

JF: Why do we need to read Pacifist Prophet?

RP: In reconstructing Papunhank’s remarkable story, Pacifist Prophet reveals a heretofore largely overlooked Indigenous peacemaking tradition and in the process, widens our vision of the possibilities and limits Native peoples encountered in pre-Revolutionary America. In other words, it recovers an essential piece of Native American heritage and American history. As we consider our own cultural moment, Papunhank’s leadership model of self-sacrificial, dignified, morally-grounded service may be worth a look, especially in a world so much in need of being reminded that as Papunhank himself put it “when God made Men he never intend[ed] they should kill or destroy one another.” Moreover, the typical impression in the popular mind continues to be that Indians everywhere and always (or at least until 1890) were warlike. Either by nature, cultural inclination, or political necessity, they had to be. But it turns out that most Native peoples across the long span of early American history avoided war whenever they could. Instead, they, more quietly, pursued peaceful ways to cope with the new realities facing them after the Europeans’ arrival. Few did more or tried harder along those lines than Papunhank. His life, though extraordinary in the choices he made, was far more typical of what most Natives experienced in early America than the handful of Indians from this era (think Pocahontas and Squanto) familiar to Americans today.

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

RP: When asked this question, I always point back to childhood family vacations to historic sites along the East Coast that left me equating history and fun. That seed was then nurtured by excellent junior high and high school American history teachers, enough so that I went to college certain that I wanted to major in history. There my love of the subject and especially early American history grew. Completing a major research project on seventeenth-century Connecticut during my senior year gave me a much better idea of what historians actually do and helped persuade me to pursue graduate school in history. So, too, did the example of my older brother, Steve, who by that point was working on a PhD in history. When the opportunity came along for me to study at Johns Hopkins University, I grabbed it, not quite knowing what I was in for or where I was headed but convinced that a life in academia teaching and writing American history would be a worthy calling.

JF: What is your next project?

RP: Well, I’ve just retired in the last few months from my faculty position at Westmont College so my main project at the moment is figuring out what retirement will look like. So far it is feeling very good, even in the midst of the pandemic. The latter, of course, is making research much more difficult. But I have begun preliminary work on the question, how did the Seven Years’ War shape or re-shape religion in America? Over the past couple of decades, early American historians have come to see that war as far more pivotal in “making America” than previously thought. I’m curious to see if that was true for religion as well. Historians of religion in mid-eighteenth century America have tended to be preoccupied with the First Great Awakening and then the American Revolution, typically skipping over the Seven Years’ War. Yet I suspect that long conflict did much to set the trajectory of religion in America toward disestablishment, anti-Catholicism, evangelical expansion, racial exclusivity, and apocalyptic hope. Perhaps someday we’ll even say that it was the war that “made American religion.”

JF: Thanks, Rick!

Out of the Zoo: Wonder Woman

Annie 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 her reaction to the Biden-Harris victory.—JF

My adolescence was defined by superhero movies. The first Avengers was released when I was twelve, which was followed by at least two new Marvel films every year after that. Whenever a new superhero movie would come out, some kids would go out late on a school night to see it. Out of respect for future movie-goers, classmates were usually careful not to share spoilers too loudly. Other peers, whose excitement wore through their spoiler-alert filters, were not quite as careful. My freshman year of high school, our homecoming week was even superhero themed. All throughout school, “Who’s your favorite superhero?” was a failsafe conversation starter. Likewise,  “Who’s the hottest Avenger?” was a contested debate among friends and at sleepovers. 

Out of all the superhero movies that came out when I was in high school, Wonder Woman–the one with Gal Gadot that was released in 2017–might be my favorite. I actually cried watching it for the first time. There’s one scene in particular, in the middle of the movie, that made me emotional. It shows Diana (Wonder Woman), decked out in armor, charging through World War I-era no man’s land. As I watched her jump in and out of trenches, stop bullets with her bracelets and shout instructions to the other good guys, I remember smiling and weeping and feeling tingly all at the same time.  I had no idea a movie–much less an action movie–could affect me in such a way. But then again, in all my 17 years of life and out of all the superhero movies I had watched, this was the first one I had seen that was all about a woman. Diana was not simply a love interest, a side character, or an afterthought. She was the hero. She wasn’t stuck in the background–she took center stage. She didn’t need someone to save her–she was the one saving the day.

Last week, Kamala Harris was elected as the first female Vice President of the United States. As far as I know, Harris is not secretly a superhero. She doesn’t wear bullet-stopping bracelets or red white and blue armor. She doesn’t carry around a lasso that forces people to tell the truth, as useful as something like that might be in Washington D.C. Yet at the same time, seeing Kamala address the nation last weekend had a huge and lasting impact on me. She thanked all the women who fought for equality, the girls who secured our right to vote, and tears began to form in my eyes. A feeling of gratitude and determination bubbled up in my stomach when a few seconds later she said,  “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.” The whole time, I couldn’t stop smiling.

I had no idea that such a short address from a Vice President elect could affect me in such a way. But then again, I am the product of many generations of American women who have been silenced, oppressed, and pushed to the side. We have never, not in 250 years, seen another woman like us hold one of the nation’s highest offices. For once in our country, a woman wasn’t confined to the background. Kamala wasn’t waiting for someone to save her–she was ready to take action. Her simple presence on stage reminded me that as unsurpassable as they may seem, barriers are not dead ends.

A quarter of a millennium is a long time to wait for a female Vice President–much longer than the 17 years I had to wait to see a blockbuster movie all about a female superhero. And girls like me will have to wait even longer for a woman to become president. But until that day comes, and as we continue to make more progress, we will celebrate this victory.

The Author’s Corner with Donald Johnson

Donald Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at North Dakota State University. This interview is based on his new book, Occupied America: British Military Rule and the Experience of Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Occupied America?

DJ: As with many first books, I began the project in graduate school. During the spring of 2010 I was studying the American Revolution and had a general interest in popular politics during the eighteenth century, and I needed a research seminar topic. In addition to history I am also a news junkie, and it also happened to be the time period when the utter failure of US occupation in Iraq was becoming clear to the public. This got me thinking about how military-civilian relationships might have affected the outcome of the American Revolutionary War. I realized there had been little written about this aspect of the Revolutionary experience, so I decided to do an initial exploration of the 1780-82 British occupation of Charleston, South Carolina. That research made me realize there was a much larger story to be told about how the experience of military occupation shaped the Revolution for thousands of Americans, especially in major port cities, and I decided to pursue it.

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

DJ: Occupied America argues that the day-to-day experience of military rule doomed efforts to restore the empire in America. As men and women living in port cities endured the privations, violence, and social upheavals that accompanied the arrival of British troops, and as occupations progressed took ever more drastic measures to protect their lives, families, and property, they undermined royal authority and, in so doing, played a crucial role in securing American independence.

