The Author’s Corner with Trenton Cole Jones

captives of liberty.jpgTrenton Cole 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 Radicalization of the American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Captives of Liberty?

TJ: 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?

TJ: 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?

TJ: 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?

TJ: 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?

TJ: 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, Trenton!

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!

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 Author’s Corner with Carlton Larson

The Trials of AllegianceCarlton Larson is Professor of Law at University of California Davis School of Law. This interview is based on his new book, The Trials of Allegiance: Trials, Juries, and the American Revolution(Oxford University Press, 2019)

JF: What led you to write The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The book’s origins date to the spring of 1996, when I was trying to develop a topic for my college senior thesis. I became fascinated by the “forgotten founder” James Wilson, one of America’s most eminent lawyers and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. I discovered that Wilson had defended men accused of treason against the state of Pennsylvania during the American Revolution, and this immediately sparked my interest – how did Americans come to prosecute other Americans for treason when the American Revolution was itself an act of treason against Great Britain? I thoroughly enjoyed writing the thesis, and I returned to the subject of treason several times as a law professor, now armed with a stronger understanding of law and the legal system. I began developing the material into a book in 2010. Now, twenty-three years after I began, the book is finally out.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The law of treason was central to the American Revolution, encompassing a host of issues from debates over the legitimacy of resistance activities to the treatment of Loyalists. Although a variety of institutions addressed potential disloyalty, ranging from the military to committees of safety, juries proved surprisingly lenient of accused traitors, reflecting a deep-seated belief that the death penalty was an inappropriate punishment for treason.

JF: Why do we need to read The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The book emphasizes several aspects of the American Revolution that have often been overlooked.

First, the American Revolution was a violent, bloody civil war that pitted neighbors against neighbors and fathers against sons. Everyone was potentially a traitor, either to Great Britain or to the United States. The leaders of the Revolution were deeply concerned that internal enemies, loyal to Great Britain, were lurking in the background, waiting for just the right moment to strike. Inevitably, the desire to take pre-emptive action against these perceived enemies clashed with traditional notions of Anglo-American liberty. This book shows how the founding generation addressed the competing goals of liberty and national security during a time of national crisis and significant internal division.

Second, colonial Americans began accusing other Americans of “treason against America” long before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Indeed, in trials before committees of safety in 1775 and early 1776, persons were convicted of this offense and sentenced to imprisonment. These trials demonstrated the functional establishment of American sovereignty and independence and the development of an American national identity well before the formal assertion of independence.

Third, one would not expect that persons accused of loyalty to Great Britain would fare particularly well before American juries during the Revolution. But grand juries repeatedly refused to indict persons accused of treason; trial juries refused to convict; and, in the few cases in which they convicted, trial jurors sought clemency for the defendant. In so doing, the jurors consistently treated treason differently than other capital crimes. Persons accused of treason were not incorrigible criminals, but friends and neighbors who had chosen the opposite side in a political dispute and thus were capable of reformation and assimilation back into the community. Eventually, even people who had fled to Great Britain were welcomed back; only Benedict Arnold, the arch-traitor, remained beyond possibility of redemption.

Finally, there has been very little written about how criminal juries actually operated in revolutionary America. This book provides a careful look at what were perhaps the most important jury trials of the Revolution, where ordinary men would sit in judgment of the allegiance of their peers. The book explores who served on juries, and how defense counsel shaped the jury through the creative employment of peremptory challenges on the lines of religion, age, wealth, ethnicity, and militia service.

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

CL: When I was six years old, my family spent a summer in Massachusetts and we visited many historic sites associated with the American Revolution. I have been fascinated by American history ever since. I majored in American history in college, and, although I do not have a Ph.D. in history, I have continued to write and teach about legal history as a professor at the UC Davis School of Law.

JF: What is your next project?

CL: My next project is a trade book with Ecco Press, tentatively titled Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law. This book carries the story of treason forward from where The Trials of Allegiance leaves off. Look for it in 2020!

JF: Thanks, Carlton!

The Author’s Corner with Lindsay Schakenbach Regele

Manufacturing AdvantageLindsay Shakenbach Regele is Assistant Professor of History at Miami University. This interview is based on her new book, Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry, 1776-1848 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Manufacturing Advantage?

LSR: When I started writing this book, it had nothing to do with manufacturing. It actually started as a study of piracy and US-Spanish relations during the Latin American independence wars. I had started researching US shipping claims against the Spanish government, while at the same time becoming more interested in the relationship between business and state power. I discovered that one particular group of Boston merchants received a big chunk of federal funds as a result of the settlement of these claims. These same merchants were simultaneously developing the nation’s first fully integrated textile mills in eastern Massachusetts and were able to funnel the capital from the claims settlements into factory development. This caused me to wonder how else they might have benefited from state support, whether direct or indirect. I also was interested in US-South American trade. I had seen references to dye stuffs and hides being imported from South America, and finished goods being exported there as early as the 1820s.

