Sean Wilentz’s Criticism of *The New York Times*’s 1619 Project

1619

Some of you will remember Sean Wilentz‘s letter to The New York Times criticizing the newspaper’s 1619 Project.  You can read it here.  The letter is signed by Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood.  With the exception of Wilentz, all of these American historians criticized the 1619 Project at the World Socialist Web Site.

After the publication of the letter, journalist Adam Serwer wrote a piece at The Atlantic titled, “The Fight Over the 1619 Project is Not About the Facts.” The subtitle reads: “A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine‘s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.”

Today The Atlantic published a longer piece by Wilentz on the subject.  Here is a taste of piece “A Matter of Facts“:

The opportunity seized by the 1619 Project is as urgent as it is enormous. For more than two generations, historians have deepened and transformed the study of the centrality of slavery and race to American history and generated a wealth of facts and interpretations. Yet the subject, which connects the past to our current troubled times, remains too little understood by the general public. The 1619 Project proposed to fill that gap with its own interpretation.

To sustain its particular take on an immense subject while also informing a wide readership is a remarkably ambitious goal, imposing, among other responsibilities, a scrupulous regard for factual accuracy. Readers expect nothing less from The New York Times, the project’s sponsor, and they deserve nothing less from an effort as profound in its intentions as the 1619 Project. During the weeks and months after the 1619 Project first appeared, however, historians, publicly and privately, began expressing alarm over serious inaccuracies.

On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.

The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.

No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth. That tool is far too important to cede now.

Read the entire rest here.  Whatever one thinks about Wilentz’s argument, it is hard to say that he is not making a case based on historical facts or offering a critique of the 1619 Project that is within the bounds of historical inquiry.

Clayborne Carson is the Latest to Talk to the World Socialist Web Site About the 1619 Project

Clayborne Carson


Clayborne Carson and former Black Panther Ericka Huggins at Occupy Oakland Protest, November 2, 2011

Clayborne Carson is professor of history at Stanford University and director of its Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. He is the author and editor of numerous books on King and the civil rights movement, including The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a taste of his interview with Tom Mackaman at World Socialist Web Site:

Q. …I think one of the things that is missing in the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones is any appreciation of the power of the contradiction that was introduced in 1776 with the proclamation of human equality, and also the impact of the Revolution itself. I thought in our interview with Gordon Wood he took that question up very effectively, pointing out that slavery became very conspicuous as a result of the Revolution. Also disregarded is the Afro-Caribbean historian Eric Williams, who analyzed the impact of the American Revolution on the demise of slavery. Instead the Revolution is presented as a conspiracy to perpetuate slavery.

A. Yes, and it’s wonderful to concentrate on that contradiction because that to me explains Frederick Douglass, it explains King. What all of these people were united on was to expose that contradiction—and we should always keep exposing it—the contradiction between the self-image of the United States as a free and democratic country and the reality that it’s not. If you are a black leader, your job is to expose that contradiction. If you go through a list of all the great orations in African American history, nearly all of them focus on that. They want to expose that and use that contradiction.

Read the rest here.

Click here to see our previous posts on the 1619 Project.

How Should You Respond When Your Stamp Distributor Resigns Under Pressure?

WilliamFranklin2-570x381

William Franklin

On September 3, 1765, William Coxe, the Distributor of Stamps for New Jerseyresigned.  Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765 and it was scheduled to go into effect on November 1, 1765.  The New Jersey Sons of Liberty were putting pressure on Coxe to resign and the treatment that stamp collectors received in other colonies was probably also a factor.

Here is Coxe’s resignation letter to New Jersey royal governor William Franklin. It’s  short and sweet:

I think it incumbent upon me to acquaint your Excellency, that on my Return from New-Jersey on Sunday last, I came to a Resolution to Surrender the Office of Distributor of Stamps for the Province to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. My Resignation, & the Reasons for it, I have sent to their Lordships this Day, and if any Papers come to my Hands relative to that Office, I shall transmit them to your Excellency as the proper Person to receive them, but I think it most probably my Letters may arrive in England before any Commission or Stamps are sent away.

Franklin was not happy about it.  He responded the next day (September 4, 1765).

