The Author’s Corner with Dennis Rasmussen

Dennis Rasmussen is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University. This interview is based on his new book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders (Princeton University Press, 2021).

JF: What led you to write Fears of a Setting Sun?

DR: Like many Americans, I’ve long enjoyed reading popular biographies of the founders. It often struck me, though, that while the stories were generally meant to be inspiring and uplifting, the endings were never entirely happy. On the contrary, almost all the leading founders ended up being, for one reason or another, rather disappointed in the government and the nation that they’d helped to create. This seemed like a point worth pursuing, and I was surprised to find that no one had done so in a systematic way. I decided to have a go at it myself, and this book is the result.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Fears of a Setting Sun?

DR: Most of the founders who lived into the nineteenth century—or even to the dawn of the new century, like George Washington—came to feel deep anxiety, disappointment, and even despair about America’s constitutional order. In particular, Washington became disillusioned because of the rise of parties and partisanship, Alexander Hamilton because he felt that the federal government was not sufficiently vigorous or energetic, John Adams because he believed that the American people lacked the requisite civic virtue for republican government, and Thomas Jefferson because of sectional divisions that were laid bare by conflict over the spread of slavery.

JF: Why do we need to read Fears of a Setting Sun?

DR: This is a side of the founders that is relatively little known today. We tend to focus on their “heroic” deeds during the founding period—above all securing America’s independence and setting up a new government based on new principles which has lasted, with some modifications, to this day. But their views of the pitfalls and possibilities of republican government continued to develop over the succeeding decades, shaped by the struggles and successes of the constitutional order that they’d created. In order to achieve the fullest possible understanding of their outlooks, we need to look beyond the founding to the views that the these figures held later in life, which were, after all, shaped by greater real-world experience.

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

DR: Alas, I’m not an American historian! I’m a political theorist, although my specialty within political theory is the history of political thought, which is of course closely related to history. And there’s quite a bit of history in the book, which sets the context for my examination of the founders’ political thought. But prior to this book most of my research was on the Scottish and French Enlightenments—Adam Smith, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire. I suppose you could say that, to the extent that I am an American historian, I became one in order to write this book!

JF: What is your next project?

DR: I’m going to stick with the American founding for at least a little while longer: I’m currently writing a book on Gouverneur Morris’s role at the Constitutional Convention. Morris is an utterly fascinating and immensely colorful figure whose impact on the Constitution—through both his dominant presence within the Convention debates and his role as the charter’s main drafter—is far greater than is generally known.

JF: Thanks, Dennis!

The Author’s Corner with Lisa Tucker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Lisa!

Editor of *The New York Times Magazines* addresses recent criticisms of the 1619 Project

You can find all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.

Here is Jake Silverstein, editor of The New York Times Magazine:

Most of the questions around our display language have centered on variations on a single phrase. In some cases, we referred to 1619 as the nation’s “birth year,” in others as our “birth date,” in others as “a foundational date,” in others as our “point of origin.” In one instance of digital display copy, we referred to 1619 as our “true founding.” It is this use of this last phrase, and its subsequent deletion, that was the subject of an article in the online magazine Quillette and then, more recently, that figured prominently in a column by my colleague Bret Stephens, a columnist on The Times’s Opinion page.

A few notes on this phrase, “true founding”: It was written by a digital editor and approved by me. (Hannah-Jones, as a staff writer at the magazine is not typically involved in matters of digital display language.) It does not appear in the print edition of The 1619 Project. This phrase was introduced when the project went online, in August 2019, appearing in an un-bylined 55-word passage that lived in a small box on the project’s main web page, as well as on the individual story pages, which read as follows: “The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Given the space constraints, “true founding” was a way to summarize the “birth” metaphor that appeared here and there throughout the print edition — such as in a sentence in my editor’s note that read: “The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” It also carried some of the meaning of a sentence from Hannah-Jones’s essay in which she says that Black Americans, “as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers.’” (This summer, President Obama made a similar comparison in his eulogy for the civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, calling him a “founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”)

Nevertheless, in the months after the package went online, we began to wonder if we’d gotten it quite right. In the longer phrase from the editor’s note (“by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year”), the sense that this was a metaphor — a whole new perspective on American history that this collection of essays would give you — was explicit. The online language risked being read literally. And indeed, some readers pointed out that this word choice implied that the specific historical meaning of what took place during the founding period should be replaced by the specific historical meaning of what took place in 1619.

So in December, we edited this digital display text to more closely mirror what appeared in the print magazine. We did not see this as a significant alteration, let alone concession, in how we presented the project. Within the project’s essays, the argument about 1619’s being the nation’s symbolic point of origin remained.

Read the entire piece here.

Sean Wilentz on Tom Cotton and slavery

1619

The Princeton University American historian Sean Wilentz has been a harsh critic of The New York Times 1619 Project. But that doesn’t mean he is going to give Arkansas senator Tom Cotton a pass for his recent comments about slavery and the founding fathers.

Here is a taste of his recent piece at The New York Review of Books:

Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, has introduced a bill in Congress that would punish school districts that use The New York Times’s 1619 Project in their curriculum by withholding federal funding. In so doing, he announced in a newspaper interview that America’s schoolchildren need to learn that the nation’s Founders said slavery “was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” His statement is as preposterous as it is false: presuming to clarify American history, Cotton has grievously distorted it.

(As this article went to press, Cotton supported his argument by citing me along with several other liberal historians who have criticized the 1619 Project; with my colleagues, I have fundamental publicized objections to the project, but these in no way mitigate Cotton’s serious misrepresentations of the historical record for evident political gain.)

