The Author’s Corner with Joseph Adelman

AdelmanJoseph Adelman is Assistant Professor of History at Framingham State University in Framingham, Massachusetts.  This interview is based on his new book, Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

JF: What led you to write Revolutionary Networks?

JAThe book sits at the confluence of life and professional experiences that have shaped my thinking for several decades. I’ve long been interested in the American Revolution and in particular the politics of rebellion—how and why the “thirteen colonies” (and only those) decided to form a new nation. Second, between college and graduate school I worked for two years as the communications director for a New York state assemblyman. The work fascinated me, but because I was leaning towards becoming a historian, I often found myself stepping back from my day-to-day responsibilities to think about how various processes and structures of both politics and the media interacted and influenced what happened. So when I came to considering a research topic, I wanted to apply the questions I have about contemporary media to understand how the business of media intersected with politics during the era of the Revolution.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Revolutionary Networks?

JADuring the American Revolution, printers—artisans who worked with their hands at the press and also engaged in intellectual labor of editing and publishing—shaped political debate through the business practices of their trade. From the networks that printers developed across the colonies and around the Atlantic world to individual editorial decisions made in a single printing office, Revolutionary Networks shows how printers navigated a wide range of political and commercial environments to attempt to run successful businesses and also make an impact on the content of political debate.

JF: Why do we need to read Revolutionary Networks?

JAWe often assume that the news media were important during the American Revolution, and in fact many historians who have produced great scholarship on the Revolution require that to be true in order for their arguments to work. But very few have asked how the process of news creation worked—Revolutionary Networks fills that gap. It may seem like a narrow point at first, but what the book tries to document at a really close-in level is that those details matter a great deal. It changes our understanding of the politics surrounding the American Revolution that these artisans were making choices every day about what news to publish, where to situate it in context with other stories, whether to revise or amend the text they received, and so on. What appears on the surface to be a clear articulation of a political position instead is the result of a decisions and negotiations that focused not only on the beliefs of a text’s author but also—and in fact often more so—on the political perspective and business interests of the printer/editor who published the material.

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

JAI’ve been fascinated by history in general and the American Revolution in particular since I was in elementary school—as memory has it, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Deuel, gave me a book about the Revolution and it was off to the races. But I decided I wanted to pursue a career as a historian around my sophomore year in college as I immersed myself in scholarly readings. I talked about it with a few of my professors, who cautioned me that it was a difficult path in some ways but offered lots of flexibility (this was around 2000, well before the academic jobs crisis, and came from a privileged undergraduate institution). After the two years with the New York State legislature, I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. to answer the call to write and teach about the past.

JF: What is your next project?

JAOne of the key institutions that made the printing trade function was the Post Office, and the key player in that entity was Benjamin Franklin. I’ve wanted to do a project that focuses a bit more on Franklin and I’m fascinated by the contradictions in the Post Office’s development—people saw it as a government institution but it has always functioned in many ways as a profit-seeking business. So I’m now writing a history of the post office in early America and the Atlantic world.

JF: Thanks, Joe!

Forthcoming Series on Race and Revolutions at “Age of Revolutions”

Haitian

Age of Revolutions blog is beginning a series on “Race and Revolution.”  Here is what you can expect over the course of the next few months:

Schedule

March 5, 2018 (The Boston Massacre Anniversary & Crispus Attucks Day):

Mitch Kachun, “Crispus Attucks: American Revolutionary Hero?”

March 12, 2018:

Jason McGraw, “Race, or The Last Colonial Struggle in Latin America”

March 19, 2018:

Bronwen Everill, “Demarginalizing West Africa in the Age of Revolutions”

March 26, 2018:

Erica Johnson, “White Creole Identity on Trial: The Haitian Revolution and Refugees in Louisiana”

April 2, 2018:

Charlton Yingling, “Lesec, from Brave Mulato into Blackness?: Defection to France and Spanish Racial Regression”

April 9, 2018:

Nathan Dize, “Monumental Toussaint: French/Haitian Statuary and the Commemoration of Abolition”

April 16, 2018:

Chelsea Stieber, “Beyond Race: Civil War, Regionalism, and  and Ideology in Early Post-Independence Haiti”

April 23, 2018:

