The Author’s Corner With Thomas Balcerski

BalcserskiThomas J. Balcerski is Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University.  This is interview is based on his new book Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Bosom Friends?

TB: Bosom Friends began as the first chapter of my dissertation at Cornell University. One of my central research questions since graduate school has been the role of bachelors, and more generally the unmarried, in U.S. politics before the Civil War. From bachelors, I came to the historical category of friendship, about which I wrote my first article, published in Pennsylvania History in 2013. In the dissertation, I looked at several examples of intimate male friendships in the antebellum period, but for the book, I decided to dig deeper into the relationship of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. Given that the focus had shifted from a range of actors to just two individuals, I decided to write the book as a dual biography.

Famously, James Buchanan is our only bachelor president (or more properly, the only president never to marry, since Grover Cleveland was elected a bachelor in 1884). Less well known to history is William Rufus King, who was elected vice president under Franklin Pierce in 1852. King is perhaps most widely remembered for being the only president or vice president ever inaugurated outside the United States, having done so on his deathbed in Matanzas, Cuba. The pair, Buchanan and King, served together in the U.S. Senate from 1834 to 1844, during which time they often lived together. From there, the bosom friends separated, but their correspondence increased, which reveals a portrait of two Democratic bachelor politicians striving to obtain power. While both men lived, they wanted nothing more than to unite the North and the South in a bachelor ticket; however, it did not come to pass.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bosom Friends?

TB: My book argues that an intimate male friendship shaped the political and personal lives of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. I reveal the many intricacies of their conjoined lives and, in the process, help to clear up much misinformation about the pair.

JF: Why do we need to read Bosom Friends?

TB: The relationship of James Buchanan and William Rufus King is interesting both in a historical and historiographic sense. I find it fascinating how interpretations, both among academics and the general public, have changed about the pair. There’s no getting around the fact that, today, most people assume that they were gay and, further still, that they shared a sexual relationship. My book takes a different approach, as I read the evidence more carefully within the historical context of intimacy in nineteenth century America. For this reason, readers can expect a reassessment of what they think they know about manhood, friendship, sexuality, and politics in the era before the Civil War.

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

TB: I credit an excellent high school teacher for my initial interest in American history. My class read Thomas Bailey’s American Pageant, and I was hooked. The narrative style, the memorable descriptions (John Adams as “frosty” lingers in my memory), and the idea that the past, somehow, actually mattered to the present made their impression upon me. I have always enjoyed the ebb and flow of the antebellum period—I like the contingency of events, the colorful characters who populated David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and the sense that maybe, just maybe, the war could have been prevented. Beyond the graduate training that I received at SUNY Stony Brook and Cornell University, I realized that those initial passions for the causes of the Civil War are like a deep reservoir of historical research to which I come back to again and again.

JF: What is your next project?

TB: I am currently working on a history of the Democratic Party from its early origins in the Federalist era to its unraveling in the 1920s. Tentatively titled “The Party of No: When the Democrats Were Conservative,” I want to understand the longer history of an important question that I am often asked, a version of which: “When did the Democratic Party and the Republican Party switch their politics?” I think a study, part biographical of party leaders and part political history of the period, would help to explain the events that preceded this change.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

Papers of Martin Van Buren Project Publishes 327 New Documents

Van Buren

Here is the press release from Cumberland University:

The Papers of Martin Van Buren project at Cumberland University recently published 327 documents as part of Series 7, which covers the period of Van Buren’s vice presidency under Andrew Jackson from March 4, 1833 to March 3, 1837.

The newly published documents include correspondence related to Van Buren’s participation in the Bank War and his presidential campaign to succeed Andrew Jackson. Van Buren also received correspondence related to foreign affairs, including the growing friction between the United States and Mexico as Americans settled in Texas.

“These documents shed light on a number of important issues that consumed Jackson’s second presidential term and of necessity drew in Van Buren,” project director Mark Cheathem said. “Van Buren was also looking ahead to the 1836 presidential election. His correspondence with American voters who wanted to know his opinion on a number of issues gives insight into his political principles on issues such as slavery and religion.”

The digital edition of the Van Buren papers will make accessible approximately 13,000 documents that belonged to the eighth president. Over 1,000 of these documents are now available at vanburenpapers.org.

The Papers of Martin Van Buren project is sponsored by Cumberland University and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and is produced in partnership with the Center for Digital Editing at the University of Virginia.

For more information about the Papers of Martin Van Buren project at Cumberland University, visit http://vanburenpapers.org.

Mark Cheatham and his team are doing some great work here.

The Author’s Corner with Myra Glenn

dr harriot kezia hunt

Myra Glenn is a Professor of American History at Elmira College. This interview is based on her new book, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate?

MG: I was astonished that there was no book length monograph on a woman who was a pioneering female physician, health reformer, and woman’s rights advocate in nineteenth-century America. Once I began reading her 1856 autobiography Glances and Glimpses as well as her lectures and speeches I became fascinated with her and knew I had to be her biographer.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate?

MG: My book argues that Hunt warrants extensive study because she offers a rare, fascinating case study of how a single woman from a working-class Boston home became a successful professional and renowned reformer in nineteenth-century America. This text also uses Hunt’s richly detailed life narrative, Glances and Glimpses (1856), to explore how women described and interpreted their lives in antebellum autobiographies.

JF: Why do we need to read Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate?

