The Author’s Corner with Gregory Downs

the second american revolutionGregory Downs is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. This interview is based on his new book, The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Second American Revolution?

GD: A gnawing pit in my stomach and a sense of unfinished business and a golden opportunity. The gnawing pit was from a feeling that I hadn’t done what I genuinely intended to in my American Historical Review essay “The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States’ Transnational Path from Civil War to Stabilization.” I began that research with an interest in the interaction between domestic/national politics and international events, in the way that events in other nations shaped the discourse around what was possible or probable, and I wanted to use this to show U.S. politics as less bounded than our received terms convey, to explore the mutual construction of what gets classed as national and trans-national history, and to capture the ebb and flow of ideas through particular domestic political contexts. In the process of following the inflow of ideas about Mexican crises to U.S. politics in the 1850s-1870s, however, I never got to the truly interactive nature of those connections, and so in some ways reproduced a domestic framework, in which the United States was influenced by cultural ideas about other nations. This made me uncomfortable, as I knew there was a great deal to the Mexican side of the story that I hadn’t explored, and it also gave me a sense of unfinished business: how could I go further in exploring the mid-19th century as a broad crisis in republican theory, in which calculations of how (and whether) republics survived were shaped by ideas and political actors moving from one nation to another. There was much more to be said about the relationship between the United States mid-century crises and those in other countries.

The opportunity came in the Brose Lectures which gave me a format and an excuse to explore ideas that were historiographically important but might not fit easily into a book. And as I began reading and thinking more deeply, I became more impressed with the ways that the literature was already working to incorporate a multi-sided view of the U.S.-Mexican influence (especially in work by Erika Pani and Pat Kelly and others) and also with a thread I had worried over earlier but not followed: the centrality of Cuba. By following Cuban revolutionary exiles, I was able to find a way to follow circuits into and out of different countries’ domestic politics and to explore the connection between the revolutionary remaking of U.S. political structures and a global revolutionary wave that rose and then fell in the mid-19th century.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Second American Revolution?

GD: The Civil War was not merely civil–meaning national–and not merely a war, but instead an international conflict of ideas as well as armies. Its implications transformed the U.S. Constitution and reshaped a world order, as political and economic systems grounded in slavery and empire clashed with the democratic process of republican forms of government.

JF: Why do we need to read The Second American Revolution?

GD: The book examines the breadth of U.S. politics at a moment when we need to recover our sense of the bold and of the possible. Much of the book is dedicated to exploring those international currents I mentioned, and those have important (I believe) historiographical ramifications for U.S. history and potentially some interest for historians of Cuba and the Caribbean and 19th century Spain.) But the book also turns inward to examine the norm-breaking boldness of U.S. Republicans in the 1860s as they created new states, forced constitutional amendments through, marginalized the Supreme Court, and in other ways significantly altered the political system. Then, I argue, they covered their tracks in order to make their achievements seem moderate, and we have helped them do so by scolding them for their moderation. But in fact no political candidate offers solutions anywhere near as bold as “moderate” 1860s Republicans; no one matches John Bingham in threatening to dissolve the Supreme Court entirely if it doesn’t recognize the role it must play. Instead we have fallen into calling for respect for norms that are—as in the 1840s and 1850s—no longer respected. When faced with those norm violations, we tend to call for the referees. But there are no referees, other than the electorate. And to the electorate we make claims about broader failings but can’t offer plausible solutions; we tell them the political system is broken but don’t fix it. I think we need to recover our boldness and abandon our sense of futility. Rethinking the constitutional transgressions of the Civil War is one way we can expand our own political thinking to make it at least approach the boldness of allegedly moderate 1860s Republicans, and thus discover ways out of problems like the contemporary Supreme Court, the Senate, and other sticky but intractable problems of U.S. politics.