None of the delegates who framed the Constitution in 1787 called slavery a “necessary evil.” Some of them called slavery an evil, but not a necessary one. Gouverneur Morris of New York, for example, declared to the Constitutional Convention that he would “never concur in upholding domestic slavery,” that “nefarious institution” based on “the most cruel bondages”—“the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.” The great majority of the Framers joined Morris in fighting to ensure that slavery would be excluded from national law.

Read the rest here.

Engaging with the latest stuff on race and the founders coming from Liberty University’s Falkirk Center

Liberty_University_LaHaye_Student_Union_IMG_4121 (1)

Not all Christian colleges are the same. Some of you may recall a post in which I compared Messiah University to Liberty University. If you have a child considering a faith-based college I encourage you to read that post.

Liberty University recently established something called the Falkirk Center. In previous posts I called it a “think tank,” but after watching this organization develop over the last several months I now think it is more of a propaganda machine for Christian Trumpism.

In the last few days, the Falkirk Center Facebook page has been posting on race in America.

Here is a post from last night:

Woke Christianity is a manipulation of the Gospel. It intentionally twists the Bible to accommodate and achieve leftist political aims and purposes. This has been evidenced in past cries of “Jesus was an illegal immigrant!” Or “Jesus was a socialist!” Now, it is shifting to an idea that Jesus would have praised and been part of the Black Lives Matter organization. The Gospel is the free offer of salvation based on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ at the cross at Calvary. The Gospel tells us we are all sinners and we will all likewise perish unless we repent and believe in Christ. As Christians, we must preserve the Gospel and proclaim the truth until his coming. We must also speak out against heresy both inside and outside the church which includes Woke Christianity, Social Justice, Critical Theory and Intersectionality.

Thoughts:

  • There is no such thing as “woke Christianity.” The Christian scriptures do not endorse a particular political program–Left, Center, or Right. The Christian scriptures do not endorse capitalism or socialism. Fair-minded Christians around the world have used the scriptures to argue for both of these economic systems.
  • Would Jesus have been a member of Black Lives Matter? I have no idea. But Jesus would have certainly endorsed the idea that black lives matter. Do you see what the politically-charged Falkirk Center is doing here? They focus all of their attention on the official Black Lives Matter movement as a way to avoid talking about why black lives matter. If they can convince everyone that Black Lives Matter is a direct and immediate threat to our democracy they can get Trump re-elected and advance their political agenda. Don’t let Jerry Falwell and Charlie Kirk manipulate the teachings of Jesus for political gain. Don’t let them take the New Testament and filter its teachings through a Christian Right lens. It’s all politics.
  • The Falkirk Center says, “As Christians, we must preserve the Gospel and proclaim the truth until his coming.” Amen. So how does a belief in the proclamation of truth relate to the Falkirk’s support for the pathological liar in the Oval Office? How can an organization with a platform such as Liberty Univeristy fail to speak out about this? How long will evangelicals send their tuition money to a place whose leadership remains silent on this most basic moral issue? The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of love, justice, and compassion. The citizens of this kingdom–the scriptures call them a royal priesthood– are in the business of announcing the arrival of this Kingdom to those in power.
  • Don’t be fooled by all these references to “Woke Christianity,” “Social Justice,” “Critical Theory,” and “Intersectionality.” They are big words used to scare ordinary Christians. Followers of Jesus Christ, as citizens of his Kingdom, will always fight for justice in the world. They will oppose both individual acts of injustice and systemic acts of injustice. They will fight for the poor and oppressed. American history teaches us that there white people have always oppressed Black people and stomped on their human dignity. This oppression is now embedded in our social institutions and it must be considered when Christians think about how to engage the world.  We can uphold these things without necessarily embracing every dimension of “critical theory” or “intersectionality.” Frankly, I think these words are just distractions. They prevent Christians from getting-on with the business of building the Kingdom. But let’s remember that they are meant to be distractions.

Here is another Falkirk Center post from yesterday:

The founding fathers worked tirelessly to create the most just and free nation in human history. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for their ingenuity. Rather than be grateful for America and appreciate her system of government, however, the left has chosen to spite the founding fathers and all that they created, showing no appreciation for the price that has been paid for them to live in America and use their very freedoms to destroy the country that protects them. Leftist thinking is detrimental to a free and just society and is rotten at its core. We must do everything in our power to preserve the true story of the founding fathers, the noble history of America, and teach future generations of the sacrifices necessary to preserve, protect, and defend freedom and liberty in America.

  • The nation that the founders created in 1776 was not just. It was built upon universal Enlightenment principles such as “liberty,” but these principles were not applied to all people. In this sense, it is very difficult to say that the founders wanted to establish some kind of “Christian nation.”
  • The nation’s founders left a legacy of freedom and liberty that was eventually applied to most citizens. But by the time American leaders got their act together and started applying these ideals to African Americans and others, certain systemic injustices were already baked in the national cake, the product of decades of failure.
  • All of this has led to much debate among historians. No good historian would reject the idea that the founders were products of their time. The debate is over how rapidly the ideals of the white male American Revolution found their way into the mainstream of national life. Some say that the American Revolution was “radical” because it set the stage or prepared the way for women’s rights, the emancipation of slaves, civil rights, etc. Others argue that the Revolution was not radical because it failed to apply these ideas immediately. The founders made deliberate choices to keep injustice in place when they could have chosen the opposite course.  These debates are good for American democracy.  Let’s keep having them. Neither of them should be “canceled.”
  • This is our country. Let’s tell the story honestly.

And then there is this from a day or two ago:

Unfortunately, the faith that used to unite our country and carry it through its darkest hours, is now viewed as superstition and a detriment to society. Secular leftists are working, daily, to to infringe on religious liberty by prohibiting religious exercises or expressions and forcing groups to hire people whose beliefs do not align with that group’s religious convictions. As Christians- now more than ever- we must be attentive to and engaged with political and cultural events. Failure to do so is an abandonment of our duty to be good citizens of our country and it leaves the liberties this country was created to protect at risk of being taken away by those whose end goal is tyranny.