MG: My book examines Hunt’s establishment of a flourishing medical practice in Boston in the mid-1830s. Convinced that many of her patients’ physical maladies were rooted in their spiritual and mental anguish, Hunt became renowned for listening to women’s troubles, or “heart histories,” and counseling them. I also discuss Hunt’s unsuccessful efforts to attend lectures at Harvard’s medical school in 1847 and 1850 and her emergence as a leading woman’s rights advocate. She became the first woman in Massachusetts to publicly protest the injustice of taxing propertied women like herself while denying them the right to vote. Her annual petitions declaring “no taxation without representation” were widely reprinted in newspapers throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Hunt was also prominent in the annual woman’s rights conventions of the 1850s where she championed health reform, female doctors, higher education for women, and their enfranchisement.

Study of Hunt’s life also illuminates how religion promoted reform activism in antebellum America. I discuss how the Hunt family’s conversion to Universalism encouraged Harriot to challenge established gender roles and spurred her commitment to the woman’s rights struggle. I also explore how Hunt’s conversion to the ideas of the Swedish mystic Immanuel Swedenborg as well as her friendship with leading antebellum feminists, especially Sarah Grimké, led her to challenge patriarchal power within mainstream Protestant churches.

Finally, my book analyzes Hunt’s 1856 autobiography entitled Glances and Glimpses. At a time when few women wrote life narratives Hunt offered a richly detailed and revealing work. Her text was the first autobiography published by a leading antebellum feminist and also by a female physician.

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

MG: My father, a waiter in Brooklyn and immigrant from Cuba, was always a voracious reader of American history and instilled in me a love of both history and politics. Even when I was in high school I knew that I wanted to study how the past shapes our present and future.

JF: What is your next project?

MG: I plan to investigate how a group of leading antislavery and woman’s rights activists in antebellum America coped with old age and the challenges of facing illness, the death of loved ones, and their own mortality. This would be my fifth and probably last book.

JF: Thanks, Myra!

David Blight on Frederick Douglass

BlightAs many of you know, Blight is the author of the recently released Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom I was hoping to read Blight’s book before I teach Douglass’s Narrative in a couple of weeks, but I don’t think I am going to have the time.

Here is a taste of an interview with Blight at History News Network:

Q. You worked on this book for ten years, but first began researching Douglass as a PhD student. What initially inspired you to study Douglass? Did you always plan to write a biography of Douglass?   

After that first book in the late 1980s, and over time, I edited new editions of Douglass’s first and second autobiographies, a new edition of the Columbian Orator (the book that changed Douglass’s life as a slave), and I had written a number of essays on the former slave.  But I did not really intend to write a full biography until I encountered the Evans collection in Savannah.  Only then did I decide to attempt a full life of Douglass.  I was initially inspired to study Douglass in graduate school in the early 1980s because I wanted to research and write about abolitionists and the coming of the Civil War.  I especially wanted to probe the stories of black abolitionists. Douglass was the greatest perhaps of all abolitionists, and I was especially drawn to the famous orator and writer’s masterful use of words.  The research for this biography took me many places and to many archives in the US and the UK.  The places in Douglass’s life are very important to his biography.

Read the rest here.

The Problem of “Reconciling Irreconcilable Values”

FugitiveAndrew Delbanco‘s new book is titled The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War.  While I was on the road last week I listened to Delbanco’s interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio.  I recommend it.

Over at The Atlantic, Delbanco explains what the 19th-century debate over slavery can teach us about our own contentious political moment.  Here is a taste:

With the united states starkly divided and with many Americans asking what kind of nation we are, it seems a good moment to look back to November 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when Abraham Lincoln tried to answer the same question. Consecrating a Civil War battlefield where thousands of young men and boys had died four months before, he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For most Americans since, and for much of the world, those words have at­tained the status of scripture. We draw our sense of collective identity from them. They were, however, not strictly true, and Lincoln knew it.

Five years earlier, he had been more candid. Speaking in Chicago in the summer of 1858, Lincoln noted that when the republic was founded, “we had slavery among us,” and that “we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted” slavery to persist in those parts of the nation where it was already entrenched. “We could not secure the good we did secure,” he said, “if we grasped for more.” The United States, in other words, could not have been created if the eradication of human bondage had been a condition of its creation. Had Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the nation was con­ceived not in liberty but in compromise, the phrase would have been less memorable but more accurate.

The hard truth is that the United States was founded in an act of accommodation between two fundamentally different societies. As one Southern-born antislavery activist wrote, it was a “sad satire to call [the] States ‘United,’” because in one-half of the country slavery was basic to its way of life, while in the other it was fading or already gone. The Founding Fathers tried to stitch these two nations together with no idea how long the stitching would hold.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Ben Wynne

5afdd229cb854.jpgBen Wynne is professor of history at the University of North Georgia. This interview is based on his new book The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist (LSU Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: My doctoral dissertation dealt with politicians in the South who argued against the idea of secession during the years leading up to the American Civil War, and in the course of doing my research Henry Stuart Foote’s name kept popping up. The more I read about him, the more interested in his life and career I became, to the point where I thought his life story might make a good book. Not only was he involved in a number of important national events in his lifetime, but he was a bit of a maniac. All of his contemporaries seemed to have an opinion about him, and those opinions ranged from genius to buffoon. I was also intrigued by his relationship Jefferson Davis. Foote was Davis’s most outspoken political enemy, and the hatred that the two men had for each other was epic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: The book is a strait biography. It captures the highly unusual spirit of the subject as well as his unique contributions to American history and politics from the 1830s until his death in 1880.

