The Author’s Corner with Strother Roberts

StrotherStrother Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. This interview is based on his book Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)

JF: What led you to write Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: As an undergrad I double-majored in economics along with history. The melding of these two disciplines has influenced my research over the years and, in particular, helped spark my interest in environmental history as a sub-field. Economics, at its heart, considers how societies allocate scarce resources. Environmental history similarly studies how past human societies have grappled with the challenges of scarce natural resources, but within the social, cultural, and historical context that is all too often absent from purely economic models. Economics also has a very explicit focus on the power of trade. A number of excellent scholars before me have written about the environmental history of New England, but I often found their work too insular. In the United States today we are used to thinking of ourselves as living in a globalized world. We are less likely to appreciate the fact that the indigenous and European inhabitants of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America were also experiencing the influences of relatively rapid globalization. I wrote Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy to tie the ecological changes that settler societies introduced into New England to the transatlantic commercial and political forces that drove them.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: Colonial New England was an integral part of England/Britain’s imperial commercial empire and everyone from imperial planners to its earliest settlers fully expected colonization to contribute exports to the imperial economy and the larger Atlantic World of which it was a part. Colonists and indigenous communities responded to the incentives offered by transatlantic markets to selectively extract resources from the region’s environment and in the process transformed New England’s physical and political landscape to the point that, by 1790, both would have been unrecognizable to an observer living two centuries earlier.

JF: Why do we need to read Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: The book takes a number of disparate threads from the contemporary historiography of early America and weaves them together into a coherent pattern – while also introducing significant new insights along the way. As I mentioned in my response to your first question, other scholars have done excellent research on the environmental history of New England, but the most influential studies are from the 1980s (and are becoming a bit dated) while even more recent works have tended to be rather insular in their focus. By contrast, most of the rest of the field of early American history stresses the interconnectedness of “the Atlantic World” or self-consciously situates the individual colonies or regions within a #VastEarlyAmerica. One manifestation of this trend has been the proliferation of so-called commodity histories, histories that trace the life of individual commodities from their site of production – usually in the colonies of America – through their processing and marketing, and eventually into the hands of their final owners – usually in Europe or colonial urban centers. Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy combines this new interest in commodity exchange networks and weds it to older discussions of environmental change, to show how the colonial ecology of New England was inextricably tied to the broader transatlantic economy beyond its shores.

The book also cuts through the decades-old argument over whether New England’s economic development was driven by domestic production and demand or by trade with Europe and other colonial regions. A similar argument over whether the consumer revolution and industrial revolution were the result of domestic economic forces or whether they were driven by overseas colonialism has long plagued British history. The best histories, in my opinion, recognize that these are false dichotomies. For instance, the New England farmer who felled an oak to make barrel staves and then sold them to a local merchant likely did not know or care whether those staves were ultimately fated to hold locally-milled flour that would never leave his township, or whether they would be traded to the West Indies to hold slave-grown sugar on a sea-voyage to London. Settlers, from the very first colonists up to the citizens of the early Republic, fully expected to participate in an interconnected system of local, regional, and transatlantic markets. The indigenous inhabitants of New England, too, contributed commodities to these markets, either as the eager consumers of novel European goods and weapons or, increasingly in later decades, as a result of the violent and/or legal coercion exercised by the region’s increasingly hegemonic Anglo-American society. Much of this participation in colonial and Atlantic markets, at whatever level, necessarily rested on the extraction of resources from the regional environment, and each act of extraction had a physical impact on that environment.

Previous environmental histories of New England have failed to appreciate just how profound these physical changes were, or how early they began. In fact, I even surprised myself with some of what I discovered. Take the fur trade, for instance. Gripped by the “Little Ice Age” and facing the depletion of furbearer populations in Europe and eastern Asia, European consumers purchased a tremendous number of furs – most notably beaver pelts – from North America over the course of the early modern period. Native American hunters in New England gladly embraced the trade as a source of European tools, weapons, and cloth, sacrificing tens-of-thousands of beaver for use in European cold-weather fashion. The result was the extirpation of beaver from much of New England by the 1670s and the drainage of hundreds-of-thousands of ponds and wetlands – formerly maintained by beaver dams – by the turn of the seventeenth century. While other scholars have argued that significant ecological change did not come to New England until the supposed advent of commercial farming at the turn of the nineteenth century, my work shows that New Englanders were always commercially-oriented and that profound change began much earlier. In fact, my work on the fur trade suggests large swathes of the New England landscape had been profoundly altered by transatlantic trade before any European ever laid eyes on  its “natural” (or, at least, pre-European encounter) state.

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

SR: That depends on what you mean by “American” historian – my Master’s thesis and my early work in my PhD program focused on First Nations history in Canada. But as I began to consider possible dissertation topics, my PhD advisor pragmatically suggested that a more southerly focus would serve me better with publishers and on the U.S. job market. Since I was most interested in the processes of North American history – the meeting and clashing of indigenous and settler societies and the subsequent formation of new systems and economies that came out of those transatlantic encounters – I shifted my attention to the source-rich and historiographically-storied archives of New England. Both Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Ecology and my next project are defined, at least partially, by the geography of New England (and specifically by the Connecticut River Valley in the case of Colonial Ecology). At the same time, though, I have never wanted to be limited by this geography, which is why the book focuses so much attention on how connections to different parts of North America (and Europe) influenced New England’s environmental history.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: My next book project is an environmental and social history of dogs in the indigenous and Euro-American societies of early New England and New France – which means I get a chance to return to Canadian history. The Cliff’s Notes version so far  is that dogs were essential to indigenous economies as hunting partners and sources of meat, that English settlers intentionally persecuted indigenous dogs as a way to weaken Native American societies to the degree that they were extirpated and replaced by dogs of European descent, that European settlers also relied on dogs for economic purposes and as weapons of war, and that the ecological success of introduced dogs eventually led Euro-American societies to implement policies to control their populations. Today, dogs are the most populous large, non-human, omnivorous predator in the world. Now, that last sentence contains a lot of qualifiers, but it essentially means that once you start looking at things bigger that bugs, rats, and chickens – it’s just dogs and us as the most numerous meat-eaters out there. This was certainly true of the indigenous dogs that inhabited the northeast prior to 1600.  A conservative estimate would suggest that the region was home to at least twice as many dogs as it was wild wolves, while some sources suggest that this ratio would have been far higher. Early English records suggest that introduced colonial dogs were just as numerous as their indigenous cousins were. And yet, I can’t think of a single environmental history that seriously considers the effect that dogs had on the natural environment prior to the nineteenth century. And even those tend to focus on urban environments. Dogs were humanity’s first domesticated partners and the only form of livestock kept by New England’s Indians. They played important roles in the economies and societies on both sides of the European conquest of New England, and, in an important cultural sense, helped define how all of the cultures involved understood what it meant to be human. It is, in my opinion, high time that someone wrote a dogs’ history of early America.

JF: Thanks Strother!

The Author’s Corner with Katherine Gerbner

Christian SlaveryKatharine Gerbner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  This interview is based on her book,  Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian Slavery?

KGI started Christian Slavery with a simple question: how could seemingly good people support something that was morally abhorrent? Specifically, I wanted to know why European Christians, and especially missionaries, accepted slavery. What I was uncovered was a deeply troubling story that is important to understand today. It shows how people with good intentions can play a terrible role in perpetuating injustice, and it demonstrates the long history of complicity between Christianity and slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Slavery?

