The Author’s Corner with Christopher Blythe

blythe-cover (2)Christopher Blythe is Research Associate at the Maxwell Institute’s Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University. This interview is based on his new book, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Terrible Revolution?

CB: I have a deep interest in how different communities have interpreted the Book of Revelation for their times and situations. Obviously, throughout the history of Christianity there have been varied interpretations of millennialism–what I tried to do was zero in on this particularly last days minded church and see how these ideas develop and circulate. I noticed that treatments of Latter-day Saint apocalypticism focused almost exclusively on the Church’s leadership and official statements. So, I set out to discover the voices of the laity and by the end of my research, I had collected hundreds of diaries and letters that included lay prophecies, visions, dreams, and so on. It presents a very different and more complete story.

Terrible Revolution is based on a dissertation I completed five years ago under the supervision of John Corrigan at Florida State University. His encouragement also led me to research this topic and write this book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Terrible Revolution?

CB: Terrible Revolution argues that nineteenth-century apocalypticism developed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in response to a hostile relationship with the federal government of the United States. The Church hierarchy encouraged an emphasis on apocalyptic judgments during this period, but following Utah statehood, they came to carefully police these ideas when propagated publicly by members of the laity.

JF: Why do we need to read Terrible Revolution?

CB: If this was 2019, I would say that the greatest contribution of Terrible Revolution is its study of lay Latter-day Saints and how they have come to reserve some ideas and experiences to a private sphere. In 2020, I think people need to read this book because it shows how many Americans use an apocalyptic lens to make sense of widespread anxiety. This is certainly true of the current pandemic, but it has been true of earlier moments as well. For those who do want to read it, for the next several months, it can be purchased for 30% off when ordering from Oxford University Press with the code: AAflyG6.

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

CB: As a teenager in the mid-1990s, I began to read diaries from the Latter-day Saint past collected on a website–just for fun. I can remember how excited I was to find that I could lay out multiple sources for the same event and see how perspectives varied. A big part of my own passion for history is because I think the process is so rewarding and enjoyable. I decided to direct my work towards “lived religion” or “vernacular religion” after discovering Robert Orsi’s Thank you St Jude and David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder; Days of Judgment. Orsi and Hall beautifully modeled how to write about the way religious belief played out in individual lives.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: I’m working on a couple books right now, but the one I am most excited about at the moment is a reception history of George Washington’s vision. This vision was first written during the Civil War as a fictional account of Washington’s encounter with an angelic guide at Valley Forge. The angel would show him the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and a future foreign invasion on American soil. This short text has re-emerged numerous times among American religious groups, who often assumed this was an actual account of Washington’s experience. I look at how this vision was embraced by Catholics, Pentecostals, Latter-day Saints, and others, who each found their own meanings within the story, while also buttressing their American identities. 

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

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!

Harriet Beecher Stowe and the 1849 Cholera Pandemic

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Nancy Koester, a writer and historian, is the author of an informative religious history of Harriett Beecher Stowe titled Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life.  If you are interested in how Stowe’s faith informed her activism, I recommend Nancy’s book. See our interview with Koester here.

In her recent piece at The Christian Post, Koester discusses how Stowe dealt with the death of her son Charley during Cincinnati’s 1849 cholera epidemic.

Here is a taste:

…cholera came to town in January 1849.  It started among the poor. African Americans and immigrants often lived in cramped quarters, with poor sanitation.  They suffered disproportionately then as now. 

But by late spring the disease was spreading.  Calvin was out of town, so Harriet wrote often. Doctors were getting “used up,” she said. There weren’t enough hearses to haul away the bodies, so farm wagons and furniture trucks were used.  On the streets people burned coal fires, laced with lime and Sulphur to combat the miasma.  One hundred and sixteen people died in a day.  Although the mayor proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer, the bars were so packed that drinkers went out to the streets and imbibed next to coffins awaiting transport.

Then Charley got sick….

Read the entire piece here.

W. Caleb McDaniel Wins the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in History

McDanielCongratulations to Rice University historian Caleb McDaniel for winning a Pulitzer for Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America.

The committee described McDaniel’s work as “A masterfully researched meditation on reparations based on the remarkable story of a 19th century woman who survived kidnapping and re-enslavement to sue her captor.”

The two other finalists were:

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (UNC Press) and Greg Grandin, The End of Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America (Metropolitan Books).

Read more here.

Again, congratulations to all!

What Does 1856 Have To Do With 2020?

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John Fremont: Republican Candidate for Fifteenth President of the United States

There are some striking similarities between the Election of 1856 and the Election of 2020. Read about them at NPR’s Steve Inskeep‘s recent piece at The New York Times: “It’s 1856 All Over Again.”