Ultimately, I came to study manufacturing—specifically the arms and textile industries– through diplomatic papers. The richest source was the consular dispatches, which are all these letters, pamphlets and trade statistics that US consular agents sent back to the state department from their various posts in Latin American ports. In these documents, I began to see consuls negotiating favorable trade policies, and doing so increasingly for manufactured goods, such as Massachusetts-made coarse fabrics. I also saw several references to arms imports into South America from the US, which piqued my interest. The United States was supposedly neutral while Latin America fought its independence wars against Spain and Portugal. I did not immediately pursue the arms connection, but after another historian mentioned that a lot of industrial innovation was happening in the arms industry in Springfield, Massachusetts, I decided to check out the records at the New England Branch of the National archive. In a rare stroke of research luck, on my first day saw several mentions of arms sales to Buenos Aires. These letters were incredibly exciting to find, because the United States could not for diplomatic reasons openly supply weapons to colonies in rebellion. Federal officials had to arrange these sales in oblique ways through third parties, keeping it as clandestine as possible. Probably for that reason, those were the only references to South American arms sales in federal armory records that I ended up seeing. The more I read, though, the more I became interested in all these letters written from private gun contractors to the federal armory. They were totally dependent on government patronage. Basically, despite the “right to bear arms” in the United States, there was not enough civilian demand to create a robust arms industry. Textile manufacturers had a different relationship to the federal government; there was a civilian market for textiles in a way there was not for firearms. Government policies, however, shaped the way the industry developed. Diplomatic support, wartime initiative, and trade legislation engendered the growth of certain industries and factory locations. When I began to think in terms of national security it all made sense. Diplomacy with Spain, or any other nation, meant little without military and economic security. By the time I got to that realization, I had my reason for writing the book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Manufacturing Advantage?

LSR: In the period from the Revolutionary War to the Mexican American War, the United States industrialized as the result of national security concerns. Government agents and private producers responded to the opportunities and challenges posed by European and Native American warfare and treaty-making by investing in industrial capitalism, which generated revenue and martial prowess for early national development.

JF: Why do we need to read Manufacturing Advantage?

LSR: Because it provides a new interpretation of early national United States political economy by connecting war, trade, and state power to industrial development. It is the first work to study the development of two hallmark American industries–arms and textiles–side by side, and to place the rise of industry in the United States in the context of broader geopolitics. Manufacturing Advantage brings a wider cast of characters to the narrative of the American Industrial Revolution, as it closely investigates the relationship between private producers and War and State department officials, departments that I argue are stronger in these early years than other scholars have assumed. The individuals responsible for this system of manufacturing ranged from inventive mechanics in small New England towns and wealthy merchants in Boston to ordnance officials in Washington and consular agents in Lima, Peru. The sum total of their actions and relationships shed new light on how and why industry developed the way it did in the United States.

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

LSR: My decision to become a historian started when I switched majors during college. I remember writing “history” on my new major form, and feeling a sense of purpose and contentment (I think partly because as a child I had loved historical fiction and my father was always reading history books and waxing poetic about various historical sites and events). At that point, though, I had no idea that I would end up teaching, writing, and researching for a living. After graduating, I spent a year working as a long-term substitute teacher and track coach, while taking secondary education classes. My plan was to pursue teaching certification, but I also wanted to continue research, so I applied for an M.A. in history. I started working on my M.A. the following fall, and fell in love with the research process. During my first semester, I wrote a seminar paper on U.S. involvement in Francisco de Miranda’s failed Venezuelan revolution in 1806 and became obsessed with researching this event as it played out in the U.S. newspapers and political rumors. I decided to turn this project into my thesis and to apply for PhD programs. I was fortunate to have wonderful professors and advisers in both college and graduate school who inspired and facilitated my transition to the historical profession.

JF: What is your next project?

LSR: My next project is a dual biography of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) and the early national political economy. While Americans see the poinsettia every December without realizing its namesake, Poinsett’s career as a secret agent in South America, America’s first minister plenipotentiary to Mexico, U.S. congressman, and secretary of war helped shape the nation in which we live today. The last biographies of Poinsett were published in the 1930s and I think the time is ripe to revisit his various activities on behalf of the U.S. government. Over the past several decades, scholars have brought renewed attention to “capitalism” and “the state,” but there’s still a lot of ambiguity about what exactly each of these terms mean, when and where capitalism actually began, and how “strong” or “weak” the early U.S. state was. I’m hoping to use Poinsett to bring precision to these two nebulous concepts by connecting their theoretical underpinnings with on-the-ground practices. What, for example, did Poinsett’s secret code-writing in Chile reveal about early U.S.-Latin American relations? How did his intertwined business and political activities in Mexico shape continental politics? How did his experiences in Latin America in the 1810s and 1820s influence his administration of Indian removal and the Seminole Wars in the 1830s? And how did the sum total of all these activities reflect and influence the intersection of violence and economic development in the early republic? I’ve gone through many of Poinsett’s personal papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and will be spending the better part of this summer at the Library of Congress conducting more research.

JF: Thanks, Lindsay!

The Author’s Corner with Albert Louis Zambone

daniel morgan a revolutionary life

Albert Louis Zambone is an independent historian and writer.  This interview is based on his new book Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life (Westholme Publishing, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life?