I received yours of Yesterday, acquainting me with your having resigned the Office of Distributor of Stamps for New Jersey, I must own myself not a little Surpriz’d at the Information, as I have not yet had the least Reason to apprehend but that the Act might be quietly carried into Execution throughout this  Province. It is true, that the Inhabitants here have their Objections to the Stamp Act, as well as those of the other Colonies, but I have not heard of any Design among them to oppose its Execution by Violence or otherwise. All of them with whom I have conversed on the Affair seem to think that they are as much bound to pay Obedience to their Act as they are to the Acts laying Duties on Trade, & those other Acts relative to the Colonies which they have heretofore obeyed, and that, as good Subjects, they ought no to make any Opposition to the Act, now it is pass’d, till they ave first try’d all dutiful Means of obtaining Redress of such Grievances as it may occasion.  These likewise (to do the Americans Justice) seem to be the Sentiments of the most Sober discreet Men of every Province. As to sending me the Papers which may come to Your Hands relative to the Office, it can answer no good Purpose whatever, as I am not impowered to appoint any Person to execute it. But I cannot help thinking, as you made Application for the Office, that you are bound to Honour to endeavour, at least, to carry it into Execution.  The ill Consequences, after the Act takes place, which might result, for Want of  the Stamps, to every Inhabitant who ha any Dealings and other Mischiefs which may be brought on the Province on Account of their being supposed by our Superiors at home to have prevented your exercising the Office, must otherwise lie at your Door.  At any Rate, it is your Duty to keep the Papers until some person shall be appointed to Succeed you. Thus much, Sir, I am induced to mention to you, not only from a Sense of Duty to the Crown, but out of the Regard I have for the Interest & Character of the People of this Province. 

1619 or 1776?

1619

The debate over the 1619 Project continues. What is the 1619 Project and how has the debate over its publication unfolded thus far?  Click here and read our posts.

Here is Conor Friedersdorf a The Atlantic:

America’s original revolutionaries, along with Abraham LincolnFrederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., all placed the universalist ideals of the Declaration of Independence at the center of this country’s founding. But that paradigm is under vigorous challenge from The New York Times Magazine. Last summer, the magazine began publishing the 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia. In essays, stories, poems, podcast episodes, and more, the Times has grappled with how slavery shaped all that followed.

More controversially, the project explicitly aims to reframe American history, rejecting the centrality of 1776 and instead “understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” In 2020, the Times will expand the 1619 Project into a book and promote classroom materials adapted from it.

That revisionist ambition quickly brought out critics—in outlets as normally antagonistic as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the World Socialist Web Site—who challenged the Times’s reframing and the factual claims offered as its basis. Last month, five historians alleged significant factual errors in a letter published in the magazine, alongside a response from Jake Silverstein, its editor in chief, who declined to issue corrections. That prompted another round of critical coverage from the World Socialist Web Site and historian Gordon Wood, a leading scholar of the period, who was irked most by the Times Magazine’s doubling down on the claim that a primary reason American colonists favored independence was to protect slavery. “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves,” he wrote. “No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

That movement conservatives, tenured historians, and the editors of the World Socialist Web Site align so substantially in their critiques has broader significance. The debate over the relative salience of class, race, and hierarchy in the United States has divided the left while yielding odd convergences, and not only between classical liberals on the left and right. Both Trotskyites and movement conservatives can be fiercely protective of the revolution of 1776 and worry that centering race in history and politics divides America in corrosive ways (though they differ wildly on what should or will likely happen if racial fissures recede).

My own judgment diverges somewhat from the main rival factions in this debate. Like many critics, I hope the Times Magazine’s work succeeds in causing more Americans to recognize the remarkable faith that African Americans showed in our country’s promise even in eras when America least deserved it. Yet the core reframing that the 1619 Project advocates would unwittingly set back, rather than advance, the causes of equity and racial inclusion. Placing America’s founding moment in 1776 honors the diversity of its people in a way that 1619 does not.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Cole Jones

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

JF: What led you to write Captives of Liberty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Cole!

Gordon Wood on the 1619 Project

Earlier this month we did a post on the World Socialist Website’s interview with James McPherson.  The topic was The New York Times‘s 1619 Project.