What are lessons for 2020? Expect a terrifying year. What drives Americans to extremes is not losing an election but the fear of losing for all time. As Democrats and progressives count on an evermore diverse population to ensure victory, some of President Trump’s supporters foresee permanent defeat. Fox News stokes dread of demographic change with repeated images of migrants climbing fences. The president told supporters as a candidate in 2016 that he was their “last chance” to save the country.

Some of Mr. Trump’s critics fear permanent defeat for their side as he appoints judges who could remake the courts for a generation and dismisses limits on his power by asserting “the right to do whatever I want as president.” He has tweaked his critics’ anxieties, once sharing a social media meme that showed him unconstitutionally returned to office after 2020 — in 2024, 2028, 2032 and far beyond.

When politicians exploit such fears, voters can find an antidote by recalling the aftermath of 1856. Whatever the result in 2020 — and it’s a safe bet that close to half of us will consider it a disaster — another election will follow. We hope.

Read the entire piece here.

American Jesuits and Slavery

Jesuit Missions

Over at America, Sean Salai S.J. interviews Laura Weis, coordinator of the Jesuits Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project.  The project was designed to “build relationships with descendants, community members, researchers, Jesuit partners and others to identify the history and descendants of Jesuit-enslaved people in the 19th century United States.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

What are the goals of this project?

From the beginning, the project leaders identified three interrelated goals, all of which are ongoing and not necessarily linear. The first is to research the history of Jesuit slaveholding with an intentional focus on the lived experiences of enslaved people, tracing their family lineages with the hope of identifying their descendants. The second goal is to share their ancestors’ stories with living descendants of the enslaved and invite them into a conversation with Jesuits today about how to address this history and its legacy. The third goal is to address the healing question of “Where do we go from here?” We are committed to the transformative process of telling the truth about that history in conversation with descendant communities today.

What have you learned since establishing the project?

Our researchers like to emphasize that when the project started, we only had six names—and only first names—of enslaved people forced to come with Jesuits from Maryland to Missouri in 1823. What we’ve learned since then, through the work of this team of researchers, has included their full names, where they lived, the conditions where they lived, the relationships they built, the ways they tried to protect their families, and so on. The project speaks to the importance of telling those stories, and one of the most wonderful things we’ve learned is that it’s possible to do that. There was some doubt in the beginning that we’d even find anything. Now we’ve uncovered at least 190 descendants of enslaved people owned, rented or borrowed by Jesuits in the central and southern United States between 1823 and 1865.

The words slavery, history and even memory in your project title seem self-explanatory. But what does reconciliation mean?

Father Jeff Harrison has said it’s a word that means confessing sin and expressing remorse for the grave sin of slavery, from a Jesuit and Catholic perspective, but it also acknowledges the ongoing legacy of slavery in racial inequalities which persist today. At the same time, any conversation about what reconciliation means or looks like has to take place with descendants of enslaved people. Our approach from the project perspective is to facilitate conversation with descendants and descendent communities. Our job is to listen. Enslaved people led vibrant lives, but their voices were disregarded, unheard and suppressed. The Jesuits are now open to—and not anticipating—what the response will be; it’s a conversation that has to take place with descendants.

Read the entire interview here.

19th Century Conspiracy Theories

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According to historian Mark Cheathem, “rumors of secret alliance, bank deals, and double-crossings were rampant in early American elections.”  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Smithsonian.com:

From claims that NASA faked the moon landing to suspicions about the U.S. government’s complicity in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans love conspiracy theories. Conspiratorial rhetoric in presidential campaigns and its distracting impact on the body politic have been a fixture in American elections from the beginning, but conspiracies flourished in the 1820s and 1830s, when modern-day American political parties developed, and the expansion of white male suffrage increased the nation’s voting base. These new parties, which included the Democrats, the National Republicans, the Anti-Masons, and the Whigs, frequently used conspiracy accusations as a political tool to capture new voters—ultimately bringing about a recession and a collapse of public trust in the democratic process.

During the early decades of the American republic, the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican Parties engaged in conspiratorial rhetoric on a regular basis. Following the War of 1812, the Federalist Party faded from the political landscape, leaving the Republicans as the predominant national party. Their hold was so great that in 1816 and 1820, James Monroe, the Republican presidential candidate, ran virtually unopposed, but in 1824, the Republicans splintered into multiple and disparate factions. Five viable candidates ran in that election cycle, and John Quincy Adams won the presidency.

The controversy around Adams’s victory quickly fueled suspicions: Tennessean Andrew Jackson had won the most electoral and popular votes and the most regions and states, but because he did not win the majority of electoral votes, the U.S. House of Representatives was constitutionally required to choose the president in a runoff of the top three vote-getters. Jackson’s supporters believed that House Speaker Henry Clay, who had placed fourth in the regular election, helped Adams win the House election in return for being appointed secretary of state. The Jacksonians’ charges of a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay ensured that the 1828 election would, in part, be fought over this conspiracy theory.