Aurélia Aubert, “Race and Post-Revolutionary Republicanism: Marat, Lafayette, and Slavery in the US” 

April 30, 2018:

Jenna Nigro, “The Revolution of 1848 in Senegal: Emancipation and Representation”

May 7, 2018:

Oleski Miranda Navarro, “The Periodical Patria and Racial Mobilization in the Last War for Cuban Independence”

May 14, 2018:

Frederic Spillemaeker, “Race and Revolution in the Independence Wars of Nueva Granada and Venezuela”

May 21, 2018:

Silvia Escanilla Huerta, “Indigenous People and Peruvian Independence: A Polemical Historiography” 

May 28, 2018:

Elena McGrath, ”Race and the Bolivian Revolution of 1952”

Read more here.

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Israel

k11080Jonathan Israel is Professor Emeritus of Modern European History in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.   This interview is based on his new book, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World (1775-1850) (Princeton, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Expanding Blaze?

JI: I was chiefly motivated by the conviction that the historiography of the American Revolution had grown somewhat too parochial. The great body of literature on the topic that we have now is deeply concerned with America but not with the humanity and the world, for both of which the American Revolution seems to me to have been decisive. The place of the American Revolution in the wider revolutionary age (1775-1848) needed better defining, it seemed , and so did its relationship to the ‘The Radical Enlightenment’, a topic American historians – at any rate since Henry May, one of the first coiners of the term- still appear peculiarly reluctant to discuss.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Expanding Blaze?

JI: The book’s argument is that the American Revolution was the spark that created the expanding blaze that transformed the Western world by setting the basic model – democratic republicanism versus aristocratic republicanism- which shaped the early stages of the French Revolution (before Robespierre’s tyranny) and all the revolutionary movements of the Western world between 1782 (Geneva) and 1848. The key argument is that democratic versus aristocratic republicanism defines the inner logic of the American Revolution, and Radical Enlightenment versus ‘moderate Enlightenment’provides the ideological format, the ideas, that justify the two warring sides within the American Revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read The Expanding Blaze?

JI: The book is needed to help better situate the American Revolution than has been done in its world historical context and especially in its general Enlightenment context.

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

JI: I am not an ‘American Historian’ but a historian of the Enlightenment. I see the American Revolution as a fundamental chapter in the history of world enlightenment.

JF: What is your next project?

JI: My next project is write a short book on the transatlantic origins of the modern Jewish revolutionary consciousness.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan!

More on the Bust of Richard Stockton

Richard-Stockton-2

Last week we published a post on Stockton University‘s decision to remove a bust of Richard Stockton from its library.  Stockton was a New Jersey revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence.  The bust will be replaced with a more thorough exhibit that will apparently deal with Stockton as a slave holder.   Read our post here.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell offers his own thoughts on the remove of the Stockton bust.

Here is a taste:

This month brought news that Stockton University in New Jersey has removed a bust of Richard Stockton (shown above) from its library. The reason was not, however, because his iconic status in the state rests on a shaky legend of stoic suffering at the hands of the enemy.

Rather, the university removed the bust because Stockton owned slaves. Those people are documented in his will, in which the judge said his widow Annis could free them if she chose. (I’ve found no evidence she did so. Their son Richard owned slaves as an adult, as did their daughter and son-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Rush—even though he advocated for an end to slavery.)

As a public university, and one founded to provide more opportunities for students who don’t have advantages in our society, Stockton University has good reason not to glorify someone who participated in slave-owning even while championing liberty for gentlemen like himself.

At the same time, I don’t see how removing Stockton’s bust will fix that contradiction when the institution is still, you know, named Stockton University.

The school started in the 1970s as South Jersey State College and evolved through Stockton State College, Richard Stockton State College, and the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey before becoming Stockton University in 2015. Has the Stockton name developed enough of its own legacy to leave the judge behind? Does Stockton’s documented interest in higher education (as a trustee of Princeton College) make him a good namesake for a university despite his other behavior?