KGI have three main arguments: (1) far from being forced to convert, enslaved and free blacks had to fight their way into Protestant churches; (2) Protestant missionaries paved the way for pro-slavery theology by arguing that conversion would not lead to freedom for the enslaved; and (3) White Supremacy grew out of “Protestant Supremacy”—the idea that enslaved people could not become Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Slavery?

KGThere’s a lot of discussion about White Supremacy right now. In those conversations, it’s essential to explore what we mean by “whiteness” and where this term comes from. What history shows us is that the word “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial records as a way to justify enslavement. In other words, whiteness was created under slavery in order to exclude people of African descent from freedom. So if we really want to understand White Supremacy, and to combat it, we have to acknowledge the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery.

My book also shows the possibilities for combating racism & White Supremacy. Some evangelical Christians and Quakers played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity could be used to support emancipation. And most importantly, enslaved and free blacks who fought their way into Protestant churches defined their faith around the concept of liberation, in opposition to pro-slavery theology.

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

KGI studied Religion and Middle Eastern Studies in college. But when it came time to write a Senior Thesis, I chose a historical document: the first antislavery petition written in the Americas, which was authored by German and Dutch Quakers in 17th c. Pennsylvania. I started by researching the origin of that document and its reception. As I did so, I realized that the anti-slavery Protest was rejected by English Quakers in Philadelphia. I was surprised by this—I grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school, but I had only learned about Quaker abolitionism. I was shocked to discover that there were Quakers who owned slaves. I wanted to know what else had been left out of the conventional histories. I started there, and I haven’t stopped researching since.

JFWhat is your next project?

KGI’m writing a book about slave rebellion and religious freedom, tentatively called Constructing Religion, Defining Crime. I noticed in my research for Christian Slavery that black Christians and other religious leaders were often blamed for slave rebellions. In response, white authorities created laws designed to criminalize black religious practices. My new research suggests that we cannot understand religion – or religious freedom – without examining slave rebellion. The history of slavery can help us to understand how and why some religious practices have been, and continue to be, excluded from the lexicon of “religion” and even criminalized.

JF: Thanks, Katherine!

The Author’s Corner with Edward Rugemer

slave law and the politics of resistance in the early atlantic world

Edward Rugemer is an Associate Professor of African American Studies and History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: When I was in graduate school at Boston College, both Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone and Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint were published during the years before my oral exams. I read both and was inspired to take on a comparative project, though not, I was advised, for my dissertation. The idea for the comparison at the heart of this book came from my dissertation/ first book, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2008). I realized in writing that book that the planter classes in Jamaica and South Carolina had this very similar relationship with abolitionists. They were the most radically pro-slavery in these different regions of the Anglo Atlantic, the U.S. South and the British Caribbean. When I considered this realization alongside the work of Richard Dunn and Peter Wood, that both Jamaica and South Carolina were “colonies” of Barbados (to use Wood’s phrase), I saw that these two slave societies had followed very similar historical arcs. They had common origins, developed into the wealthiest colonies of their respective regions, and though each went its separate way during the American Revolution, both followed a very similar pattern in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution and the emergence of radical abolitionism. Comparison requires both similarity and difference and the political histories of Jamaica and South Carolina have the necessary mix.

The central theme of the book — the relationship between slave resistance and broader political changes — also came from the first book, specifically in the first few chapters. I felt there was much more to say about the impact of slave resistance upon the political history of slave societies. Some of this work had been done by historians of the American Civil War era such as Jim Oakes and Steve Hahn, and historians of the nineteenth century Caribbean such as Mary Turner and Emilia Viotti da Costa, and more recently Gelien Matthews and Claudius Fergus. But no one had gone deeper into the colonial period and I thought it was important to do so.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: Very early in the history of Atlantic slave societies a political dialectic developed between Africans who forcefully resisted enslavement, and slaveholding colonists who sought to impose the rigid social control they saw as necessary for profitable colonial enterprise. This dialectic is evident in slave law, it developed and changed until the abolition of slavery, and it shaped the histories of Jamaica and South Carolina in fundamentally different ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: First, it is a valuable account of, and explanation for, the political significance of slave resistance in Anglo-Atlantic slave societies from their origins to the 1830s. Secondly, the book makes clear the differences between the slave regimes of the Caribbean and the U.S. In this way it complements Richard Dunn’s important study, A Tale of Two Plantations

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

ER: I worked as a Jesuit volunteer teaching high school in Kingston, Jamaica, from 1994-1996 and my experience there led me to some deep reading in the history of slavery and eventually graduate school.

JF: What is your next project?

ER: I have two different projects that are in the early stages. I am thinking about writing a synthesis of slavery in the Western World. My most ambitious self wants to start with some of the theories on the origins of slavery, move into ancient Greece and Rome, the decline of slavery in Western Europe and its persistence in the Mediterranean, the expansion into the Atlantic. But I want to take this history up to modern slavery and human trafficking in our own time. I don’t think we have an historical narrative that integrates the racial slavery of the Atlantic World, which lasted for generations and has had such insidious afterlives, with the various forms of slavery that persist today. Many modern day abolitionists invoke the abolitionist movements of the past without careful attention to the distinctions between these manifestations of slavery across time and space. Historians need to do this. So I’d like to come up with a synthesis that brings this history together.

The second idea is a deeply archival project about a slaveholder we know very little about. His name is Charles Douglas and the Beinecke Library has about 30 years of his correspondence with his brother Patrick. I read it all during my first year at Yale, thinking I would use it for this book, but I only used one brief quote. Douglas moves from Ayr, Scotland to Jamaica when he was a teenager. He mostly worked as a bookkeeper at first (kind of an assistant overseer), but he does accrue some wealth and becomes a slaveholder. What’s curious about him is that when he buys land, he buys land that directly abuts Moore Town in the Blue Mountains, which is one of the Maroon Towns. He becomes the superintendent for the Moore Town Maroons, which is a position established by the 1739 treaties that ended the first Maroon War and recognized Maroon autonomy within the colony. Formally, he was the Maroons’ military commander, but in fact I don’t think it worked that way. Yet there were these superintendents, one for each of the towns, and they were well paid by the colonial state. But there is an archival challenge: I need to find his reports. I don’t know where they are and no one has ever referenced them. And if I can find them, it could be a really interesting book. I need to dig deeper and I love that challenge, but it will take some time.

JF: Thanks, Edward!

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Bahar

Matthew Bahar is an Asstorm of the seasistant Professor of History at Oberlin College. This interview is based on his new book Storm of the Sea: Indians and Empires in the Atlantic’s Age of Sail (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Storm of the Sea: Indians and Empires in the Atlantic’s Age of Sail?

MB: The book emerged from my interest in two of early American history’s most dynamic subfields, Atlantic and American Indian history. When I began to conceptualize this project, practitioners of each didn’t have much to say to one another; Atlanticists saw Indians as terrestrial people and Native Americanists viewed the Atlantic World as a fundamentally European space. I wanted to write a book that explored one principal question: what happens to the “Atlantic World” when we add Indians to it? The answer readers confront as they move through the narrative might surprise them as much as it did me.

The colonial-era Wabanaki seemed like a good case study to explore this question. They’re among the few Native groups in the east who have remained on their ancestral lands near the ocean up to the present. I aimed to figure out why. As I did, I discovered an incredible story that hasn’t received the appreciation it deserves.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Storm of the Sea: Indians and Empires in the Atlantic’s Age of Sail?

MB: In the two centuries after Europeans first arrived in the American Northeast, the Wabanaki Confederacy coalesced around an expansionist and extractive political project designed to establish dominion over the sea and shore of northern New England and French Acadia. Their appropriation and assimilation of sailing technology proved essential to its fortunes.