Read the rest here.

When a Popular and Powerful First Lady Opposed the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Sarah Polk

Her name was Sara Childress Polk, the wife of President James Polk (1845-1849).  Read Anna Diamond’s piece at Smithsonian.com:

In July 1848, as hundreds of women suffragists gathered in Seneca Falls to demand the right to vote and assert their right to participate in the public sphere, one prominent woman in Washington, D.C., was busy shaping the nation’s policy and guiding its direction at the highest level of government. Unfortunately for the activists, she didn’t share their politics.

First Lady Sarah Polk formed half of an unusual political partnership with her husband, President James Polk, during his sole term in office from 1845 to 1849. Despite his brief time in office, Polk had an outsized influence on American history, particularly with regard to the Mexican-American War.

As president, Polk sought his wife’s counsel on decisions, relied on her smart politicking and benefited from her popularity. Her active role in his presidency made her the most powerful woman of the era, asserts Amy S. Greenberg, professor of history and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of the new book Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk.

Religious and conservative, Polk didn’t support the suffragists’ campaign; she had no need for what they sought. Polk had leveraged her privileges as a white, wealthy, childless and educated woman to become “the first openly political First Lady, in a period when the role of women was strictly circumscribed,” explains Greenberg, whose book hits shelves amidst a wave of feminist political activism. 131 women were sworn into Congress this January and the race for the Democratic Party nominee for the 2020 presidential election features multiple women candidates.

Read the rest here.

Why Luke 18:16?

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The New York Sun, March 21, 1915.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

Last night I noted that the most popular Bible verse cited in American newspapers between 1840 and 1920 was Luke 18:16. Read my post here.

“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

Several of you have asked why Luke 18:16 was so popular.   On Twitter I asked Lincoln Mullen, the man behind America’s Public Bible, why Luke 18:16 appears so many times. in newspapers during this period.

Here is his answer:

Here is my section on Sunday Schools in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society:

Evangelicals concerned with moral reform of American life concentrated much effort on the religious education of children and young people through Sunday Schools.  Some of the earliest Sunday Schools in America were formed in the eighteenth century to provide biblical instruction to the children of the urban poor, many of whom spent their Sundays roaming city streets looking for trouble.  Children would gather in churches to sing hymns, pray, read the Bible, and hear a short sermon.  They were rewarded for regular attendance and their hard work memorizing Biblical passages.  If records of enrollment in Sunday school classes are any indication, the efforts of these schools were successful.  By 1832 there were over 300,000 boys and girls attending Sunday schools in the United States, or about 8 percent of the young people eligible to attend such classes.  The numbers were even higher in urban areas.  For example, in the same year, close to 28 percent of Philadelphia children were attending Sunday Schools.  Because these schools focused on reading and writing, many of them drew large numbers of free blacks–both children and adults.  Starting in 1824 a benevolent organization called the American Sunday School Union was formed to stimulate the movement across denominations and provide literature for Sunday Schools operating around the country.  (See Anne Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of An American Institution, 1790-1880).

The American Bible Society and the Sunday School Movement shared many of the same activist convictions.  In 1827 the ABS authorized the publication of a “small testament” for Bible Cause CoverSunday Schools with the goal of meeting the spiritual needs of the “thousands of poor children…in our large towns.”  From this point forward, the Society supplied Bibles to any Sunday School organization in need.  For example, in 1831, the ABS provided the American Sunday School Union with 20,000 copies of the New Testament in support of a massive effort to establish schools in the Mississippi Valley.  In the 1830s the ABS distributed over 14,300 Bibles and over 57,700 Testaments around the country, with most of them going to the American Sunday School Union and the Methodist Episcopal Church.  In the 1850s these numbers rose to 27,729 (Bibles) and 134,237 (Testaments).  Rev. Charles McIlvane of Brooklyn, in a message to the annual meeting of the ABS, compared the Society’s education outreach to Cambridge University in England.  The only difference was that “our University is in the business of benevolence.”

Through much of the antebellum period ABS headquarters in New York received constant reports from Sunday Schools in need of Bibles and moving letters from agents about their rapid growth.  One of the more sentimental requests came in 1847, when the ABS received a small tin savings bank filled with $2.17 in change.  It was sent by a small girl requesting three dozen Bibles for her Sunday school class.  The money enclosed in the bank did not cover the cost of the Bibles, but the ABS sent them anyway.  In 1854, H.W. Pierson, the ABS agent in Southern Kentucky ,visited all seven of the “Coloured Sabbath Schools” in Louisville.  He was impressed with slaves and free blacks of all ages attending these schools and noted that a great majority of the teachers were black, but he lamented the general lack of teachers and Bibles.