  • The first sentence presumes that the founders were trying to found a nation united by Christian faith. This is a problematic assumption that I have spent the better part of my career as an American historian trying to address. Start here.
  • Many white evangelicals are very upset that governors are shutting down churches due to the prevalence of COVID-19. These evangelicals believe that these local officials are curbing their right to worship. Is the prevention of Christian worship in a time of pandemic a violation of the First Amendment? That is an issue for the courts. But many of the founders thought that republics survived when people were willing to occasionally sacrifice their “rights” for the greater good of their neighbors. This is one of those moments when Christians can lead by example. Instead, many evangelicals, like the Falkirk Center, have chosen to mount a rights-based attack on masks, social distancing, and science that most of the founding fathers would fail to recognize. I don’t think the first-century church would recognize it either. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship: “In the right confrontation with the world, the Church will become ever more like to the form of its suffering Lord.”
  • I am sympathetic to some of the religious liberty concerns mentioned in this post. I hope the Supreme Court will continue to defend religious institutions to hire according to their deeply-held theological convictions.  This, it seems, is a mark of a healthy pluralism.

A Time for Citizenship

Citizenship

It’s not really that difficult to be a citizen in times like these. Health officials are telling us to stay six feet apart, wash our hands, avoid crowds, self-quarantine, and check on our older neighbors.  If we want to get through this crisis we need to make some sacrifices. We need to think less about rights and more about obligations. We need to be citizens.

Sometimes I wonder if we really know what it means to be a citizen. In school, we took  “civics” courses that taught us things about the United States government. We learned about the importance of voting, the system of checks and balances, and some basic information about our constitutional rights. This kind of knowledge is essential and useful. But taking a course, or memorizing some facts, does not make us citizens, and citizenship is what we need in this moment.

Last night I went to the bookshelf and pulled-down my copy of historian Ralph Ketcham‘s mostly forgotten 1987 work Individualism and Public Life: A Modern Dilemma. (It currently has a 6.5 million Amazon ranking). Ketcham describes how schools often teach young people how to move beyond mere civic knowledge:

They are…further taught that their effectiveness, and even discharge of their obligation, depend on active, single-minded participation in that system: to organize, maneuver, cajole, and bargain become the means of effectiveness–and even of fulfillment of duty.

In other words, civic education too often teaches us how to engage in public life for the purpose of defending our rights or, to put it in a more negative way, our own self-interests. Under this kind of civic education, “the essential training for citizenship, Ketcham writes, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

While this rights-based approach is a vital part of citizenship–we must remain politically jealous at all times–it is not an approach to citizenship that usually helps us in times of crisis like our current coronavirus moment. It is rooted in individualism, the kind of individualism that, to quote Tocqueville, “saps the virtue of public life.” What would it take, Ketcham asks, to “enlarge the idea of citizenship as a shared, public enterprise, asking members of a body politic to explore and discuss, together, what might enrich the life of the community, and to seek together, the ideas and aspirations that would enhance and fulfill both individual and social life.”

In times like these, it is good to remember an important strain of American political thought that was dominant at the time of the founding, faded from view as American became more democratic in the early 19th century (although it depends on which historian one reads), and re-emerged at various moments of crisis (World War II, 9-11, etc.). Historians and political theorists call this strain “civic humanism” or “republicanism” or “communitarianism.” (Scholars will split hairs over the differences between these “isms,” but for the sake of this post I am going to use them synonymously). Here is Ketcham:

The office of the citizen…is best understood as the part each person in a democracy plays in the government of the community. This requires, most fundamentally, the perspective of the good ruler, that is, a disinterested regard for the welfare of the whole, rather than a narrow attention to self or special interests. That is, it requires civic virtue. The need is not that citizens necessarily devote large amounts of time to public concerns…or that they be experts in all the details of government. Rather, they must have a disinterested perspective, and must ask the proper public question, “What is good for the polity as a whole?,” not the corrupt private one. “What public policy will suit personal, special, partial needs?” Citizens must bring an attitude formed by words like “obligation,” “responsibility,” and even “duty” to their public role, rather than a perspective formed by words like “desire,” “drive,” and “interest.” The public and civic virtue required of the responsible citizen is, after all, a moral quality, a posture not quantifiable in terms of amount of time expended or amount of information accumulated.

Some have described this kind of civic humanism as utopian in nature. Civic humanism, they argue, requires a rosy view of human nature that does not seem to reflect the actual way humans have behaved in history. Indeed, as historian George Marsden once quipped (echoing Reinhold Niebuhr): “of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.” Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.

But this does not mean that the civic humanist tradition is not useful. Here, again, is Ketcham:

Such an approach, again, seems wildly utopian in that it asks individual citizens to recognize and restrain self-interest and instead understand and seek the general welfare. The point is not, though, that people can entirely transcend their own particular (partial, narrow) perspective, or entirely overcome the tendency toward selfishness. Those inclinations are ancient, ineradicable facts of human nature; perhaps even properly thought of as the “original sin” of self-love. No one supposes that people can wholly escape this “sin,” but there is a vase difference nonetheless between acknowledging self-interest as an indelible tendency we need to curb, and the celebration of it as a quality “to be encouraged and harnessed.” 

In the 1980s, historians debated fiercely over whether civic humanism or a rights-based Lockean liberalism informed the ideas of the American founders. Wherever one comes down on this debate, it is hard to argue that the civic humanism Ketcham describes above was not influential in the Revolution and the early years of the republic. It is also hard to argue with the fact that Americans have drawn on this tradition at various moments in our history.  Now might be another one of those moments.