JF: Why do we need to read Storm of the Sea: Indians and Empires in the Atlantic’s Age of Sail?

MB: It positions Indians where we’re not accustomed to seeing them – aboard prize ships, scrambling up the rigging, working sails, and commanding the helm. We expect to see Europeans there. But readers will quickly encounter them elsewhere, in places and postures equally unexpected.

History books often adopt a narrative trajectory of declension or progress. This is especially true in Native American history. Protagonists and antagonists in these sorts of stories are easy to identity. Storm of the Sea aims to eschew this. I hope readers instead find a more human narrative that recalls the profound contingency of life in colonial America, as the actors themselves would’ve experienced it.

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

MB: I decided on this profession while working for a couple years in an unrelated field after my undergraduate degree. Looking back, I’m glad I spent time outside academia because it gave me the time and space to reflect intentionally on my past learning and future goals. Moving away from the intellectual community of my college years allowed me to cultivate a better appreciation for the spirit of discovery that’s so central to our experiences in the classroom, library, and archive.

I became an American historian in graduate school because America’s indigenous past had captivated me for many years. I grew up very close to an Indian reservation and in some ways encountered Indians the way many American colonists did: often and everywhere. They were people with whom you interacted every day in a variety of contexts, some amicable and others fraught, and their presence seemed as natural and permanent as everyone else’s in the community. As I studied the history of white-Indian relations, I began to appreciate the distinctiveness of the colonial period and of my own lived experience.

JF: What is your next project?

MB: I’m working on a book-length study of shipwrecks in colonial America. Several of the themes central to Storm of the Sea, such as Native and colonial political economies, catastrophe and misery, gender roles, imperialism, and maritime violence, are shaping my inquiry into this strikingly common transportation disaster in the early modern period. The book will ultimately conceptualize shipwrecks as both destructive and generative experiences for Natives and newcomers alike, politically, socially, and economically.

JF:   Thanks Matthew!

The Atlantic World: A Bibliography

Slave Ship

Graduate students take note!  Over at Black Perspectives, Vanessa Holden and Jessica Parr have put together an excellent bibliography of books on the history of the Atlantic World.  The bibliography is divided into the following categories:

Indigenous Atlantic

African Atlantic

The Atlantic World

South America

The Caribbean

Central America

North America

Europe

Here is the intro to the bibliography:

Several months ago, Five Books published a list of 5 books on the Atlantic World, which included some notable omissions. While not exhaustive, the purpose of this reading list is to better capture the depth and diversity of the field and acknowledge the intellectual contributions of women and scholars of color. Several of the scholars included in this list have produced additional books that may be of interest, and we encourage readers to explore their work further. In organizing this list, we attempted to de-emphasize the structures of empire. We begin with contributions that focus on the Indigenous and African peoples of the Atlantic World, then follow movement across the Atlantic Ocean. We conclude with contributions that discuss connections between South America, the Caribbean, Central America, North America, and Europe and the Atlantic World. 

Read the entire bibliography here.

The Author’s Corner with Peter Choi

ChoiPeter Choi is Director of Academic Programs at Newbigin House of Studies.  This interview is based on his recent book George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Eerdmans, 2018).

JF: What led you to write George Whitefield?

PC: It was a seemingly simple question that got me interested in George Whitefield, especially his later years: “What happened after revival?” I wanted to understand the Great Awakening in all of its various stages, including what I call in the book “revival twilight”––that is, “the long, calmer, and cooler aftermath of the white-hot bursts” of revival. It seemed sensible that to understand the long trajectory of revival I should attempt a study of the lifelong arc of the most important revival preacher. For such a well-known figure, the second half of his life is a surprisingly neglected feature of works on his life. The more I encountered this phenomenon, the more I wanted to know what he was like as he got older. Other questions arose along the way, like, What were the long-term effects of a spirituality of revival on Christian communities? Crucibles rarely leave things intact, and so, how did spirituality and theology change as a result of the fires of revival?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of George Whitefield?

PCThe evangelical revivals and early leaders like George Whitefield were products of an imperial age. Describing how evangelical Christianity emerged from a culture of empire building is therefore essential work for understanding the development of Christianity in America.

JF: Why do we need to read George Whitefield?

PCWith so many questions swirling about the relationship between religion and politics today, and myriad questions surrounding evangelicalism in particular, my book is one attempt to go back to the beginning in order to offer a reexamination of nascent evangelicalism. The past informs our present, and I’m convinced that it’s impossible to understand the state of American Christianity today (and broader issues related to culture and politics for that matter) apart from an honest assessment of the early evangelicals and their entanglement in the British empire.

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

PCAs an Asian American interested in learning about the history of Asian American Christianity, I received helpful counsel early on to study a topic that was related yet distant from the questions in which I had a more vested personal interest. Because of the significant influence of evangelicalism on Korean-American Christianity in particular, I was drawn to a study of revival history more broadly conceived.

Also, in the course of pastoral ministry, I began to see that historical questions interested me as much as, if not more than, theological ones. Beyond doctrine and belief, I became more interested in how Christianity had changed over time.

JF: What is your next project?

PCI’m in the early stages of a project on Christianity and race in the 18th century, attempting to connect the work I’ve done on Whitefield and slavery to other early evangelicals and their relationship to broader processes of racialization occurring in their era. 

JF: Thanks, Peter!

The Author’s Corner with Molly Warsh

WarshMolly Warsh is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh.  This interview is based on her recent book American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700 (Omohundro Institute/University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Baroque?

MWI began working on a history of the early modern pearl trade as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. The project evolved and grew over the years, but the aspect of the story that hooked me at the beginning—the lived experience of the people who dived for pearls, traded them, and wore them—is what kept me passionate about the book until the very end. It was never a great love of pearls that drove me (although I like them!). Rather, it was a deep curiosity about people and the contours of their lives.

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

MW: Patterns of pearl cultivation and circulation reveal vernacular practices that shaped emerging imperial ideas about value and wealth in the early modern world. Pearls’ natural diversity and their subjective beauty (the word “baroque” is the English version of the Spanish term barrueca, used by taxation officials in the Caribbean fisheries to describe a misshapen pearl) posed a profound challenge to the imperial impulse to order and control, underscoring the complexity of the early modern world and informing the later use of the word “baroque” as a metaphor for unbounded and irregular expression.

JF: Why do we need to read American Baroque?

MWWell, I have to say that the book is full of good stories. But beyond that, I would like to think that it offers a valuable perspective on how embedded in global context the Americas were from the very beginning, and also how so many different people, in all walks of life and all over the globe, shaped and were shaped by the evolving parameters of the early modern world. American Baroque is a book about pearls, but it is really a book about people and the fundamental independence of thought and action, even in the most constrained circumstances. Pearls offer a glimpse of people around the globe both caring for and exploiting one another and the natural world and its products. In doing so, they shaped emerging ideas about the nature and value of subjects as well as objects—in short, about the nature of empire.

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

MWI wear a lot of hats now—world historian, historian of the Caribbean, historian of the Iberian imperial sphere, but I still consider myself an American historian on a deep level. People raise their eyebrows when say that, but it is true: I am someone who is deeply interested in the history of the Americas in the broadest sense of the term. I first fell in love with American history as a kid growing up on Boston. That love was cemented by wonderful history teachers at my public high school in Cambridge, MA and then by fantastic professors in college at Cornell. It wasn’t until I went back to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, after living in Madrid for several years, that I switched my focus from colonial British North America to the entangled histories of the continent and the world.