A couple of images:

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The day book. (Chicago, Ill.), 25 Dec. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

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New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 07 Sept. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress

You Are Never Going to Believe Which Verse Was Most Quoted in American Newspapers Between 1840 and 1920. (And It Wasn’t Romans 13)

luke-18-16

With all this talk of Romans 13, it is worth noting that the most cited verse in American newspapers between 1840 and 1920 was Luke 18:16:

“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

This verse, which seems to have some relevance to our current immigration mess, was:

  • The third most quoted Bible verse in the 1840
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1850s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1860s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1870s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1880s
  • The second most quoted Bible verse in the 1890s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1900s
  • The third most quoted Bible verse in the 1910s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1920s

Thanks to Lincoln Mullen for creating the tool that enabled me to write this post and make this point.

Allen Guelzo on Why History Shows Impeachment May be a Bad Idea

Andrew_Johnson_impeachment_trial

Abraham Lincoln and Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo reminds us what happened when Andrew Johnson was impeached.  The subtitle of his recent Wall Street Journal piece is “Many members of Congress in 1868 hoped to remove a president they merely disliked.  It didn’t go well.”  Here is a taste:

If the Democrats win the House in November, they’ll come under pressure to impeach President Trump. Even if Robert Mueller fails to turn up some astounding surprise, many Democrats want to impeach Mr. Trump because they simply don’t like him. Since the Constitution specifies that a president can be impeached for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” such a move would mean Democrats consider being disliked by the House majority to be a disqualifying crime.

That is precisely what many members of Congress thought 150 years ago this week, at the conclusion of the first impeachment of a sitting president, Andrew Johnson. The 17th president’s impeachment offers the important lesson that although the mechanism for impeachment is easy, the subsequent process of trial, conviction and removal from office is not. A failure at that stage of the process covers everybody with embarrassment—impeachers and impeached alike.

 

Read the rest here.

Guelzo seems to be preparing for the Democrats to take the House.  It is definitely a possibility.

Marx in America

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The U.S. Intellectual History blog is running a fascinating interview with historian Andrew Hartman about his current research on Karl Marx’s influence on the United States.  The interview was conducted by Slagmark, a Danish intellectual history journal.

Here is a small taste of the translation:

Slagmark: Let us go back to the 1850’s then and start our little journey through the history of Marx in the US with Marx himself. It is well known that Marx wrote articles for the New-York Daily Tribune as its European correspondent, and even exchanged letters with President Lincoln. How did people in the US receive Marx’s ideas in his own lifetime?

Hartman: For about four years in the 1850’s Marx wrote for a New York newspaper and this was his main source of income for those years, and he really relied upon that. He was, as you know, a poor man living in London. He was mostly writing about European politics and his articles were well received. However, the people in the US reading those articles did not necessarily think of him as a great revolutionary philosopher, more as a knowledgeable reporter on European affairs and politics, which was largely what he wrote about. But then when the civil war began in 1861 – and even in 1860 with the rise of the crisis when Lincoln was elected – he was fired from that position, because there was not a lot of money and the newspaper had to dedicate all their resources to reporting on the crisis. That was when he got the position to write for the Austrian paper, Die Press, and that is when he started writing about the civil war for a European audience, particularly for a left-wing radical European audience. I will argue that in his civil war writings, which make for great reading, he was extremely smart about the US civil war and extremely well-read on American politics. A lot of this had to do with his conversations with Engels who was very fascinated with the war, particularly the military aspects of it. But it was also because Marx had long standing correspondences with some of the German 48’ers, his comrades who had emigrated to the United States following the revolutions of 1848. What I will argue is important about these civil war writings are a few things.

The first argument is, that they helped convince a European audience of radicals that the Union was worth supporting. Because many European radicals up to that point either had no interest, or because they had a sort of politics of self-determination, a national determination that was in part grounded in the struggles of Ireland. They were not in favour of the Union, and sometimes they were even arguing in favour of Confederate self-determination. Marx convinced them that the war was about slavery first and foremost, so there was a moral imperative not to support the Confederacy. But he also convinced them that Union victory would be good for the cause of the working-class struggle because it would destroy slavery and so the working class in both Europe and the US would not have to compete with slave labour, so they could better organize working class consciousness. So, he was hugely convincing to a European audience.

 

Read the entire interview here.

Author’s Corner with Michael Altman

altmanMichael J. Altman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. This interview is based on his new book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893 (Oxford University Press, 2017).    

JF: What led you to write Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu?