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

GD: As a child I was raised between Kauai and my extended family’s home of central Kentucky and my extended family’s eventual new home in Middle Tennessee, and I was from a young age fascinated by the differences between those places, by the way that race and politics and memory worked so differently in Kauai than in Kentucky, and by the shadow that events (the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy or the Civil War) continued to gnaw upon the present. I worked as a journalist and as a high school teacher, so I didn’t always know that I would be an academic historian, but I always believed that the study of the past was venerable, difficult, and essential.

JF: What is your next project?

GD: I am working on completing my friend Tony Kaye’s manuscript on Nat Turner, a project he was working on when he died. After that I have many projects I am contemplating and am enjoying the time to reflect on what I most want to do and most feel challenged by.

JF: Thanks, Greg!

The Author’s Corner with Heather Martel

Deadly VirtueHeather Martel is Associate Professor of History at Northern Arizona University. This interview is based on her new book, Deadly Virtue: Fort Caroline and the Early Protestant Roots of American Whiteness (University Press of Florida, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Deadly Virtue?

HM: I needed to understand how it is that a people with such a violent history of colonialism, slavery, and environmental destruction can think of themselves as good and think of that history as a narrative of exceptionalism. To understand, I looked back at the first Protestant engagements with the environment and Indigenous people of the Americas. The story of Fort Caroline, Florida, is one episode in this history in which we can see that the commander of this group of French Calvinists had a vision of creating a Protestant empire under the leadership of an Indigenous king. This fantasy surprises a 21st Century reader who is expecting to find racial hatred from the very beginning. The images and accounts of the colony are full of beautiful, admirable Indigenous characters and fascinating, sometimes darkly funny stories. Of course, the French Calvinists who attempted to create this Protestant empire were burdened with cultural baggage and incapable of understanding, respecting, or accurately representing the Indigenous people they met. Their aspiration of a cross-cultural alliance against Catholic Europe died with most of the French Huguenots at Fort Caroline, which failed disastrously—through mutinies, starvation, a hostage crisis, and a war with the Indigenous people. In the end, most of the French were wiped out by a Spanish massacre facilitated by a hurricane. Critics of this failure interpreted the tragedy as a message from their god that he was displeased by the Huguenots’ vision of allying with Indigenous people against the Holy Roman Empire. Those who came after adopted the well-remembered separatist strategy of the New England Puritans. In order to understand how this separatism developed into whiteness—with its obligation to colonialism, heteronormativity, patriarchy, and the racialized violence of American white supremacy—as a means for expressing obedience to their god, I looked at their science of the body, humoralism, which described the body as fluid and subject to the environment and encounters with other cultures. I wondered how bodies they believed were fluid became fixed into the biogenetic identity that became American whiteness. The answer seemed to lie in Protestant ideology.

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

HM: The failure of Fort Caroline Florida indicated to early Protestants that their god wanted them to remain separate from other cultures and that they were obliged to dominate, domesticate, and discipline all those where were not among their god’s elect. In looking for the visible signs of who their god had graced with elect status, they organized bodies into a biogenetic racial hierarchy founded on Protestant morality and patriarchal gender norms, producing American whiteness.

JF: Why do we need to read Deadly Virtue?

HM: For those surprised at the resilience of white supremacy in American society, this book explains how a misogynist, anti-immigrant, anti-transgender, homophobic, racist, environmentally destructive populism might be compelling for so many white Americans who believe themselves to be good humans.

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

HM: When I was in college, it was the historians who helped me to make sense of current events. I remember feeling despair and confusion when we entered the first Gulf war in 1991. The history faculty held teach-ins. In a wonderful way, they parented us—and guided me to find the intellectual and historical perspective that has served me ever since. I declared a history minor. Things we read in college history classes transformed me and remain important in my scholarship today, like Barbara J. Fields’s discussion of the “slogan of white supremacy.” I caught the fever for the work of the historian doing research for my first major undergraduate paper, on the early history of abolition and women’s suffrage. I was inspired by one professor in particular, Dr. Stephanie McCurry, who taught that class, as well as the history of Irish and Asian immigration to the U.S. and U.S. Women and Gender history at UCSD.