JF: What is your next project?

MWI’m calling my new project Servants of the Season: Itinerant Labor and Environmental Flux in Historical Perspective. The title is pretty self-explanatory. In a nutshell, I’m interested in the types of impermanent and semi-permanent arrangements that characterized people’s engagement with the world of work beyond the familiar categories of slavery and freedom. I’m particularly intrigued by how fluctuations in the natural world shaped these types of agreements, either coerced or voluntary. The project is still in its early stages, but I think I’m going to take a very broad approach to this new book and consider historical phenomena from circa 1500 to the present day.

JF: Thanks, Molly!

Is the Hourglass Effect Necessarily a Bad Thing?

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I really enjoyed thinking through Nathan Perl-Rosenthal‘s post at Panorama titled “The Hourglass Effect in Teaching the American Revolution.”  Here is Perl-Rosenthal’s description of the so-called “hourglass effect”:

Many of us who teach the American Revolution in an Atlantic and global context have run into the “hourglass problem:” A course that is geographically capacious at the beginning and the end but narrows in the middle to eastern North America. This post analyzes that problem and examines some solutions, one of which draws on my essay, “Atlantic Cultures and the Age of Revolution,” published in last year’s WMQ-JER joint issue (William and Mary Quarterly 74, no. 4,  667–696).

The hourglass problem arises from trying to synthesize old and new ways of seeing the American Revolution in a single course. You probably start your class with a wide-angle early modern frame: Big, oceanic topics like global empire, Atlantic slavery, and the consumer revolution are good for framing and explaining the coming imperial crisis. But before long, the course’s terrain contracts as you turn to the traditional chronology of the Revolution. One feels the squeeze already with the Sugar, Stamp, and Townshend Acts. After early 1770, it gets hard to leave eastern North America. First one is in Boston for the Massacre, then explaining the local politics of the Coercive Acts, followed by Lexington and Concord, and the debate over independence. The same goes for the war years and the critical period. A reopening outward typically only gets underway in the 1790s….

The geographic cinching-up of the 1760s and 1770s, by temporarily shutting out events anywhere but North America, paradoxically ends up reinforcing the very exceptionalist narrative of the Revolution that a wider lens is supposed to help us avoid. The wider world may play its part in the revolutionary era, this approach implies, but during the crucial period of the 1770s and 1780s there is a particular and special North American story that must be told. 

Perl-Rosenthal offers some interesting suggestions for avoiding this hourglass problem, which he believes “reinforces the very exceptionalist narrative of the Revolution that a wider lens is supported to help us avoid.”  I encourage you to read the entire piece.

As I read Perl-Rosenthal’s post I was struck by the presuppositions that guided the piece.  It is assumed that any discussion of local narratives is bad or somehow contributing to American exceptionalism.  He uses terms like “traditional chronology” as if that is a bad thing.  Those who get too caught-up in this narrative “feel the squeeze.”  And, of course, the word “exceptionalism” is a very loaded term with negative connotations in the academy.  (In some ways, I would argue, the American Revolution was an exceptional event, even as it was shaped by global forces).

Maybe I am just too old and traditionalist, but I do think that a course in the American Revolution still has a civic function to play in the development of our students and this can be done without falling into unhealthy forms of nationalism.

Episode 36: The 18th-Century Atlantic World

PodcastThose of us who consider ourselves to be early American historians have been engaging with “the Atlantic World” paradigm for some time now. But what is the Atlantic World and why do so many historians find it compelling? Host John Fea explores the Atlantic life of William Moraley. They are joined by historian Timothy Shannon, whose recent work, Indian Captive, Indian King: Peter Williamson in American and Britain, explores yet another 18th-century life that spans either side of the Atlantic.

 

The Author’s Corner with Randy Browne

51HQEW4XcnL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Randy Browne is Assistant Professor of History at Xavier University. This interview is based on his new book, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean?

RB: In graduate school I knew I wanted to study the history of slavery—and I thought I was going to write a dissertation about slave resistance in the American South. But two things happened that led me down a different path. First, as I turned my attention toward the wider Atlantic world, I was struck by the demographic differences between slavery in North America and the Caribbean and especially by just how deadly Caribbean plantation societies were. As historians have long known, most Atlantic slave societies were death traps; slave populations outside of the U.S. did not reproduce themselves, and slaveowners relied on the transatlantic slave trade to replace slaves they worked to death. But what, I wanted to know, did this demographic reality mean on the ground, for enslaved people’s day-to-day lives? The second thing that happened was that I came across a remarkable series of legal records—the reports of British Crown officials known as fiscals and protectors of slaves—from nineteenth-century Berbice (part of what is now Guyana) in which enslaved people themselves described their world, the challenges they faced, and their relationships with one another and their enslavers. It didn’t take long for me to realize that enslaved people were primarily concerned with trying to find ways to survive—which was extraordinarily difficult given the conditions they faced. Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean is my exploration of what the unrelenting struggle for survival looked like.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean?

RB: I argue that for most enslaved people the central problem was not how to resist or escape slavery but how to survive. I also argue that using survival as a lens changes they way we understand enslaved people’s social relationships, cultural practices, and political strategies. 

JF: Why do we need to read Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean?

RB: In my view, there are two major reasons to read my book. First, taking the problem of survival as the starting point challenges readers to reconsider some of their assumptions about slavery, power, and enslaved people’s agency. In particular, it offers an alternative to the domination and resistance framework that has predominated for decades—a framework that makes two problematic assumptions: (1) that the organizing principle for enslaved people’s politics was the struggle for “freedom” and (2) that slaves’ lives are best understood by focusing on their conflicts with enslavers. Instead, what I show is that most enslaved people recognized that escaping slavery was unlikely and were therefore preoccupied with the challenge of survival. Foregrounding survival also reveals that the power relationships of Atlantic slavery were much more complex than we often imagine. Enslaved people fought their oppressors, of course, but they also navigated complex and fraught relationships with one another that were at least as important. In the end, I hope readers will realize, like I did, that the story of enslaved people’s resistance to slavery and the story of their struggle to survive intersected but were not the same.

The other thing I hope readers take away from the book is an appreciation for the human stories that I reconstructed from the remarkable archive that distinguishes Berbice from most slave societies, where the voices of ordinary slaves are so much harder to find. Taken together, the records of the Berbice fiscals and protectors of slaves are the single largest archive of first-person testimony from enslaved people in the Americas. And rather than focus on a handful of exceptional characters, they document the day-to-day lives of hundreds of enslaved people from virtually every possible background. These stories reveal, in astonishing and often painful detail, the world that enslaved Africans and their descendants confronted, their hopes and fears, and their efforts to survive horrific conditions.

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

RB: Even before college, I knew that I wanted to study and maybe teach history one day. As an undergraduate at Eckerd College, I got very interested in the history of slavery and especially the American South, which is what I thought I was going to focus on when I arrived at the University of North Carolina for graduate school. But as soon as I came across the sources I describe above, I knew I had to shift gears and focus on Berbice. I quickly fell in love with Caribbean and Atlantic history and never looked back.

JF: What is your next project?

RB: I’ve started work on a history of slave drivers—enslaved men appointed by plantation managers or planters as supervisors—throughout the Caribbean. I got interested in the complicated social and political role of drivers while writing my first book (which has a chapter devoted to drivers) and want to build on what I learned to take a wider approach to these crucial go-betweens, who haven’t received nearly as much attention as they deserve. I’ve found some very exciting records from Cuba and Jamaica already and am casting a wide net—so feel free to send any sources my way!