MA: The book actually began as my MA thesis at Duke. I came into grad school unsure if I wanted to study religion in America or colonial India. After taking seminars in both, I started wondering if I could draw the two interests together. I was talking about this with Tom Tweed, who was teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill then, and he mentioned that no one had done much work on all the references to Hinduism in nineteenth century sources. With the help of Lila Prasad and Jason Bivins, I started digging around and found a lot of really interesting stuff in the archives. I wrote the thesis and new that I had more than enough material to expand it into a dissertation. So, I went to Emory and wrote my dissertation on representations of Hindu religions in nineteenth century America. I then heavily revised the framing of that dissertation for Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu. The book is much sharper than the dissertation. I pay particular attention to the language used by the sources to represent religion in India and I don’t assume that all of the representations are somehow referring to the same object, Hinduism. Rather, I’m particularly interested in how each representation functions to serve the interests of various Americans engaged in cultural, religious, and political conflicts about what it means to be American.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu?  

MA: Americans represented religion and people in India in a variety of ways during the nineteenth century and those representations functioned within conflicts over what counted as religion and American. Americans argued about “those people over there” in their fights about what it mean to be “one of us.”

JF: Why do we need to read Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu?

MA: There are three reasons you need to read this book. First, American religious historians have largely ignored the role of Asian religions in America during the nineteenth century. This book begins to open up space to see how Asia, and specifically India, played an important role in American religious history earlier than we usually think. Second, the book uses India and Hindus as a case study for telling the larger narrative of the rise of comparative religion and religious studies in American history. In that sense it historicizes the field of comparative religion and begins to put comparative religion into American religious history. Third, the book also offers a new approach to “religion” in American history that takes a genealogical approach. By that I mean that I am most interested in how categories are formed in culture. For example, Hannah Adams discussed “Hindoos” within a framework where there were four religions in the world: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and heathenism. But in 1893 “Hinduism” was one ten “world religions” at the World’s Parliament of Religions. How did that conceptual change in what counted as religion happen?

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

MA: I’m not sure if I am. Readers can tell me if what I’ve done in the book is American history or not. While I was doing my Ph.D. in Religion, I was privileged to work with great American and church historians like Brooks Holifield. So even though my training and work falls more within religious studies, I’ve benefited from spending time with and reading a lot of excellent American historians (this blog included). I like to think of myself as moving in between American history and religious studies and trying to draw on both of them in my work.

JF: What is your next project?

MA: I have two projects I’m getting started on right now. First, I’m working on a cultural history of Mohandas Gandhi in America. Like Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu, I’m interested in the variety of ways Gandhi was represented in American culture from the 1930s to today. It’s not a biography of Gandhi, more like a biography of the idea of Gandhi. Second, I’m also working on a very meta-level genealogy (or maybe it’s a historiography?) of the connections between American Religious history, Christianity, liberal political philosophy, and the English Civil War.

JF: Thanks, Mike!

The Author’s Corner with Jason Opal

OpalJason Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University.  This interview is based on his new book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Avenging the People?

JO: I had always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson and his intense following in the United States, especially in the wake of his controversial invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida in 1818. I was also struck by the tone and vehemence of the Congressional debates that followed in early 1819. The pro-Jackson representatives talked about the “laws of nations” and the “rights of nature,” suggesting that Old Hickory symbolized a new claim to national sovereignty within the brutal world he saw.

But what made me want to dig deeper was what happened right after these debates—not the bitter controversy over slavery in Missouri, but the severe economic crisis that lasted from 1819 to 1822. Here, Jackson was an arch-conservative foe of public banks, stay laws, and other assertions of democratic sovereignty against international “laws” of commerce. Here, he rejected some of the most popular—and, in some sense, nationalistic—measures of his day. This just did not fit with the traditional view of Jackson as a patriotic champion and democratic reformer. Nor did it align with the usual critiques of Jackson, which stress his hostility to native peoples and black Americans.

So, I wanted to offer a new look at the towering enigma from Tennessee, one that stayed as close as possible to primary sources (rather than historiographical debates) and that scrutinized Jackson’s early career and political education (rather than his legendary times in the White House). I did not intend to besmirch Jackson, nor to condemn his fans. I just wanted to see what he was about, and to understand why so many Americans loved him so fiercely.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Avenging the People?

JO: I argue that Jackson led and embodied one version of American nationhood—of the American people as a nation who shared blood—that grew out of the long struggle with the British Empire and its native and black proxies during the post-Revolutionary decades. This kind of nationhood asserted American sovereignty vis-à-vis its enemies, including the right to avenge American blood around the globe, while restricting their sovereignty in times and places of peace, that is within the society they reluctantly composed.

JF: Why do we need to read Avenging the People?

JO: Especially since the United States, unlike most western democracies, still functions according to its first written Constitution (with amendments), it is always important to study the Founding era. In a way, this history is not history at all, but a kind of ongoing past.

Jackson was not one of the Founders of 1787, but he was probably the single most important figure in the later, longer rise of “democratic” models of American nationhood and popular sovereignty. Understanding that is especially important now that President Trump repeatedly and (I think) sincerely invokes Jackson’s name to authorize an “America First” course of action.