JF: What is your next project?

HM: For my next project, I will take up a question that arises from the work of Andrea Smith in Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. She argues that it was necessary to eradicate all alternatives to Christian heteropatriarchy in order to colonize the Americas. By examining Christian representations of the diversity of gender systems and arrangements of power in the early Atlantic, in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, I hope to understand this history and introduce readers to the history and theory of gender and colonialism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

JF: Thanks, Heather!

Out of the Zoo: The Divided States of America

Southern_Chivalry

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

“The United States is more divided than ever.”

It seems like this trope becomes more popular every day. I see it in newspaper articles and read it in Facebook posts. I overhear it on radio broadcasts and in the hallways of my school. Distressed citizens paint dismal pictures of red and blue soldiers steadily marching in opposite directions, stretching the country thin between them. How long will this go on? How long until the once-United States shatters into a million pieces? Will our nation agree on anything ever again? These and many more questions seem to reverberate ever-louder in our ears. The events of the last few weeks–the impeachment trial and Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address–seem to provide dismal answers to such inquiries.

I won’t deny that the United States is divided. Our country is filled with people who don’t appear to have the word “compromise” in their vocabulary. Democrats and Republicans alike villainize their political opponents, all too often pointing out the speck in their enemy’s eye before first removing the log from their own. Venomous words seem to fly through the air like whizzing arrows hurtling towards a target. Yet despite all this, when people assert that the United States is more divided than it has ever been, I can’t help but chuckle.

As a student of history, I know that division in our country is nothing new. Before and during the Revolution, the colonies were split into loyalist and patriot factions. Soon after the war was over George Washington’s own cabinet diverged right before his eyes–feuds between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans resemble the political quarrels of today with striking similarity. 

As a student of history I also know that in terms of national division, things could be worse. They could be much worse. In the years leading up to the Civil War, slavery became such a divisive issue that physical violence often broke out on the Congress floor. For example, on May 22, 1856 South Carolinian Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with a cane, after Sumner scathingly criticized another South Carolina legislator for supporting slavery. In another instance, a fist fight between Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt turned into an all-out brawl with 30 participants. I need not remind most Americans that division over the issue of slavery contributed to the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives during the Civil War.

There’s a lot of things I love about history, but one thing I like most about studying the past is that it gives me scope for the present. It reminds me that things might not always be as bad as people say they are. Life is hard, and I’m not denying that fact. Every day we interact with people who go through hardships we’ll never completely understand. Our country is divided, and I’m not denying that either. But sometimes it’s comforting to know that the struggles we deal with now are not entirely new ones.

The Author’s Corner with Bruce Stewart

Redemption from TyrannyBruce Stewart is Associate Professor of History at Appalachian State University. This interview is based on his new book, Redemption from Tyranny: Herman Husband’s American Revolution (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Redemption from Tyranny?

BS: I first heard of Herman Husband’s role in the North Carolina Regulation movement as a young history buff growing up in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. I encountered him again as a Ph.D. student researching my dissertation (which became my first book, Moonshiners and Prohibitionists), when I learned that Husband also participated in the Whiskey Rebellion in southwestern Pennsylvania. Many years later, as I was going down a series of rabbit holes trying to find my next project, I searched for a biography of Husband and discovered that the only full-scale account of his life was published in 1940. While I later discovered an excellent unpublished Ph.D. dissertation on Husband written in 1982, I knew that the revolutionary American deserved more attention. And just like that, my next project was born.

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

BS: Influenced by personal experience, Western political thought, and radical Protestantism, Herman Husband viewed the Revolution as an opportunity to forge a new republic that promoted economic equality among white men. Only by preventing the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, he argued, could ordinary white Americans achieve economic independence, retain their political rights, and redeem the young nation from tyranny.

JF: Why do we need to read Redemption from Tyranny?