JF: Why do we need to read Occupied America?

DJ: Occupied America re-centers discussion of the American Revolution on the war period and on individual experiences of ordinary men and women. With the exception of military histories, narratives of the Revolution typically ignore the war period — either stopping at 1776 or skipping forward to the 1780s and the Confederation. This is a major problem, as the war lasted eight years and fundamentally changed the course and outcomes of the Revolution. This is an anomaly in Revolutionary studies–indeed, few historians would discuss the French or Russian Revolutions without dealing in depth with the wars that they spawned. Rather than taking John Adams’s dictum that the war was an after-effect of an already completed revolution, then, Occupied America, along with several other recently- and soon-to-be- published works, explores this period as just as formative for the Revolution and its legacies as the growth of resistance during the 1760s and early 1770s or the consolidation of the republic in the late 1780s and 90s.

Occupied America also highlights personal experience and contingency as a major factor in the deciding the outcome of the Revolution. Too often histories of political upheaval have focused on the persuasive power of ideology in shaping people’s political views and determining their actions. However, in the Revolutionary period as in the present, most people were more concerned with everyday, mundane matters like earning an living, supporting family and friends, pursuing love affairs, and maintaining their good standing in society. While ideology played a powerful role in shaping the course of events, so too did these more quotidian concerns, which varied as widely as individual circumstances did. As a proof of this–take allegiance. Although labels of patriot, loyalist, Whig, and Tory were often thrown around, my work shows that these dissolved quickly in the face of lived experience. This kind of popular politics needs to be further explored before we can understand the why and how of the Revolution, and I hope that my book contributes in some small part to that project.

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

DJ: In some ways it was fore-ordained. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and spent my summers exploring the Smithsonian museums of American and Natural history, fascinated by the seemingly endless stories of the past. I later began devouring historical fiction and taking courses in high school in college, which led me to my present vocation.

JF: What is your next project?

DJ: My current project is a detailed study of small-scale revolutionary politics during the time period between the outbreak of violence in April 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. I’m looking at how people living in ordinary communities–mostly rural counties and small towns–reacted to the outbreak of war and took part in the rejection of royal rule in their own locales. We have a lot of information about how the provincial elites who formed the Continental Congress and the state conventions acted during this period, but little about how the transfer of authority took place in lower-level, local contexts. This is significant, as many sources suggest that local militias, town councils, church congregations, and self-appointed committees drove events as much or even moreso than leaders who sought to organize them into a wider inter-colonial resistance. My new project, still in its early stages, seeks to parse those relationships and restore the agency of ordinary men and women in overthrowing the British Empire and initiating American independence.

JF: Thanks, Donald!

The Author’s Corner with Libra Hilde

Libra Hilde is Professor of History at San Jose State University. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: In one of my undergraduate courses, I ask my students to write a paper comparing the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. The idea for Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty emerged from repeatedly confronting the disjuncture between these two authors’ experiences. Despite being quite young when her enslaved father passed away, Jacobs attributed her sense of humanity and will to achieve liberty to his influence. Douglass could only guess at the identity of an unknown white father who never acknowledged or took responsibility for his enslaved child. I found this contrast fascinating and set out to explore how enslaved people conceived of and negotiated paternal duty within the constraints of slavery and Jim Crow.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: Denied the ability to directly provide for and protect loved ones, enslaved men often found alternative ways to care for and support their children, exerting their influence through advice, ideas, and religious counsel, immaterial means over which slaveholders had less control. This book counters persistent stereotypes of African American families and absent, irresponsible Black fathers, showing that because enslaved and then freed men did not have access to open patriarchal authority, much of their care-taking behavior has remained hidden.

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: Recent events and the racial reckoning we face in this country have underscored the destructive impact of misconceptions about Black masculinity and the African American family that are an ongoing legacy of slavery. In order to appreciate the variability and adaptability of the enslaved family, we need to look beyond household structure and normative definitions of family and fatherhood and instead look at how kin units actually functioned. It is also important to understand the public/private and hierarchical nature of Southern masculinity and how such assumptions continue to shape American attitudes. While only white men in the Old South had access to public definitions and the display of manhood, enslaved men were frequently allowed to exhibit attributes of masculinity within the confines of the plantation, especially when this arrangement profited the slaveholder. Enslaved men faced painful, intractable dilemmas and yet many endeavored to uphold the vision of paternal honor idealized by African American communities.

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

LH: I started college as a mechanical engineering major with the unrealistic goal of becoming a mission payload specialist and astronaut. In my first semester, I took an 800-person American History survey course with the late Leon F Litwack, and it changed my life. I switched my major to history and never looked back. In graduate school, I narrowed my focus to the Civil War era based on interest and a desire to work with the late William E. Gienapp. Great teachers and mentors have provided inspiration at every stage of my career development.

JF: What is your next project?

LH: My next project examines the consequences of Civil War mortality, comparing Southern counties with relatively light losses to those with heavy losses. The South lost a significant percentage of its white male population between the ages of 14 and 55, and local organization of regiments meant that deaths were unevenly spread across the landscape. I am using a combination of quantitative data and qualitative sources to explore the effects of wartime mortality on household formation, marriage patterns, local politics, regional migration, gender roles, and post-war race relations, with a particular focus on widows.

JF: Thanks, Libra!

The Author’s Corner with Michael Turner

Michael J. Turner is the Roy Carroll Distinguished Professor of British History at Appalachian State University, North Carolina. This interview is based on his new book, Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain?

MT: Several areas of interest came together and I thought it a project worth pursuing, given the time and opportunity. Going back many years, I wrote a research paper as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester, New York, which touched on British responses to the American Civil War. I found this a fascinating subject, but I did not develop it further at that time (1992). I started working on other things, though I remained interested in British-American interaction, especially during the nineteenth century, and eventually I began to publish in the field. A series of articles, and a book on the role of America in British radicalism (2014), led directly to Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain. So did a visit to Richmond, Virginia, in March 2013. I was walking in Capitol Square and I spotted a statue of Stonewall Jackson. On the base, it mentioned something about being a gift from “English gentlemen,” which made me curious. Nobody in the nearby museum seemed to know the story behind it, so when I got home I looked into it. I soon found that Beresford Hope, with whom I was already familiar as a Conservative MP and High Church activist in Victorian Britain, played a leading role in the commissioning, construction, and delivery of the Jackson statue. I decided to find out why. Meanwhile, in the background, over the past 25 years or so, a significant trend in the relevant historiography has been the internationalization of the Civil War. Scholars have been placing the war in a wider setting, investigating its impact around the world and asking how and why it affected foreign opinion about America. I wanted to contribute to these discussions. Building on a longstanding interest in British-American interaction, intrigued by the connection between Hope and the Jackson statue, and wishing to add to our understanding of the Civil War as more than just an American war, my focus was on British perspectives that might previously have been under-studied or under-estimated. We already know a lot about the chief determinants of British attitudes—like cotton, or slavery, or ideas about democracy, or imperial security—but what about other factors?