Good questions.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner With Tom Cutterham

CutterhamTom Cutterham is a lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. This interview is based on his new book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic  (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: When I started out as a graduate student in 2010 I wanted to write a book that showed just how very wrong Sarah Palin and the Tea Party were about the founders’ conception of the state. Then I realised Max Edling had already written that book. But while I’d been reading through what Congressmen and pamphleteers were writing in the 1780s I became more and more interested not just in their explicitly political ideas, but in the ways they expressed anxieties about status and stability. The founding really was a revolution in favour of government, but what they wanted government to do, and what they wanted government to protect, were really not the things that I’d expected — so that’s what I wrote my thesis on, and that’s what became the book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: It argues that a hodge-podge of revolutionary elites formed themselves into something resembling a national ruling class over the course of the 1780s, largely as a result of their collective need to respond to what they saw as dangerously levelling and “licentious” democratic movements. On a slightly more meta level, it also tries to show how important political and moral concepts like “justice” itself are shaped by forms of (and struggles for) institutional and discursive power — so you can’t really understand ideas without social relations, or vice versa.

JF: Why do we need to read Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: So, so often I see accounts of the American Revolution skip merrily from Yorktown to Philadelphia, 1781 to 1787, with narry a glance at the years in between. Hamilton the musical does it in a few verses of one song. I hope people will read Gentlemen Revolutionaries and at the very least, get a sense of just how crucial the 1780s were. I also hope it will change the way they think about the process of revolution and the founding, both as a social and cultural epoch and as a series of political events. For one thing, Gentlemen Revolutionaries aims to force people to stop taking debates about the Constitution as the be-all and end-all of political struggle in that period. Of course, you also need to read the book for Noah Webster being a whiny brat, Joel Barlow helping to write a surreal anti-democratic poem, and a mini-revolution in Rhode Island that pretty much no-one ever talks about.

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

TC: I wanted to be a historian before I wanted to be an American historian. The latter part came towards the end of my undergraduate degree when I was studying the “Age of Jefferson” with Peter Thompson, who became my graduate advisor. Apart from my lamentable inability to learn ancient Greek, which meant I couldn’t be the historian of Alexander’s conquests that I kind of had my eye on being, I think the political context of both the War on Terror, and the global financial crisis (which peaked right in the middle of my undergraduate course) had the effect of always keeping my eyes on the United States as basically the epicentre of world events. That’s how it seemed to me at the time, so trying to understand the United States and its global impact was what I wanted to do as a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

TC: I’m writing a book about the age of bourgeois revolutions in the Atlantic world, which also happens to centre on the remarkable, transatlantic lives of Angelica Schuyler and her husband John Church. Since I began the research in the summer of 2014, Angelica has achieved a much bigger profile! But her life is so much more than her relationship with Alexander Hamilton: it took her to a Paris on the threshold of its own revolution, into the circles of radical reformist politics in London, and back to New York in time to see the age of Federalist dominance come crashing down. In Gentlemen Revolutionaries, I tried to give a sense of character and spirit in the people I wrote about, but this new project is an opportunity to do that in a much more sustained way. It’s about using individual lives to uncover massive structures and processes. Ultimately, the historical is always personal.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

Thomas Jefferson on the Run

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Check out Michael Kranish‘s piece at The Washington Post on the time Thomas Jefferson fled Monticello to avoid being captured by the British during the Revolutionary War. Kranish is the author of Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War.

Here is a taste:

Jefferson’s flight made him a mockery. He was called a coward and worse. His political enemies began an investigation into his conduct and he faced the possibility of censure for leaving the state without leadership while looking out for his own interests. One legislator wrote that Jefferson’s flight left Virginia “in a most distressed condition from sea to the mountains.” Jefferson would later explain that he knew he was no military man; he was a planter and scientist and intellectual, not a warrior; it was best, he reasoned, to have a seasoned general take over. He knew his limitations. But he was tormented by the criticism.

“I had been suspected & suspended in the eyes of the world without the least hint then or afterwards made public which might restrain them from supposing that I stood arraigned for treasons of the heart and not merely weakness of the head,” Jefferson wrote. “I felt that these injuries … had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.”

Jefferson rebutted his critics the way he knew best, with his writing. He was in the midst of composing chapters for his only full-length book, “Notes on the State of the Virginia,” which featured rhapsodic descriptions of the state’s natural beauty. He delivered his defense of his actions in a chapter about the Navy, which consisted of one paragraph. His point was that the state in effect didn’t have one and that it wasn’t his fault. Since the British invaded, he wrote, “I believe we are left with a single armed boat only.”