And now the same website has published an interview with historian Gordon Wood.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Q. The 1619 Project claims basically that nothing has ever gotten any better. That it’s as bad now as it was during slavery, and instead what you’re describing is a very changed world…

A. Imagine the inequalities that existed before the Revolution. Not just in wealth—I mean, we have that now—but in the way in which people were treated. Consider the huge number of people who were servants of some kind. I just think that people need to know just how bad the Ancién Regime was. In France, we always had this Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities view of the society, with a nobleman riding through the village and running over children and so on. But similar kinds of brutalities and cruelties existed in the English-speaking world in the way common people were treated. In England, there must have been 200 capital crimes on the books. Consequently, juries became somewhat reluctant to convict to hanging a person for stealing a handkerchief. So the convict was sent as a bonded servant to the colonies, 50,000 of them. And then when the American Revolution occurs, Australia becomes the replacement.

I don’t think people realize just what a cruel and brutal world existed in the Ancién Regime, in the premodern societies of the West, not just for slaves, but for lots of people who were considered the mean or lowly sort. And they don’t appreciate what a radical message is involved in declaring that all men are created equal and what that message means for our obsession with education, and the implications of that for our society.

Read the entire interview here.

Where is Governor Livingston?

Liberty Hall Kean

William Livingston’s Liberty Hall

New Jersey’s revolutionary-era governor William Livingston was constantly on the run during the war.  Here, for example, is historian James Gigantino on Livingston during the British occupation of New Jersey in 1776:

Livingston’s whereabouts from mid-December to early January remain unknown; not known even if he remained alive, John Hancock addressed a late December letter to “Governor Livingston or the present Executive power in New Jersey.”

Livingston managed to survive several assassination plots. His home in Elizabeth-Town (Liberty Hall) was damaged by the British. And he was forced to move his family back and forth between Liberty Hall and Parsippany.

Here is Gigantino again:

Livingston had good reason to request personal protection.  British troops attacked Elizabethtown in February 1779 with the intention of capturing or assassinating him at Liberty Hall.  Finding only his wife and daughters, they hoped to seize the governor’s papers, but the quick-witted Livingston women instead proffered a pile of old law papers and correspondence from a recently captured British ship….Apparently , the governor agreed that a strong “conspiracy against me” had formed in Essex [County, New Jersey].  After the summer of 1779 and until the end of the war, he never returned for significant periods to Liberty Hall.  He believed that both he and his wife had to accept the inevitability that the British would burn their home and that the couple should “prepare ourselves to bear it with Christian fortitude.”

This is the context for understanding a letter that I read over the weekend.  A twenty-six-year-old British spy (and a former member of the Elizabeth-Town militia) named John Cunningham wrote the February 26, 1780 letter to William Tryon, the loyalist governor of New York.  It contained intelligence on the Continental Army.  Here is a relevant taste:

The Assembly is now sitting in Mount Holly in West Jersey. It is hard to say where Governor Livingston is to be found….In general the old County man may be said to be disgusted…They openly say the country has been cheated by the cry of Liberty, and that it is all a Delusion….Dr. Witherspoon is turned out the Congress–Mr. Livingston the state Governor less and less tolerated. He is called Cruel and miserly & cowardly both by Whigs and Tories. He is universally spurned at for dodging up and down the Country and shunning his own house where he leaves one of his daughters almost always alone.

According to Cunningham, things were not going very well in New Jersey in the winter of 1780.  Earlier in the letter he discusses the dire conditions among the Continental Army at Morristown and notes that the people of Morristown are tired of having the army in town.

Source: (CO 5/1110 The British Nation Archives, Adam Matthew Database).

Governor Franklin Was Worried About His Stamps

WilliamFranklin2-570x381

William Franklin

Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765. This law was designed to raise revenue in the wake of the French and Indian War through the sale of stamps on paper products, including attorney licences, land grants, playing cards, newspapers, and pamphlets.  Prime Minister George Grenville appointed men to distribute the stamps shortly after Parliament passed the act.  The Stamp Act would go into effect on November 1, 1765.

Grenville appointed Philadelphia merchant William Coxe to distribute the stamps in New Jersey, but amid pressure from the New Jersey Sons of Liberty, including threats to Coxe’s life, he resigned his post on September 3, 1765, weeks before the stamps even arrived in the colony.