JF: Thanks, Randy!

The Author’s Corner with Patrick Griffin

515zcPMhSNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Patrick Griffin is Madden- Hennebry Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. This interview is based on his new book, The Townshend Moment: The Making of Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth-Century (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Townshend Moment?

PG: I started the book with nothing more than a hunch.  I had always been fascinated by the parallels and connections between Ireland and America in the eighteenth century.  And two British brothers, Charles and George Townshend, at the very same moment held important positions that helped determine the fate of each place.  Could their stories, if brought together, tell us more about Ireland and America and about the empire the brothers were responsible for?  I began scratching the surface, and I discovered that their entangled story suggested a deeper set of questions.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Townshend Moment?

PG:  At certain junctures of time and through contingent events, men and women come to believe they are living during critical “moments.”  Empire and revolution are born through such ways of thinking.

JF: Why do we need to read The Townshend Moment?

PG: We need to read this story because it reminds how complex the past really is and how we, as actors, try to come up with simple ways to bring meaning to that complexity and act on that meaning in the present with an eye toward creating the future.  The book offers on one level a dual biography of two larger-that-life characters who determined the fortunes of empire, as well as a comparative history of Ireland and America in the eighteenth century.  It also explores, in a new way, the relationship between imperial reform and revolution at the beginning of the “Age of Atlantic Revolution.”  Finally, it suggests how powerful people believe that they can comprehend and shape the forces of history and global processes of change to try to bring order to a system.  Of course, they soon learn that people far away have other ideas.  They, too, come to believe they can craft their own destinies, but ones often at odds with what those in power propose.  This is a classic tale of hubris, a drama in fact.

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

PG:  I became an American historian by dumb luck, contingency, or Providence.  I don’t quite know which. I was destined to be a Political Scientist.  I started my graduate career doing Comparative Politics.  I soon learned that I had talents in other areas.  In a graduate program for history, I followed my passions, and they led me to the eighteenth-centiry Atlantic.  I have been there ever since, and I imagine I will be there for a long time still.

JF: What is your next project?

PG: I am, speaking of hubris, working on a study of the Age of Atlantic Revolution(s).  The parentheses matter here.  I am not sure if the period gave birth to a singular event or to a plurality of events.  We shall see.  I am calling it, for lack of a better term, a provocation.

JF: Thanks, Patrick!

The Author’s Corner with Sam White

51eyPpHtiAL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Sam White is associate professor of History at The Ohio State University. This interview is based on his new book, A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write A Cold Welcome?

SW: About seven years ago, I finished a book about climate and crisis in the Middle East—The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire. Researching that book had meant a lot of time away from family reading through difficult records in archives in Turkey and Europe, and so this time I wanted to work on something closer to home. Colonial American history also attracted me because, while its narrative may seem familiar, a closer look reveals that there is always so much more going on underneath the surface and more ways to find it out.  By bringing in new perspectives from ongoing historical, archaeological, and scientific research, I could tell a story much more compelling than the one I had learned in school—and much more relevant to the present day.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Cold Welcome?

SW: In A Cold Welcome, I show how the first European explorers and settlers came to North America unprepared for the continent’s stronger seasons and the extreme weather characteristic of the Little Ice Age. Thanks to new research, we can understand how those challenges shaped colonial history in ways both subtle and profound.

JF: Why do we need to read A Cold Welcome?

SW: First, these early colonial ventures make for fascinating stories. I wrote A Cold Welcome to be a book that anyone could read and enjoy. Second, the rapid climatic and environmental change of our own times means that we need to rethink the ways we look at the past as well. We have new climate data that can give us remarkable new insights into historical events. Moreover, I believe there are lessons in our history as we confront global warming, and these lessons are not as simple or straightforward as we might imagine. 

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

SW: That’s a long story—and even with the book out, I’m still not sure I’d call myself an American historian. To me, A Cold Welcome is not so much a story about America as a story about the confusion of people from one continent encountering a new continent with different climates and environments. It was that historical experience—and its parallels to our experience of rapid environmental change—that concerned me most as I wrote this book.

JF: What is your next project?

SW: At the moment, I’m mostly working with historical climatologists on technical issues of how we can combine natural records (such as tree rings) with man-made records (such as weather diaries) in order to better reconstruct historical climate variability and its impacts. I’m the lead editor of a big textbook on that subject, The Handbook of Climate History, which is coming out in early 2018. Beyond that, I’d like to write a book about disasters and migration to the United States from colonial times to the 20th century.

JF: Thanks, Sam!

Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Abolitionist

laySalon is running an excerpt from Marcus Rediker‘s new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.  Here is a taste:

Lay is little known among historians. He appears occasionally in histories of abolition, usually as a minor, colorful figure of suspect sanity. By the nineteenth century he was regarded as “diseased” in his intellect and later as “cracked in the head.” To a large extent this image has persisted in modern histories. Indeed David Brion Davis, a leading historian of abolitionism, condescendingly called Lay a mentally deranged, obsessive “little hunchback.” Lay gets better treatment by amateur Quaker historians, who include him in their pantheon of antislavery saints, and by the many excellent professional historians of Quakerism. He is almost totally unknown to the general public.

Lay was better known among abolitionists than among their later historians. The French revolutionary Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville gathered stories about him almost three decades after his death, during a visit to the United States in 1788. Brissot wrote that Lay was “simple in his dress and animated in his speech; he was all on fire when he spoke on slavery.” In this respect Lay anticipated by a century the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, who was also “all on fire” about human bondage. When Thomas Clarkson penned the history of the movement that abolished the slave trade in Britain, in 1808, a moment of triumph for that country, he credited Lay, who had “awakened the attention of many to the cause.” Lay possessed “strong understanding and great integrity,” but was “singular” and “eccentric.” He had, in Clarkson’s view, been “unhinged” by cruelties he observed in Barbados between 1718 and 1720. When Clarkson drew his famous graphic genealogy of the movement, a riverine map of abolition, he named a significant tributary “Benjamin Lay.” On the other side of the Atlantic, in the 1830s and 1840s, more than seventy years after Lay’s death, the American abolitionists Benjamin Lundy and Lydia Maria Child rediscovered him, republished his biography, reprinted an engraving of him, and renewed his memory within the movement.

Lay is not the usual elite subject of biography. He came from a humble background and was poor most of his life, by occupation and by choice. He lived, he explained, by “the Labour of my Hands.” He was also considered a philosopher in his own day, much like the ancient Greek Diogenes, the former slave known for speaking truth to power. (He refused Greek nationality and insisted that he was, rather, “a citizen of the world.”) Lay lived a mobile, far-flung life, in England, Barbados, Pennsylvania, and on the high seas in-between, all of which shaped his cosmopolitan thinking. Unlike most poor people, he left an unmediated record of his ideas, most significantly in his own book, “All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates,” a rich and remarkable body of evidence by any measure.

Read the entire excerpt here.

 

 

 

Joyce Chaplin vs. Ted Cruz

Perhaps you have seen the Twitter battle taking place between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Joyce Chaplin.   Cruz ran for POTUS In 20016.  Chaplin is an early American historian and chair of Harvard’s American Studies program

Chaplin’s claim that the United States was formed by an international community through the Treaty of Paris (1783) is true.  Having said that, to connect the Treaty of Paris with Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement seems to be a bit of a reach. I hope Chaplin will write a longer piece on this.  I am less interested in the connections between Paris 1783 and Paris 2017 and more interested in Chaplin’s understanding of the relationship between the past and the present on matters like this.