JF: Why do we need to read The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: Henry Stuart Foote’s life included many unusual twists and turns, making for an interesting read. In general, Foote was one of antebellum America’s true political mavericks with an eccentric and sometimes violent personality. He was a polarizing figure who was beloved by supporters but reviled by critics. During his career, he participated in innumerable physical altercations—including a fistfight with then-fellow U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis that provided the title for the book—and he carried bullet wounds from several duels. He once brandished a pistol during proceedings on the Senate floor, and on another occasion threatened a fellow solon with a knife. During his career he was also very well-travelled. He was in Texas during the early 1840s as the Texas annexation debate was in full swing, and he represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate during debates over the Compromise of 1850. In 1851, he defeated Jefferson Davis in an exceedingly bitter campaign for Mississippi governor. Later, he moved to California where he ran unsuccessfully for another senate seat, and then back to Tennessee, where he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. As a Confederate congressman, he remained a thorn in Davis’s side for the duration of the Civil War, publically lambasting the Confederate president again and again. A lifelong Democrat, Foote became a Republican after the war and ended up as superintendent of the U.S. Mint in New Orleans.

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

BW: Like others in the field, I have been fascinated with American history and culture all of my life. It seemed like a natural profession for me. I believe strongly in the cliché that you will not know where you are going if you do not know where you have been.

JF: What is your next project?

BW: I am currently researching for a book on the history of music in Macon, Georgia from the 1830s to the 1980s, that will include material on iconic American musical figures such as “Little Richard” Penniman, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

The Author’s Corner with Cassie Yacovazzi

9780190881009.jpegCassie Yacovazzi is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. This interview is based on her new book Escaped Nuns: True Womanhood and the Campaign Against Convents in Antebellum America (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Escaped Nuns?

CY: I was initially interested in anti-Catholicism in early America. As a person with a religious background, I wanted to know more about how nationalism, popular culture, and patriotism could shape who was considered religious insiders and outsiders in America. In my research, I kept coming across brief references to Maria Monk, an escaped nun and the listed author of Awful Disclosures of Hotel Dieu. Her convent exposé of 1836 was a phenomenal success, selling over 300,000 copies before the Civil War. But Monk was a fraud, having never lived in a convent as a nun or otherwise. I wanted to know more about why this book was so popular, what it revealed about anti-Catholic bias, what debates the book sparked, and who the real Maria Monk was. I set out to write a book about Maria Monk, but as I researched, I realized opposition to nuns was a much larger phenomenon. I came across dozens of escaped nun books, learned of various convent attacks, noticed denunciations of convent life littered throughout anti-Catholic materials, and found significant overlap between antebellum reform movements, such as abolition, the common school movement, urban reform, and anti-Mormonism and the campaign against convents. I realized there was a story there, and I wanted to learn and tell that story.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Escaped Nuns?

CY: The campaign against convents in antebellum America was a far reaching movement, as popular as abolitionism, the common school movement, urban reform, and anti-Mormonism. While anti-Catholic and nativist impulses propelled this campaign in part, nuns’ nonconformity to female gender norms of true womanhood—their rejection of marriage, motherhood, and ideals of domesticity—rendered them conspicuous targets of attack among the vanguards of accepted behavior.

JF: Why do we need to read Escaped Nuns?

CY: The history of anti-Catholicism in America is well documented and established. The animus against nuns and convent life, however, has often simply occupied a paragraph or footnote in this history. Yet nuns served as a barometer of American attitudes toward women. For many, the veiled nun represented a waste or corruption of womanhood; as Mother Superior she embodied the wrong kind of woman, masculinized by her position of authority. This image proved stirring enough to lead men into action to “liberate” women from their “captivity” and expose and demolish convents or “dens of vice.” In doing so, many Protestant Americans believed they were protecting women and Protestant American civilization. In the face of rapid urbanization and western expansion this mission appeared imperative. Escaped Nuns traces the facets of anti-convent sentiment, shedding light on a major contest for American identity at a time of rapid demographic and cultural change.

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

CY: For me deciding to become an American historian was a gradual decision rather than a single moment thing. I loved my history courses in high school and especially in college. I majored in Liberal Arts, focusing on History, Philosophy, and English, not really knowing what subject in which to specialize. When it came time to graduate, there was something in me that wanted to stay in academia and continue to pursue the life of the mind. I had found a sort of “home” there. But what would be my focus? I chose history because I thought I could incorporate my other loves of philosophy and literature. I also chose history because it was the subject that best helped me place my worldview, beliefs, and values in context. While in graduate school at Baylor University and then the University of Missouri, history became a way of life. Through acting like a historian I became one. It was in some ways accidental, but I feel comfortable, challenged, and inspired in this role.

JF: What is your next project?

CY: My next project is in some ways a big change from my first. The topic for my next book is Mary Kay—the woman and the cosmetics empire. I’m exploring Mary Kay’s personal story, the growth of her company, and the subsequent Mary Kay culture in the context of women in business, the history of beauty, the feminist movement, and the intersection of gender, capitalism, and religion.

JF: Thanks, Cassie!