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Spencer McBride

pulpitandnationSpencer W. McBride is a historian and documentary editor at the Joseph Smith Papers. This interview is based on his new book, Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Pulpit and Nation?

SM: Pulpit and Nation grew out of my doctoral dissertation. In graduate school, I set out to discover the actual role of religion in the American Revolution and the process of state and national formation that followed. Through my research—which included reading numerous diaries of early American clergymen and the lay men and women who sat in their congregations—I became fascinated with the curious interrelationship that I encountered: the political utility of religion and the religious utility of politics. I wrote this book that enabled readers to understand the power, limitations, and lasting implications of early national leaders using religion as a tool for political mobilization.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Pulpit and Nation?

SM: In the founding of the United States of America, early national political leaders deliberately created an alliance with the country’s religious leaders, an alliance designed to forge a collective national identity among Americans. Accordingly, while religious expression was common in the political culture of the founding era, it was as much the calculated design of ambitious men seeking power as it was the natural outgrowth of a devoutly religious people.

JF: Why do we need to read Pulpit and Nation?

SM: Religion mattered in the founding of the United States, but not in the way many Americans think that it did. There is certainly no shortage of controversy surrounding the role of religion in politics, particularly where the founding era is concerned. Talk of America’s founding as either a “Christian” or “secular” nation remains a common theme among politicians, pundits, and certain segments of the general public despite scholars’ warnings against such overly-simplistic constructs (warnings that include your own timely Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?). I present Pulpit and Nation as an example of how the history of religion in early American politics appears when viewed in all of its complexity, an elucidation of how its relationship to power structures looks when we delve into the motives behind the religious utterances of men seeking to mobilize the public to one cause or another. My book demonstrates that by eschewing the “Christian Nation” question altogether and engaging broader themes and narrower questions, religion’s significant in the politics of the Revolutionary era is more apparent, albeit more complex.

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

SM: I actually decided that I wanted to be a historian at age 13. My father majored in history in college and, as a result, our house was filled with history books and historical discussion for as long as I can remember. This means that I was exposed to the study of the past from a young age. Then, in 8th grade, I had a phenomenal United States history teacher named Ron Benovitz who taught the subject in such an engaging way that I was absolutely hooked from that point on. I knew that I wanted to be a historian, although I had no clue what such a career would actually look like. As I progressed in my education and the details and options of working as a historian became increasingly clear, my passion for the discipline continued to grow. I consider myself quite fortunate to be doing as an adult what I dreamed of doing as a teenager.

JF: What is your next project?

SM: I am currently working on two projects that I am particularly excited about. The first is a documentary history of New York’s Burned-over District. The book will feature primary source documents that illuminate the cultural and social transformation of western New York amid the waves of religious revivals that swept through the region during the Second Great Awakening. The second project is a book about Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign, and how the controversial Mormon leader’s little-known run for the White House illustrates the political obstacles to universal religious liberty in nineteenth-century America.

JF: Thanks, Spencer!

The Author’s Corner with Jennifer Goloboy

CharlestonandtheEmergenceofMiddleClassCultureintheRevolutionaryAmerica.jpgJennifer Goloboy is an independent scholar based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This interview is based on her new book, Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?

JG: The project originally started because of a graduate school class I took with David Hancock, in which we read the Henry Laurens papers.  I was fascinated by Laurens as an exemplar of the eighteenth-century middle class.   He had a rigidly hierarchical view of the world.  He demonstrated a weird blend of public sanctimony and private willingness to betray his own principles, especially when engaged in the slave trade. 

When Prof. Hancock told the class there weren’t any other collections of letters from Charleston’s merchants that were as interesting as the Henry Laurens papers, I took it as a personal challenge.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?

JG: My book is designed to help us clarify what we mean by “middle-class” in Early America.  Focusing on merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, it shows how the economic impact of the post-Revolutionary transition shaped middle-class culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?