BS: Redemption from Tyranny uses the life of Herman Husband as a lens through which to explore how ordinary people shaped–and were shaped by–the American Revolution. Such a bottom-up approach complements recent scholarship that focuses on the experiences of common folk in the Revolutionary Era, allowing scholars to raise questions that broaden our understanding of the origins and nature of democracy in the United States. What did the Revolution mean to those who experienced it? How radical was the American Revolution? What role did evangelical religion play in politicizing ordinary people? In what ways did common folk demand not only political, but also economic equality, and which was most important to them? This final question remains relevant today, as Americans continue to debate the role that government should play in maintaining its citizens’ political and economic rights. Ultimately, because Husband’s vision of the young republic–one that stressed a more equitable economic system–represented an ideology shared by other common folk, his story enables us to gain fresh insight on the sources of agrarian radicalism, the obstacles that confronted reformers, and the mixed results of the American Revolution.

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

BS: I can’t recall the exact moment when I decided to become an American historian. Looking back, I have always been interested in history. As a child, I often accompanied my father to Civil War battlefields, so I credit him for instilling a love of history in me. My high school history teacher, Keith Walker, further sparked my fascination with history. I was by no means a stellar high-school student, but I enjoyed his class. When I got to college, I became a history major and by the end of my freshman year, I knew I wanted to be a professor of history (I credit those trips with my father to Gettysburg and other battlefields for leading me to focus on American history).

JF: What is your next project?

BS: My next project is co-writing a comprehensive study of Reconstruction in North Carolina. The last such history was written in the early twentieth century and contains–to put it nicely–major interpretation errors. My co-author and I are currently completing the research phase (I recently wrapped up most of my research at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection before the birth of my son at the end of 2019, and I plan on visiting Duke University’s Special Collections and the State Archives of North Carolina this year). Because of the enormous scope of the project, we don’t have a projected completion date yet.

JF: Thanks, Bruce!

The Author’s Corner with L. Benjamin Rolsky

the rise and fall of the religious leftL. Benjamin Rolsky is an adjunct instructor in the History and Anthropology Department at Monmouth University and a part-time lecturer in the Religion Department at Rutgers University. This interview is based on his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: During my PhD program at Drew University, I stumbled upon the work of the non-profit organization People for the American Way. I knew that the organization was founded by television icon Norman Lear, a figure I was interested in already as a possible dissertation subject, but I had little to no idea of its origins. I later found out that it was formed in direct opposition to the “electronic church” and the televangelists who occupied them. To Lear and others, including Martin Marty and Father Theodore Hesburg, such evangelistic methods violated the very tenants of the faith the television preachers supposedly stood for. I also happened to stumble upon some primary material from The Christian Century and Christianity Today that included Lear in surprisingly provocative ways. In many respects, Lear lead the charge into the public square, and many mainline and evangelical church leaders knew it.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: I argue that television icon Norman Lear’s career in American media represents the most important characteristics of the Religious Left in both negative and positive senses. Dominant cultural influence ultimately came at the expense of political and electoral successes as progressives continue to find their rhetorical footing in the age of alternative facts and fake news.

JF: Why do we need to read The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: I think scholars of religion and American religious historians would benefit from reading this text because it both periodizes and theorizes the Culture Wars. It does so by foregrounding media in its tale of televisual conflict played out in primetime. It also applies an interdisciplinary approach in order to examine liberal and conservative actors and social movements in relation to one another. In these ways, interpreters of the recent past would better understand how cultural warfare has characterized American public life since the 1960s.

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

LBR: I was drawn to history as a high school student in Cave Creek, Arizona. I was encouraged by my AP History teacher, L. Mark Sweeney, to think about pursuing American history on the college level. He was also the first one to use my name and work alongside “an ivy.” From there, I worked on American history and religious studies as a double major at Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College. I then went on to do coursework at the Claremont School of Theology as well as Yale Divinity School in American religious history, politics, and public life. My present work as a historian is very much in the vein of a “history of the present,” or at least the recent past, in my attempts to better understand how liberal and conservative politics have shaped the last half century of American religious life. 