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

JO: I have loved history for as long as I can remember and was determined to become a history professor by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade. (One viewing of Les Misérables at the Shubert Theatre in Boston clinched it.) I honestly can’t imagine anything more compelling than the debatable record of what people have done and what it all means.

I decided to study the early United States after I took Mary Beth Norton’s class on the American Revolution at Cornell in the spring of 1996. I turned to cultural and social history after working with Jane Kamensky at Brandeis in 1999. Inspiring teachers have that effect!

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Moving to Montreal in 2009, right when I was starting this project, gave me a new vantage point on American history. It also revealed the importance of other languages, which had always been a weak point for me. I’m comfortable at last in French and am now studying Portuguese, both of which will help for my new book project, a global history of Barbados. As many early Americanists have shown, this island was the center of the early English empire and the starting point for its seventeenth-century turn to black slavery. I want to retell the island’s long ordeal by drawing in the associated histories of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British empires and of the many African nations that later gave rise to the Bajan people.

I’m also working on two collaborative projects. The first is a collection of essays on the “Patriot” rebellions of the late 1830s along the US-Canadian border. I’m writing about the economic priorities that underlay US-British rapprochement and that helped to doom the Patriots. Maxime Dagenais of McMaster University and Julien Mauduit of Université du Québec à Montréal are editing this book, which I hope will reach people in both French and English Canada and in my native country. Second, I’m writing a history of epidemic diseases and the American people with my dad, Dr. Steven Opal of the Brown University School of Medicine.

JF: Thanks, Jason

Free Blacks as Refugees

Slave_kidnap_post_1851_bostonStephen Kantrowitz is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a recent essay at Boston Review he compares the racial plight of escaped slaves and free blacks in the antebellum North to 20th and 21st century immigrants to the United States.

Here is a taste of this piece “Refuge for Fugitives“:

The struggle of the 1850s began in and drew its animating energy from African Americans’ analysis of their own circumstances. Slavery hung a shadow over the lives of free black people, even in places where slavery had long been legally abolished, such as Massachusetts. There, African Americans possessed nearly every formal right on the same basis as the “free white persons” legally eligible for immigration and naturalization. But African Americans commonly experienced northern freedom as mocking, hostile, and violent. For the fugitive slave Frederick Douglass, liberty in Massachusetts included a constant, oppressive awareness of being perceived as an inferior. “Prejudice against color is stronger north than south,” he declared; “it hangs around my neck like a heavy weight. . . . I have met it at every step the three years I have been out of southern slavery.” Even in Massachusetts, African Americans were barred from nearly every avenue of economic or educational advancement. Railroad companies segregated black passengers in Jim Crow cars, a policy their conductors enforced with violence. State officials ejected free blacks from official processions, and ruffians chased them from Boston Common. The foremost form of popular entertainment, the minstrel show, mocked their appearance and aspirations. No wonder northern black activists bleakly called themselves “the nominally free,” or “the two-thirds free.” One African American newspaper was entitled the Aliened American.

In this sense, the free black people of the mid-nineteenth century prefigured the struggles of later generations of what historian Mae Ngai calls “alien citizens.” Ngai’s analysis reveals how the U.S. citizenship of native-born Americans of Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, and Muslim background has in practice been limited or nullified by what many consider to be their unalterable foreignness. The radical black activists of a century and a half ago well understood that their compatriots regarded them mainly through the prism of their racial association with slaves. So it has been since, for Chinese Americans figured as unassimilable aliens, Japanese Americans assailed as members of an enemy race, Mexican Americans dubbed “illegals” and rapists, and Muslim Americans branded terrorists. Even those formally vested with citizenship cannot escape the gravitational drag of their racialized association with a dangerous and foreign otherness. Even the mildest formulation of alien citizenship tells the tale: “Right, but where are you really from?”

Instead of seeking to overcome their association with slavery, antebellum African American activists built their activism around it. Defiantly dubbing themselves “colored citizens,” they pursued twin and inseparable projects: freedom to the slave and equal citizenship for all. Some embraced this course because they had been slaves themselves. Others did so because they understood that they could only escape from slavery’s stigmatizing shadow by asserting their common unity, dignity, and equality.

In one sense, the conditions of black freedom left them no choice. Most states that had abolished slavery did not require black people to prove they were free. But the U.S. Constitution’s Fugitive Slave clause curtailed this presumption of freedom. In theory, a 1793 law that gave teeth to this clause provided only for the capture and return of escaping slaves. But the law did not guarantee those accused of being fugitives the right to testify in their own defense, which made it quite possible to enslave a free person. Nor was this the only existential risk free black people faced: the demand for slaves birthed a kidnapping industry with hundreds (possibly thousands) of victims, among them Solomon Northup, who authored Twelve Years a Slave (1853) based on his experience of being illegally enslaved.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump and the Know-Nothing Platform of 1856

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Several historians have compared the Trump candidacy to the American Party (commonly referred to as the Know-Nothing Party) of the 1850s.