JG: For readers interested in class in early America, my book is unusual in that it focuses on work rather than the home as a cradle of middle-class culture.  Charleston’s merchants used shared cultural assumptions to connect with their business partners.  These assumptions changed over time.  Before the Revolution, the ideal merchant was deferential and polite; the post-Revolutionary merchant was a rowdy sport willing to do anything to serve a client; and the cotton-port merchant was a professional and an institution-builder.                  

Readers interested in Charleston will remember that historians have rarely written about the city between the end of the Revolution and the late 1810s.  So there’s been a mysterious and unexplained transition in local behavior: before the Revolution, a happy participant in British mercantilism, but after the gap, disdainful of trade.  This book argues that Charlestonians distrusted merchants because of a forgotten post-Revolutionary bubble, based partly on the slave trade and neutral trading with the Caribbean, which ended disastrously because of the War of 1812.  This is important because antebellum Charleston was so central to Southern intellectual history; we need to know that resentment of mercantile outsiders was not a natural product of the cotton empire.

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

JG: I really became interested in history when I realized that the point was not to eulogize heroes of the past, but to explain the distinct internal worlds of our ancestors.  I was a big fan of the “If You Lived In” series as a kid— and now I torment my poor children by telling them what “If You Lived In Colonial Times” left out.

JF: What is your next project?

JG: As I was researching this project, I realized how much we still have to learn about American trade in the years before the War of 1812.  They’re exciting years in economic history: lots of smuggling, lots of semi-licit trade between Europe and the Caribbean.  Stephen Girard, as one of the most important merchants of his era, kept track of the goings-on in all the ports touched by his business— I intend to use his papers to clarify this confusing era.

JF: Thanks, Jennifer!

The Author’s Corner with Marc Ferris

Marc Ferris is holds an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written for the New York Times, Newsday, and other venues. This interview is based on his new book, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely History of America’s National Anthem (John Hopkins University Press, August 2014).

JF: What led you to write Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: In 1996, while sitting in a graduate history seminar at Stony Brook University, I searched for a topic to write about. As a guitarist, bass player and drummer, I wanted to combine my two interests of history and music and the thought flashed into my head: every American knows The Star-Spangled Banner. The 200th anniversary would arrive in the not-too-distant future and the song had a lot of history – and controversy – behind it: think Jimi Hendrix.

Though Americans may revere the song for its official status as the national anthem, I had never heard anyone praise the tune. All I recalled were complaints: it is hard to sing, no one can remember the words of the first verse (there are four) and it is war-like. When I realized that it took Congress 117 years from the song’s inception to make it the anthem and surmised (incorrectly) that they did so to bind the country through patriotism during the Great Depression in 1931, I figured I had a decent paper topic.

To my surprise, I discovered that few books had been written about what I contend is the most controversial song in United States history and after conducting a semester’s worth of research, I knew had discovered something big. One professor in the department implored me to drop the topic, but I never considered taking his advice and managed to assemble a sympathetic committee. I am forever be grateful to professors Richard F. Kuisel, Wilbur R. Miller and Nancy Tomes for encouraging me. They knew that I loved the subject and would not be dissuaded, so they approved the topic for my dissertation.

After receiving a Smithsonian Institution fellowship, I spent the summer of 1999 gathering sources at archives in Washington, D. C., Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland. Then, life intervened and the project stalled. I had two kids and work as a freelance writer took up a lot of time. Then, as the newspaper business plummeted, I became a public relations executive. Not getting my Ph. D. or starting on the book project became the great regret of my life. As a sports fan, I cringed every time I heard the song, knowing that I was squandering a great opportunity.

Ever since I latched onto the topic, I had always marked 2014 in my mind, since it represented the song’s bicentennial. Then, in 2012, after a few personal setbacks, inspiration struck. I realized that if 2014 came and went without my completing the project, I would hate myself, so I flipped the switch in my mind, dusted off my thigh-high mound of documents and spent every waking moment outside of work writing (except for bathing, sleeping, eating, exercising and playing music). By the end of the year, I had finished a first draft.

To this day, I am flummoxed that no one had written anything substantial about the song in the interim. Many books have appeared chronicling single tunes, including My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, America the Beautiful and God Bless America, but these titles, while interesting and informative, merely circled the bulls-eye, in my opinion. The Star-Spangled Banner is the official national anthem and obviously occupies a distinctive position in the nation’s history. Even if I had come across a competing book about the anthem, I knew that I had compiled a great trove of documents and had developed a singular interpretation of the song.