AZ:  a. I was asked to write it.

b. However, this project was a delight rather than an assignment: As a child, the first American Revolution monograph I read was Don Higginbotham’s Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman. Higginbotham so inspired me that I persuaded my mother to make me a hunting shirt so that I could be Daniel Morgan for Halloween. I was astonished to discover that no-one knew who Daniel Morgan was.

c. I’ve long wondered how a few people were able to rise in the status-conscious, hierarchical world of colonial Virginia. When the opportunity to write about Morgan arose, I realized that he was the perfect case study of social mobility in a relatively immobile and hierarchical society.

d. I’ve always been drawn to story, and Morgan’s life is by turns sprawling, romantic, tawdry, tragic, heroic, cinematic, operatic. Once I bit into it I couldn’t let go.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life?

AZ: Daniel Morgan—by turns homeless runaway, illiterate, wagoner, brawler, literate, freeholder, plantation owner, militia captain, victorious general, Federalist Congressman, owner of immense acreage—demonstrates both that colonial America was a time of boisterous, churning possibility and that the Revolution provided yet greater possibilities that would have otherwise been unimaginable. Morgan’s life also complicates the cherished American ideal of individual self-fashioning, illustrating how community, fortune, and place shape individuals.

JF: Why should we read Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life?

AZ: First, it’s a good story, since it’s based on an interesting life. Second, as historians, biographies provide us with a “lab” for testing historical hypotheses. I think Morgan’s life gives us the opportunity to examine everything from the historical geography of the Shenandoah and the status theory of elites, to the radicalism of the Revolution and the eighteenth century market revolution.

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

AZ: Probably when I was about four years old, living in Greenwich, New Jersey, the colonial village a drawing of which decorates your blog. In Greenwich, the past remains a presence, and it captivated me. More importantly, my family encouraged my interest in history, and fed it with book after book. I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history of all kinds, especially the history of early America. Maybe when I was three or younger—as P.G. Wodehouse said, what I was doing before then, I don’t know, just loafing I suppose. Then, for many reasons, I was first trained as European medievalist, and then left it for the history of early America. It felt like coming home—though I think that training as medievalist is the best historical training that there is, as you must interrogate sources of all kinds, learn peculiar technical, and grapple with perspectives unusually different from your own.

JF: What is your next project?

AZ: My colleague Lendol Calder and I are working together on a project that uses his “uncoverage” model of teaching history and historical thinking to create a textbook of American history. Naturally we refer to it as the “untextbook.” After that, I hope to return to thinking about colonial elites in the early American South. I’d like to focus on a family, or several families, in part to explore the change in family life over a century and a half; their cultural inculcation; and their fashioning of the surrounding society, and how it fashioned them. In the meantime, I stay busy at work on my podcast Historically Thinking, found on iTunes and all the other usual places, having conversations interesting people about the fascinating nooks of the past, and how they think about them.

JF: Thanks, Al!

Homesickness in the Continental Army

ThacherOver at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell tells the story of Dr. James Thacher at the Battle of Springfield, New Jersey in June 1780.  As someone who has written a bit about homesickness, I was attracted to this part of Bell’s post (and Thacher’s diary):

As for other soldiers, Thacher noted another curious condition: 

Our troops in camp are in general healthy, but we are troubled with many perplexing instances of indisposition, occasioned by absence from home, called by Dr. [William] Cullen nostalgia, or home sickness. This complaint is frequent among the militia, and recruits from New England. They become dull and melancholy, with loss of appetite, restless nights, and great weakness. In some instances they become so hypochondriacal as to be proper subjects for the hospital. This disease is in many instances cured by the raillery of the old soldiers, but is generally suspended by a constant and active engagement of the mind, as by the drill exercise, camp discipline, and by uncommon anxiety, occasioned by the prospect of a battle.

As at summer camp, staying busy helped alleviate homesickness. As did the prospect of being hit, or even nearly hit, with a cannon ball.

Read the entire post here.  I am hoping to include Thacher’s account of the Revolutionary War in Springfield in my current project on New Jersey and the American Revolution.

“The American Revolution: A World War”

Aerial_view_of_National_Museum_of_American_History (1)

This is the title of the newest exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  Learn more about it in Alice George‘s piece at Smithsonian.com.  Here is a taste:

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., invites Americans to recognize another world war—one that has been traditionally envisioned as a quaint and simple confrontation between a ragtag army of rebellious colonists and a king’s mighty military force of red-coated Brits. “The American Revolution: A World War” demonstrates with new scholarship how the 18th-century fight for independence fit into a larger, international conflict that involved Great Britain, France, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Jamaica, Gibraltar and even India. “If it had not become that broader conflict, the outcome might very well have been different,” says David K. Allison, project director, curator of the show and co-author of a new forthcoming book on the subject. “As the war became bigger and involved other allies for American and other conflicts around the world, that led Britain to make the kind of strategic decisions it did, to ultimately grant the colonies independence and use their military resources elsewhere in the world.”

 

The roots of this war lay in the global Seven Years War, known in the United States as the French and Indian War. In that conflict, Britain was able to consolidate its strength, while France and Spain experienced significant losses. At the time of the American Revolution, other European powers were seeking to restrain Great Britain, the greatest world power and owner of the planet’s most threatening navy.