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain?

MT: There was considerable sympathy for the South in Britain and this arose not only from economic interest and political preferences, but also from a sense of social, ethnic, religious, and cultural affinity. Admiration for Southern “heroism,” personified in Stonewall Jackson, was of particular importance, and he was to have a lasting fame in Britain because of the values he was supposed to represent.

JF: Why do we need to read Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain?

MT: It is a wide-ranging book. From two points of entry—Beresford Hope’s leadership role in pro-Southern agitation, and Stonewall Jackson’s British reputation—the book opens up to explore the many reasons why people in Britain wished the Confederacy well and continued to sympathize with the South in the postwar decades. Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain combines and adds to two approaches: relating the Civil War to its international ramifications, and explaining British responses to the American crises of secession, war, and Reconstruction. The goal is to expand knowledge and understanding of these matters, not least by offering fresh insights gleaned from research into previously neglected sources and historical agents.

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

MT: It must have started as a child. I remember my favorite books being historical books, my favorite movies being historical movies, and so on, I think because history is all about real people—why they do things, their ideas and circumstances, what motivates them—and of course the patterns of the present all have their roots in the past. At school, history was the subject I enjoyed most and the one for which I worked hardest. There was one very influential teacher, who had read Modern History at Oxford, and I wanted to do the same. I went up to Oxford in 1984 and stayed for seven years! I had brilliant tutors for the BA, a superb supervisor for my doctorate, and access to wonderful libraries and other resources. Then I came to the States, for the first time, to do the postdoc at Rochester. I count myself truly blessed that it all worked out so well.

JF: What is your next project?

MT: I am currently engaged in a study of problems facing the Church of England in the Victorian age, seen from the perspective of High Church laity.

JF: Thanks, Michael!

Out of the Zoo: Why I (almost) didn’t vote in the 2020 election

Annie 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 some anxious moments as she prepared to vote for the first time in a presidential election.—JF

My mom doesn’t normally call me while I’m in class.

At the beginning of each semester, my siblings and I send her our schedules and she puts them on our family’s shared Google calendar. With three different kids in our family and three different course loads, it’s a very busy calendar. But it’s helpful for my mom, who uses it to keep track of the times when she can reach us. If she has news to share and she sees we’re in class, she usually sends a text or waits to call when we’re free.

As you can probably imagine, I was alarmed when my mom called me not once, but twice in the middle of my Joan of Arc class. Thankfully my phone was on silent, but it was still a shock when I checked the time and noticed two missed calls. There was also a text: “I know you’re in class but I need to talk to you about your ballot.” I grabbed my phone, excused myself, and caller her back. When she didn’t answer, I went back into the classroom and tried to discreetly send a text response. “I need to talk to you,” she messaged back. Visibly flustered, I went into the hallway for a second time, called again, and my mom finally picked up.

“Yeah so they don’t have our ballot request forms,” my mom said, even though our entire family had requested our absentee ballots in June. I had been anxiously checking my mailbox for weeks to no avail, so I should have known something went awry. Nevertheless, I was beyond frustrated with the fact that my ballot hadn’t even been sent yet. My Mom continued: “And the county clerk only works on Wednesdays. So if you want to request a ballot you need to fill out the form again, take a picture of it, and email it to them ASAP.”

“Well that’s stupid,” I replied, checking my watch. It was already 2 p.m.–well into Wednesday afternoon. If I didn’t get my ballot request in by the end of the work day, the county clerk wouldn’t see it for another week. There’s no way I would get it in time. “Why the heck do they only work one day a week when there’s a Presidential election less than two weeks away?”

As soon as my class was over, I dashed to the printer down the hall and printed out another ballot request form. I wrote down all the required information–my school address, my home address, and my signature–and snapped a picture. On my way to Theology with Dr. Weaver-Zercher, I typed out a quick email and sent it off with a prayer. Who knew it would be so hard to vote.

Yesterday, October 27, a week before the election, my ballot finally came in the mail. I practically skipped back to my room and filled it out right away. It even came with an “I voted” sticker, which I wore with pride for the rest of the day. After weeks of waiting and checking my empty mailbox, I finally got to vote in my first Presidential election.

The Author’s Corner with John Marks

John Marks is Historian and Public History Administrator for the American Association for State and Local History. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery: Race, Status, and Identity in the Urban Americas (University of South Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: The idea for this project began developing for me in graduate school. In reading widely about the history of race and slavery in the Atlantic World, I began to recognize patterns in the lived experiences of African-descended people in urban spaces that often went unmentioned. Historians of the United States almost never talked about parallels with Latin American society; Latin Americanists, for their part, often referenced older, or more abstract, examples from US histories when drawing broad comparisons. A deep engagement with current scholarship for both regions, however, revealed parallels I just couldn’t ignore: namely, the opportunity for free people of color living in cities before the end of slavery to carve out spaces of autonomy for themselves, claim a degree of distinction within their communities, and conduct themselves in ways that defied white expectation—and often the law. Recognizing major differences in law, culture, and attitudes towards racial difference across the Americas, I wanted to understand with greater precision the ways African-descended people navigated daily life in these places. As I began researching, I recognized as well that explicitly comparative history in some ways represented an unfulfilled promise of the turn to the “Atlantic World” as a perspective for analyzing the history of the United States and other American societies. Few scholars had conducted the kind of careful social history research in service of a transnational and comparative project I thought was necessary to really understand local dynamics. Once I realized such an approach could make a unique contribution to our understanding of race and slavery, there was no turning back.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: Throughout the urban Americas before the end of slavery, free people of color relentlessly pursued opportunities to improve their circumstances and provide for their families, staking claims to rights, privileges, and distinctions not typically granted to African-descended people. These efforts represented part of an international struggle for Black freedom, as free Black residents in Charleston, Cartagena, and beyond subtly challenged ideologies of white racial supremacy that linked the Americas together and undermined the foundations of white authority in the Atlantic World.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: 2020 has revealed for many Americans, especially white Americans, the degree to which racial injustice and inequality are still pervasive and pernicious features of our society. In order to fully understand the persistence of both individual racial prejudice and systemic racism, we need to understand the history of how race has operated and affected the lives of African-descended people. To fully understand that story, we need to at times look at the history of race and slavery from an international perspective.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, free people of African descent in the United States, Colombia, and throughout the Americas had to confront broadly shared notions of white supremacy among the country’s ruling classes in order to advance efforts to provide for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. Today, anti-Black racism and a wide range of persistent racial inequalities are pervasive from Canada to Chile and everywhere in between. When demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence erupted this summer, they extended to places like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia, in addition to across the United States. These international demonstrations were not just in solidarity with the US, they were protests against the particular, local histories of white supremacist violence and injustice.