Last night I read New Jersey Governor William Franklin‘s September 14, 1765 letter to British general Thomas Gage concerning the Coxe’s resignation. Franklin writes from Burlington, New Jersey and Gage, the British commander-in-chief of North America, is in New York.  Here is the letter:

The Person appointed Distributor of Stamps for this Province having resigned his Office on Account, as he Says, of the Intimidations he had received that both his Person & Property would otherwise be endangered, & having likewise refused to take Charge of them on their Arrival here, it becomes my Duty to do all in my Power for the Preservation of what is of so great Importance to His Majesty’s Revenue.  I have summoned the Council to meet here [Burlington] on Tuesday the 24th Instant, to ask their Advice on the Occasion; and as I have Reason to think it will be their Opinion that the Stamps should be placed in the Barracks in this City, under a guard until His Majesty’s Pleasure should be known thereon; and as it may be dangerous to employ the Inhabitants in that Service, considering the risque there is of their being infected with the Madness which prevails among the People of the neighboring Provinces, I should be glad to be informed by you, Sir, Whether if I should find it necessary to call upon you for the Aid of the Military I may be assured of receiving it. I imagine that about 60 men, with officers, will be sufficient, as the Barracks may be easily made defensible….P.S. By What I can learn, the Stamps are not expected here till some Time next Month.”

And here is Gage’s September 16th response:

I have the Honor of your Letter of the 14th Instant, and take the earliest opportunity of informing you that you may depend upon the Aid of the Military that you demand & seem to think necessary for the Preservation of good Order in the Province of New Jersey.  The Troops are at present a good deal dispersed but I shall give Orders for their being immediately assembled, and One Hundred Men with proper Officers, Shall be ready to march at your Requisition. I beg leave to remark that the sooner you come to a final Resolution the more effectual Service the Troops are likely to be of.”

Both of these letters can be found in CO 5/987, The National [British] Archives, Adam Matthew Database.

Crossroads of the American Revolution Will Place Historical Marker Outside First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, New Jersey

ETown Graveyard

In 2013 I did some consulting for a non-profit organization affiliated with the historic First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, New Jersey.  My team conducted research on James Caldwell, the revolutionary-era pastor of the church.  You can read about our work here and here and here.  Some of you will also remember my January 2014 writing binge related to this project.  Somewhere on a flash drive I have that 40,000 word report.  I am sure some of it will eventually make its way into my current book project on the American Revolution in New Jersey.

I was thus pleased to see that the church, the burial ground, and the neighboring academy building (which sits on the site of the school where both Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton studied before they went to Princeton and Kings College respectively) will be commemorated with a historical marker.  Here is a taste of a piece at Yahoo:

The story of the City of Elizabeth’s deep Revolutionary War heritage is now being told by two interpretive signs located outdoors on the campus of the historic First Presbyterian Church and burial grounds on Broad Street.

The signage will be unveiled on Monday, Nov. 4th, 2019 at 11am by representatives from the City of Elizabeth, The Elizabeth Destination Marketing Organization [EDMO], the Greater Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads of the American Revolution, and the Snyder Academy.

The Elizabeth markers are a vital part of the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association’s statewide signage program to create a recognizable brand for more than 200 sites that tell the story of New Jersey’s crucial role in the war for independence. Featuring the six-pointed star used in the original United States flag, the signs are designed to make it easier for residents and heritage tourists to locate key Revolutionary-era historic sites and learn more about the state’s deep Revolutionary War heritage.

New Jersey saw more battles and skirmishes during the American Revolution than anyplace else, and families were deeply affected by the many years of conflict that took place at their front door,” said Janice Selinger, executive director of Crossroads of the American Revolution. “Crossroads is proud to highlight the many contributions of Elizabeth’s Revolutionary notables, especially as we work towards attracting more heritage travelers to discover the state’s contributions during the commemoration of the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026.”

“As the first capital of New Jersey and home to our first Governor, Elizabeth has played a vital role in our state’s and nation’s past,” said Mayor J. Christian Bollwage. “Now residents and visitors can learn about Elizabeth’s deep ties with the Revolutionary War through these informative signs and what better place to do so than in front of the City’s First Presbyterian Church, where the first Colonial Assembly met in 1668.”

Read the entire article here.