JF: What is your next project?

LBR: My next project is going to explore the ways in which conservative political interests took advantage of the latest marketing and advertising consultants in the 1970s to remake both the GOP and the nation at large. They did so through a fundamental restructuring of American conservatism itself as William F. Buckely and Firing Line were replaced in the conservative mind by the likes of George Wallace, Strom Thurman, and ultimately Ronald Reagan.

JF: Thanks!

Out of the Zoo: “I Am A Man”

I Am a Man

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about experiencing the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 through a virtual reality experience. –JF

“I AM A MAN, a virtual reality (VR) experience”

The subject of the mass email stood out from the rest in my inbox. Normally when I log into my college email I’m greeted by a host of messages–Canvas announcements, grade updates, etc.–but this one stood out from the rest. I had no idea what “I AM A MAN” meant, nor had I ever tried a virtual reality experience, but I was intrigued. A quick read of the email notified me that the “I Am A Man VR Experience” was going to be held in Murray Library during Martin Luther King commemoration week. The announcement promised that the experience would allow participants to literally walk in the shoes of the civil rights activists who organized the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Fascinated by prospect of VR history, and realizing that time slots for the experience were filling up quickly, I promptly reserved a session for myself.

On a brisk afternoon the following week I made my way to the Library’s Athenaeum, where the experience was being held. The room was divided in two, with a floor-to-ceiling curtain stretching down the middle. I made my way to the other side of the curtain, which was empty save for the virtual reality equipment and a small X taped in the middle of the floor. The experience attendant fitted my VR headset, twisting the dial in the back until the headpiece was snug against my brow. He showed me how to hold the controls, and as I slid my hands through the wrist straps he explained which buttons I would need to use throughout the program. Finally, he guided me to the X in the middle of the floor, where I waited for the experience to start.

For the next 15 minutes, I lived the life of someone else.  Surrounded by history, I saw the world not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of a black man deep in the throes of the civil rights movement. Scenes faded in and out, interspersed with narrative interludes explaining the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. One moment I stood in front of a beeping garbage truck backing down an alley, and the next I watched scores of men marching down the street holding signs that read “I AM A MAN.” In another scene I stood in the parking lot at the Lorraine Motel and waved at Martin Luther King standing on the balcony. Seconds later, a gunshot rang out and the scene faded to black. The darkness receded to reveal the same street that I stood on earlier, now in shambles. Forlorn-looking men stood scattered along the street; the signs they once held with pride littered the sidewalk. President John F. Kennedy spoke sorrowfully from a television inside a barred store window about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots. My heart started pounding when police car headlights pierced through the fog, and quickened further when the officer inside demanded angrily that I put my hands above my head.

I thought I knew what it meant to step into other people’s shoes. I thought that by studying history, by reading words and amplifying voices that I could effectively empathize with the struggle of others. Yet it was not until I literally stepped into an African American man’s shoes, until I literally saw the world through his eyes, that I was able to begin to feel what he felt–to comprehend the fear, stress and sorrow that people of color experienced in the 1960s and must still experience today. I thought I understood the struggle that marginalized people have faced throughout human history, but “I Am A Man” made me realize that I’ve only been scratching the surface.

The Author’s Corner with Shannon Bontrager

Book CoverShannon Bontrager is Associate Professor of History at Georgia Highlands College. This interview is based on his new book, Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921 (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Death at the Edges of Empire?