Cruz, of course, can’t stay away.  His tweets reveal his simplistic understanding of the American Revolution.  As Cruz proved during his presidential campaign, he is incapable of nuance, especially when history does not conform to his view of American exceptionalism.

I wonder what Cruz would say about me if he ever found out that I tell my students that the Americans would not have won the Revolutionary War without the help of France, Spain, and other European powers.

Here are the tweets:

The Author’s Corner with Lisa Lindsay

atlantic-bondsLisa Lindsay is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This interview is based on her new book, Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Atlantic Bonds?

LL: In a biography of a women’s rights advocate in mid-20th century Nigeria, I read that her grandfather had come to Africa from South Carolina in the 1850s and stayed there for the rest of his life.  I was intrigued, because it seemed that this man, James Churchwill Vaughan, embodied connections between the American South and West Africa that we don’t often think about: the “return” migration of African Americans, the effect of the diaspora on Africa, and the similar but also contrasting histories of slavery and white supremacy in the antebellum south and colonial Africa.  So I began to try to find out about this fellow Vaughan.  Once I learned that he had emigrated to Liberia and then Nigeria, been captured in wars feeding the slave trade, led a revolt against white missionaries, and founded a prosperous family of activists who stayed in touch with their relatives in the United States, I was hooked.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Atlantic Bonds?

LL: James Churchwill (Church) Vaughan’s life story forms one thread in a larger fabric of interconnections during a transformative period in Atlantic history: when slavery was abolished in the United States and colonialism began in West Africa, and when black people in both places confronted challenges to their security and autonomy.  Following Vaughan’s journeys from South Carolina to Liberia to several parts of Yorubaland (Nigeria) enables a view of linkages across the nineteenth century Atlantic world as well as a comparison of related and similar phenomena in various settings.

JF: Why do we need to read Atlantic Bonds?

LL: The book brings together the histories of the United States, Africa, and the African diaspora–whose practitioners do not often engage substantially with each other’s scholarship–and of slavery and colonialism, which are generally studied separately.  This wide, comparative view yields two sets of revelations often missed by specialists who focus exclusively on one place.  First, it reminds us that American slavery was part of a connected, Atlantic world of bonded labor, one where slavery and freedom were not stark opposites but rather framed a continuum of dependency relations.  Second, the book probes the relationship between diasporic Africans and the politics of African colonialism, showing how consciousness of the diaspora informed opportunities and strategies in Africa.

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

LL: Actually, I’m an Africanist historian.  My first monograph was on colonial Nigeria.  But I have always been interested in the interplay between the local and the global in African history, and in comparative history.  As a graduate student at the University of Michigan I had the good fortune to work with Rebecca Scott, Tom Holt, and my adviser Fred Cooper, who were collaborating on a project about postemancipation societies.  So from early on I was intrigued by cross-regional comparisons, particularly as they relate to slavery and its aftermath.  At UNC-Chapel Hill, I’m in a department with a distinguished faculty in US, and particularly Southern, history.  And so when I became interested in the story of Church Vaughan, it gave me the chance to bring together the expertise I had already developed on Nigeria with new challenges and rewards in studying American history.

JF: What is your next project?

LL: I keep moving back in time and to larger geographic frames.  The next project will center on the history of women in the Atlantic slave trade, tracing such topics as the enslavement of women, women in the middle passage, and women in the antislavery movement over roughly the 16th to the 19th centuries.

JF: Thanks, Lisa!

The Author’s Corner with Zara Anishanslin

portraitofawomaninsilkZara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. This interview is based on her new book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Portrait of a Woman in Silk?

ZA: The moral to my author’s story? We historians should visit museums.

Initial inspiration came because—like many of the people, ideas, and things discussed in the book—I crossed the Atlantic. One day in London, flipping through eighteenth-century silk samples at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Study Room, I had the nagging feeling I’d seen these fabrics before. In particular, I thought I’d seen some of the large floral patterns in a portrait at the Winterthur Museum. A quick bit of digging in the V & A’s research library confirmed my hunch. There was indeed a portrait of a woman wearing London made silk at Winterthur. Digging deeper, I soon found that not only was this woman wearing London—or more specifically, Spitalfields—silk, but that we knew who designed the silk, who wove it, who painted the portrait, and who the woman in the portrait was. As I continued to dig into what was known about each of these four people—two women and two men—an intriguing pattern emerged. Each was not only identifiable, but notable in their own time, financially solvent, literate, and almost certainly educated. And yet, each left the smallest of paper trails. Using traditional archival sources only, they all but disappear from history. How, then, to tell their stories? I decided to use the evidence they did leave behind—material and visual things—to resuscitate their lives as part of an unwitting (but no less real) network around the making, buying, and using of this single object. Tracing the full biographies not just of this network of four, but of the object itself across space and time, I ultimately uncovered a whole world of hidden histories of thousands of other people, things, ideas, and events connected to this portrait of a woman in a silk dress. My nagging feeling in a London museum became this book.   

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Portrait of a Woman in Silk?

ZA: Portrait of a Woman in Silk argues that the production, consumption, and use of commodities in the eighteenth-century British Empire created object-based communities that tied its inhabitants together, while allowing for different views of the Empire. The many histories hidden in this single object lay bare a mental and material world created as much by women’s labor as by men’s, and a transatlantic economy driven by colonial Americans as much as metropolitan producers—Americans who were not just avid consumers but also sophisticated producers, motivated to make and buy things by political, cultural, and personal concerns far more complex than emulative refinement alone.

JF: Why do we need to read Portrait of a Woman in Silk?

ZA: Because it’s filled with really intriguing stories about the long eighteenth-century you haven’t read before! Although its primary focus is the 1720s-1770s, its chronology is the collective lifespan of the network of four who created the portrait of a woman in silk. Conveniently, this ranges roughly from the Glorious Revolution to George Washington’s first presidency (c. 1686/8 to 1791). This timespan allows for discussion of a lot of fascinating people and events, from South Carolinian Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Queen Caroline of England, and from England’s Calico Crisis of 1719 to the American Revolution. In part because I wanted to show how many histories are hidden within things—even things whose function we think we understand, like a portrait—my book deliberately encompasses a wide range of historical fields and topics. In addition to cultural history, it touches upon fields including economic, labor, political, scientific, social, fashion, intellectual, religious, and women’s history. And it discusses subjects as varied as how much silkworms defecate to the politics behind 1760s labor protest.

But history aside, I’ve got a methodological reason to hope you read it. My favorite part of how Yale Press summed up my book was that it contributes to “our ongoing conversation about how to write history.” I hope that’s true. I care deeply about how we historians craft the stories we tell. In part this is because I appreciate good writing. And I think we’ll reach a wider audience outside academia if we write things people want to read. So I hope Yale is right, and that my book adds to our conversation about the historian’s craft. More specifically, I hope it makes other scholars think about how they might use objects to craft history. It’s heartening—and I’m delighted—that so many historians increasingly now embrace material culture as a valid type of evidence. But material culture is not just a type of evidence. It’s also a field of study, with its own theoretical and historiographical foundations. Sometimes it seems as though these underpinnings get lost. So my hope of how I might contribute to our collective conversation of how to write history has two parts to it. First, of course, I wanted to show the many fascinating and otherwise untold histories hidden in things. In addition, I wanted to show the theoretical benefits of material culture as a field of study. What types of histories come to light when—instead of using material culture to answer questions, we make the object itself the question?    