 

Exploring Religious Disestablishment: State by State

DissentI am glad to see the release of Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833. Carl Esbeck of the University of Missouri and Jonathan Den Hartog of Samford University have edited a very useful book for anyone interested in the relationship between church and state in early America.  Authors include Evan Haefeli, James Kabala, Shelby Balik Kyle Bulthuis, Brian Franklin, and John Witte.  By the way, some guy from Messiah College who has a blog wrote the essay on New Jersey.

Over at the Age of Revolution blog, Den Hartog introduces us to the themes of the book.  Here is a taste:

The American Revolution came about through a sequence of fractures in the ties between the colonies and Great Britain. One of those fractures arose from an important call from the Continental Congress. On May 15, 1776, Congress approved a resolution urging each of the colonies “to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”[1] This invitation immediately called into question the charters and habits under which the colonies had been operating in a British constitutional and legal regime. It thereby forced the new states to question and modify long-standing arrangements, potentially transforming many aspects of American life.

One key element of those reconsiderations was the public place of religion for the states. In 1776, various forms of church establishment stretched from Georgia and South Carolina to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Although “establishment” has often been used to mean financial support for the official church, in reality, these establishments often connected with many other aspects of colonial life, property holding, and governance.[2] It was in the states that Americans experienced the most issues around “church and state.” The states thus provide the best location in which to examine how Americans pursued religious liberty in a revolutionary moment. Although much ink has been spilled about the First Amendment, even more significant change occurred at the state level.

The process of religious disestablishment in the states provides a fascinating story in political and legal innovation. It transformed conceptions of ties between religion and politics, religion and the law, and the citizen’s relationships and duties. It produced a unique American model of religious liberty for all, voluntary support of the churches, and non-sectarianisn (non-preferentialism) in governmental approaches to denominations. It’s a story that needs to be told.

In order to examine religious disestablishment at the state level, Carl Esbeck and I recently co-edited a volume entitled Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the American States, 1776-1833(University of Missouri Press, forthcoming November 2019). We recruited twenty-one scholars to analyze how establishment and disestablishment operated at the state level. These scholars—historians, political scientists, and legal experts—brought their distinctive insights, as they each took up one specific state. The range of investigation took in the original thirteen states, along with other early-admitted states such as Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Contributors also examined the special cases of Ohio (admitted from the Northwest Territory), Louisiana and Missouri (additions from the Louisiana Purchase), Maine (carved out of Massachusetts), and Florida (gained from Catholic Spain).

Read the entire piece here and then buy this book for your personal and university library.

Liberty Hall Museum Appoints New Director

Liberty Hall

Liberty Hall, once the home of New Jersey’s first governor William Livingston, has a new executive director.  Her name is Rachael Goldberg.

Here is the press release:

UNION, N.J.Oct. 24, 2019 /PRNewswire/ — Liberty Hall Museum, Inc., the organization devoted to the preservation and protection of New Jersey’s first Governor’s house, announced today that Rachael Goldberg has been named as Executive Director.

Rachael is a long-term employee, who has served in a number of capacities at the Museum.  Her new responsibility now will be to provide direction as the Museum strengthens its unique school program and looks for ways and means to encourage repeat visitors.

John Kean, President of the Museum said, “We are particularly fortunate to be able to promote someone within our organization who has such exceptional qualifications.”

Rachael began working for the Museum more than 10 years ago and has served in a number of different assignments. She is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island where she earned her degree in History.  She holds a Master’s Degree in American History from Monmouth University, as well as a certificate in historic preservation from Drew University.

Liberty Hall was the home of New Jersey’s first elected Governor, William Livingston.  Built in 1772, on the eve of the American Revolution, and passed down through seven generations of the Livingston and Kean families, Liberty Hall has been a silent witness to more than 200 years of American history.

The Livingston/Kean family has produced governors, senators, congressmen and captains of industry.  No less accomplished were the ladies of Liberty Hall.

A chronicle of New Jersey and American history, as glimpsed through the experiences of one family, this Victorian-style mansion is a treasure trove of historic riches.

This is of interest to me for two reasons:

  1. I continue to work on a new history of the American Revolution in New Jersey.
  2. I am consulting on Kean University’s William Livingston’s World project.

Eugene Debs, Bernie Sanders, and Anticapitalism

Debs

Eugene Debs

Jamelle Bouie’s recent piece at The New York Times is worth your time.  It is important to remember that many socialists in United States history, including Debs and Sanders, believed they were defending American ideals.