Despite the fact that just about every American has heard the anthem played many times in his or her lifetime and that the bicentennial loomed, the New York publishing houses wanted nothing to do with “serious” history, as one agent called it. I didn’t mind, knowing that it’s easy for the gatekeepers to say no. Their indifference gave me the freedom to write the book I wanted to write – based on scholarship but accessible to every American with even a passing interest in the song. Had I not been so fortunate to link up with Johns Hopkins University Press, I would have published it myself.

There is no substitute for crafting a history book based on a solid foundation of research and dynamite topical material. The one lesson I would impart to anyone taking on a major project – not just a book – is that by scooping up spoonfuls of dirt, a mountain appears.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Star Spangled Banner?

MF: Studying an important musical composition like The Star-Spangled Banner presents a unique prism to explore deeper historical trends, including in this case the intersection between patriotism and religion, known as civil religion, the use of music as propaganda and competing definitions of patriotism. The most controversial song in United States history, it is the true people’s anthem and it has exerted a strong cultural hold over American culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: Many books relate the details about how Francis Scott Key came to write the song in Baltimore harbor as the English Navy shelled Fort McHenry through the night of September 13 and 14, 1814. This book tells the rest of the story and anyone who reads it will never look at the song the same way again. Every five or six pages, a fact or issue of interpretation will cause readers to think “wow, that’s interesting, I never knew that.”

Going through the final proofs, I decided to make a list of fun facts related to the song. I quickly complied 30 without much digging. Here are five of the most interesting:

1. Shakespeare wrote the phrase “by spangled star-light sheen” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and “what Stars do Spangle heaven with such beauty?” (The Taming of the Shrew).

2. Anyone with United States currency in a pocket or purse is carrying around a paraphrase of a line in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, “In God is Our Trust,” parsed to In God We Trust and printed on coins since the Civil War and paper bills beginning in 1957.

3. The words of To Anacreon in Heaven, the song that Francis Scott Key borrowed for the melody of The Star-Spangled Banner, is a sly 1700’s paean to drinking and sex. Though understated, the line “I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine; The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine” is unambiguous.

4. In one of the most incredible ironies in United States history, a slave-owning southerner whose entire family supported the Confederacy wrote the Union anthem (Francis Scott Key, The Star-Spangled Banner), while an anti-slavery Northerner (Daniel Decatur Emmett) wrote Dixie, the Southern anthem.

5. Jimi Hendrix is hardly the first musician whose rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner anthem created a backlash: ragtime performers in the 1890’s and jazz bands in the 1930s played idiosyncratic versions that also raised an uproar. In 1968, Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano delivered controversial, individualistic versions of The Star-Spangled Banner almost a year before Jimi Hendrix performed his incendiary version at Woodstock.

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

MF: At the age of 13, my family moved to Israel for a year and living there, surrounded by ancient ruins and enmities, a love for the past seeped into my soul. I goofed off throughout high school and in my first semester of senior year, I decided to buckle down and got good grades in the required United States history course. In college, I also took a lackadaisical approach to studies until sophomore year, when, during another required course in modern United States history, I internalized the material due to an inexplicable interest and got an A on a 100 question multiple choice test.

While talking with a classmate at a party, we discussed our majors and I told him I planned to study sociology. He said “if you liked social studies last year, you should think about being a history major.” As soon as he said the word “history,” the noise faded, a light came down from the sky and the term echoed in my head. The next day I marched down to the administration office declared my new major. I am not sure whether to thank or curse Steve Essig, but from that day on, I became Mister History, finished my undergraduate years with great grades and decided that I wanted to be a history professor. I earned a Master’s Degree in the subject, taught at many top-flight institutions and entered a Ph. D. program, where I discovered a topic that I love.

JF: What is your next project?

MF: This book is in its first week of distribution and I still have a 9 to 5 job, so the next book project seems far off. I would love to conduct further research into the anthem, digging deeper into all the issues that I could only raise but not fully explore. It would be interesting to write a more journalistic book or long-form magazine article about what the anthem means to Americans of diverse backgrounds, based on concerted travel across this great land, but someone would have to fund that.