SB: One of the significant memories I have from my childhood was my grandmother’s (Mary Ann Bontrager) funeral. I was 13 and hers was my first funeral and it was such a sad dreary December Michigan day. She was a lovely woman who would peel the skin of my apples with a knife and give it to me salted, she made the best pound cake and sauce of anyone around, and she sadly died from cancer in 1986. My grandparents had left the Amish faith long before my birth and they were shunned (especially my grandfather, Ben) for doing so. My grandfather’s Amish family attended her funeral and Ben’s Amish sister even oversaw the food preparation for the meal afterwards. I remember getting my food and sitting with my grandfather at the table to eat and I did not suspect anything was up. But I remember my grandfather finishing quickly and then getting up to leave while we all were still eating. Perhaps it was one of my uncles or my dad, but I recall someone saying grandpa had to leave so that the Amish family could sit down to eat. The implication being that although they attended the funeral and even prepared the food for my grandfather, they could not have the decency to eat the funeral meal in his presence. I was shocked and angry that the boundaries of the shunning remained in place while commemorating my dead grandmother. I thought my Amish kin were cruel. My anger, however, was misplaced, as later I found out from my dad who reminded me that my Amish relatives actually had defied their Bishop who had decreed that in order to enforce my grandfather’s shunning my grandmother’s funeral was off limits to them. Their presence and their preparation of the food was a collective defiance of authority and boundaries out of respect for my grandmother’s death and my grandfather’s grief. They were risking a lot of social capital to be there. But the memory never left me and I found myself returning to it as I began to study the American past in earnest. The number of ways that people in society could use the dead (particularly the war dead) to remember, manipulate, forget the past, and create the present continued to astound me. This was particularly clear when in the late 1990s the family of Michael Blassie, who had been buried as the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, identified their son using DNA evidence. They disinterred their son’s body from Arlington so that he could be closer to their home and so that the family could finally grieve after so many years of not being able to mourn truly. For me, the Blassie family signaled a moment as if the past had come back to confront the present in a similar defiant way that my Amish relatives defied their Bishop. To do what was right even if it meant crossing reinforced social boundaries. Did other people have to endure these kinds of experiences? As my research unfolded, I found the answer was often yes and it was often yes across the decades of time and was actually a central and critical theme of the American experience.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Death at the Edges of Empire?

SB: Americans, since the time of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, have developed a collective memory of empire that could be hidden, particularly but not exclusively, in the rituals and traditions of commemorating the war dead. These imperial memories work incredibly hard to separate the past from the present and the citizenry from memory by hiding the practices and realities of American empire behind the cultural memory of democratic republicanism.

JF: Why do we need to read Death at the Edges of Empire?

SB: Americans are experiencing a particularly interesting time of flux and change. The past five years have given Americans multiple anniversaries to commemorate: from the 150 year anniversary of the ending of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, to the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, to the 75th anniversary of the Second World War. We are literally living at the crossroads of memory. These moments helped make the very institutions that Americans are now suspicious of and reconsidering. At a time when Americans are increasingly growing disillusioned with religious, government, and private institutions, we are commemorating the moments that made us embrace them. Such a moment of opportunity to reevaluate the present depends crucially on our willingness to let the past fill the present. It is vitally important that when we reassess institutions (and if we choose to keep some and discard others) that we make those decisions with the past fully penetrating the present. Only by making room in the present for the past to thrive, can we determine how we should commemorate the war dead, deal with Confederate monuments, address the health and welfare of U.S. veterans, define who gets access to American citizenship, and in general, frame the kind of institutions that we want and need in twenty-first century America. Death at the Edges of Empire seeks to open a conversation about the institutions and rituals Americans have built around the commemoration of the war dead, it charts how those rituals have changed over time and circumstance, and it signals that the institution of commemoration is now potentially unraveling in real time. By understanding how past Americans often tried to keep the present free from the past, we can better shape our own collective memories by bringing the past into the present.