Here is a taste of “The Enduring Power of Anticapitalism in American Politics“:

But Debs didn’t just condemn his class enemies. He also called on his audiences to imagine a better world — to realize the democratic and egalitarian promise of the American Revolution through collective action. “We live in the most favored land beneath the unbending sky,” he said in a speech in 1900. “We have all the raw materials and the most marvelous machinery, millions of eager inhabitants seeking employment. Nothing is so easily produced as wealth, and no man should suffer for the need of it.” Debs’s appeal, noted the historian Nick Salvatore in his 1982 biography, “Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist,” was “frequently described by contemporaries as evangelical, and transcended at that moment factional disagreements and led each in the audience to glimpse a different social order.”

Or, as one self-described “hard-bitten socialist” said to the journalist Heywood Broun at the time: “That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around, I believe it myself.”

I mention all of this because I saw something of that Debs during Sanders’s Saturday rally in Queens, N.Y., where 25,000 people gathered to hear Sanders and many of his most high-profile supporters, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was a show of force for Sanders, who was recently hospitalized following a heart attack.

Read the entire piece here.

When Paul Revere Got the Scoop

Many of us use Paul Revere’s image of the Boston Massacre when we teach the American Revolution.

Revere massacre

 

But over at the blog of the New York Historical Society, we learn that Henry Pelham was the first person to produce an engraving of the Boston Massacre.  Here is a taste:

Pelham came from prominent Boston family and was the half-brother of the artist John Singleton Copley, one of the most renowned painters in 18th-century America. (A teenage Pelham is the subject of one of Copley’s famous early works, the 1765 portrait The Boy With the Squirrel.) It’s not known if Pelham witnessed the Massacre. But as a Bostonian and engraver by trade, he certainly understood how earth-shattering it was. He quickly produced a copperplate engraving depicting the events. At some point in the days afterwards, he showed a colleague a version of it, perhaps an early proof. The image, called Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston, on March 5th, 1770, was highly inflammatory—more propaganda than journalism—showing an organized British squad following an order to fire on the colonists, several of whom fall wounded in the street. It leaves no doubt of the patriot point-of-view: This was cold-blooded murder.

Pelham’s intent was to get the engraving printed and disseminated as widely as possible. There was only one problem: He got scooped. The colleague he conferred with was silversmith, fellow engraver, and Son of Liberty Paul Revere, who quickly realized how powerful the image was and set about engraving one of his own that was remarkably similar to Pelham’s. Revere called his version The Bloody Massacre, Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt and rushed it to press, beating Pelham by several days.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with T.H. Breen

the will of the peopleT.H. Breen is William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University. This interview is based on his new book, The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America (Belknap Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Will of the People?

THB: Unlike the histories of other revolutions—the French and Russian, for example—in which ordinary people figure centrally in the story, accounts of the American Revolution have focused on a few celebrated leaders or on the battlefield. I wanted to restore the missing piece to our understanding of the nation’s origins, people in small communities who experienced fear, called for revolutionary justice, complained about the betrayal of the cause by other Americans, sacrificed a lot to sustain the fight for independence, contemplated revenge at the end of the war and yet through it all managed to sustain a compelling vision of a new republic. Without them, we would not have achieved independence.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Will of the People?

THB: The American people did not initially set out to achieve independence or to organize a genuine revolution. But the actual experience of so many new men coming to power in small communities—of making judgments on revolutionary committees about their neighbors—transformed a colonial rebellion into a genuine revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read The Will of the People?

THB: Unlike other studies that depict the Revolution largely as an intellectual event or as the achievement of a small group of Founding Fathers, The Will of the People shows how ordinary people sustained resistance to Great Britain for eight years and in the process brought forth a new political culture that endures to this day.

JF: Tell me a little about your research and sources for this book.

THB: The book draws on contemporary newspaper accounts, town records, and personal papers to reconstruct how Americans gave meaning to the revolutionary experience.

JF: What is your next project?

THB: My next book will be entitled The Man Who Saved the American Revolution. It is a study of a remarkable early 19th-century printer Peter Force, who collected thousands of revolutionary documents that were at risk of being destroyed.

JF: Thanks, Prof. Breen!