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

ZA: When I was a little girl in Pennsylvania, my grandmother (one of the people to whom this book’s dedicated) told me tales of our eighteenth-century ancestors, of Moravian missionaries (women and men) and soldiers in the American Revolution. I would visit their graves with her and wonder about their long ago lives. As a teenager, I often went to World War II reunions with her and my granddad, who was a pilot stationed in the Pacific. Hearing the men reminisce fascinated me. But at some point, there always came a time when “women and children” were asked to leave the room. The veterans were about to discuss POWs, and death marches, and bombs, and other things too terrible, in their view, for our ears. I found this frustrating. I wanted to hear all the stories. In college at UNC-Chapel Hill, I indulged my love of the past by majoring in History. I realized that if I studied history, I could dig up the stories buried in those eighteenth-century graveyards, and listen to those veterans’ conversations behind closed doors. American history first sparked my childhood interest in the past. But my college Honors thesis was on the French Revolution, and I’ve always felt it’s important to look beyond our own borders when thinking about American history. Honestly, I’m not sure I would be an Americanist if Atlantic World history weren’t such a vibrant field when I went to grad school. But it was. And lucky me! Since I work on colonial and revolutionary era America, it’s easy to be an Atlanticist and an Americanist both.

JF: What is your next project?

ZA: I’m at work on a few projects on the American revolutionary era, mostly focused on material and visual culture. I’m pretty much done with two articles that I hope find a home soon. These are part of a long-ranging synthetic material history of the period (1763-83) I’m planning. If I do it properly, this is a huge project that will take a fair amount of time even by scholarly standards. So in the meantime, I’m also at work on a new, smaller, overlapping book project I’m very excited about.

It’s the history of an enslaved man who painted portraits in Massachusetts and the London artist (possibly also of partial African descent) he studied with in Britain. It follows their intertwined lives back and forth across the Atlantic. During the Revolution, the enslaved man—enslaved to loyalists who fled to London—enlisted to fight for the patriots, while the London artist moved to Philadelphia to paint the luminaries of the early republic. It’s a history of what it meant to be African and an artist in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic, and a history of slavery and freedom in the revolutionary era told through art and war. I admit I’m writing it from a political as well as a historical imperative. I feel it’s especially critical right now that we pay careful attention to the origin stories we tell about America, and that we’re vocal about including black American contributions in the narratives we tell about the past.

JF: Thanks, Zara!

The Author’s Corner with Emily Clark

aluminousbrotherhoodEmily Clark is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. This interview is based on her new book, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: A Luminous Brotherhood is a much-revised adaptation of my doctoral dissertation. Initially my dissertation was a huge (way too huge) telling of religion and race in New Orleans with a focus on Afro-Creole communities. New Orleans Afro-Creoles were primary Catholic, often bilingual (or even trilingual), often educated, and many of them were free during the antebellum period. The Cercle Harmonique, the name the Afro-Creole Spiritualist community gave themselves, was only going to be a chapter of the project. They practiced Spiritualism from 1858 as the country was on the verge of a civil war through the end of Reconstruction in 1877. The dissertation I envisioned myself writing went beyond a group of men holding séances for 19 years, but as I began to read their séance records I realized that they told a much bigger story.

The spirits communicating with the Cercle Harmonique included Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, John Brown, Voltaire, Toussaint Louverture, Robespierre, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Jesus, and Confucius to name just a few. Their messages covered issues of politics, gender, racism, equality, poverty, power, and social injustice. Messages responded to local massacres of black politicians, the death of beloved martyrs for black rights, and issues of religious corruption. The Spiritualism of the Cercle Harmonique situated their practice in their immediate world of New Orleans, the region of the American South, the nation-state of the U.S., the politics of the Atlantic world, and issues of cosmic proportion. Their séance table opened up a vast and complex world.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: This book contends that the Cercle Harmonique envisioned the proper social, political, and religious ordering of the material world through communication with a wise spirit world. Through their séances the Cercle Harmonique connected with an idealized society whose members provided the Afro-Creoles with a republican ideology to combat politically destructive forces on earth and create a more egalitarian world.

JF: Why do we need to read A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: A Luminous Brotherhood weaves together a number of threads about the long nineteenth century in America: race, liberal religion, politics, anti-Catholicism, the Atlantic world’s age of revolutions, reform, utopian impulses, republican thought, slavery, and more. Though it focuses on a small group of Afro-Creoles, the story it tells is much bigger. The practice of the Cercle Harmonique allows us to sharpen our conclusions about those topics.

The Cercle Harmonique articulated a strong critique of racism and white supremacy that still has resonance today. They and the spirits they communicated with argued that racial identity had no real meaning. Bodies were only material envelopes that temporarily encased our spirits. Bodies only had meaning in the material world, whereas our spirits existed long after. One spirit even wondered if people would have followed Jesus had he been black. White supremacy was a real problem for the Cercle Harmonique and remains one today. The Afro-Creole Spiritualists I studied offer a rich example of the intersections between religion and race in America, and A Luminous Brotherhood provides a close look at how religion can provide strong critiques to societal norms and injustices. The book also reveals how religion simultaneously supports such societal norms and injustices. As I tell my students, American religion is complicated, and my book reflects that too.

Additionally, A Luminous Brotherhood is the first full-length study of the New Orleans Cercle Harmonique and one of the first academic texts on American Spiritualism to provide a close look at the practice and records of a nineteenth-century Spiritualist group. Previous works on American Spiritualism typically focus on major figures and ideas but fail to offer a deep look at the everyday practice of Spiritualism. Since much of the Cercle Harmonique’s séance records are intact, A Luminous Brotherhood looks at the spirits who communicated with the Cercle Harmonique, explores the significance of their presence, and situates them in the context surrounding their communication. The book examines what the spirits said and asks why.

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

EC: I’m not so sure that I decided to become an American historian but rather just became one. During my time as an undergraduate student at Austin College and then an M.A. student at the University of Missouri, I was drawn to the interplay between religion and culture but not from a historical perspective. It wasn’t until I started my doctoral work at Florida State University that I began to study American religious history proper. I describe myself as being haunted by the stories that archives hold and feel the need to tell them. I encourage my students to consider the historical context of every source we examine. Just about all my academic work and class materials examine people, trends, communities, practices, ideas, and conflicts from America’s past. Even now there are times that I think of myself as a historian—I am trained in historical methods, after all—but I also think of myself squarely in the field of religious studies. I’m not surprised that I’ve become an American historian, but I think of that as one element of my academic identity.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I have a couple projects in the works. I’m working on two edited volumes, one on digital humanities and material religion and the other on race and new religious movements. I’m also in the early research stages of my next full-length monograph, Jesuits, Native Americans, and Colonialism in the Pacific Northwest. While the historiography on Jesuit missions typically focuses on the seventeenth-century evangelists in New France, this work will interrogate the interactions between Native Americans and Jesuits in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike those earlier Jesuits, the Italian Jesuits out west operated more systematically and as part of the federal push to “civilize” and evangelize Native tribes in this region.

JF: Thanks, Emily!

The Author’s Corner with Rashauna Johnson

slaverys-metropolisRashauna Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth University. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge University Press, 2016).  

JF: What led you to write Slavery’s Metropolis?

RJ: I grew up in New Orleans, but I had no idea how central slavery was to that city’s history. I wanted to know more about the daily lives of the actual enslaved people who lived there as well as the ways that slavery as an institution shaped the city’s physical, economic, political, social, and cultural landscapes. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Slavery’s Metropolis?