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

SB: I lived and worked in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1994-95 right in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s attempts to help Jordan and Israel sign a peace treaty. Growing up in a small town in the rural Midwest, I thought these kinds of treaties were impossible. But now in Jordan, I was in the very place where history was happening. It was a time when I was not just witnessing history, I could feel it. Around about this time, my friends and I went to tour an ancient Crusader castle called Kerak Castle in al-Karak. I remember climbing the ruins and being overwhelmed with imagining what life might have been like for Christians and Muslims eight hundred years ago. They lived and fought in the very spot where I was standing. It was a transcendental moment and it was electric. I decided right then and there while sitting on the top of the wall of the ruined palace that I wanted to be a historian. After my year abroad I returned for my senior year in college to a newly developed major in history at my small religious college. I would have to take 8 history courses (I think 4 of them were centered on the U.S.) over my last two semesters to complete the degree but I did it and I nearly got straight As (something that previously was beyond my imagination). It was such a wonderful experience to do nothing but study history and the electricity I felt at Kerak Castle in Jordan continued to power my study of American history and still does.

JF: What is your next project?

SB: My next project is tentatively titled “The Affinity of War: Traveling Memory, the War Dead, and the American Empire in France.” It is a kind of volume 2, to Death at the Edges of Empire that focuses on the travelling and transnational memories of the Franco-American interwar and early WWII period (1923-1943). It examines how French and American people took their memories and exchanged them with each other as Americans toured or made pilgrimages to World War I memory sites in France. I conducted research at the French Foreign Affairs Archives outside of Paris a few years ago and I am able to take Franco-American collective memory up to and through the Vichy regime before the U.S. diplomatic staff was forced to escape France in 1943 leaving American cemeteries and monuments commemorating the war dead behind for local French people under Nazi occupation to tend and look after until the Second World War concluded. I think it could be an exciting topic to explore. I am now at the beginning of translating the French language documents into English and then I hope to complete this, my second manuscript.

JF: Thanks, Shannon!

Out of the Zoo: Meeting Minnijean

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

Last week was Martin Luther King Commemoration Week here at Messiah College. From Civil Rights trivia, to a virtual reality experience called “I Am A Man,” to special showings of Harriet in Parmer Cinema, the MLK Committee packed the week with a wide variety of events that allowed students to remember the legacy of the late Dr. King.

The week kicked off with a campus service day Monday and a common chapel service on Tuesday morning. Students, some released early from their morning J-term classes and others gearing up for an afternoon session, filed into Brubaker Auditorium while Messiah’s gospel choir United Voices of Praise sang “We Shall Overcome.” The stands were packed with familiar and unfamiliar faces—most were those of Messiah undergrads and professors, but many more belonged to teachers and students visiting from nearby school districts. So many bodies filled the old gymnasium that someone instructed audience members to shuffle towards the center of their respective rows to make room for more people who continued to trickle in.

The morning’s speaker was Minnijean Brown-Trickey, and I had been looking forward to hearing her speak for weeks. One of the nine African American high school students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 in the face of tremendous opposition, Minnijean Brown-Trickey has since dedicated her life to continuing the fight against social injustice. I had seen Minnijean Brown-Trickey featured in several documentaries, read about the Little Rock Nine from textbooks and museum exhibits, and even used documents detailing Minnijean’s eventual expulsion from Central in a lesson plan. After Don Opitz, Messiah’s campus pastor opened the service in prayer, Minnijean was welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation from the lively crowd.

Minnijean’s speech was a delightful whirlwind. She touched on anything and everything in that short half hour or so, from her first interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, to the principles of non-violence, to the puzzling mixture of religion and hatred that she first noticed in 1957 and continues to notice in the present. Minnijean told stories, a few jokes, and called her audience to action; she assured the crowd that there’s no shortage of things to do when it comes to fighting against injustice. I scribbled down notes in my journal throughout her address, trying to capture as many of her words as I could. I usually bring my notebook along to chapel, recording a few scattered quotations here and there. This time I ended up with three pages.