Linking the histories of race and slavery in these places, exploring how and when racial dynamics were the same and different, offers new perspective on the histories of the United States, Latin America, and the Atlantic World, and I hope offers some insight into how we should understand efforts to combat white supremacy in the present.

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

JM: High school was the first time I really recognized that I had an uncommon interest in (and knack for) reading and writing about the past, but it wasn’t until college that I realized it could be a career. As an undergrad at Lynchburg College (now University of Lynchburg), I had the opportunity to pursue several locally-focused research projects, and I grew to enjoy the archive, the search for material, and the process of putting a puzzle together when you’re not really sure if you have all the pieces. As a New Jersey native researching race and slavery in Virginia, I also became keenly aware of regional differences in present-day racial dynamics, and I wanted to know more about how understandings of race developed over time. Moving forward through graduate school and now a career in public history, the way I think about what it means to be an American historian has certainly changed. But I’m as committed as ever to using research, writing, and engagement with the public to better understand the past and think through how it can help us solve problems in the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JM: I’ve got a couple things kicking around that I hope to be able to say more about soon. In both my scholarship and my day job (for the American Association for State and Local History), I’ve been thinking a lot about anniversaries and how historians can use them as opportunities to expand, challenge, and learn from the public’s understandings of history. 2022 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston, and 2026 represents the 250th anniversary of the United States. I know planning is underway already for both commemorations, so I’m interested in using those events to think in new ways about the history of race, slavery, and freedom—whether for books, articles, public history projects, or other endeavors.

JF: Thanks, John!

Out of the Zoo: Stories Matter

Annie 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 how she is putting her love of C.S. Lewis to good use in the community.—JF

The first chapter book I ever read in elementary school was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I watched the movie version first, which came out when I was six years old. A year or so later, I read the book–followed by the rest of the series. And so began my Narnia craze (which, to be honest, hasn’t completely gone away). Throughout my childhood, I read the Narnia books again, and again, and again. When the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out on DVD, my family borrowed fur coats from a friend and dressed up for a Narnia movie night at our church. I had all the Narnia merchandise you could imagine; I carried my bible in a Narnia bible case until the strap broke, put a Narnia paperweight on my desk and kept a tattered Narnia poster on my bedroom wall until I graduated high school. I still hang up my Narnia stocking and Narnia Christmas ornaments with pride every holiday season. While my Narnia obsession has died down slightly over the years, the story still holds a special place in my heart. It has strengthened my faith, inspired my imagination, and comforted me on some of my hardest days.

Every education major at Messiah is required to take a class called “Teaching English Language Learners in K-12 schools. The class, taught by Dr. Tina Keller, comes with a 20 hour cross-cultural requirement meant to encourage us to gain hands-on experience with English learners outside the classroom. At the beginning of the semester, Dr. Keller compiled a list of schools, churches, and organizations still holding English classes and encouraged us to sign up as a volunteer. After a few email exchanges with Anna Halbersma, the Director of Intercultural Ministries at Immanuel Christian-Missionary Church,  I agreed to co-teach a book club for English learners over Zoom on Thursday mornings. As you can probably imagine, when she told me we would be going through none other than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe I was beyond thrilled. 

I was pretty nervous on my first day of English teaching, but now Thursday morning is the best part of my week. For one, I’m getting a taste of what it will be like to be a teacher someday as I make lesson plans, write discussion questions, and attempt to coach students through technical difficulties. On top of that, I get to read my favorite book of all time, re-discovering the amazing story I love alongside my students who have never heard it before. Through the class I’ve met amazing people from all different places and cultures with unique stories of their own. I got to call a couple of them after class last week and they shared even more stories with me—about their families, their home countries, and their experiences learning English. I know it’s cliche for teachers to say that they learn more from their students than their students learn from them, but in the case of my English class the cliche is 100% true.

Stories are so powerful. They’re important too, and there are so many of them to learn. They teach us more about the world and all the different people living in it. Discovering people’s stories is one of my favorite things in the whole world. I think that’s why I love history so much. After all, as historians, it’s our job to learn about people’s lives—who they were, where they were from, and what mattered to them. The world is full of interesting people with fascinating lives, just waiting to share their experiences with anyone who will listen. In fact, it always has been. There are stories all around us just waiting to be uncovered. So let’s pick up a shovel and start digging.

The Author’s Corner with Kenneth Noe

Kenneth Noe is Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. This interview is based on his new book, The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Howling Storm?

KN: Growing up in the Virginia mountains, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents on our farm. Weather forecasts were vital, as we had to know if it was time to get the animals in the barn before a snow storm, or if we needed to bale newly-mown hay and store it in the loft before rain set in. Once I planted a field of corn only to watch it die in a drought. So I grew up in a household where weather was central. Yet I never really made the connection between weather and the Civil War until years later when I agreed to write a history of the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky. Weather—in this case a devastating late summer droughtsoon became as important a character as Braxton Bragg. Soldiers arrived at the field dehydrated and sick from drinking mud and bacterial puddles, and the fighting itself began over possession of a spring. Working on that book left me attuned to other moments in the war that were shaped by weather, such as the flooding that characterized Fort Henry, Shiloh, and the Peninsula Campaign earlier in 1862. More and more I included information about weather when I taught, and I told my students for years that “someone needs to write a book about Civil War weather.” When no one did, I abruptly decided one morning a decade ago to give it a try myself.

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

KN: We will not fully understand the Civil War—on the battlefield or on the home frontuntil we take the war back outside and immerse it in wartime weather and the physical environment. Those weather conditions generally favored a Union cause more industrially and intellectually able to cope with it while undermining Confederate agriculture and arms.

JF: Why do we need to read The Howling Storm?

KN: I’ve read about the Civil War since I was a boy, and I’ve studied it professionally for thirty-five years. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Yet researching and writing this book has forever altered how I understand the war. I never knew that it took place in an unusual weather environment, for one thing, shaped by both the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation. Heavy late winter rains and summer droughts in the Confederacy in 1862 and 1863, as well as in Virginia in 1864, created serious food shortages that forced the government in Richmond to prioritize feeding soldiers or civilians. Civil War historians talk all the time about the internal issues that conceivably doomed the Confederacy without understanding that the foundation of all those divisive policies such as impressment and the tax-in-kind are to be found in bad weather and stunted crops. At the same time, northern agriculture faced problems after 1862 due to early frosts in 1863 and drought that year as well as in 1864. Good or bad weather played major roles in the outcomes of battles and campaigns, more than I ever grasped. Once I added weather to the equation, I began to alter my opinions of the leaders too. Abraham Lincoln was a magisterial president in so many ways, but he also could be the prototype of the worst kind of snarky armchair general, unable or unwilling to grasp what it took to move 100,000 men through muddy red clay. And I also marveled at the suffering that common soldiers endured. We think about them dying in battle or in hospitals, but not regularly alongside roads due to heat exhaustion, drowning in floods, freezing to death on picket, or being struck by lightning. I hope that taking the war back outside into the environment, away from our air conditioners and the tired clichés we grew up with, will have the same effect on readers.