RJ: This book argues that, in New Orleans, black Atlantic journeys and intimate interracial assemblies were neither exceptional to nor subversive of chattel slavery, but were instead essential to that system of domination. By decoupling cosmopolitan journeys and assemblies from their liberatory associations, we deepen our understanding of the malleability of modern power in New Orleans, early America, and the Atlantic world. 

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery’s Metropolis?

RJ: From monographs to movie theaters, we as a society are grappling with chattel slavery and its legacies, especially the ways that the institution shaped everything from capitalism to the nation’s colleges. This book adds to that effort by shifting focus from the paradigmatic rural plantation to show how a seemingly permissive, heterogeneous port city could at the same time be a capital of slaves and slavery. Ultimately, it shows how heterogeneity and interconnectedness can deepen inequality just as easily as they disrupt it.

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

RJ: My mother kept her prized copy of John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom under her nightstand’s telephone; as children, every time we wanted to make a call we had to confront history. But it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that I realized I could use the historian’s tools to produce such knowledge. Several generous mentors and great internships later, I became a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

RJ: My current project uses my grandmother’s family history to examine the global history of immigration and labor in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes from the colonial period to the early twentieth century.

JF: Thanks, Rashauna!

The Author’s Corner with Willem Klooster

thedutchmomentWillem Klooster is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Clark University. This interview is based on his new book, The Dutch Moment: War, Trade, and Settlement in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Dutch Moment?

WK: As a Dutchman working on the Atlantic world, it has always been obvious to me that a book focused on the Dutch Atlantic in the seventeenth century – the period in which the Dutch were so active worldwide both militarily and commercially – was missing. Dutch historians dealing with the wider world have traditionally privileged Asia, the domain of the Dutch East India Company, while North Americans have been mostly interested in New Netherland, which was actually fairly marginal to the main developments in the Dutch Atlantic. I felt that it was my task to right this wrong by writing a work that encompassed all aspects of the Dutch Atlantic in that century without making it a textbook.

JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Dutch Moment?

WK: In 3 sentences, if you don’t mind: The mid-seventeenth century formed a specific stage in Atlantic history that was marked by activities that connected the Dutch to other colonial realms, especially the infant English and French colonies that remained afloat in no small part due to Dutch commercial assistance. On the other hand the Dutch Atlantic had a distinctly violent side, as expressed in the endless battles with their Iberian enemies and Dutch relations with indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans. What helped undo the short-lived Dutch empire was not only Iberian fighting power or nonwhite revolts, but eventually the refusal of unpaid and poorly fed white soldiers and sailors in Dutch service to defend the imperial outposts.

JF: Why do we need to read The Dutch Moment?

WK: By following the Dutch around in the Atlantic basin, we get a new perspective on the Atlantic world at large, and not a peripheral one, since the Dutch were so entangled with other empires, either as warriors or merchants. More particularly, the book reveals the pivotal role of Brazil, where the Dutch elites were willing to wage a seemingly endless war in order to control the production of the world’s foremost sugar colony. This war was the largest conflict between European powers in the seventeenth-century Atlantic, which historians have underappreciated.

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

WK: Although my Leiden dissertation dealt with Dutch trade in the Caribbean, it was not a traditional treatment of the flow of goods between colonies and metropole. Both the Dutch and Spanish archives suggested the existence of close, albeit usually illegal, commercial ties between inhabitants of the Dutch colonies and residents of other empires. I had therefore come to see my subject matter through an Atlantic lens by the time I finished my doctorate in 1995. That same year, I came to the United States as a Fulbright student, and soon found myself in the orbit of Bernard Bailyn, precisely when he started to organize his Atlantic History Seminars. I still think of myself primarily as an Atlanticist rather than an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

WK: The next project is already finished: I just submitted the manuscript of The Second Dutch Atlantic, 1680-1815, a book that I coauthored with Dutch historian Gert Oostindie. It picks up where The Dutch Moment leaves off, taking the story of the Dutch Atlantic through the early nineteenth century. During my sabbatical next semester, I will embark on the following project, a biography of a well-traveled French marquis whose life intersects with the Age of Revolutions in surprising ways.

JF: Thanks, Willem!

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Yeager

Edwards and PrintJonathan Yeager is UC Foundation Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This interview is based on his recent book Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: I enjoyed researching and writing the last two chapters of my first book on the Scottish Presbyterian minister John Erskine (1721-1803). In these chapters, I discussed how Erskine helped disseminate and publish the works of several evangelical authors, including many of Jonathan Edwards’s posthumous books. While conducting research for these chapters, I benefited greatly from reading Richard Sher’s seminal monograph,
The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, 2007). Because Sher’s book was devoted exclusively to secular and theologically liberal Scottish Enlightenment authors, I thought that I might be able to make a scholarly contribution on eighteenth-century evangelicals and publishing. I discovered that no one has ever written on the history of Jonathan Edwards’s publications, and so I started to write an article on how his major works were published in the eighteenth century. I amassed so much material on Edwards’s publications–especially on the various people behind the scenes who helped publish his works–that I decided to write a full-length monograph on this topic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: I make two major arguments that can be summarized as the following: First, even though Jonathan Edwards can rightly be described as a theological genius and the foremost American revivalist of the eighteenth century, much of his success was dependent on a host of booksellers, printers, and editors who helped publish his works before and after his death. Second, evangelicals like Edwards cared how their books appeared in print, even thought they worked harder at disseminating their works for evangelistic purposes than making profits from their publications.

JF: Why do we need to read Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: There has been
a lot written about Jonathan Edwards. But nearly all the scholarship has focused on his life and thought. In order to have the fullest understanding of Edwards and other eighteenth-century authors, we need to examine the publishing history of their books. I want readers to see that Edwards’s ideas were packaged in a particular format, with various options in sizes, bindings, paper and font quality, and pricing that made a difference in the reception of his works. More importantly, a number of people, acting as booksellers, printers, and editors, made most of the decisions on how Edwards’s books should appear in print and how they should be marketed to the public. Edwards had a definite idea on how he wanted his books to look, but he did not know the best way to have them published so that they would be appealing to the public (without giving too much away, I show this in a few case studies within my book). Knowing all this to be true, I argue that we need to take a closer look at how individuals such as these contributed to his success as an internationally-recognized author.

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

JY: In 1998, I graduated with an undergraduate degree in business administration and then went on to work as a financial consultant for five years with two different brokerage firms in Florida. About halfway through my time as a broker, I became disillusioned with the business and began reading a lot of books on church history and theology. With my wife’s blessing, I resigned from my job in 2004, sold our house, and moved my family to Vancouver, Canada to study theology at Regent College. At the time that we moved, I simply wanted to gain more knowledge about Christianity. I was having so much fun in Vancouver learning about my faith, snow skiing, and hanging out with friends from multiple denominations all over the world, that after finishing a MA in Christian Studies, I stayed for an additional ThM degree in theology. In my last year in Vancouver, I began corresponding with David Bebbington, who helped me with a thesis that I was working on at Regent College under J. I. Packer. Later that same year, I was able to meet Bebbington in person, and he and I talked about studying history with him in Scotland. After much thought and prayer, my family and I decided to move to Scotland in late 2006 to begin my PhD. My time in Vancouver and Scotland highlight my twin interests of theology and history. I feel very fortunate to have a job that allows me to do research and teach in both fields. 

JF: What is your next project?

JY: My immediate plan is to write an article on the publication of Samuel Hopkins’s System of Doctrines (1793). This mammoth two-volume book by Edwards’s disciple became the first systematic theology of the so-called New Divinity movement, and helped shape the next generation of Edwardseans. After this project, who knows.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan!