The Author’s Corner with R.B. Bernstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, R.B.!

Back in the Zoo: 1920 Meets 2020

1920 meets 2020Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes  about a recent visit to North America’s largest auto museum during a pandemic. —JF

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Author’s Corner with Jeffrey Einboden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Jeffrey!

The Author’s Corner with Daniel B. Rood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

The Author’s Corner with Chad Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Chad!

Back in the Zoo: My Struggle with Anxiety

IMG_20170813_202144_011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Author’s Corner with Ann Tucker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Ann!

The Author’s Corner with Aaron Sheehan-Dean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Aaron!

The Author’s Corner with Alexander Ames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Alexander!

The Author’s Corner with Noeleen McIlvenna

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

JF: What led you to write Early American Rebels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Noeleen!

Back in the Zoo: “Essential”

Annie at Greenhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Author’s Corner with Trevor Burnard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Trevor!

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Richards

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

JF: What led you to write Breakaway Americas?

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

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

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Breakaway Americas?

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Thomas!

The Author’s Corner with Allison Fredette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Allison!

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Leahy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

The Author’s Corner with Richard Haw

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

JF: What led you to write Engineering America?

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

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Engineering America?

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Richard!

The Author’s Corner with Michael E. Woods

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

JF: What led you to write Arguing until Doomsday?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Michael!

Back in the Zoo: The Church Has Left the Building

FB_IMG_1532791182356 (1)Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about what it means to be the church in the midst of a global pandemic–JF

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

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

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

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

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

The Author’s Corner with Gracjan Kraszewski

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

JF: What led you to write Catholic Confederates?

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Catholic Confederates?

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Gracjan!

The Author’s Corner with Robert Watson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Robert!