The Author’s Corner with Adam Smith

41xrlTvJ9rL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Adam Smith is professor of history at the University College of London. This interview is based on his new book, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterised both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterized both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: Why do we need to read The Stormy Present?

AS: Because it might remind us that political change happens as much through accident as design, with people coming to support potentially radical transformation for reasons far removed from what we might imagine. It will remind us, also, that for its vaunted modernity and fascination with progress, the United States has always been in many respects a profoundly conservative society, preoccupied with a decisive founding moment and anxious about threats to the prevailing order. And finally because the book offers a new interpretation of the coming of the Civil War in which the mass of white northerners—the men and women who were not abolitionists or radicals or even necessarily Republicans, but whose reactions and judgements mattered so much—are placed centre-stage.

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

AS: When I was an undergraduate I was lucky to be taught by Eric Foner, who provided such a compelling account of the Civil War era that I was totally gripped. I don’t know if that was when I decided to become a historian of the United States, but it’s certainly when I began to imagine it as a possibility.

JF: What is your next project?

AS: A study of compromise as a practice and an idea in American politics. 

JF: Thanks, Adam!

The Author’s Corner with William Bolt

boltWilliam Bolt is Assistant Professor of History at Francis Marion University. This interview is based on his new book, Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America (Vanderbilt University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: I wrote Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America because the tariff had been neglected for over 100 years. Since the tariff provided the national government with ninety percent of its annual revenue, I deemed it to be an important subject that historians had ignored for too long.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: Tariff Wars argues that the tariff needs to be a part of the narrative on antebellum politics, but it also argues that the tariff helped to spread democracy. Whenever Congress debated a tariff, scores of petitions and memorials arrived in Washington and public meetings were held regarding the tariff. Many Americans followed these debates and the tariff, in my opinion, helped to draw more Americans into the political process.

JF: Why do we need to read Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: People should read Tariff Wars because this issue was important to the people of the era. The people understood it and closely followed all efforts either to lower or raise the tariff. 

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

WB: I decided to become an American historian about twenty years ago, I took a course on Jacksonian Democracy and the instructor, the late Richard E. Ellis, was having the time of his life relating studies about Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren. Sitting in that classroom and watching him reenact duels and congressional debates I found my calling.

JF: What is your next project?

WB: I am currently working on two follow up projects. A long-term project and a short terms one. My labor of love is a study of the rivalry between Millard Fillmore and William H. Seward. It is tentatively titled, “Empire State Rivalry.” It examines how two men with so much in common came to be bitter enemies. Their rivalry, I argue, hastened the demise of the Whig Party and contributed to the coming of the Civil War. My short-term project is a study of the year 1841. It is tentatively titled, “Year of here Presidents.” It looks at the presidencies of Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler. This work also is relevant to today because there is an intriguing Supreme Court confirmation battle in the final days of Van Buren’s presidency, and also a replace and replace battle over the Independent Treasury and National Bank. The year 1841 also sees the fate of the Amistad captives resolved. So there is a lot going on. These projects will helpfully keep me out of trouble.

JF: Thanks, Will!

The Author’s Corner with Dawn Peterson

PeterDawn Peterson is Assistant Professor of History at Emory University.  This interview is based on her new book Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DP: I came to the adoption stories covered in Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion thirteen years ago. I had entered graduate school in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the United States’ subsequent “war on terror” and initially wanted to write about how discourses of race and family (particularly those emerging around white 9-11 families) supported imperial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as against immigrant communities and communities of color within this country. Yet after reading Michael Paul Rogin’s work on Andrew Jackson while in my third year of graduate school, I was compelled to go in search of the stories that inspired this book.

New to American Indian studies and early U.S. history, I was struck by one of Rogin’s footnotes, which indicated that, during the United States’ rapid expansion into Indian territories in the first decades of the nineteenth century, several white men, including Andrew Jackson, adopted American Indian children. I couldn’t stop thinking about these white adopters and Indian adoptees in the early U.S. Republic and kept traveling to archives to learn more about them. The research I uncovered showed me that, from the earliest moments of the early Republic’s founding, discourses of family and race played a central role in U.S. nation-making and imperial warfare, in this case against Native communities and enslaved people of African descent. I wanted to understand why this was the case and, just as centrally, how people shaped their lives and their communities in the face of U.S. imperial violence.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DP: Indians in the Family argues that pan-Indian unity movements solidifying in response to British-American and U.S. territorial expansion during the latter half of the eighteenth century collided with U.S. citizens’ ideas about race, family, slavery, and freedom to give rise to the imperial idea that Indian people and their homelands could—and should—be adopted into the free white populace of the early U.S. Republic. As the United States expanded its territories west, including those of slaveholding Southerners, this imperial idea subsequently informed a series of intimate struggles between U.S. whites, adopted Indian people, and enslaved people of African descent up through the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

JF: Why do we need to read Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DPAs the current president seeks to revive and celebrate the memory of early U.S. elites such as Andrew Jackson, Indians in the Family reveals the profound violence that propelled these figures to prominence. While many have argued that white impulses such as Jackson’s to adopt Native children are a sign of benevolence, the adoption stories that unfold in the book indicate that both ruling white men and everyday citizens within the United States saw themselves as entitled to own the material resources—and the very lives—of those deemed racially “inferior,” including Native children, not to mention people of African descent. Indeed, the fascinating, compelling, and even horrifying interactions between U.S. whites, Native people, and African Americans indicate that the law and culture of the United States was never oriented around freedom, democracy, or social justice, but was there to prop up white supremacy in general, and white nuclear families in particular. Just as importantly, just as the book illuminates the forms of violence historically supporting and emboldening “white” families in the United States, it shows the complex negotiations people of American Indian and African descent made to claim their bodies, their communities, and their lands as their own.