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

KN: My grandfather was a great storyteller, and history was always my favorite class in school, right through college. And growing up in Virginia, it was impossible to ignore the Civil War. When I was five, for example, we all went to the Manassas battlefield and my father illegally hoisted me on top of the Stonewall Jackson statue. To be honest, though, I got pretty tired of the war. I gravitated toward European history in college, and my MA thesis actually is about the Irish Rebellion of 1916. But during the year after I graduated, as I tried to find a job and ended up cutting timber on the farm, I started thinking about the history of our land, and of my home town. Then I ran across a paperback copy of Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground, and there I was, intellectually back in Southwest Virginia in the nineteenth century. Eventually that led me back to grad school.

JF: What is your next project?

KN: In the short term, surviving a year of Zoom teaching. After that? Ten years of working on The Howling Storm—which turned into quite a thick book—and I should be done with Civil War weather. Yet I keep musing about issues that I had to leave out due to length, such as the wartime experience in coastal forts, where weather often was the main foe. I’m also an Appalachian scholar, and I also have an unfinished, long-term project on the identity of Appalachian Civil War bushwhackers that a few folks really want to me to finish finally once I can get back to Washington.

JF: Thanks, Kenneth!

Out of the Zoo: Do Better

Annie 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 considers lessons she has learned from studying the history of dueling in early America—JF

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about Alexander Hamilton’s “deathbed conversion.” Ten and a half months later, I’ve returned to researching the faith of our ten-dollar founding father. I’m particularly fascinated by the religious implications of dueling–the means by which Hamilton met his tragic end. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, dueling was an established method by which men could settle their disputes and restore their honor. Though it was illegal in many places, challenges were still made and accepted. Men still perished on the dueling grounds–including Hamilton’s own son Phillip. Christian ministers often spoke out against the practice. One minister, Reverend Benjamin Moore, even denied Hamilton’s initial request for communion from his deathbed, solely because he had fought in a duel.

This past week, I’ve been sorting through Lyman Beecher’s sermon, “The Remedy for Dueling.” The sermon is extensive–55 pages in length–and cannot be easily summarized in a few sentences, or even a 600 word blog post. Beecher equates dueling with murder and exhorts all who practice it to change their ways. Further, he calls Christians to take a stand against the cult of honor by refusing to vote for duelists. He voices his distress regarding the flawed character of public men, but also chides Americans for not encouraging them to do better. Beecher writes, “But how has it come to pass (if true) that so many public characters are immoral men? It is because we, the people, have not even requested them to behave better. We have never made it necessary for them to be moral.” Beecher condemns the behavior of duelists, but his sermon does not end there. He concludes by challenging men of honor to change their evil ways. He spurs his congregation–and even the duelists themselves–toward love and good deeds.

A couple summers ago, I worked my first summer at a traveling day camp called Springhill. Every day–and sometimes twice a day–all of our campers gathered for high-energy large group sessions. We danced, sang songs, played games, and ended each session with a skit. The heroes of the story that year–Agent M and Double J–were top-secret spies on a mission in the jungle; they wore badges and carried blasters. Meanwhile Dr. Con–the villain of the story–tried to keep Agent M and Double J from finishing their mission. Dr. Con spoke in a nasally voice and wore a yellow polo shirt–complete with white knee-high socks, glasses, and a fake mustache. 

As counselors, my coworkers and I tried to make large group sessions as exciting as possible. We yelled and danced and jumped around, and interacted with the skit so our campers would be engaged.  So at first, we thought it might be a good idea to boo Dr. Con whenever he shuffled onstage–after all, he was the bad guy. It didn’t take long for our campers to catch on and start booing with us. But things quickly got out of control–the boos got so loud that they distracted from the important gospel story the skit was supposed to tell. Some kids gave up booing entirely and just started screaming–so loud that no one could hear any of the lines. It was obvious that something needed to change. So, instead of booing Dr. Con, we decided to shout “Do better! Do better Dr. Con!” I can’t say the booing immediately ceased, but soon enough our campers began to follow our example. Instead of screaming whenever Dr. Con showed up, they called him to do the right thing rather than continue in his old devious ways–to choose good instead of evil.

It might seem rather strange to compare an early 19th century sermon with a skit from a summer camp written over 200 years later, but I think both can speak into the moment we’re in right now. It’s now the middle of October, and the 59th Presidential election is less than three weeks away. It seems like almost every commercial that pops up on my television is a political advertisement. I’m still waiting for my absentee ballot, but millions have already voted. Many Americans see a clear hero and a clear villain in this chapter in our country’s story, while others aren’t too thrilled about either of the men on the ballot.

Yet before we sulk that “so many public characters are immoral men” we should ask ourselves if we “have even requested them to behave better.” Have we really called for change, or are we enabling complacency? Does character really matter to us? Do our votes reflect that? At the same time, even if there is a clear “bad guy” in our personal political narrative, we should not boo them off the stage. We shouldn’t yell so loud that we can’t hear anything they have to say. Instead, we should offer encouragement. We must urge them to do the right thing rather than continuing in their old ways, to choose good instead of evil. Instead of “boo,” let us say, “Do better!”

The Author’s Corner with Carla Pestana

Carla Gardina Pestana is Professor of History, Department Chair, and Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America in the World at the University of California, Los Angeles. This interview is based on her new book, The World of Plymouth Plantation (Belknap Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The World of Plymouth Plantation?

CP: The simple answer, and one I allude to in the book’s acknowledgements, is that I participated in an NEH funded workshop at the living history museum Plimoth Plantation some years ago. During that multi-day meeting, I was struck by how Plymouth appears isolated from the wider world. Immediate interactions, especially those with the area’s original residents, received the focus of attention in conversations there and, I subsequently realized, in the literature around Plymouth as well. I felt inspired to think systematically about what connected Plymouth to a world beyond the neighboring Wampanoag peoples and the immediate location.

On another level, this project represents a return to my roots. My original research centered on New England; and though I have kept it in my sights in a number of more broadly framed projects, this is the first time I have returned to consider the region on its own. This return had not occurred to me, until a number of friends pointed it out.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The World of Plymouth Plantation?

CP: Plymouth Plantation was connected from its inception to other places, and those connections shaped its early history in ways both basic and profound. (That is one!)

JF: Why do we need to read The World of Plymouth Plantation?

CP: I realize this is my chance to make my own case, but I am not sure I would use the word “need”! (Obviously, I could be better at self-promotion.)

The World of Plymouth Plantation offers a readable account of everyday life as well as of what we might call their world view. It is organized around some basic categories that have shaped Atlantic history, specifically things, ideas, and people that circulated into and through the outpost. It uses those categories to shape 18 short chapters that each begin with a vignette (although not the usual ones) and consider an element from one of the three categories. So, it’s organized in an interesting (if subtle) way. It also reflects knowledge gained from many years of teaching and researching, without being didactic about it. My intended readers are not only scholars and students but also the wider public, so it is relatively short, not to mention nicely illustrated and written in an accessible style.

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

CP: I stumbled into the study of history in that I went to graduate school largely on the recommendation of my undergraduate faculty and without a clear idea of what I would find there. As an undergraduate, I had felt especially drawn to early American history so I continued in that vein, making me technically an American historian since the colonial period is treated as the first (and often least significant) chapter of US history. I stumbled across the Quaker executions in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the first months of my graduate career and quickly became obsessed with explaining them. I wanted, on the most basic level, to understand how Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: From Colony to Province and Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down could both be legitimate representations of an era (and some closely connected people during it) when their subject matters and findings seemed so vastly at odds. In a way, my dissertation and first book were an attempt to answer that question.

Since that time, I have wandered out into Atlantic, Caribbean, and even British topics, but I have always taught early American history. I continue to consider myself a historian of early America, even though now I am interested in that and more.

JF: What is your next project?

CP: Sadly, I am uncertain. Like most historians, I am missing the access to archives and libraries brought on by the pandemic. I want to get back into the Jamaican archives to answer some questions left hanging from a previous book. I want to think more deeply about maritime topics, and I would have been in the National Records Office in Kew looking at High Court of Admiralty records this summer had that been possible. I may put together an edited collection of articles by other scholars on the early modern global Caribbean, since I have been facilitating conversations around that topic for some time.

JF: Thanks, Carla!

The Author’s Corner with Hannah-Rose Murray

Hannah-Rose Murray is Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the creator of a virtual Black Abolitionist tour of London, highlighting six important sites where African American activists made an impact on the UK landscape. This interview is based on her new book, Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Advocates for Freedom?

HM: The book developed from my PhD project, which focused on Black abolitionism in the British Isles during the nineteenth century. When I first started my research, I collated thousands of newspaper articles about Frederick Douglass’ visit to Britain and Ireland between 1845-1847, and after reading the pioneering works of Richard Blackett and Audrey Fisch realized that there was a wealth of material and sources to search through and uncover the larger story behind this transatlantic movement. I was fascinated to learn why Douglass was so famous and I developed a framework, adaptive resistance, which explores the reason why some activists were more successful than others: broadly, it’s a triad that rests on performance, antislavery networks and exploitation of print culture. For example, one of the reasons why Douglass was so successful in 1845 was due to his oratorical skill, his connections to William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery movement and friends across Britain and Ireland, who in turn befriended newspaper editors and published pamphlets and materials to maximise support for Douglass and the abolitionist cause. Others, like Moses Roper, were maligned in the press by newspaper correspondents and by some abolitionists; he often had to make his own way around Britain without such concrete networks of support. Through excavating British newspaper articles, I could analyze their performances, their testimony and how they were received by the press and public across the nineteenth century, and how certain events–like the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the American Civil War impacted their missions. Additionally, I created a mapping project that attempts to record as many African American speaking locations as possible. So far, I’ve mapped 4,700 sites in 1,550 locations across Britain and Ireland. As well as being a handy visualization tool for my research, it also presents numerous analytical patterns: why certain activists spoke in some locations rather than others and even how some followed early railway routes for ease of transportation. This filtered into the book too.

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

HM: I argue that by sharing their oratorical, visual, and literary testimony to transatlantic audiences, African American activists galvanised the antislavery movement and highlighted not only their death-defying escapes from bondage but also their desire to speak out against slavery and white supremacy on foreign soil. Using a framework I term adaptive resistance, I uncover the reasons why some activists were more successful than others, why they visited certain locations, how they adapted to the political and social climate, and what impact their activism had on British society.

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

HM: The politicized and radical journeys undertaken by African Americans to the British Isles are crucial to understanding their testimony and future careers, but also the antislavery movement and the Black Atlantic as a whole. For the first time, my book reveals new testimony and archival discoveries surrounding the stories of Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson (to name a few) and uses digital mapping to analyze their antislavery missions as well as a theoretical framework to determine why some activists were more successful than others. In this detailed study, I examine how in Britain and Ireland, thousands of slave narratives and abolitionist pamphlets were sold, petitions were signed, hundreds of pounds were raised for societies or given directly to help purchase individuals or their family members from slavery. Thousands more attended meetings at chapels, town halls, school rooms and lecturing halls, who often queued for hours beforehand and millions of words were written in response to Black activists and their stories of slavery. These activists challenged misconceptions of slavery, advanced the cause of abolition and mobilized public opinion. Through their interventions with the press, correspondents published Black abolitionist letters, speeches and commentaries, and their message was spread often beyond their immediate reach or where they had lectured. Their tireless activism often created and sustained antislavery momentum across the transatlantic, and their international missions inspired further action as well as apoplectic rage in the United States.

My work is also timely: as the Black Lives Matter protests continue to take place around the world, it’s important to recognize that the activists I discuss were declaring that their Black lives mattered nearly two centuries ago. It’s well documented that the movement has strong historical roots, but my chapter on Ida B. Wells’ lynching campaign in Britain in 1893 and 1894 is particularly prescient when we consider the modern lynchings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The book highlights not only the trajectory between activists in the c19th and today, but also how far we still have to go to accomplish their anti-racist missions.

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

HM: I have always loved learning about U.S. history since I was a teenager and was very lucky to visit America a few times when I was studying in secondary school. I started working on Frederick Douglass’ experiences in Britain ten years ago, achieved my PhD in 2018 and haven’t looked back since! My work centres around the rediscovery and amplification of African American testimony–including from Frederick Douglass–to ensure that their lives, histories and memories are no longer invisibilized. Their testimony can also shine a new light on their courageous and inspiring activism on both sides of the Atlantic and remind us that antislavery agitation had a fundamental transatlantic element. Activists like Douglass believed that their missions abroad would have very real consequences for enslavers, proslavery defenders, and racists back home.

JF: What is your next project?

HM: I envision Advocates of Freedom as part of a trilogy: this current work is quite broad and extends from the late 1830s to the early 1890s, so the project I’m working on now is a focused study between 1840-1870. I’m studying the ways in which African Americans used visual and performative testimony in the British Isles to convince the transatlantic public about slavery. For example, Moses Roper exhibited whips, chains and manacles on the Victorian stage and even demonstrated how they worked to his audiences. Henry ‘Box’ Brown, the infamous activist, lecturer and entertainer who escaped slavery by posting himself in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia, starred in a play based on his own life in Kent, England. Other activists like James C. Thompson wrote his own poetry and performed it to his audiences and exhibited paintings of his life in slavery. It’s fascinating to consider how activists used growing technological and visual mediums to inform audiences and entice them to their lectures.

The third book in this ‘trilogy’ (if it does get that far!) will focus on African American postbellum activism in the British Isles. Activists continued to travel to Britain and Ireland and followed in the footsteps of their forebears to raise awareness and educate transatlantic audiences on global racism. Additionally, they campaigned around the fact that, contrary to popular belief, U.S. chattel slavery had never actually died. Instead, its foul spirit had mutated and evolved into practices such as lynching and the convict lease system, which preserved the legacies of centuries of oppression. While antebellum slave narratives and speeches distinctly served the purpose of abolition, post-war testimony–particularly in oratorical form–was specifically shaped around abolition’s broken promises. They continued to denounce white supremacy, challenge Lost Cause narratives and white domestic terrorism up to the early twentieth century.

JF: Thanks, Hannah-Rose!

Out of the Zoo: Coronavirus Diary

Annie 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 gets us up to speed on coronavirus at Messiah University—JF

A month and a half into the semester, Messiah University has settled into a new kind of normal. We’re getting used to shouting answers to discussion questions so that others can hear us from behind our mask. We know now to check our emails regularly in case a professor decides to meet over zoom last minute–due to COVID exposure or otherwise. We’ve become unphased by the strange microphone headsets our professors wear, relatively unconcerned with the ever-fluctuating number of students who tune in to class remotely. We’re finding creative ways to connect with our families and friends when we can’t go home over fall break or see them in person. Certainly none of these situations are ideal, but we’re getting used to them anyway.

After a spring and summer of live-streaming church, I’ve finally returned to in-person worship. The church that I attend when I’m at school has been holding all of its services outdoors in a huge field, which makes social distancing much easier to maintain. While this season has shown me that the Church is so much more than a place, it felt good to be back, singing with other believers and listening to a sermon in church clothes instead of pajamas. Doing Young Life ministry this year has been challenging in many ways, but my team has been making it work. We’ve been hosting all our Young Life events outside–at parks, around campfires, and in backyards–and require students to bring a mask. We’ve lucked out in terms of weather so far, but we’re making preparations for when the weather gets colder and we may not be able to gather in large groups. 

We’re expecting to get an email sometime this week about changes to Messiah’s COVID restrictions. There have been 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus since the beginning of the year–17 students and 2 employees. Our numbers are still relatively low, but the slight uptick in cases has many on edge. Nonetheless, we’re still hoping that Messiah will keep loosening-up the rules to give us more things to do on campus. Since we can’t go into each other’s apartments or dorms right now (even with masks on) students have been taking trips off-campus to hang out. We’re all hoping that Messiah will decide that increased visitation is the lesser of these two evils.

In the meantime, Messiah’s campus has been abuzz with political fervour. Some students are certainly more passionate than others, but political conversations abound nonetheless–before class, during meals, and on social media. We talk about the issues that are important to us–issues like criminal justice reform, abortion and education. We talk about the pandemic. In other discussions, I listen to my friends and mentors express their concern about a lack of empathy and understanding on both sides of the political spectrum. We reveal our voting plans too, whether we’re voting by mail, in-person, or hand-delivering our envelopes on election day. I’ve been checking my mailbox periodically for my absentee ballot. My sister (who studies journalism at Northwestern University) got hers last week, so I think mine will come soon. I’m excited to vote in my first Presidential election, even though I won’t get a patriotic  “I voted” sticker to show for it.

Last Tuesday, I watched the first presidential debate. My housemate Chloe (another history major) and I shared a bag of popcorn as we watched Trump and Biden duke it out on stage, the script of the Declaration of Independence’s Preamble displayed on a blue backdrop behind them. Our housemate Rebecca, who grew up overseas, joined us too. She was born in the states, but had never watched a presidential debate. I told her she should at least watch the first 10 minutes of the debate so she would be able to understand Saturday Night Live’s parody video of it a few days later. To my surprise, she watched the whole thing. “It’s just so fascinating!” she said.

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic and a month and a half into school, much remains uncertain. Will COVID cases go up any more on campus? Will my friends continue to stay healthy and safe? Will we be able to keep Messiah open for the rest of the semester? Will I still be able to connect with my Young Life students when it’s too cold to meet in someone’s backyard? Will my absentee ballot come on time? If I’ve learned anything about this COVID-19 season, it’s that every answered question will be replaced by a new unanswered one. We grow, we adapt, we adjust, but there’s always one new thing to get used to. Uncertainty has become the new normal, change a strong and constant force.

The Author’s Corner with Louis DeCaro, Jr.

Louis DeCaro, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church History at Alliance Theological Seminary. He has also kept a blog on John Brown since 2005. This interview is based on his new book, The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper’s Ferry Raider (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: The short answer is that I have been a student of the life and letters of John Brown for over twenty years and in 2018 it was announced that a popular movie was being produced about one of John Brown’s black Harper’s Ferry raiders, Shields Green. Originally, I intended only to write an article in advance that I hoped to have published when the film was released. When I began to gather my sources, things began to catch my eye that I had overlooked, and the first draft of my “article” turned out to be nearly one hundred pages. This led to a conversation with the amazing Clara Platter at NYU Press, who encouraged me to consider a book. The funny thing is that the movie, “Emperor,” which was finally released not too long ago, ends with a fictive conclusion about Shields Green’s son writing a book about his father. So while the fictional story in the movie brings forth a book, the movie itself prompted me to write a real book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: The story of John Brown has been misunderstood and misrepresented in conventional histories, but even sympathizers have overlooked his young raiders, especially the black raiders. The black raider Shields Green is the most challenging to find in the historical record of the Harper’s Ferry despite his storied role and yet his legacy provides insight into depth of racism in the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: This work offers layers of historical consideration: (1) what it means to try to reconstruct a man’s story based on scattered and limited evidence; (2) what the story of Shields Green reveals about a kind of self-made black abolitionist, even as historians are starting to appreciate the antislavery story that is more appreciative of black leadership; (3) what Shields Green as a both a protagonist of justice and a victim of injustice reveals about the real nature of the United States in the antebellum era; (4) a challenge to the hackneyed, conventional narrative of John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid; (5) a consideration of the significance of how black people were portrayed in Brown’s time, especially Shields Green, whose image only survives through sketches made by white men; and (6) a consideration of how Green’s story was stylized, first by Frederick Douglass, and then relayed by historians down to recent history.