“This is totally non-history, but what’s the name of that song you referenced today in lecture?”

Yesterday in my United States History to 1865 survey course, I lectured on the colonial responses to the Stamp Act.  I also use this lecture to introduce students to the Whig vocabulary of the Founding Fathers.  I try to historicize words like “power,” “liberty,” “slavery,” and “tyranny.”

When I talk about “power,” I note that Whig political thinkers believed that power was not only the antithesis of liberty, but it also had an encroaching dimension to it.  In other words, British Whigs, and by extension the American founders, believed that those with power will always want more.

In order to illustrate the encroaching dimension of power, I use a line from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Badlands”:

Poor man wanna be rich

Rich man wanna be king

And a king ain’t satisfied

Till he rules everything

Sometimes I even sing the lyric.

Usually this part of the lecture is met with blank stares.  The same thing happened today.  My students just don’t appreciate The Boss.

But when when I returned to my office later in the day I received an e-mail from a student.  It read:  “This is totally non-history, but what’s the name of that song you referenced today in lecture?”

My day was made!

An Afternoon at Fort Roberdeau with the American Revolution Round Table of Central Pennsylvania

Roberdeau 4

What? You’ve never heard of Fort Roberdeau?  Here is some info from Wikipedia:

Fort Roberdeau, also known as The Lead Mine Fort, is a historic fort located in Tyrone Township outside Altoona, Pennsylvania. It was built in 1778, during the American Revolution and was occupied until 1780. Initial efforts were made in 1939-41 to reconstruct the fort by concerned local agencies with support from the National Youth Administration. The stockade was finally reconstructed as a Bicentennial project in 1975-76.

The original fort was built of horizontal logs with a bastion at each corner. The fort was originally erected by General Daniel Roberdeau to protect local lead mining activities from the Native Americans and Tories.[3] The fort is open to the public as a historic site, administered and owned by Blair County.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.[1]

The site consists of the reconstructed fort and its structures (officers’ quarters, storehouse, barracksblacksmith shop, lead miner’s cabin, powder magazine, and lead smelter), a restored barn (1859) which serves as visitor center, a restored farmhouse (ca. 1860), a sinkhole, a trail system, and a log house (2012) built in the style of an original frontier house. The site is open May 1 through October 31.

I was at the fort yesterday to speak to the members of the American Revolution Round Table of Central Pennsylvania.  If you live in the central Pennsylvania area and are interested in learning more about the American Revolution, I encourage you to attend one of meetings of the round table.  This is a fast-growing and vibrant group of revolutionary-era history buffs.

On the request of Mark DeVecchis, the round table president, I spoke on Philip Vickers Fithian and the American Revolution.  Of course the talk was based on my 2008 book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  It was good to revisit the themes of the this book:

 

I want to thank Mark DeVecchis and Glenn Nelson, Director of Fort Roberdeau, for their hospitality during our visit.  We hope to return soon.

Here are some pics:

Roberdeau 1

Roberdeau 2

Ethan Walter was the youngest attendee of the event. It was a pleasure to inscribe his book with the words “Keep Studying History!”

Roberdeau 3

With Mark DeVechis (L), president of the American Revolution Round Table of Central Pennsylvania and Glenn Nelson, director of Fort Roberdeau

The Tail of George III’s Horse

kinggeorge-480

On July 9, 1776, colonial soldiers pulled down a statue of George III on horseback located at Bowling Green, New York City.  It is a famous story of revolutionary resistance.  Most of the broken statue was sent to Litchfield, Connecticut where the lead was melted into musket balls.

But one part of the statue did not make it to Litchfield.  The blog of the New York Historical Society tells the story of the horse’s tail.  Here is a taste:

After the gold was removed, the broken statue was carted off to Litchfield, CT, where the 4,000 pounds of lead were supposed to be melted down into musket balls for the coming war. In all, over 40,000 balls were made, but some key segments went missing along the way: The head, for instance, was apparently returned to England, where it disappeared from record. As for other pieces, the legend goes that the cart’s drivers stopped in a tavern in Wilton, CT, and local loyalists took the opportunity to spirit some of the segments away—including the horse’s tail.