“We became a sideshow,” says Allison. Both France and Spain, to undermine British power, provided both arms and troops to the rambunctious rebels. The Dutch Republic, too, traded weapons and other goods to the American colonists. Ultimately, after struggling to retain its 13 feisty colonies, British leaders chose to abandon the battlefields of North America and turn their attention to their other colonial outposts, like India.

Read the rest here.

What Did the Founders Mean By “Bear Arms?”

Reenactment

Here is J.L. Bell at Boston 1775:

Last month Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published an op-ed essay in the Washington Post on the language of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare—they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.

Lawyer Neal Goldfarb checked more variations of the phrase in the same databases and came to the same basic conclusion.

In the 2008 Heller case, as everyone involved in this discussion knows, the U.S. Supreme Court decided otherwise. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia treated “bear ams” not as an idiom with a military meaning but as a general phrase about carrying weapons.

The data shows otherwise—hardly anyone in the eighteenth century used it as Scalia did. As with the Reynolds case I wrote about here, the court’s finding is simply at odds with historical facts. The Heller ruling overturned legal understandings that prevailed for most of the twentieth century and changed the law going forward, but such rulings can’t change the actual past.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Craig Bruce Smith

HonorCraig Bruce Smith is Assistant Professor of History at William Woods University.  This interview is based on his new book American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Honor?

CBS: There are a number of factors that led me to write American Honor, but I basically set out to author a book that I would like to read.

I was deeply interested in the American Revolution and ethical questions. While there have been countless works on the Revolution itself, I never encountered a title that explored the connections between ethics and the Revolution—so I set out to write my own. It seeks in many ways to revive the debate over questions of the Revolution’s causes and effects that has largely disappeared in recent historical literature.

It was also an attempt to rehabilitate the concepts of honor and virtue, which seem antiquated and elitist to a modern audience. But my research revealed that these concepts actually became quite democratic and were simply an eighteenth-century reflection of our present understanding of ethics.

Finally, a great deal of recent academic history has taken aim at demystifying or vilifying the Founders to the end that the ideals of the American Revolution are often dismissed as rhetoric. My goal was to invite the reader to take the Founders’ beliefs and words seriously and to see how their understandings of honor, virtue, and ethics were the foundation of the new nation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Honor?

CBS: American Honor is an ethical history of the Revolution, advancing that there was a transformation in American ethical thinking that led to and became intertwined with the Revolution itself. The ideals of honor, virtue, and ethics were a unifying element that became democratized through service to the nation and thus expanded to people of diverse races, classes, and genders.

JF: Why do we need to read American Honor?

CBS: One need only look at the news headlines to see that issues of ethics and honor still matter in virtually every aspect of society. American Honor presents how the Founders of various backgrounds united based on a collective ethical understanding of honor as service to the nation—something that is as relevant now as ever before.

Honor was a major cause of the American Revolution, and omitting it prevents us from fully understanding the motives behind resistance against Britain and the founding of the United States.

Also, while there have been other excellent works on honor (such as those by Joanne Freeman, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and Caroline Cox), this is the first book to explore honor as a changing concept over an extended geographical and chronological period. It is built on primary research from over thirty different archives in the US and UK, which allows it to show an expansive understanding of how honor changed in early America.

Ultimately, the book presents the research and analysis in the form of a narrative that features collective biography (such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson) and storytelling to arrive at its conclusions.

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

CBS: History was always my favorite subject, but it wasn’t until Ron Vallar’s AP US History class during my junior year at Holy Cross High School (in Queens, N.Y.) that I really became hooked. Vallar was so passionate in presenting history as a story rather than as a repetitive memorization of names and dates. He was the first person to show me what history could be—and without him I would not be an American historian today.

Vallar provided the spark, but starting college I still thought I would be a lawyer or a judge. It was the faculty at St. John’s University (also in Queens) that actually showed me I could make a career of history and David Hackett Fischer (my PhD advisor at Brandeis University) who ultimately helped me to achieve my goal.

Why become an American historian? The simple answer is out of love of the subject. The more complex one is that our past matters and the nation’s founding ideals continue to influence our present and future. The American Revolution and the Founding Era always resonated with me, and my goal has been to try to convey this same connection to students and readers.

JF: What is your next project?

CBS: My next project “The Greatest Man in the World: A Global History of George Washington,” follows different nations’ changing perceptions of Washington from his emergence during the French and Indian War through his death and into the modern day. Named the “Father of His Country,” Washington was indelibly associated with being an American figure. Traditionally, he has been interpreted solely as an American icon, but in actuality he developed into a symbol for humanity through a complicated path of personal, national, and international growth. Framing early America within a global history, this project is the first to examine Washington as a world figure, rather than one that was exclusively American.

JF: Thanks, Craig!

Gordon Wood Reviews Stephen Brumwell’s *Turncoat*

TurncoatYesterday we posted an Author’s Corner interview with Stephen Brumwell, author of Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty.

Over at The Weekly Standard, Gordon Wood reviews the book.  Here is a taste:

It was once common knowledge, the story of Benedict Arnold—that extraordinarily successful patriot general who abruptly turned against the American Revolution. Because he had been so trusted by George Washington, Arnold was regarded as the worst of traitors. Indeed, his very name became synonymous with treachery and treason. Not so anymore. Nowadays many young Americans have no idea who Arnold was, and even those who have vaguely heard of the name have little sense of what he did and why “Benedict Arnold” has been a byword for betrayal through much of our history.