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

LD: From childhood I was always enamored by history, especially in biography (and particularly that of Abraham Lincoln), and I suppose the most compelling biographies for me were “American” stories (with the exception of my extended flirtation with the life of the Renaissance monk, Girolamo Savonarola). However, my academic and seminary training was largely centered upon European history and Reformed theology. What brought me back to the history of the United States was a passionate interest in African American history and racial justice, especially the study of Malcolm X, which yielded my first publications. Ultimately, Malcolm made me think about “American history” again, and in a sense, pointed me toward John Brown.

JF: What is your next project?

LD: I’m not sure. I’m in conversation with my editor about that now. Certainly, I intend to revisit John Brown, especially his role in Kansas and possibly prepare a narrated collection of his letters and primary documents. But I have other irons in the fire that reflect my interests in history and religion.

JF: Thanks, Louis!

The Author’s Corner with Paul Matzko

Paul Matzko is Editor for Tech and Innovation at the Cato Institute. This interview is based on his new book, The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Radio Right?

PM: The idea came to me while reading Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors for a graduate seminar. I realized that many of the Southern Californians in her book had unmentioned ties to a fundamentalist radio preacher in New Jersey named Carl McIntire. As it so happened, I lived in Philadelphia at the time and McIntire’s archives were housed just up the road at Princeton Theological Seminary. As I started digging in, I realized that McIntire was just one part of a very large, informal network of right-wing radio broadcasters who sprung up almost overnight on national airwaves by the early 1960s. The story of their sudden rise to political significance—as well as the surprising lengths to which their political and theological opponents were wiling to go to silence them—has never been fully told before.

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

PM: Conservative, religious broadcasters in the 1960s played a vital but mostly overlooked role in the creation of the New Right. The best indicator of their influence is the sweeping censorship campaign organized against them by the John F. Kennedy administration, the Democratic National Committee, and the National Council of Churches.

JF: Why do we need to read The Radio Right?

PM: It challenges the over-intellectualized, male-focused, top-down, received narrative of the rise of the New Right. You’ll read about suburban housewives boycotting Polish ham imports, a protest ‘funeral’ for free speech conducted in Revolutionary Era garb on the green behind Independence Hall, a converted World War Two minesweeper blasting pirate radio off the coast of Cape May, and an Oval Office tape linking the sitting president to the most successful censorship campaign of the past half century. 

I would also argue that historians of the period tend to overweight personalities and underweight the importance of structure, the submerged political, economic, and cultural institutions which create the incentive structures that then drive human behavior. To borrow Marx’s terminology, I wanted to focus on the phenomenal rather than the epiphenomenal. Thus this book emphasizes shifts in the supply of conservative ideas rather than, as is more common, changes in the demand for conservative ideas.

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

PM: In college, I intended to become a Byzantinist specializing in imperial interactions with crusaders. (I blame an early teenage reading of Robert Payne’s lovely The Dream and the Tomb.) A glancing encounter with Greek and French instruction convinced me I didn’t have the requisite linguistic aptitude. 

But while at Temple University, a professor challenged me to not run away from my past when looking for research projects, that my odd background could be an asset to be mined rather than a problem to be avoided. “Write what you know,” he said, and what I knew was the history of American fundamentalism and conservative politics. That was the same semester as the grad seminar where I read McGirr and made the McIntire connection. 

JF: What is your next project?

PM: I would like to write a sequel to The Radio Right. One of the people named on the Oval Office tape I mentioned above—and thus implicated in the anti-Radio Right censorship campaign—was US Senator John Pastore. Pastore is perhaps best known for chairing the congressional committee hearings in 1969 where Fred Rogers testified in favor of government support for public media. There’s a connection, to put it bluntly, between the creation of National Public Radio / Public Broadcasting System and the censorship campaign I’ve already described. And while in this book I teased the importance of radio to Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, there’s much more to be written about how the Carter and Reagan administrations’ demolition of the Fairness Doctrine led to the rise of conservative talk radio in the 1980s.

JF: Thanks, Paul!

Out of the Zoo: Joan of Arc

Annie 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 reports on her class on the trial of Joan of Arc—JF

I loved The Lord of the Rings movies growing up. I watched them for the first time with my mom in elementary school–she skipped all the parts that were too scary or gross. I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I watched them again a few years later I understood more. After that, the Lord of the Rings saga became a staple in our family–for sick days, movie nights and especially long car trips in our Dodge minivan with built-in television screens. My cousin Abby, who is now a children’s librarian in the Grand Rapids area, even took my siblings and I to see a midnight showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug when we were in eighth grade.

One of my favorite parts in The Lord of the Rings movies is a scene from The Return of the King. As Frodo and Sam draw ever nearer to Mount Doom, Legolas, Gimli, and several other familiar faces are left to defend Minas Tirith from a giant army of orcs. In the middle of the heated battle, the evil Witch-King shows up and picks a fight with Eowyn, a noblewoman from Rohan who disguises herself as a man to defend Middle Earth. “You fool, no man can kill me,” the Witch-King rasps, with Eowyn in a choke-hold. “Die now.” A few seconds later, Eowyn escapes from the his grasp and rips off her helmet to reveal long golden hair. “I am no man!” she exclaims, thrusting her sword forward and striking the Ringwraith with a fatal blow.

As a self-proclaimed tomboy in elementary and middle school, I wanted to be like Eowyn when I grew up. I probably could have quoted her battle scene in my sleep. She was bold and strong and brave–the ultimate example of girl power. I think I liked watching Eowyn because I saw some of myself in her–but I also saw the kind of person I wanted to be.

At Messiah University this semester, I’m taking a class about a young woman who reminds me a lot of Eowyn–Joan of Arc. She wasn’t a noblewoman from Rohan, but a peasant girl from Domrémy, France. To be frankly honest, I didn’t know much about Joan before my class started, and I still  have a lot to learn. But in the month that I’ve studied her thus far, I’ve encountered a devout, loyal, fearless young woman who cast aside gender norms, listened to God’s voice, and tirelessly sought the greater good of France. Like Eowyn, Joan was brave, and she wore men’s clothes into battle too! There’s no magic ring or Witch-King in Joan’s story, but she did live in a world that looks a lot different from our own. To someone who loves history–and even to someone who doesn’t–Joan’s life is just as intriguing as a fantasy novel. Like Eowyn, I see some of myself in Joan of Arc–in her stubbornness and her passion for justice. Yet in Joan I also see the kind of person I want to become–someone who is bold, courageous and full of faith.

I am grateful to my professor, Dr. Joseph Huffman, for introducing me to Joan of Arc this semester. As we progress through the transcript of her trial in the coming weeks, I hope I will better comprehend with greater fullness the woman she was–a task which may never be completely achieved. Because unlike movie characters, historical figures are complex and ever-changing. They can’t be easily captured in a few words on a page or a few minutes on a movie screen. Nonetheless, we still have lots to learn from them.