What happened to the tail after that is not known. Nearly 100 years passed before it and several other pieces were found in a swamp near a Wilton farm in 1871. They were irresistible artifacts of the American Revolution, and in 1878, members of the New-York Historical Society banded together to purchase the fragments for one hundred dollars. They’ve been in our collection ever since, and the horse’s tail is currently on view in our second floor Dexter Gallery.

Read the entire piece here.

Review of James Gigantino, *William Livingston’s American Revolution*

GigantinoYou can read my review of Gigantino‘s new book William Livingston’s American Revolution in the recent issue of New Jersey Studies.

Here is a taste:

William Livingston (1723-1790) was a prominent Whig lawyer, prolific writer on behalf of the cause of liberty, member of the Continental Congress, and the governor of New Jersey during the American Revolution. His personal papers are widely accessible to historians. It is thus surprising that until James Gigantino’s William Livingston’s American Revolution, the only biography of Livingston was James Sedgwick’s hagiographical A Memoir of the Life of William Livingston, published in 1833.

Read the entire review here.

 

American Slavery and American Freedom at Princeton University

Tree at princeton

Samuel Finley planted this sycamore after the 1766 repeal of the Stamp Act

As some of you know, I was at Princeton University last week for the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History summer seminar on colonial America.

Each year the teachers take a tour of colonial-era Princeton.  One of our stops is the Maclean House (aka The President’s House), the home of the earliest presidents of the College of New Jersey at Princeton.  Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, John Witherspoon, and several others lived here.

McLean House

The President’s House at Princeton University: a view from Nassau Street

According to Princeton lore, Samuel Finley, the president of the college, planted two sycamore trees in the front yard of the house to commemorate the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766.  They still stand today. (See pics above).

Did Finley’s slaves plant these trees?

Here is a 1764 sketch of the campus with Nassau Hall on the left and the president’s house on the right:

Nassau 18th

In May 2019, the Princeton & Slavery Project complicated the story of this house and its relationship to American liberty. Visitors will now get a better glimpse of the close relationship between slavery and freedom at Princeton by viewing this plaque:

Plaque at Princeton

Plaque placed at the President’s House by the Princeton & Slavery Project in May 2019

plaque-2

President’s House with the plaque

 

Alexander Hamilton Chats With John Adams

Actually, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man who played Hamilton on Broadway, had a chat with William Daniels, the man who played John Adams in the 1969 musical 1776 (and the 1972 film). I assume that if you are reading this blog you know something about Miranda.  But you may also recognize Daniels for his role as Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere and Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World.

Here is a taste of a Playbill-hosted conversation between the two founding fathers:

Before we get too deeply into ticketing, I want to talk a bit about 1776. Today we think of it as being in the pantheon of great musicals, but in the 1960s, the show was so unconventional that Sherman Edwards had a hard time getting it produced. “Some of the biggest [names] in the theatre,” he recalled, “looked at me and said, ‘What, a costume musical? A costume, historical musical?’” Mr. Daniels, do you remember your initial reaction to the idea?

WD: I read the script with a bunch of people at somebody’s apartment. Sherman Edwards was a former schoolteacher from New Jersey, and he had written not just the songs, but the script. It was a little stiff; I remember thinking, We’re in the middle of Vietnam, for Christ’s sake, and they’re waving the flag?I really had to be talked into doing it. At any rate, when the script came back to me, Peter Stone had taken ahold of it, and he’d gone back to the actual conversations in the Second Continental Congress. He had written them out on little cards and injected them into the script, and it made all the difference in the world. It added humor and conciseness and truth.

LMM: I love that anecdote, because it gets at something that I discovered in writing Hamilton: The truth is invariably more interesting than anything a writer could make up. That Peter Stone went back to the texts written by these guys, who were petty, brilliant, compromised—that’s more interesting than any marble saints or plaster heroes you can create. And the picture you all painted together of John Adams was so powerful; in the opening scene, he calls himself “obnoxious and disliked,” which is a real quote. We don’t have a John Adams in our show, but we can just refer to him, and everyone just pictures you, Mr. Daniels.

WD: Really?

LMM: Yeah. 1776 created such an iconic, indelible image of Adams that we just know who that is now. It’s also, I think, one of the best books—if not the best—ever written for musical theatre, in that you long to see them talk to each other. Which almost never happens in a musical. Most musicals, you’re waiting for the next song to start. That book is so smart, and so engaging.

Read the rest here.