More traditional themes I would like to explore include a history of country music (it’s a lot more diverse than most people think) and a history of bourbon – the spirit. Both are experiencing exploding popularity, but I would take the same “serious” approach that I expended on the country’s anthem – based on copious research but accessible to anyone remotely interested in the topic.

JF: Great stuff, thanks Marc! I should also add that I was also a student in that 1996 Stony Brook University seminar that Marc mentioned above.  Also check out this interview with Marc on MSNBC.

Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner.

Journal of the American Revolution Goes Into Print

Forget about all this talk of digital history and social media as a tool to promote the study of history.  Todd Andrlik and the good folks at the Journal of the American Revolution are going old school.  In November they will publish a print version of the Journal of the American Revolution featuring sixty essays and articles from the popular webzine that promise to debunk “myths and addresses unanswered questions about the Revolution”. Here is a taste of what awaits: 

In a world of increasing historical illiteracy and apathy, Journal of the American Revolution publishes passionate, creative and smart content intended to make history more palatable. It aims to delight casual readers, novice historians and expert scholars equally. Its content has been featured by MSNBC, Smithsonian, Slate and many more. The book presents groundbreaking story lines via a healthy variety of in-depth features and engaging columns, in both short- and long-form, with an eye for accuracy over legend. Each article is accompanied by high definition images – portraits, maps, photos and more – including some that are appearing in print for the first time. 

For more information visit allthingsliberty.com/book.


Kudos to Megan Piette for her work on this post.

Frances Fox Piven at Messiah College

I don’t seem to remember last year’s Messiah College American Democracy lecture being like this.

The speaker was Emory University historian Patrick Allitt and the venue was a large tiered classroom on campus that held 110 people.  The hallways outside the campus were not swarming with campus police, high-level campus administrators, and college public relations staff.  I did not have to sit in an “overflow” classroom where the lecture was shown on closed-circuit television.

Things were different this year because the speaker was Francis Fox Piven, a political scientist and activist who back in January was attacked by radio and television host Glenn Beck for her liberal views on a host of issues related to the voters rights, the alleviation of poverty, corporate America, health care, and civil disobedience.  Her most significant article, written with her late husband Richard Cloward in 1966, proposed that, to quote the New York Times, “if people overwhelmed the welfare rolls, fiscal and political stress on the system could force reform and give rise to changes like guaranteed income.”  Beck was also not happy with a January article in The Nation that encouraged unemployed people to stage mass protests. 

Messiah College took a lot of heat for inviting Piven to speak. Conservative alumni could not understand why a Christian college would invite her to campus.  Those who represent the college’s historic commitment to peace and non-violence could not understand why Messiah was inviting someone to campus who favors violent protest as a form of social change.  And then, on the day before the event, which also happened to be an admissions open-house day in which the college was filled with hundreds of prospective students and their families, the college administration removed posters advertising Piven’s talk.  This decision drew criticism from liberal students on campus and was featured on the front page of the local newspaper.

Frankly, I thought Piven’s lecture last night had some historical problems, but it was generally OK.  Some of the things she said were controversial, and her gratuitous swipes at the Tea Party (she called them racist, susceptible to propaganda, and unable to cope with change) took something away from her argument, but in general she was trying to channel a vision of American life that has been around for a long time.  If Glenn Beck had not made a big deal about her views, and if she did not get death threats from Beck’s followers, this event would have been similar to last year’s talk by Allitt.

Let’s look more deeply at what Piven said last night.  She began by defining democracy.  Democracy, she argued, requires universal suffrage, the right to organize and defend individual rights, a government that must respond to the voice of the people, and a commitment to all votes being equal regardless of race, class, gender, wealth, etc…  I am not sure how anyone could understand this theoretical definition of democracy to be controversial.

Democracy, Piven said, is about “personhood.”  For my Messiah College readers, this idea of “personhood” is quite compatible with the notion that we are all created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  In fact, Catholic social teaching uses very similar language to describe the “human person.” (Although they do not advocate violence to defend such personhood).