I cleared my evening’s schedule and came back to Hostetter Chapel Tuesday  night to see Minnijean speak again. Like Brubaker that morning, Hostetter was packed—filled to the brim with professors, college students, high schoolers, and even some elementary school children hoping to hear more of Minnijean’s story. After the scheduled hour of Q&A came to a close, Minnijean and her daughter Spirit warmly greeted anyone who stayed afterwards to chat. My friends and I waited in line to shake her hand—she insisted on giving us hugs instead—and to pose for the photo featured above. As history students, we were clearly in our element.

What a good day to be a Messiah College history major! I have never had the privilege to meet someone who truly made history, and last Tuesday I got to do just that. Someday when I teach my students about the Little Rock Nine, I will tell them that I met Minnijean Brown-Trickey. I’m not gonna lie, I’m still a little starstruck.

Out of the Zoo: Conversation Starters

flight

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reminds us that when we study history, strangers can become friends. –JF

I think airports are fascinating places. In airports, people from all walks of life come together for a brief moment–whether they’re sitting next to each other on a plane, waiting together for a TSA screening, or paying way too much for food at the same kiosk. Then after the plane lands, after they get through security,  after their breakfast is ready, travelers promptly part ways.

I spent a lot of time in the Detroit Metro airport a couple weeks ago en route back to Messiah after Christmas. My connecting flight took off several hours late, leaving me in Detroit for several hours before I boarded my next plane. During my extensive layover, I found ways to entertain myself–using up a Starbucks gift card, people watching, and walking to the other side of the terminal to get Chick Fil A. It wasn’t an ideal situation by any means, but I made the most of it.

When I finally got on the plane, I took an aisle seat next to another college-aged traveler named Matt, who was on his way back to Philadelphia for culinary school. Normally I’m a pretty quiet passenger, exchanging a few lines of small talk with my seat-neighbors and then leaving them alone, but this time proved an exception. Perhaps to the dismay of the rest of the cabin, Matt and I chatted through the entire flight. I learned that Matt has traveled to China, took two gap years to work before starting college, and even saw the movie Cats with some of his friends over break. We talked about the shows we watch, the music we listen to, and the places we’ve been. After picking up our giant suitcases from the baggage claim, Matt showed me how to catch the train to 30th Street Station, and got me there just in time to board the 4:45 Amtrak into Harrisburg.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Matt again. Maybe our paths will cross on a flight back to the Midwest in the future–I sure hope so–but regardless I’ll always be grateful we met. I can’t help but smile when I think about how we got on the plane as strangers and parted as friends. All we had to do was start a conversation.

I love to meet new people. I think that’s partly why I love history so much. As historians, we are in the very business of meeting new people–people we’ve never seen or contacted or even heard of before. Sometimes the strangers we meet are no longer living.  Sometimes, after reading their stories, we find out they’re a lot like us; and other times we discover that they see the world a whole lot differently than we do. Regardless, it is our job to see historical actors for who they are–to seek out their likes and dislikes, their passions and their fears. Then as we work, as we write, and as we research, people who were once strangers become familiar. We just need to start a conversation.

The Author’s Corner with Anna Mae Duane

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

JF: What led you to write Educated for Freedom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

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

JF: Thanks, Anna Mae!

The Author’s Corner with Jeffrey Zvengrowski

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

JF: What led you to write Jefferson Davis?

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

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Jefferson Davis?

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

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

JF: Thanks, Jeffrey!

Out of the Zoo: Why I Cried in History Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Author’s Corner with Laura Lohman

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

JF: What led you to write Hail Columbia!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Laura!

The Author’s Corner with Owen Stanwood

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

JF: What led you to write The Global Refuge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Owen!

The Author’s Corner with Scott Huffard

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

JF: What led you to write Engines of Redemption?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Scott!

The Author’s Corner With Stephen Ash

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

JF: What led you to write Rebel Richmond?

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

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

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Rebel Richmond?

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

Out of the Zoo: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Hedgehog

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Author’s Corner with David King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, David!

The Author’s Corner with Cole Jones

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

JF: What led you to write Captives of Liberty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Cole!

Out of the Zoo: Holidays Make Us Historians

candy cane lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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