Episode 63: The 1619 Project

Podcast

In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine published The 1619 Project, an attempt to reframe American history by “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” American historians have praised and criticized the project. In this episode we talk with Thomas Mackaman, a history professor at Kings University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and a writer for World Socialist Web Site. Mackaman has not only criticized The 1619 Project, but has interviewed other critics of the project, including several award-winning historians. Why are socialists so upset about this project? What is the backstory behind Mackaman’s interviews with Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Clayborne Carson, and other 1619 Project critics? Anyone interested in debates over how historians do history and connect the past to present political and social issues will learn something from this episode.

https://playlist.megaphone.fm?e=ADL9483726242

The Author’s Corner with Laura Lohman

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

JF: What led you to write Hail Columbia!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Laura!

The Author’s Corner with Carli Conklin

The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding EraCarli Conklin is Associate Professor at The University of Missouri School of Law.  This interview is based on her new book, The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History (University of Missouri, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era?

CC: I had long wondered why Thomas Jefferson would choose a phrase as seemingly vague as “the pursuit of happiness” to be included as one of only three unalienable rights he specifically listed in the Declaration of Independence. That the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” was left untouched throughout an otherwise lengthy and quite detailed drafting process only further piqued my curiosity. I began to wonder if “the pursuit of happiness” had been left untouched because it was so clearly-defined and widely-accepted among the Founders that it required no editing or if it had been left untouched because it was so vague as to have no specific or controversial meaning to the Founders, at all.

In their later writings, Jefferson and John Adams both claimed that the Declaration was not intended to be a statement of new ideas. Taking my cue from them, I began exploring old ideas–key strands of thought that were most influential at the Founding: English law and legal history; the history and philosophy of classical antiquity; Christianity; and the Scottish Enlightenment’s focus on Newtonian Science. These strands of thought, while conflicting in their particulars, nevertheless converged at a place of particular meaning. That place of particular meaning was the late-eighteenth understanding of “the pursuit of happiness.”

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era?

CC: Far from being a glittering generality or a direct substitution for property, “the pursuit of happiness” had a distinct meaning to those who included the phrase in two of the eighteenth-century’s most influential legal texts: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). That distinct meaning included a belief in first principles by which the created world is governed, the idea that these first principles were discoverable by man, and the belief that to pursue a life lived in accordance with those principles was to pursue a life of virtue, with the end result of happiness, best defined in the Greek sense of eudaimonia, or human flourishing.

JF: Why do we need to read The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era?

CC: Today, we continue to invoke our unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness in a wide variety of settings. The right to “the pursuit of happiness” shows up everywhere from music and movies to U.S. Supreme Court cases, with a bewildering array of meanings attributed to the phrase. This work clarifies the meaning of the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness by placing the phrase within its broader eighteenth-century legal and historical context. The methodology behind this exploration highlights not only the interdisciplinary depth and breadth of the Founders’ intellectual world, but also the unexpected places where a variety of these influential, eighteenth-century schools of thought converged.

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

CC: Throughout college, I pursued my love for English and education while remaining interested in law. I was particularly fascinated by the ideas that are embedded in our laws and how those laws—and the ideas undergirding them–change over time. Following my graduation from Truman State University, I learned of the University of Virginia School of Law’s dual degree program in American legal history. I still vividly remember the excitement I felt as I read the program description—it was everything I had ever wanted to study! I am happy to say that I could not have found a more welcoming and intellectually invigorating home for the study of early American legal history. As an early American legal historian who views scholarship as an extension of teaching, I remain so grateful for the outstanding education I received from Truman State University in teaching pedagogy, critical thinking and analysis, and the close reading of texts and the fantastic education in law and American legal history I received at the University of Virginia, first under Barry Cushman and Charles W. McCurdy in the J.D./M.A. program and then when I returned to Virginia to work under Prof. McCurdy again for my Ph.D. It has been a true joy to work in this field.

JF: What is your next project?

CC: I am fascinated by how our legal use and understanding of “the pursuit of happiness” has changed over time. I am currently working on a project entitled The Pursuit of Happiness after the Founding: Case Law and Constitutions. This project explores the use of “the pursuit of happiness” in key legal texts from 1776 forward, including constitutions and court cases at both the state and federal levels.

JF: Thanks, Carli!

Joseph Ellis’s New Book is About the Founding Fathers

EllisEllis is a productive writer and historian, but I can’t keep up with all his books about the founding fathers.  Here is a taste of Jeff Shesol’s review of his latest: American Dialogue: The Founders and Us:

If the historian Joseph J. Ellis has a project — an unfairly pedestrian term to describe his rich body of work — it is to restore to the nation’s founders some measure of their humanity. In books like “Founding Brothers,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and “American Sphinx,” a brilliantly drawn portrait of Jefferson, Ellis renders the founders in fine shadings: wise and bold and prescient, yes, but also, at times, blinkered and uncertain, men in conflict with one another and even themselves. Ellis is not a revisionist; he is not pulling down statues from their pedestals. He does not begrudge the founders their disagreements or the fact that more than two centuries later, so many of their arguments remain unresolved. As he writes in his newest book, “American Dialogue,” the founding generation’s “greatest legacy is the recognition that argument itself is the answer.”

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Gienapp

41ZCgkF5jaL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJonathan Gienapp is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University. This interview is based on his new book The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Second Creation?