Anyone who reads this blog or has read my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past knows that historical analogies can be dangerous, but when historian Gordon Belt posted the 1856 American Party platform on my Twitter feed today I was once again taken by some of the similarities between this nativist political platform from the 19th-century and the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign.

I will let you decide.

Here is the 1856 platform with some of my very limited, off-the-cuff, commentary:

(1) Repeal of all Naturalization Laws. 
(2) None but Americans for office.
(3) A pure American Common School system. 
(4) War to the hilt, on political Romanism.  (Replace “Romanism” with Muslims)
(5) Opposition to the formation of Military Companies, composed of Foreigners. (Read ISIS)
(6) The advocacy of a sound, healthy and safe Nationality. (In his speech today in New York Trump said “we are going to make America safe again”)
(7) Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic. (Replace “Papal influences” with Muslims)
(8) American Constitutions & American sentiments.  
(9) More stringent & effective Emigration Laws. (Interesting that Trump did not mention the “Wall” in his speech.  Does he still want to build it?)
(10) The amplest protection to Protestant Interests.  (See Trump’s recent meeting with evangelicals in which he said he would protect their interests).
(11) The doctrines of the revered Washington.  (Today in his speech Trump said, “One of the first major bills signed by George Washington called for the ‘encouragement and protection of manufacturing’ in America”  I realize this is a bit of stretch, but he DID appeal to Washington for something!)
(12) The sending back of all foreign paupers.  (Round-up undocumented immigrants and send them back).
(13) Formation of societies to protect American interests.  
(14) Eternal enmity to all those who attempt to carry out the principles of a foreign Church or State.  (Again, read Muslims).
(15) Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.  (Today in his NYC speech Trump said “We are going to put America first and we are going to make America Great Again.”)
(16) Finally,-American Laws, and American legislation; and death to all foreign influences, whether in high places or low!  (Kill ISIS).

Again, I realize some of the comparisons I have made are not perfect (feel free to call me out), but they are still interesting and worth noting.  Consider this an exercise in “continuity” rather than “change over time.”

J.L. Tomlin on the Bible in 19th-Century America at the AHA16

BibleWe are happy to have J. L. Tomlin writing us for this week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home from the annual meeting of American Historical Association in Atlanta.  

Tomlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in early American religious history at the University of Tennessee. He has presented research on religious fears and anti-Catholicism in early America at a number of conferences including the Omohundro Institute and the Society for Military History. His dissertation now in progress examines the links between early American religious fears and democratic sensibilities, focusing on the links between symbolic religious language and political meaning.

Here is his first dispatch –JF: 

One of the most exciting aspects from 2016’s AHA is the large amount of scholarship covering various aspects of biblical interpretation and the diffuse effects of an ever-evolving, specifically American Christianity. Perhaps the most compelling session on the topic on Thursday was the panel “19th Century American Scriptural Imagination: Three Case Studies.”

Professor Mark Noll opened the panel with his study of American scriptural interpretations of the death of national leaders titled “Presidential Death and the Bible: 1799, 1865, 1881, 1901.” This paper, a portion of the larger book in progress from Dr. Noll, makes the argument that at times of national mourning over the loss of Presidents the nation clung to Biblical allegory to make sense of larger events. In the process, however, the tone and nature of that biblical understanding evolved. At the death of Washington, for instance, Noll explains that many saw Washington as Moses; a selfless leader who led his people out of immediate destruction toward a promised land and providential future sanctioned by the almighty. Not surprisingly, most saw the loss of the nation’s greatest son as a turning point in the nation’s trajectory. True to the form of most Biblical interpretation of the 18th century, the jeremiad factored large in religious leader’s interpretation of events and calls for mourning were only surpassed by warnings of the nation’s latent sinfulness. Repentance and humility before God were necessary prerequisites to remove God’s disfavor and regain providential protection over the nation.

Lincoln’s assassination, quite different from Washington’s natural death outside of office, demanded even greater interpretive imagination. Was Booth an agent of God? Perhaps Lincoln was the martyr that God required of a nation destined to “pay in blood that which is owed on the altar of Liberty.”Much like interpretations of Washington’s death, eulogies and sermons focused on the sins of the country and demanded penance. Unlike Washington, however, most understood Lincoln’s demise, however unpleasant, as the appropriate and timely exit of a divinely ordained figure who had completed his earthly task.

For Noll, the larger trend regarding scriptural interpretation of Presidential death over the 19th century demonstrated first and foremost the changing complexion of American Christianity. Over this period the emphasis on the jeremiad declined and the life of Jesus factored ever larger in national thinking. Rather than subservience to God and the atonement of sins, the nation turned more and more to a cooperative view of God; a turn in tone that looked increasingly nationalistic and exceptionalist.