Piven then took us on a journey through American history, arguing that democracy has always been contested and has always posed a threat to propertied elites in power.  While I don’t buy her progressive view of the American Revolution as an economic civil war (there were a few times where I thought I had gone back in time and was listening to Charles Beard giving a lecture on The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States), she is right to state that many propertied elites at the time of the American Revolution feared democracy and did what they could to limit it.  This is why John Adams called Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (which called for a democratic-republic) a “poor, ignorant, malicious short-sighted, crapulous mass.”  In fact, Piven sounded a lot like Paine–America’s first true “radical.”  (Pedagogically, her talk was wonderful!  I had just taught Common Sense the day before!)

Piven’s interpretation of the relationship between the newly created states and the United States Constitution was lifted directly from Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic.  (In fact, she cited Wood on at least one occasion).  She mentioned the radical, democratic nature of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 (although she failed to mention that this so-called “radical Constitution” also limited office-holding to those who were Protestant and believed in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament–a problem that progressive historians who sing the praises of the Constitution have yet to confront) and then showed how the framers of the United States Constitution attempted to squash the democratic fervor of the states by limiting the role that the “people” would play in electing Senators, choosing a president, and selecting Supreme Court justices.  At times I thought Piven was stealing lines from my United States History survey course in which I make the exact the same argument.  (I trust my job is still secure, although I hope that Glenn Beck is not reading this post).

She then argued that the election of 1896 was the turning point when the Republican Party joined the robber barons and leaders of industry to disenfranchise African-Americans and working-class ethnics.  Echoing historians like Philip Foner, she suggested this unholy alliance between Republicans and industry was the reason why the United States was never able to establish a strong democratic-socialist or labor party.  (Just before publishing this piece a colleague reminded me that it was actually the progressives themselves who did the disenfranchising).

In conclusion, Piven railed against corporate interests and the Tea Party.  She challenged her audience not to be taken in by media propaganda.  And she endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement, of which she has participated.  During the Q&A session she called for the elimination of the Electoral College, talked about the Tea Party’s “uneasiness” with demographic changes taking place in America, and claimed that she believed in non-violence but sympathized with mass movements that responded to the “violence” of losing their homes and being hungry.

At times she sounded like Thomas Jefferson, especially when she said that democracy required “eternal vigilance.”  There were even some indirect references to Jefferson’s statement that every generation needs to engage in periodic revolution as a “medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

In the end, Piven may be a “radical,” but there is nothing that she said last night that we cannot find somewhere in the American tradition.  In fact, her talk was pretty predictable. In this sense, her ideas were not very new or radical at all. 

You can agree or disagree with Piven’s politics, but a college campus–even a college campus like Messiah College–should be a place where her ideas should be discussed and engaged.  I enjoyed being part of that process and I look forward to today’s “talk back session.”

The Beast of Boston Harbor

Boston 1775 is running a post today on this 1770s engraving.  It is entitled “British Troops Barricade Boston Harbor Against the Beast from the Unknown.” I believe it is a doctored version of the original.

You can buy a copy for $20.00 through Etsy.  Here is the description:

A handsome 11 x 17 print that is suitable for framing. Comes with this description: “European artist Franz Xaver Habermann created this engraving sometime in the early 1770s. It shows the early days of Boston Harbor and is designed to emulate the feel of a typical European city and create sympathy for the colonies. Adding to a viewer’s feelings of empathy is the appearance of the Beast of Boston Harbor, who regularly ravaged the residents of the town. The Beast was eventually dispatched with the dumping of hundreds of pounds of tea into the harbor by intrepid citizens who correctly surmised that the bitterness of the leaves would drive the creature away. Unfortunately this “Tea Party” was seen as a revolutionary act by the British troops, which led to some degree of unpleasantness.”

An Afternoon With the Sons of the American Revolution

I spent the afternoon with the Continental Congress Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution at the York Country Club in York, PA.  They invited me to speak about Philip Vickers Fithian and The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

My favorite moment of the afternoon was when a woman seated next to me during the business meeting leaned over and whispered:

I can trace my ancestry to 17 soldiers who fought in the American Revolution.  How many Revolutionary War soldiers are in your family history?

I answered:   “None.”

The look on her face was priceless–as if I was somehow an imposter at this event.

Nevertheless, it was a fine afternoon with a very engaged group of American Revolutionary War buffs.  Thanks to chapter president Joe McMullen for the invitation.