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

DPI decided to become an American historian because I needed to learn the deep roots of U.S. imperial and white supremacist policies as well as the various resistance strategies that have challenged them. I felt that in order to live ethically in the world that surrounded me, I had to both understand the mechanisms informing European-descended peoples’ vision of themselves as more worthy of material resources and physical safety than anyone else and, as a white women who materially benefits from this history of violence, engage with and support the life-affirming practices that seek to dismantle colonialism.

JF: What is your next project?

DP: My next project continues to explore Native history and its intersections with early U.S. imperialism. In it, I examine how Southeast Indian women navigated extractive U.S. economic policies that aimed to strip Native communities of their economic independence and, in turn, expand Southern slavery into their territories. Focusing on women’s roles in agricultural production, as well as their savvy in local and international trade, I seek to better understand Native women’s efforts in maintaining the economic vibrancy of their communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Southeast.

JF: Thanks, Dawn!

Historicizing Violence Against Members of Congress

Congress

Yale historian Joanne Freeman reminds us that violence against members of Congress has a long history in the United States.  In a recent op-ed at The Washington Post, Freeman takes us back to the contentious decades before the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

When House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and four others were shot during baseball practice at a park in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday morning, it was the third incident of violence involving legislators in recent weeks, and by far the most extreme. On May 24 in Montana, only hours before being elected to the House, Greg Gianforte “body-slammed” Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking a question about health-care policy. Five days later, during an immigration policy protest in the Texas House, Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R) caused a scuffle when he confronted Latino members of the chamber about protesters in the gallery.

This is hardly politics as normal in America. But it’s not unprecedented. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, legislative violence was far more common. State legislatures and Congress sporadically erupted into violence. Lawmakers assaulted each other during debate — in one case in Arkansas, resulting in a death. And occasionally, aggrieved citizens assaulted lawmakers.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Congress was ground zero for legislative violence because it was the epicenter of the nation’s fraught slavery debate. In those two decades alone, there were scores of violent incidents in the House and Senate, including shoving matches, fistfights, guns and knives drawn, canings and the occasional mass brawl.

Read the entire piece here.

More on the Trump-Jackson “Bromance”

OpalThis piece comes from McGill University history professor J.M. Opal, author of the forthcoming Avenging People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation.

Here is a taste of his piece in the New York Daily News:

Bottom line: The Civil War began because of the aggressive expansion of slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, not the tariff disputes of the 1820s and 1830s. If Jackson and the Democrats had continued to run the country, there might have been no Civil War — but there would have been a lot more slavery, for a lot longer. The United States would have become like Cuba and Brazil, weighed down by slavery well into the late 1800s, long after Britain (in 1834) and France (in 1848) had done away with it.

Why does this matter? Trump’s quasi-history hurts us in two ways. First, it glosses over the terrible fact of slavery. To hear it from Trump, Jackson had nothing to do with slavery, which is a bit like saying that Donald Trump has nothing do with real-estate or casinos. And when we forget about slavery, we overlook the terrible effects it had not just on black Americans but also on the overall development of our democracy.

Second, Trump’s version of history only allows men like him to make a difference. Only strongmen matter. Only they can make America great again.

That was not true in the mid-1800s, and it is not true now. Slavery was finally destroyed in our country because of the combined efforts of white abolitionists, black rebels, devout Christians, Yankee trouble-makers, and the Union Army. Abraham Lincoln was pushed to action by people less powerful and more radical than he was.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Bible Cause in East Tennessee

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Last week I drove down Interstate 81 into the Cumberland Gap to give the annual Kincaid Lecture at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.  I had never been to this part of Tennessee before and it was a beautiful day for driving. (I also had my satellite radio tuned to channel 20–E Street Radio!).  The university is located adjacent to Cumberland Gap National Park.

I had never heard of Lincoln Memorial University before Tom Mackie, the Director of the Lincoln Library and Museum, invited me to visit.  My lecture was titled “The Bible in the Age of Lincoln: The American Bible Society and the Origins of Christian America.”  It focused on the creation of the American Bible Society, the role of benevolent associations and Christian reform movements in antebellum America, and the American Bible Society’s attempt to supply a Bible to every American family and do it in two years (1829-1831).

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Lincoln Memorial University has a fascinating history.   As its website notes:

Lincoln Memorial University grew out of love and respect for Abraham Lincoln and today honors his name, values, and spirit. As the legend goes, in 1863 Lincoln suggested to General O. O. Howard, a Union Army officer, that when the Civil War ended he hoped General Howard would organize a great university for the people of this area.

Mackie runs a museum and library that contains the largest collection of Lincoln artifacts in the country and some important archival collections of prominent figures from the 19th-century.  During my tour of the library I got to see Lincoln’s cane, English china that Lincoln purchased in 1858, a traveling exhibit on Lincoln and the Constitution, a piece of Lincoln’s hair, porcelain vases created to promote the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, every picture of Lincoln ever taken, and a bunch of ephemera commemorating Lincoln’s death and legacy.  Mackie is completing a doctoral dissertation on this ephemera that situates Lincolnalia in the fields of memory, material culture, and dime store museums.  It is going to make a great book.