This loss of memory comes in part from a changing view of the revolution. In the hands of present-day teachers and professors the revolution is no longer the glorious cause it once was. It is now mostly taught—when it is taught at all—as a tale of woe and oppression, redressing what many academics believe was an overemphasis on the patriotism of great white men. “Those marginalized by former histories,” writes the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor in a recent introduction to current scholarship, “now assume centrality as our stories increasingly include Native peoples, the enslaved, women, the poor, Hispanics, and the French as key actors.” In his own narrative of the revolution, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Taylor has painted a bleak picture of the event. Most of the patriots were not quite as patriotic as we used to think. The Southern planters, for example, engaged in the revolution principally to protect their property in enslaved Africans, but “implausibly blamed the persistence of slavery on the British.” Ordinary white men were even worse. In the West, where the fighting was especially vicious and bloody, they tended to run wild and slaughter Indians in pursuit of their “genocidal goals.” In the end, writes Taylor, it was a white man’s revolution whose success came at the expense of everyone else—blacks, Indians, and women.

No doubt this dark and sordid side of the revolution needs to be exposed. But unfortunately, this exposure has become so glaringly dominant nowadays that there is little room for the older, more patriotic story to be appreciated. Modern scholars haven’t gone so far as to describe Benedict Arnold as a hero for turning against this rather squalid and nasty revolution—after all, the side to which he defected was by their standards of judgment not appreciably different from the side he left—but since patriotism doesn’t have the appeal it used to have, Arnold’s treason seems not to matter as much anymore.

Yet of course it does matter, which is all the more reason to welcome another account of Arnold’s career, written, as many of the best and most readable histories of the revolution are written these days, by an independent scholar who is not caught up in the academic world’s obsessions with race and gender.

Read the entire piece here.

Whatever you think of Gordon Wood and his scholarship (I am a fan of his scholarship and writing style), it seems as if he cannot review a book these days without turning it into a diatribe on a field that appears to have left him behind.  This is a really good review, but it is odd that Wood has to frame it in this fashion.

The Author’s Corner with Stephen Brumwell

TurncoatStephen Brumwell is a freelance writer and independent historian based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  This interview is based on his new book Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Turncoat?

SB: I wrote Turncoat after becoming fascinated by the central enigma of Benedict Arnold’s remarkable life. Why would an officer famed for his bravery in the American Revolutionary cause, who was clearly obsessed with his reputation as a man of honor, behave in a way that would be widely interpreted as utterly dishonourable? I was sceptical about the usual explanations – greed, or resentment at his shabby treatment by Congress – and wanted to re-examine all the available evidence to see if I could find a more convincing explanation for his behaviour.

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

SB: By reassessing Arnold’s military career, Turncoat seeks to explain how he gradually came to believe that his country’s interests would be best served by ending the damaging civil war between Britain and her American colonies. Faced with a dysfunctional, ineffective Congress that seemed uncaring about the men who were actually fighting for American liberty, and hounded by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, Arnold concluded that the cause in which he’d made his illustrious name had lost its way, and that he could better devote his talents to restoring Crown rule, and peace to the fractured British Empire.

JF: Why do we need to read Turncoat?

SB: With its dramatic twists and turns, the treason of Benedict Arnold is deservedly one of the best known stories of the American Revolutionary War. By uncovering archival sources not previously used by scholars, Turncoat offers a fresh and challenging interpretation of a tale that still resonates today. For example, this new evidence not only supports the contention that Arnold’s primary motivation in changing sides was ideological, but also removes any lingering doubt that his wife, Peggy Shippen, was actively involved in his treasonable correspondence with the British.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian (or how did you get an interest in the study of the past)?

SB: Growing up in an area of southern England full of castles, which I explored at weekends with my parents and brothers, I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. When I finally went to university, and was given an opportunity to undertake postgraduate research, I decided to focus on the French and Indian War (a conflict in which I’d long been interested), seeking to contest existing stereotypes of the British redcoats who fought it.

JF: What is your next project?

I’m still finalising my next book project, although I have several ideas, involving both non-fiction and fiction. In either case, I’m keen to draw upon my interest in the past, although it’s possible that I’ll stray outside my specialist field of British-American military affairs in the second half of the eighteenth century, and tackle something different. Whatever the subject and approach, my objective will be to present a compelling narrative with an authentic backdrop.

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

When Nathanael Greene’s Family Played Cards

cards-18c_1

In 1774 the Continental Congress told Americans to avoid card playing:

We will, in our several stations, encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments; and on the death of any relation or friend, none of us, or any of our families, will go into any further mourning-dress, than a black crape or ribbon on the arm or hat, for gentlemen, and a black ribbon and necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarves at funerals.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell reminds us that not all Americans followed Congress’s orders.

Here is a taste:

On 29 January 1776, Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote to his brother Christopher from the Continental camp on Prospect Hill about a family crisis—his wife’s friends had played cards in front of their stepmother.

The general wrote: “I am extream sorry that Mr [John] Gooch and Nancy Varnum affronted Mother at my House with Cards. Surely Mrs [Catherine] Greene could not be present. She must have known better. It was insult that I would not have sufferd the best friend I had in the World to have offerd to her.”

Read the rest here.

Stockton University Removes a Bust of Richard Stockton

Richard-Stockton-2

I have been doing a lot of reading about Richard Stockton lately.  He was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, he was married to Annis Boudinot Stockton, one of the great female American poets of the eighteenth-century.  He was a member of the Continental Congress and he signed the Declaration of Independence.  He almost became the revolutionary-era governor of New Jersey, but he lost that honor to William Livingston in a very close election.  In the Revolutionary War, Stockton was captured by the British and imprisoned in New York.  He died in 1781 at Morven, his Princeton home.

Stockton also owned slaves.

Here is a taste of Suzanne Marino and Claire Lowe’s piece at The Press of Atlantic City:

GALLOWAY (NJ) — The bust of Richard Stockton has been removed from Stockton University’s campus library in an attempt to address a longtime controversy surrounding the college’s slave-owning namesake, college officials said Thursday.

Although recent protests have erupted around the country over other controversial statues, Stockton University President Harvey Kesselman said that controversy about the college’s namesake has been going on for several years.

“If you look in our 40th (anniversary), you’ll see that the discussion began to take place then,” he said, adding even during the university’s founding it was controversial. “It never was placed in context and I think that’s the most important thing about this.”

The bust of Stockton was on display at the Richard E. Bjork Library. It was taken down Wednesday. Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, also owned slaves.

Stockton Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lori Vermeulen sent a letter to the campus community Thursday to inform them of the decision to remove the statue.

Vermeulen said the mission of Stockton University — “to develop engaged and effective citizens with a commitment to lifelong learning and the capacity to adapt to change in a multicultural, interdependent world” — affords the university the responsibility to provide an opportunity for students to learn about the facts surrounding Richard Stockton’s place in American history as well as in Stockton’s history.

The removal of the bust is temporary, and will return with an exhibit that is being developed that will show a more historical perspective and one that will allow meaningful dialog about Richard Stockton as a controversial figure, Vermeulen explained.

Read the rest here.

I like the idea of contextualizing the Stockton statue.  At the same time, I am starting to think that National Review writer Victor Davis Hanson may have a few good points in this piece.  Indeed, cleansing the past can be “dangerous business.”

An Unusual Damage Claim Sheds Some Light on the Battle of Connecticut Farms

plaque

This summer, when I am not writing about the court evangelicals, I have been working on a book on the American Revolution.  On a good day I get in about five hours of research, and I am fortunate to have a couple of former students helping me.

One of my research assistants, Abigail, is transcribing damage claim reports from the Revolution.  These virtually untapped sources (at least for New Jersey, where I am working right now) tell us a lot about the kinds of goods ordinary people owned at the time of the Revolution.  They also give us a glimpse of the damage and destruction caused by both the Continental and British armies as they rolled through local communities.

Nearly all of the damage claims in New Jersey were filed by individual property owners, but every now and then we find a break in this pattern.  Today, as I was reading through the material Abigail transcribed, I found a note calling my attention to a claim from the Presbyterian “parish” at Connecticut Farms.  Here it is (with Abigail’s not to me embedded):

Damage Claim No. 22 (NJ0407) made at Connecticut Farms on May 28, 1789, for damage done on June 7, 1780. [Dr. Fea, this claim is for the Connecticut Farms parish (including a meeting house, parsonage house, barn, and chair and school houses) and not a person/family—very different from the other claims so far.]

§ “Inventory and Apprisal of the Property of the Parish of Connecticut Farms Burnt, taken and destroyed by the British Army or their Adherents on the 7th of June 1780”

· Items: 1 large well finished meeting house burnt (1500 L), 1 bell (65 L), 1 large Bible (1 L, 10 S), 1 velvet cushion for the pulpit (2 L), parsonage house 40 by 24 (250 L), 1 barn 24 by 24 (30 L), chair house (10 L), school house (15 L), sundry sacramental vessels, de—[?], 1 large silver cup (6 L), 2 large black tin cups (10 L), 2 large pewter platters (1 L, 4 S), 1 basin (3 S), 1 fine diaper table cloth (16 S), and cloth used at buryings (3 L), for a total of 1885 pounds, 3 shillings.

June 7, 1780 was the date of the Battle of Connecticut Farms.  The British planned for one final attack on Washington’s troops in the North.  Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen received a report that Washington’s army in Morristown had been reduced, through illness and desertions, to about 3500 men. Spies had informed him that mutinies were occurring in the ranks and morale was at an all-time low.  Knyphausen thought that the time was right to attack Morristown, capture Washington’s army, and perhaps bring an end to the war.

With approximately 6000 men from three different divisions under his command, Knyphausen’s army crossed Staten Island by boat on June 6, 1780 and landed at Elizabeth-Town Point. The following morning the British forces were met by Continental troops from New Jersey under the command of Colonel Elias Dayton whose troops slowed the British advance, but they were eventually forced to retreat to Connecticut Farms later in the morning.  By 8am, Knyphausen troops and the New Jersey Brigade under the command of William Maxwell clashed in Connecticut Farms.  With superior numbers, the British forced Maxwell to retreat to Springfield.  Knyphausen’s troops moved into Connecticut Farms, set part of the town on fire, and eventually halted his attack as the sun set.  At some time during the day George Washington arrived from Morristown and employed his personal guard in an attempt to stop the British advance.

The destruction of the parish property sheds light on one of the great mysteries of the battle. During the battle, Hannah Caldwell, the wife of the Elizabeth-Town Presbyterian clergyman James Caldwell, was shot to death by a British soldier as she stood in the window of the Presbyterian parsonage. News of Hannah’s death spread quickly.  New jersey Governor William Livingston received the news in a letter from brigadier-general Nathaniel Heard.  Greene informed Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth in Springfield that Hannah had been shot in a “barbarous manner.”

A rather lengthy letter describing the battle and Hannah’s death was published in the June 13, 1780 edition of the Pennsylvania Packet.  The unidentified author of the article believed that Hannah’s death was an attempt to punish James Caldwell, “an object worthy of the enemy’s keenest resentment,” for his patriotic activity and zeal.  The article implies that clergyman had a target on his back, but had always “evaded every attempt to injure him.”  Earlier in the day, the author claimed, a woman on the street in Connecticut Farms was approached by a British soldier who put a bayonet to her breast and threatened to kill her because she was the wife of James Caldwell.  The woman was spared when a young officer who knew her told the soldier that she was not Hannah Caldwell. Eventually, however, they did find the real Hannah. The author of the Pennsylvania Packet story described a British soldier coming to the window of the room of the Connecticut Farms parsonage where Hannah, her maid, and some of her smaller children were seated, and shooting Hannah in the lungs. Immediately following the shooting, a British officer and two Hessians dug a hole, placed the body inside it, and set the house on fire.  All of James Caldwell’s personal effects and papers were lost in the fire. Later an American officer managed to pull Hannah’s body from the grave and bring it to a “small house in the neighborhood.”  There was also a rumor circulating that the soldier who shot Hannah was later seen bragging about the killing.

Seal_of_Union_County,_New_Jersey

The seal of Union County, New Jersey represents the “murder” of Hannah Caldwell

There is more to this story, and I hope to tell it soon.  But this damage claim is going to help me flesh out the impact of the American Revolution on religious life in this New Jersey town.  Not only was the church and the outbuildings burned, but the British troops desecrated several of the church’s sacred and sacramental objects. This was not an unusual practice, but such detailed damage claims, at least for New Jersey, are rather rare.

George Washington Returns William Howe’s Dog

GW DOG

“George Washington and His Mother” in Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 5, 1865. (Wikipedia Commons)

Apparently George Washington loved dogs.  He even returned one to his British counterpart after the Battle of Germantown.  Here is a letter Washington  wrote to General William Howe three days after the battle.  (The letter was actually written by Alexander Hamilton).

[Perkiomen, Pa.] Octr 6. 1777

General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.

HT: Nate McAlister

 

The Author’s Corner with Virginia DeJohn Anderson

VDA Book CoverVirginia DeJohn Anderson is a Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This interview is based on her new book, The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write   The Martyr and the Traitor? 

VDA: I first encountered the story of Moses Dunbar years ago when I wrote an undergraduate paper about loyalists in Connecticut during the Revolution.  I was intrigued by the fact that he was the only loyalist convicted of treason by a Connecticut civil court and hanged. Dunbar was mentioned in passing in a number of secondary sources, but there were few details about his unusual case.  This left me with several unanswered questions.  Who was Moses Dunbar and what led him to remain loyal to Britain?  Did it have anything to do with his decision to leave the Congregational Church and become an Anglican?  What were the circumstances leading to his arrest and trial? Why was he the only one executed for treason?   

I put the project aside for quite a long time while I finished graduate school and wrote two books about seventeenth-century colonial America.  In coming back to it, I realized that there wasn’t enough material on Dunbar alone to warrant a book, but if I combined his story with that of Nathan Hale, the famous patriot hanged by the British as a captured spy, I could construct a richer narrative about how colonists chose sides in the Revolution and address questions about why we remember some historical figures and forget others.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Martyr and the Traitor

VDA: The book argues that neither patriots nor loyalists were destined to choose the sides they did in the Revolution, but rather reached those decisions as much in response to highly localized experiences as to the larger issues raised by the imperial crisis with Britain.  The stories of Hale and Dunbar reveal that no side in the Revolution held a monopoly on principle, and remembering only the “winners” of the War for Independence distorts our understanding of the event and its impact on ordinary lives.

JF: Why do we need to read The Martyr and the Traitor? 

VDA: The vast majority of biographical studies of Revolutionary figures focus on the Founding Fathers.  Many of these works are valuable, but they nevertheless tend to satisfy a popular desire for a “heroic” version of history instead of challenging Americans’ understanding of their past.  By offering equally sympathetic portraits of a patriot and a loyalist, who both started out as ordinary Connecticut farm boys, my book invites readers to imagine a far more complicated story.  It shows how the choice of allegiance in the contest with Britain was embedded in the context of everyday life, as pre-existing social relationships based on family, friendship, and community became politicized.  The book emphasizes historical contingency, noting that Hale and Dunbar both died when there was every indication that Britain would win the war.  Had that happened, we might remember Dunbar as the martyr and Hale as the traitor. 

The intense polarization that characterizes our contemporary political scene had its counterpart in the Revolutionary era, particularly when the outbreak of war in 1775 eliminated the possibility of anyone taking a neutral position.  For many Americans, Nathan Hale represents the epitome of a Revolutionary patriot, but as Moses Dunbar discovered, many of the self-styled patriots in his own community tried to beat those who disagreed with them into submission—not the kind of behavior typically attributed to the Revolution’s advocates.  Even in a relatively homogeneous place like Connecticut, the Revolution was a civil as well as imperial conflict, and the rifts it opened up would take time to heal. 

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

VDA: I grew up in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a town founded in 1634.  When I was about twelve years old, I became fascinated by the colonial-era houses in town and wondered who had originally lived in them and what those residents’ lives had been like.  At the University of Connecticut, my undergraduate institution, I was fortunate to learn from a number of wonderful historians—Richard Brown, Harry Marks, William Hoglund, Emiliana Noether, among others—who helped to transform my rather naïve interest in the past into a more sophisticated understanding.  In the years since then, I have focused my research on ordinary individuals caught up in extraordinary events—in my first two books, the establishment of English colonies in America, and now the Revolution.  I hope this doesn’t sound too pompous, but I’ve grown to believe that as a scholar I have a duty to bear witness on behalf of people in the past who might otherwise remain silent and invisible. 

JF: What is your next project?

VDA: I’m not quite sure yet, but since I began The Martyr and the Traitor I have grown more interested in the possibility of a movie based on Moses Dunbar’s story. There are very few good films about the Revolution, so I may next try my hand at a screenplay.   

JF: Thanks, Virginia!

“The Coalition That Made American Independence Possible”

Brothers in ArmsEducation and Culture: A Critical Review is running my review of Larrie Ferreiro’s Brothers in Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.

Education and Culture is John Wilson’s new venture.  For over two decades Wilson edited Books and Culture.

Here is a taste of my review:

The recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was the impetus for an interesting Twitter exchange between Joyce Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Chair of Early American History at Harvard University, and Ted Cruz, the junior US Senator from Texas. Chaplin was not happy about Trump’s decision to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement and used the 140 characters allotted to her on Twitter to express her dissatisfaction. On June 1, 2017, she wrote, “The USA, created by int’l community in Treaty of Paris in 1783, betrays int’l community by withdrawing from #parisclimateagreement today.” Cruz, appalled by the suggestion that the “international community” created the United States, fired back: “Just sad. Tenured chair at Harvard, doesn’t seem to know how USA was created. Not a treaty. Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.” Later in the day, the Texas Senator continued on the offensive: “Lefty academics @ my alma mater think USA was “created by int’s community. No—USA created by force, the blood of patriots & We the People.” As might be expected, most academic historians rushed to defend Chaplin, while conservative websites viewed the exchange as another battle in their war against so-called liberal élites.

We should not make too much of this short Twitter exchange. Both Chaplin and Cruz used the social media platform to marshal historical evidence in support of their own political preferences. But the Chaplin-Cruz dust-up, and the reaction to it, does tell us a lot about how Americans understand and misunderstand, use and abuse, the past. Chaplin’s attempt to connect the Treaty of Paris to the Paris Climate Agreement was a stretch. On the other hand, her insistence that the United States was not forged in a vacuum is a point worth making. Cruz’s tweets reflect an older version of the American Revolution that serves the cause of American exceptionalism. Scholars sometimes describe this historiography of exceptionalism as “Whig history.” Cruz’s understanding of the nation’s founding—one that celebrates the “blood of the patriots” and “We the People”—ignores the fact that the colonies were part of a larger transatlantic world that influenced the course and success of their Revolution. Cruz’s brand of Whig history offers a usable past perfectly suited for today’s “America First” foreign policy and the Trump administration’s skepticism regarding globalization. It is also wrong.

Read the entire review here.

Why Did Nova Scotia Stay Loyal?

Nova ScotiaAlexandra Montgomery, a Ph.D candidate at Penn and an award-winning historian, asks this question here.

A taste:

As an American born kid growing up in Halifax, the question of why that chunk of land stayed British while the rest of the colonies to the south declared independence was something of a puzzle. I became even more confused when I learned that most of the people who lived there at the outbreak of the Revolution were New Englanders, a group of people who my trips to Boston and Connecticut to visit family had convinced me had been waiting to rebel practically since the Mayflower made landfall. As I got older and started to study the history of North America more seriously, my understandings grew much more nuanced. But I discovered that many historians puzzled over the same problem I had. It turned out that there were many theories for Nova Scotia’s loyalty: a supposed culture of neutrality, a lack of connections to the rest of the continent, a heavy British military presence, and Anglo Nova Scotia’s markedly different relationship to the imperial center have all been cited as possible explanations. Yet, in my own work I’ve become more and more interested in a slightly different question. What kinds of alternate futures did people imagine for the region? What did people—British, French, and Indigenous—think and hope was possible?

Read more.

HT: Boston 1775