JG: I had long been interested in Revolutionary American political culture, intellectual history, and constitutionalism. Initially, I focused most of my attention on the period leading up to the drafting of the United States Constitution. Like so many historians, I instinctively distinguished the pre- and post-1788 periods, assuming that the formal ratification of the Constitution marked a sharp break in American history and a convenient way of bringing the Revolutionary period to a close. But then I found myself attracted to the 1790s and the post-ratification period. I was especially drawn to early debates over constitutional interpretation, not least because they had been far less studied than more famous debates that took place at the Constitutional Convention and then during ratification. Moreover, I began realizing that these early constitutional debates were sprawling and untamed. They often began focused on something specific before quickly morphing into broad, unfettered debates that grappled with what seemed to be almost meta-constitutional questions. That is, participants were not simply applying the Constitution to emerging problems; more fundamentally, they had to gain a deeper understanding of what the Constitution itself even was in order to even begin to know how to apply it. It became clear to me that participants kept having to discuss these broader matter because they were attempting to engage in constitutional debate without the benefit of any working rules for acceptable constitutional argument. They had to invent those rules, those practices, those norms as much as they could simply apply them. In other words, they had to invent the practices that made the Constitution intelligible and usable. From there I became really taken with the idea that the post-1788 period was as a much a chapter in constitutional creation as it was one in constitutional interpretation and it was worth reevaluating the whole period from that perspective.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Second Creation?

JG: It is often assumed that the United States Constitution was fully created in 1787 and 1788 when it was written and ratified. But because so much about the Constitution was shrouded in uncertainty even after these processes were complete, debates immediately following the document’s ratification did as much to give the Constitution its definitive identity as anything that came before.

JF: Why do we need to read The Second Creation?

JG: In forcing readers to reimagine the conventional story of American constitutional creation, The Second Creation forces historians and American citizens alike to reimagine the Constitution itself. It tries to show how certain ways of thinking about the Constitution, ones that are often taken to be essential, are in fact quite contingent; that it wasn’t simply the Constitution’s raw essence that made people begin assuming that it had certain kinds of definitive features. In fact, a lot of those habits of thought–habits that continue to inform how people think and argue about the Constitution today–were invented after the Constitution was written during the explosive decade that followed its ratification. Recognizing this fact is especially important in light of the charged debates over the theory of constitutional originalism that continue to dominate modern constitutional argument. Today, originalism is as popular and powerful as ever and its champions continue to insist that the Constitution should be interpreted now in accordance with its original meaning–the meaning it had when it was first written and ratified. Yet, as I attempt to show, all efforts to recover the original meaning of the Constitution must first reckon with the fact that the Constitution was not fully created in 1787-1788, that the original Constitution itself was in profound flux when it first appeared. Debates over originalism–which are as much about the Constitution’s role in American life today as what happened in the 18th century–ought to be informed by a deeper understanding of the original Constitution itself.

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

JG: My father was an American historian so I like to say that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. But I was first intensely drawn to early American history as an undergraduate when I read Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and shortly thereafter Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic for the first time. What I remember most vividly was less the content or even the arguments of either (although both were stimulating) but more the approach that each embodied: that recapturing the intricacies of the intellectual world of the American Revolution required a meticulous exhumation of a lost conceptual world. I was drawn to the idea that the study of history, even a period and place as seemingly familiar as Revolutionary America, required this kind of deep excavation. I found the past so much more interesting when I realized that understanding it required this kind of careful, immersive work. And I found the historian’s task that much more urgent since it seemed to primarily consist of learning how to climb inside other people’s heads and make sense of their world from their perspectives. It required bracketing one’s own working assumptions and learning how to think like somebody else once had. I have never lost sight of those lessons and, as much as my thinking has changed and developed since those early days, those experiences remain formative. They continue to explain why I became a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

JG: My next project seeks to rethink the rise of American democracy in the late 18th and early 19th-century United States by interrogating, not how American political culture came under greater popular control, but how a peculiar understanding of “democracy” emerged in the first place. A technical concept in political science up to that point, “democracy” came to acquire novel and expansive meaning during this period, morphing into the definitive norm by which all modern political practice has come to be judged. To explain why, classic accounts often focus on popular political transformations. But these transformations did not necessitate a corresponding shift in political language and consciousness. They could not, in their own right, force anybody to call such transformations or the practices they initiated “democratic.” During this period, “democracy” and its cognates took on profoundly new meanings as it was aggressively mobilized in several distinct contexts and in service of several distinct purposes. The project seeks to understand why Americans’ usage and understanding of this crucial word and concept transformed in such fundamental ways–why democracy became such an authoritative standard of political life.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan!

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!

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Gutzman

thomas-jeffersonKevin Gutzman is Professor and Chairman of the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University. This interview is based on his new book, Thomas Jefferson- Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Thomas Jefferson?

KG: The idea of writing a book about Thomas Jefferson’s radical statesmanship came to me as I was working on my most recent previous book, James Madison and the Making of America, a biography of Jefferson’s best friend and closest ally. Madison’s correspondence is devoted almost exclusively to politics of a somehow constitutionalist variety and various business and family matters. Jefferson, on the other hand, was—this is trite because true—a multifaceted genius, one whose influence on our world is in many of its manifestations unremarked. I also believed on the basis of prior work that some of Jefferson’s chief commitments and projects had been misunderstood. I wanted to explore that genius and to clarify the record.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Thomas Jefferson?

KG: Thomas Jefferson remains the most significant statesman in American history. Additionally, much of Jefferson’s radical program has been misapprehended, so that even experts are apt to see in Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America a different Jefferson from the one they have known.

JF: Why do we need to read Thomas Jefferson?

KG: Experts need to read Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America for new insights concerning the radical end of the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson in particular. The general public needs to read it as a corrective to Federalist Chic à la Lin-Manuel Miranda.

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

KG: I became interested in American Revolutionary and constitutional history in summer 1987, when as part of my joint-degrees program in law and public affairs at the University of Texas I completed a summer internship on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In between work days in the office of a member of the House of Representatives, I exploited the constitutional bicentennial by reading a couple of dozen books of constitutional history and public policy and seeing myriad local sights. The final decision to become a historian arose out of my experience of legal practice as a very dull matter indeed.

JF: What is your next project?

KG: My next project, The Virginia Dynasty: Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020 (forthcoming)), will be – believe it or not – the first such book ever published. I am well along in doing the research.

JF: Thanks, Kevin. 

Michael Eric Dyson on Identity Politics

dysonIn light of some of the things I have been writing on identity politics lately, someone on Facebook who disagrees with much of what I have written so far asked me to respond to this New York Times article by Michael Eric Dyson.

First, let me say that I have learned a lot from Dyson over the years. I would love to host him at Messiah College some time.

Last Winter I was driving through Alexandria, Virginia listening to C-SPAN radio and heard Dyson talking about his book The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America.  I found the interview so compelling (I have written about this before here at the blog) that the following week I bought a copy of the book at Hearts and Minds Books, Byron Borger’s bookstore in Dallastown, PA.  I took it home and read it in two sittings.  It helped me to better understand the Obama presidency and the subject of race in America more broadly. (You can see that interview with Dyson here).

Here are some thoughts on Dyson’s current piece:

  1. I think it was unfair of Kanye West, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to say that George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”  Dyson apparently disagrees.
  2. I also think it is unfair to equate Donald Trump’s views on race with the views of liberals and progressives such as Bernie Sanders or (implied) Mark Lilla. (More on Sanders below).
  3. Dyson does not distinguish between the universal ideals at the heart of the American Revolution (or at least the way these ideals were used by social reform movements through American history) and the failure of white people to apply them in American life.  For example, the idea that “all men are created equal” was used in arguments on behalf of women’s rights, abolitionism, the opposition to Jim Crow, and other reforms.  See, for example, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.  So here is my question: Do the ideals of equality and human rights transcend race?  I would answer yes.  In other words, they are universal Enlightenment ideals that all human beings share.  And if one wants to argue that they are “white” ideals, then it seems that we should be thanking white people for introducing them into global history.
  4. But there is more to the story.  I largely agree with Dyson’s account of American history.  Yes, these universal ideas were not consistently applied in American history. (And we should not be thanking white people for that).  This is the history any American with a conscience must confront.  This is why I think the deep connections between American Slavery and American Freedom (as Edmund Morgan put it) must play a prominent role in the teaching of American history.  It is also why I think history is needed more than ever as a means of teaching people empathy for the stories of all Americans within a national narrative.  As a historian my vocation is to tell the story.  It is then up to my students and my audience to decide what to do about the story. (The latter work can take place in the history classroom, but it is not this is not the exercise that drives what happens in the history classroom). After telling the story my work as a historian is done.  (Of course my work on this front as a human being, a Christian, a citizen or a community member should not end, although one’s involvement in the cause will vary from person to person).
  5. So let me say a word about moving beyond the classroom.  Should we throw out these American ideals just because they were not consistently applied in the past? Some would say yes. They would say that the weight of racism (the failure to apply these principles) in America cannot be lifted.  They would say that the idea of “we shall overcome” is a relic of the past.  I must part ways with such thinking.  I will cast my lot with Martin Luther King and other early leaders of the Civil Rights movement who longed for and prayed for an integrated society.  My America, like the America King talked about in Washington and in a Birmingham jail cell, is a nation where we must continue in the long hard struggle to apply the principles that our founders put in place in the eighteenth-century.  As a Christian who believes in sin, I doubt we will ever get there on this side of eternity, but that is no excuse to stop working.  (And we have a lot of work to do–I have a lot of work to do–when opportunities arise). We are called to advance the Kingdom of God on this earth and, with a spirit of hope, await its ultimate fulfillment,.
  6. I like what Dyson said about Obama in the C-SPAN interview I cited above: “When black people’s backs are against the wall as American citizens…the president should take the side [of black people]….When they are being gunned down in the streets…and especially vulnerable to racist rebuff, you must use your billy pulpit to amplify their cause and their claims and you must do so not simply as the ‘first black president’–that may be inessential at this point.  What is essential, however, is that you as the representative of the state must speak on behalf of all citizens including African American people.” (Italics mine, although Dyson does inflect his voice on these words).  Here Dyson is appealing to the ideals that bind us together as a people. He is making what appears to be an appeal to the ideals of the nation and the responsibility of the POTUS (and by implication all of us) to apply them to the cause of racism.
  7. I agree with Dyson that the administration Trump is assembling is not equipped to handle race in America and will not be up to the task as I have just described it.
  8. As you might imagine by this point, on the question of “identity politics” I find myself siding with Bernie Sanders.  I believe that Bernie is correct when he says that we need to move beyond identity politics and toward a more national vision that seeks to address the things that affect all Americans–economic equality, the power of Wall Street, and climate change.  These things affect people of all colors.  I see a lot of Eugene Debs in Sanders–or at least the Debs that Nick Salvatore writes about in his book Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  What I take away from Salvatore’s treatment of Debs is the way that this prominent turn-of-the century socialist invoked the civic humanism of the American founding.  Debs’s civic humanism was certainly limited.  Our does not have to be.
  9. To suggest Sanders is a racist is wrong. (I don’t think Dyson is saying this).  To say that he does not care about black people or race in America is wrong.  (And I don’t think Dyson is saying this either, but he may come close).  I also don’t think a Sanders presidency would have ignored race.
  10. In the end, I see Sanders reaching beyond racial identity to make an appeal–primarily–to the things that all  Americans must address.  Isn’t this what the POTUS should be doing?  Isn’t this the politics we need to move forward?  Citizens of the United States must continue to frame their arguments about race in the context of the national ideals.