At Lincoln Memorial University

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Next week  (Sept. 22) I am making my first visit to Harrogate, TN. I will be delivering the Kincaid Lecture at Lincoln Memorial University.  My lecture is titled: “The Bible in the Age of Lincoln: The American Bible Society and the Origins of Christian America.”

Here is the press release from LMU:

Harrogate, Tennessee, August 18, 2016—Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) and the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum will present the 2016 Kincaid Lecture Series at 10 a.m. on Thursday, September 22, 2016. Dr. John Fea will present The Bible in the Age of Lincoln: The American Bible Society and the Origin of Christian America based on his book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, $29.95).

 “While his book gives us a seminal history of an organization that has influenced American and world cultures, Dr. Fea’s presentation will closely examine the bible of Lincoln’s time and how it shaped policy and society during the Civil War,” Museum Director Thomas Mackie said. “I am sure his insights will inspire each of us to examine how the Bible is impacting the current election.”

In The Bible Cause, Fea examines the American Bible Society (ABS), whose primary mission at its founding in 1816 was to distribute the Bible to as many people as possible. In the book, Fea demonstrates how the organization’s mission has caused it to intersect at nearly every point with the history of the United States. Today, ABS is a Christian ministry based in Philadelphia with a $300 million endowment and a mission to engage 100 million Americans with the Bible by 2025.

“The Bible Cause is far more than a definitive history of the American Bible Society, though it succeeds admirably in that respect,” said Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives. “John Fea also tells a broader story about American culture, how religion came to play such a central role in shaping national identity and how, in turn, secular ideals have shaped American belief and behavior. It is an important story, told with affection, care and thoughtful critique.”

Fea serves as professor and chair of the department of history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and is the author of a blog entitled The Way of Improvement Leads Home. He teaches courses including United States History to 1865, Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Civil War America, Teaching History and Social Studies, History of American Evangelicalism and Pennsylvania History.

Fea is the author or editor of four other books including Why Study History?:Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic); Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox Press); Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press) and The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Supported by the Dr. Robert L. Kincaid Endowed Research Center, the lecture is free and open to the public. A book signing and dessert reception will take place at 6 p.m. in the museum. For more information or to register, contact Program and Tourism Director Carol Campbell at 423.869.6439.

The Dr. Robert L. Kincaid Endowed Research Center promotes the scholarly study and public understanding of the influence created by the Judeo-Christian Ethic upon the era and the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum is located on the historic campus of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Housing one of the top five Lincoln and Civil War private collections in the world, the Museum is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.  For more information about this and other programs at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, call 423-869-6235.

Lincoln Memorial University is a values-based learning community dedicated to providing educational experiences in the liberal arts and professional studies. The main campus is located in Harrogate, Tennessee.

Democracy Cannot Thrive Amid Violence: A Lesson from Kansas

bleeding-kansasMichael Woods, a history professor at Marshall University and the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border, reminds us that Americans must “reaffirm our dedication to democracy as a process” in the midst of this current election campaign.

Here is a taste of his Journal of the Civil War Era piece on “Bleeding Kansas.”

In our own superheated political climate, Bleeding Kansas might seem disturbingly familiar. Born out of disillusionment and desperation, the struggle in Kansas Territory bred a self-righteous refusal to accept the legitimacy of political rivals – and ultimately released a wave of violence. Whether they fought to protect property, preserve racial privilege, or promote an ideology, participants justified fraud, intimidation, and murder by demonizing their foes. History offers few clear-cut lessons, but it is apparent that democracy cannot thrive amid violence, hectoring, and intolerance. It is precisely when our confidence in “politics as usual” has been shaken that we must shun the temptation to take shortcuts to victory. It is precisely in the high-stakes elections, the ones we are most loath to lose, that we must reaffirm our dedication to democracy as a process. When the process breaks down, everyone loses.

Read the entire post here.

And see our Author’s Corner interview with Woods on his earlier book Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States.

The Author’s Corner With Andrew Diemer

Politics of Black CitizenshipAndrew Diemer is Assistant Professor of History at Towson University. This interview is based on his new book, The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African-Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Politics of Black Citizenship?

AD: Historians have made a fairly persuasive case for the centrality of African Americans, free and enslaved, to the emergence of radical abolition. What is less clear is the role that free blacks played in the political turn that antislavery took in the decades before the Civil War. Certainly many African Americans applauded the growth of broad-based parties committed to stopping the expansion of slavery, even if some of the leaders of those parties sought to distance themselves from the radical, interracial abolition movement, but what role did free blacks play in antebellum politics? I set out to write a book about black politics across the North, but at an early stage realized that the nature of nineteenth-century politics makes this difficult. As much as antislavery dealt with national issues, for free black people in the North, many of the most pressing political issues were state and local matters. Philadelphia, home to the largest free black population in the North (depending on how and when one measures this) was a logical choice. At the same time, it struck me that while we often think of Philadelphia in connection with other major Northern cities, it also had significant connections with Baltimore, and Baltimore had an even larger free black population than Philadelphia. Of course, between these two cities lay a legal boundary between slavery and freedom. I became increasingly interested in these connections, in the movement of African Americans within the region and across that boundary.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Politics of Black Citizenship?

ADThe existence of such large numbers of free African Americans and their movement (or fears of their movement) across the legal boundary between slavery and freedom made black citizenship rights particularly contentious in this region. Free blacks though largely disfranchised on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, shaped the legal and political system which determined their citizenship rights, in particular demanding the right to the equal protection of state and local laws.

JF: Why do we need to read The Politics of Black Citizenship?

AD: The study of slavery and abolition, along with so much of the historical profession, has taken a strongly international turn in recent years. As important as this turn is, and there is certainly an international dimension to my book, I think that it is essential that we balance this international perspective with close attention to the intensely local dimensions of American politics. Free African Americans were acutely aware of the overlapping geographies of their identities and rights. My book helps to show how the tensions between these local, state, national, and international connections generated a politics of black citizenship. Beyond this, and despite the profoundly different historical contexts, we are living in a time when it is particularly important to think about the history of black struggles for citizenship rights. This is a book about how free African Americans challenged a white dominated political system that often denied them fundamental citizenship rights and which therefore left them vulnerable to violence, kidnapping, and enslavement. This is a story which resonates with our own times.

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

AD: I had some great high school history teachers, so I think that was a big part of my interest in American History. My older brother was a big World War II buff and I was always sort of competitive with him, so I think I wanted to one up him by going back to earlier American History. I also remember watching Ken Burns’s Civil War as a really important influence on my historical imagination. When I went to college I thought at first that I wanted to study classics, but a few semesters of conjugating ancient Greek verbs helped me find my way back to American History!

JF: What is your next project?

AD: I am in the early stages of a new book project, a biography of the black abolitionist, William Still. While hardly unknown, he is someone who I think has been somewhat overshadowed by some of his peers, especially Frederick Douglass but others as well. Still is best known for his work in the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia where he was one of the key participants in the Underground Railroad during the 1850s. In that work he was part of some of the most exiting stories of that decade: Christiana, Henry “Box” Brown, Jane Johnson, John Brown, to name only a few. He also went on to become a businessman, activist, philanthropist, and author.

JF: Thanks Andrew!

The Author’s Corner with Emerson Powery

The-Genesis-of-Liberation.jpgEmerson Powery is Professor of Biblical Studies at Messiah College. This interview is based on his new book (with Rodney S. Sadler Jr.), The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved (Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Genesis of Liberation?

EP: This project began as a conversation with Rodney when we were graduate students at Duke.  We were both doctoral students in antiquity (ancient Israel and early Christianity) but invited to serve as TAs for William Turner’s course on African American Religious History.  We read selections from several so-called “slave narratives,” which we noticed had a number of interesting allusions to Scripture.  Thus, we began the journey.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Genesis of Liberation?

 EP: As active agents in the events that led to their freedom, formerly enslaved African Americans were also active hermeneutical agents in interpreting the Bible for survival and did so in ways that challenge some of the prominent conclusions on issues of life and humanity. 

JF: Why do we need to read The Genesis of Liberation?

 EP: It fills in a gap in our historical narrative recognizing that (many) enslaved persons were active agents in their own liberation.  That’s part of the story that is worth hearing.  In addition, the “slave narrative” is, in my opinion, an underused resource for a time period that continues to shape much of the discourse of our present post-civil rights, post-Obama age.

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

 EP: Actually, I’m an historian of early Christianity in antiquity.  But I am also intrigued by the history of interpretation of the Bible and how, in particular, marginalized groups have wrestled with biblical texts.  So, I see this project as an attempt to understand how African Americans, especially those previously enslaved, would interpret a Bible that was appropriated to dehumanize them and keep them in their condition.

JF: What is your next project?

EP: I will return to the ancient world’s form of human bondage.  After working through the issue of slavery through the voices of enslaved individuals (through the so-called “slave narratives”), I turn my attention to a period in which we have limited—if any—sources from the hands of the slave.  I am particularly interested in attempting to understand early Christian ideas and practices from the perspective of enslaved believers who participated in early house churches. 

JF: Thanks, Emerson!

 

2016 Republicans and the Whig Party

HoltMichael Holt of the University of Virginia, the author of several books on antebellum American politics, including The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, is the latest historian to play the historical analogy game.  Over at Larry Sabato‘s blog at University of Virginia Center for Politics, Holt shows the limits of comparing the present Republican Party with the 19th-century Whig Party.

Here is a taste:

Far more parallel to the contemporary situation was the rise of notorious Know-Nothing Party, which in fact did far more to gut the Whig Party before 1856 than did Republicans’ exploitation of anti-southern hostility. Economic dislocation that destroyed blue-collar jobs, unemployment during a severe recession in 1854 and 1855, and the palpable growth of both the foreign-born population and the Catholic Church, which in precisely those years demanded that local governments divide local tax revenues between public and Catholic parochial schools, allowed Know-Nothings to exploit burgeoning religious and anti-immigrant prejudices. “How people do hate Catholics,” future Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in his diary after watching Know-Nothings sweep Cincinnati’s fall elections in 1854, “and what happiness it was to thousands to have a chance to show [that hatred] in what seemed like a lawful and patriotic manner” by voting Know-Nothing. But Know-Nothings allowed angry voters to vent more than religious and ethnic prejudices. They also allowed them to smite established Whig and Democratic leaders who had betrayed them by groveling so overtly for Catholic and immigrant support. A genuinely spontaneous, populist grassroots revolt of angry working- and lower middle-class dissidents, Know-Nothings initially pledged that they would never support any candidate who had ever held or previously sought public office. All professional politicians, they ranted, were the enemy. In their oft-repeated phrase, they exclusively sought candidates “fresh from the ranks of the people.” In its causes and expression, in sum, the Know-Nothing uprising of the 1850s comes as close to previewing today’s Trump phenomenon as one can imagine. Yet it took a different form than the Trump crusade, and that is the all-important difference between then and now.

Read the entire piece here.

The Papers of Martin Van Buren

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Over at Jacksonian America, Mark Cheathem of Cumberland University reports on the official launching of The Papers of Marin Van Buren:

Cumberland University is launching The Papers of Martin Van Buren project on Monday, Feb. 15. (Fittingly, that is Presidents Day.) There will be a press conference in the Vise Library at 2:00 P.M. At 3:30, we will be holding a symposium on presidential papers projects in Labry Hall 130. Speaking at the symposium will be:

Mr. James Bradley, The Papers of Martin Van Buren, Independent historian

Dr. Daniel Feller, The Papers of Andrew Jackson, University of Tennessee

Dr. John Marszalek, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Mississippi State University

Prof. Jennifer Stertzer, The Papers of George Washington and the Center for Digital Editing, University of Virginia

The project website is still being developed, but it is live and will give you a sense of what the project entails.

The Author’s Corner with Corey M. Brooks

LibertyPowerCorey M. Brooks is Assistant Professor of History at York College of Pennsylvania. This interview is based on his new book, Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics (American Beginnings, 1500-1900) (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Liberty Power?

CB: I wrote Liberty Power to highlight how political abolitionists transformed national politics in the decades leading up to the Civil War.  In traditional texts I had read as a young student of American history, what seemed to me the most important radical American social movement appeared surprisingly disconnected from the greatest political rupture in the nation’s history.  In conducting my undergraduate thesis research on John Quincy Adams’s interactions with abolitionists during his post-presidential congressional career, however, I was struck by the forceful, purposeful, and often highly effective efforts of political abolitionists to influence congressional debates.  As I delved more deeply into literature on the coming of the Civil War, I found that analyses of American antislavery activism and sectional political conflict were only rarely in dialogue with each other.  Liberty Power returns the crucial antislavery third-party politics of Liberty and Free Soil Parties to the center of our national political story.

JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Liberty Power?

CB: Liberty Power illuminates how a relatively small but sophisticated group of abolitionist activists exercised outsized political influence and helped fundamentally destabilize the proslavery Second Party System of Whigs and Democrats.   In pioneering and popularizing the rhetorically potent and politically critical Slave Power argument, political abolitionists built a countervailing “liberty power” that laid the groundwork for slavery to become the central issue in national politics.

JF: Why do we need to read Liberty Power?

CB: Liberty Power shows how a radical social movement encountered, identified, and triumphed over grave structural political obstacles.  This story helps us understand the fundamental role of antislavery in causing the Civil War. Far from being naïve idealists or stumbling into unforeseen controversies, political abolitionists directly and intentionally helped force the nation to confront and resolve the deep conflict between freedom and slavery (even if most couldn’t anticipate the scale of the bloodshed such a resolution would require).  Liberty Power helps us better understand both the coming of the Civil War and the nature of American abolitionism, but it is also suggestive of how we might think about the broader history of political change in America and the potential impact of a third party.  Readers of Liberty Power will see how intelligent and passionate political activists overcame daunting odds to reshape American politics.  They managed to succeed not only because of their deeply held moral convictions but also because they understood that to transform the national political system they had to become careful, thoughtful students of how American political institutions worked.  

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

CB: As is the case for many historians, inspirational teachers deserve much of the credit.  The most important was my undergraduate mentor at Penn, the late Robert F. Engs. A few dedicated high school teachers pushed me to work hard at, and come to love, studying history, so I entered college knowing I would major in history, and I always gravitated to American history in particular out of my desire to understand the evolution of the society, and especially the political system, in which I live.  But it was working with Bob Engs as a research assistant annotating a collection of Civil War letters (which we later co-edited and published as Their Patriotic Duty: The Civil War Letters of the Evans Family of Brown County, Ohio [Fordham, 2007]) that convinced me to become a professional historian.  Bob, in his characteristically generous, unassuming style, taught me to love the research process, as he presented me with seemingly small, but often surprisingly complex, assignments designed to generate footnotes contextualizing material in the letters. In completing these serial mini-research projects, I came, I presume by Bob’s design, to embrace the many challenges and occasional thrills of historical research.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: I have a couple of long-term projects in development further exploring the intersection of race, social activism, and political institutions in nineteenth-century America, but more immediately, I am working on an article on public memory of Roger Taney in Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.  In the years just after Taney’s 1864 death, Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner defeated a congressional effort to memorialize the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, while the Maryland legislature, by contrast, commissioned a monumental Taney statue to stand (as it still does) in the most prominent place of honor on the statehouse grounds.  My project will contribute to the Civil War memory studies literature by encouraging us to also rethink the sculpting (literally and figuratively) of public memory of antebellum conflicts.  Historicizing the Taney statue in Annapolis and its replica installed a decade and a half later in Baltimore will shed light on how white Marylanders’ public memory of antebellum conflicts reflected and reinforced the disheartening postbellum racial climate.

JF: Thanks, Corey!