There were, however, important strands of continuity. Throughout the period, the United States figured into scriptural interpretations as divinely administered, if not directly ordained. The notion of a providential existence first expounded by the Puritans and their Congregationalist successors appeared more and more in the diverse belief systems that flourished in 19th century America. This assumption of providential governance also led believers to view the natural experiences of America as indicators of God’s power and judgement. Peter Thuesen of Indiana University examines the link between violent weather events and Divine power in “A Rushing Mighty Wind: Tornadic Pentecosts and Apocalypses in 19th Century America.” Tornados, barely understood and incredibly lethal in the 19th century, were paradoxically seen as both signs of the chaotic, destructive power of nature and a visible manifestation of God’s wrath on Earth. Like Noll, Thuesen tracks evolutionary change in the interpretation of tornados over time. Earlier events were seen as signs of God’s displeasure, but as the nation shifted toward the New Testament and away from the often arbitrary God of the Old Testament, meaning came to be increasingly found in the the presumed protection God offered to those spared by the storm. The storm was not defined by its destructive quality, but by providential mercy extended to those who escaped it unharmed.

The third presentation of the panel, and by far the most densely doctrinal in nature, is the study offered by Kathleen Flake of the University of Virginia in “The Abraham Mythos and Mormon Marriage, Early and Late.” Flake examines the Mormon retranslation of the book of Abraham, looking for the expanded meaning the Joseph Smith and his followers found in the great promise extended from God to Abraham. According to Flake, Smith found that Abraham’s seed was to be innumerable not just through procreation, but also through missionary work and conversion. Additionally, Flake expertly outlines Smith’s ability to make sense of the Abrahamic story as a part of the larger cosmology constructed by Smith’s gospel narrative. Family, procreation, and eternal marriage were but larger parts of a covenantal relationship with God that, although not bestowing sovereignty on humanity, did allow for human agency and a recognition that humanity formed an important part of God’s larger plan for salvation and, ultimately, the exaltation of his elect.

What pulls the disparate threads together from this panel was the extent to which American Christianity was evolving during the 19th century. Reimagining the meaning of the Old Testament, an increasing emphasis on the New Testament and the narrative of Jesus’s life, and an ever closer union between the nation’s identity and providential custodianship marked recurring themes. These were not, however, changes in doctrinal tone or mere trends the larger culture. Their evolution was, as it is now, a peculiarly American desire to continuously reexamine the relationship of the nation to the divine that continues to shape the way American thought and identity, political or religious, is expressed.

Where is the Declaration of Sentiments?

No one can seem to find the most important document in American women’s history. The White House is looking for the original.  

Here is a taste of Megan’s Smith’s article at WhiteHouse.Gov. Smith is the U.S. Chief Technology Officer.

When I joined the White House a year ago, I asked the Archivist of the United States David Ferriero if the Declaration of Sentiments was part of the National Archives. The Declaration of Sentiments is the foundational document for women’s rights drafted in Seneca Falls, New York, at the first women’s rights convention in July 1848. It changed the course of history.

Ferriero and his team asked around, and learned that it isn’t in the Archives’ holdings — the team contacted various experts and learned that the original Seneca Falls Declaration has not been found. The closest to “original” that anyone knew of is the printing of the text done in 1848 by Frederick Douglass’s print shop in Rochester. They found newspaper accounts and also checked “The Road to Seneca Falls” by Judith Wellman, who wrote that no one has ever found the minutes by Mary Ann M’Clintock that likely also went to Douglass’s print shop. They learned that the tea table upon which the original declaration was drafted has been found, but the document itself is still missing.

The road to drafting the Declaration of Sentiments started in 1840 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott and their husbands traveled across the Atlantic to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London only to learn that women were no longer permitted on the main floor and had to listen from a gallery. We can only imagine their frustration!
A few years later, Mott visited her cousin Katherine McClintock near Seneca Falls, New York. During the visit, they hosted a tea where five women planned a convention to discuss women’s rights. In preparation for the convention, Stanton drafted a “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments,” which she modeled after the Declaration of Independence. In the document, she called for moral, economic, and political equality for women…
Here’s where you come in: Let’s see if we can find this thing — and unveil other untold stories and histories in the process. Call it a real-life “National Treasure,” if you like.
Have a tip or an idea as to where the sentiments might be located? Or a related story?Share that with us here, and post on your social channels using the hashtag #FindTheSentiments. Have another untold story that you want to see written into history? We want to hear those, too.
It’s going to take all of us speaking up to help preserve the stories of the incredible women and men who made this country what it is today. I hope you’ll add your voice to the conversation.
Read this entire article here.