OK–there are some quick thoughts.

Let’s Remember the Difference Between Slavery and Race

bed14-raelSome of you may recall our July 2015 Author’s Corner interview with Bowdoin College history professor Patrick Rael on his book Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865.

Last week Rael published an excellent piece on the difference between race and slavery at the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

…the political conflicts surrounding race at the time of the founding had little to do with debating African-descended peoples’ claim to humanity, let alone equality. It is true that many of the Founders worried about the persistence of slavery in a nation supposedly dedicated to universal human liberty.  After all, it was difficult to argue that natural rights justified treason against a king without acknowledging slaves’ even stronger claim to freedom. Thomas Jefferson himself famously worried that in the event of slave rebellion, a just deity would side with the enslaved.

But the Framers never got to the point of debating black freedom and equality in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. They were too busy arguing over how much extra power slaveholders would have in the new form of government. As James Madison noted, of all the divides between the states, the one that came to drive debates most was that between slave states and those becoming free. But these debates were over slavery–not race.  They were about the political power of slaveholders, not the rights of those enslaved or degraded by the racial identity ascribed to them.

Slavery divided the nation; race, not so much. At the Founding, the argument over slavery was an argument between powerful elites, some of whom depended completely on slavery for their profits and some who did not. While the issue of slaveholder power eventually came to dominate the national political agenda, the question of race — and particularly the racial equality of non-Europeans — did not. Widespread consensus consigned nearly all blacks to sub-citizen status, even when they were not legal property.

Read the entire piece here.

Defining the “Founding Fathers”

founders

Were the men in this image the only “founding fathers?”

A recent piece I wrote on religion and the framers of revolutionary-era state constitutions received  a small amount of criticism from folks who said that the writers of these constitutions were not considered “founding fathers.”  I didn’t give much thought to the criticism, but it crossed my mind again when I ran across this 2015 piece at The Journal of the American Revolution titled “How Do You Define ‘Founding Fathers’?”

The editors asked historians of the American Revolution to answer this question. Contributors include Thomas Fleming, Ray Raphael, Benjamin Carp, John Ferling, J.L. Bell, Don Hagist, James Kirby Martin, and Michael Hattem.

 

Read the entire piece here.

Was the United States "Created on Racist Principles?"

In his recent visit to Liberty University, Bernie Sanders said that the United States “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

On Tuesday night in my online Gilder-Lehrman graduate course on colonial North America, I told my students that Sanders was correct. We spent the class studying colonial Virginia and discussed how the colony became a slave society near the end of the seventeenth century.  At the end of the lecture I took a cue from Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom and reminded my students about the ways the wealth generated by slavery in this tobacco colony enabled Virginia planters such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others to be in a position to articulate some of America’s greatest statements about liberty and freedom.  Irony indeed.

Then today I read Sean Wilentz’s New York Times op-ed “Constitutionally, Slavery Is No National Institution.”  (It appears to stem from his recent Constitution Day Lecture at Princeton). Here is a taste:

…the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past. The myth, ironically, has led advocates for social justice to reject Lincoln’s and Douglass’s view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun’s. And now the myth threatens to poison the current presidential campaign. The United States, Bernie Sanders has charged, “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

But as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact, as Lincoln and Douglass explained. It is one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.

Yes, slavery was a powerful institution in 1787. Yes, most white Americans presumed African inferiority. And in 1787, proslavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia fought to inscribe the principle of property in humans in the Constitution. But on this matter the slaveholders were crushed.

Read the entire piece to see how Wilentz supports his argument.  It is a rather odd piece. First, Wilentz seems to be responding to Sanders’s comments at Liberty, but Wilentz focuses specifically on the Constitution when Sanders’s remark seemed to be much more general in nature.  I think the Vermont senator meant to say, along with Morgan and others, that the roots of the United States are intricately bound with slavery and what today we call “racism.”  

Second, even if we do limit Sanders’s comment about racism and the American founding to the United States Constitution, it very hard to say that racism and slavery were not a part of the creation of this founding document.

Several scholars and historians have already replied to Wilentz.  Here are four:

Lawrence Goldstone at The New Republic

H. Robert Baker at Tropics of Meta

Julia Azari at Vox

Kevin Gannon at The Junto

The Author’s Corner with Charles Edel

Charles Edel is Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College. This interview is based on his new book, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic (Harvard University Press, September 2014).

JF: What led you to write Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic?

CE: As a young research assistant at the Council on Foreign Relations, my boss handed me a small book that framed contemporary policy in terms of its historical evolution. My boss was Walter Russell Mead and the book he handed me was John Lewis Gaddis’s Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Comparing the grand strategies of John Quincy Adams, Franklin Roosevelt, and George W. Bush, Gaddis argued that Adams was the prime architect—the grand strategist—of American foreign policy in the 19th Century. This provocative claim intrigued me. But, was it correct? And, if so, did Adams’s strategy have any contemporary relevance?

As I started reading about Adams and U.S. strategy in the 19th century, it became clear that Gaddis was hardly alone in his praise of Adams. All surveys of American foreign policy seem to make John Quincy Adams the hero (or, if you’re a Jacksonian, the anti-hero). Samuel Flagg Bemis, the mid-century Pulitzer-prize winning biographer of Adams, thought that “more than any other one man he helped to shape the foundations of American foreign policy and the future of the United States.” In Bemis’s estimate, Adams stands behind only Lincoln in the annals of American history.

But the more I read, the more it seemed that while historians and statesman alike praised Adams, no one really understood him. This shouldn’t be that surprising. John Quincy Adams’s son said his father’s inner nature was “impenetrable.” His grandson wrote that he had a “nature so complex” that he was “an enigma to contemporaries.” The historian Leonard Richards, concluded that “despite the thousands of words written by Adams and about him, no one has discovered the formula that will fully explain him. He remains in many ways an enigma.”

Such a project would allow me to learn more about someone who was quietly one of the most important and influential Americans in our nation’s history while also exploring the growth and evolution of the United States as a world power. It seemed to me that an analysis of how Adams’s strategy evolved had the potential to tell a much larger story—that of the evolution of American strategic thought during the 19th Century.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic?

CE: America’s rise from a confederation of revolutionary colonies to a continental power is often treated as inevitable, the natural result of resources and demographics rather than the product of a deliberate pursuit. My book argues, on the contrary, that there was an implicit grand strategy that shaped America’s rise and that John Quincy Adams served as a central architect of that strategy.

JF: Why do we need to read Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic?

CE: This book offers a historical approach for thinking about contemporary challenges, presents a new way to look at early American history, and finally, introduces readers to the endlessly fascinating life and career of John Quincy Adams.

The challenges that Adams grappled with are both timeless and extremely relevant. John Quincy Adams famously proclaimed “America goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy” in a speech that has been quoted ever since to justify noninterference by the United States in the affairs of other nations. Adams was not warning future administrations away from helping aspiring democrats, but rather giving his successors a lesson in the necessary trade-offs foreign policy demands. Because the United States was then just a rising power on the world stage, Adams could afford to be neutral on events happening in the world that did not immediately affect the United States. Two centuries later, it is hard to imagine an American President having such a luxury. Yet Adams’s message speaks past 1821, anticipating the democratic upheavals of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and suggesting how best to balance America’s impulse to promote change with its instinct to preserve order.

Additionally, Adams’s grand strategy helps explain the growth of the United States as a hemispheric and world power. Before Adams, the United States had an inchoate national strategy. Almost all of its leading statesmen believed that the country would one day become a powerful and moral force in the world, but they were not able to define the path and the actions that would be needed to achieve that vision. Therefore while Adams was neither the first, nor the only, national politician to promote an agenda for America’s rise, he was the only one who linked, prioritized, and sequenced his policies into a comprehensive grand strategy to harness the nation’s geographic, military, economic, and moral resources.

Beyond that, John Quincy Adams is simply a fascinating figure. He was one of the most accomplished individuals in all of American history—he served as the architect of the Monroe Doctrine, expanded the nation’s border to the Pacific ocean, offered one of the most progressive visions of government in American history, and in the final stage of his career lead the charge against slavery. Yet, his greatest successes were often followed by personal and political failures which left Adams hounded by feelings of insecurity an incompetence. My book, I think, helps explain what elements of Adams’s personality—accessible to us through one of the most thorough diaries in American history—explain these contradictions.

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

CE: Thanks to my parents and some great teachers, I have always loved American history for the stories it tells us, for the questions it asks us to confront, and for the complexity it adds to our understanding of America.

My first job after college was teaching American history and law at a public high school in New York City. It was a chance to show adolescents—still forming their aspirations, still open to new ideas—how learning was relevant to the issues that affected their lives and the world around them. Each of the courses I taught explored the sources of the American idea and its projection into the world. But it was not until working at a foreign policy think tank that I began to think about how far the real and imagined reach of the U.S. is, and what domestic forces shape and influence its expansion.

As the historian knows better than most, we become who we are based on who we were. The study of history should not be undertaken merely to solve problems or review the past. History, at its best, engenders debate, discussion, and reflection on who we can become.

JF: What is your next project?

CE: John Quincy Adams dealt with a lot of foreign revolutions—the French and Haitian revolution of the 1790s, the Latin American revolutions of the 1810s and 1820s, and Greek revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s to name a few. He had to think through, and help navigate America’s response to those revolutions. In each instance, he sought to do so in a way that would both justify the general principle of revolution against tyrannical regimes without committing the United States to fighting in all such revolutions. That has proved to be perhaps the most persistent and intractable challenge in American foreign policy.

For my next project, I am exploring the idea of America’s response to foreign revolutions—in theory and in reality. A question that cuts across all of American history—from America’s ambiguous response to the French Revolution, to our ongoing struggle to define and deal with the Arab Spring—each successive foreign revolution has challenged the nation’s understanding of the legacy of its own birth, mission, and trajectory. At the practical level, the question of intervention—whether and to what extent—is often framed in terms of policy choices. On a more abstract level, this almost always becomes a debate over American mission. Comparing American reactions over time promises to yield some very interesting results.

JF: Great work here Charles, thanks!

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

"Religion and the American Founding" Seminar: Day 2

I love doing these seminars for (and with) teachers!!  Unlike many traditional undergraduates, high school and middle school teachers come to a seminar like this wanting to learn.  They are full of questions about the material and are always thinking deeply about how they can connect the content to their classrooms.

The second full day of my “Teachers as Scholars” seminar on Religion and the American Founding covered the role of religion in the United States Constitution and the various state constitutions.  We read relevant parts of seven state constitutions written between 1776 and 1780 and examined how each of the documents treated the issue of religious freedom, religious establishment, and religious tests for office. 

After lunch our discussion turned to Christian Republicanism and Benjamin Rush’s Of the Mode of Education in a Republic.  We focused on how all the founding fathers thought religion should be promoted as long as it helped to produce virtuous republican citizens or, as Rush described it, “republican machines.” 

The two days went by way too fast and I think all of us left yesterday afternoon wanting more.  Here’s wishing Don, Wayne, Krystal, Rodney, Stephanie, and Jake a great summer.  I hope our two days together was informative and useful.