Author’s Corner with Johann Neem

9781421423210-2
Johann Neem
is a Professor of History at Western Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (John Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Democracy’s Schools?

JN: I decided to write this book for two reasons. First, and foremost, I worried that citizens and policy makers did not have a “go to” book for the formative era of American public education. The leading books in that field were influenced by the culture wars—and thus they were highly critical of the potential of public education. Scholars on the right and left agreed that schools promoted “social control” and served elites, not ordinary people. At a time when our public discourse of education is increasingly vocational and instrumental, I wanted to clear the space to remind Americans today why we had public schools in the first place: to develop the capabilities of citizens; to promote human flourishing for each individual; and to bring together a diverse society.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Democracy’s Schools?

JN: Democracy’s Schools argues that there exists a longstanding and productive tension between the demands of “democratic education” and of “education in a democracy.” Democratic education emphasizes civic goals and the liberal arts and was often promoted by elite reformers such as Horace Mann, whereas education in a democracy depends on local control and schools tied culturally and politically to citizens themselves.

JF: Why do we need to read Democracy’s Schools?

JN: We need Democracy’s Schools because we’re adrift today. At a time when we tend to focus on narrow skills and economic training (“college and career readiness,” in the words of the Common Core—see my essay on the subject), it is worth looking back to an era when public schools served democracy’s needs and represented democratic values. It is worth remembering why reformers sought to increase access to the liberal arts. And it’s worth recognizing that the public schools have a responsibility not just to reflect our differences but also to bring a diverse people together. In short, we need Democracy’s Schools to remember that in the dirty bathwater of our education history there is still a baby worth caring for.

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

JN: I was a history major in college, but had intended to go into education policy. I wrote my senior thesis on civic education in a democracy, so in some ways I have returned to my roots in this new book. I decided to become an American historian after taking Gordon Wood’s class on the early American republic and realizing that the questions that most intrigued me were being asked by all Americans– whether rich or poor, white or black, male or female– in the decades following the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JN: I’m not sure. I am continuing to write about education, democracy, and higher education reform. I have started doing some work on the historic relationship between the humanities and American democracy, not just in schools but in society more broadly. We’ll see where it goes!

JF: Thanks, Johann!

Author’s Corner with John Wigger

9780199379712John Wigger is a Professor of History at the University of Missouri. This interview is based on his new book, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write PTL?

JW: I was fascinated by how fast PTL grew and how quickly it fell apart. What I really wanted to know was how PTL’s rise and fall were connected. How does deep religious devotion become so entwined with money, sex, and celebrity on a Hollywood scale? A short synopsis might help:

Jim and Tammy started the PTL network with half a dozen employees in a former furniture store in 1974. By 1986 PTL had annual revenues of $129 million, 2500 employees, a 2300-acre theme park, Heritage USA, and a private satellite network that reached into fourteen million homes in the US. That year, six million people visited Heritage USA. Jim and Tammy lived in luxury, buying vacation homes, expensive cars and clothes, and traveling first class with an entourage. Then it all came crashing down. In March 1987 Bakker resigned in disgrace after his 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room became public. Stories emerged about gay relationships and visits to prostitutes. By the end of the year, PTL was in bankruptcy, headed for liquidation. In 1989 Bakker was convicted of wire and mail fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

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

JW: PTL helps to explain the persistent connections between religion and popular culture in American life, a connection that runs much deeper than politics alone. PTL grew so quickly because of its embrace of consumer and celebrity culture, much of it through the prosperity gospel, but along the way the money and fame undermined the religious convictions of those at the top.

JF: Why do we need to read PTL?

JW: It’s a story full of human drama, sincere faith, innovations both cultural and technical, financial fraud, secret affairs, and the allure of television cameras. But it also says a lot about why faith continues to be vibrant part of American life. Many of the central characters in the story—Jim and Tammy Bakker, Richard Dortch, David Taggart, John Wesley Fletcher, and of course Jessica Hahn—seem almost too improbable for a novel. But together they helped first to build one of the largest ministries in recent American history and then to bring it down.

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

JW: History and academia are a second career for me. My undergraduate degree is in Petroleum Engineering. After college I drilled oil and gas wells in California for about six years. Part of that time I lived a few blocks from the beach. One day I woke up and thought, I’m having too much fun and making too much money, what should I do? Grad school seemed the obvious answer. Okay, more seriously, I’ve always been interested in the connections between religion and culture in American life and how those connections have persisted and shifted over time. That’s what led me to switch careers and what this book is about.

JF: What is your next project?

JW: I’m not exactly sure. Hopefully something surprising that will make a good read.

JF: Thanks, John!

Author’s Corner with Steven Lubar

lubarSteven Lubar is Professor of American Studies at Brown University. This interview is based on his new book, Inside the Lost Museum (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Inside the Lost Museum

SL: It’s a book that I wish I had when I first started work as a curator – I wanted to know more about both the how and the why of the work. More immediately, the book was inspired by the “Lost Museum” installation, a student project with artist Mark Dion that explored Brown University’s Jenks Museum. Mark’s aesthetic-historical approach to understanding collections and exhibitions allowed me the intellectual distance to ask some big questions about the why? and how? of museums.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Inside the Lost Museum

SL: I argue museums are unique because of their collections – art, artifacts, and specimens – and that those collections are complex, not simple. To understand how and why museums collect, care for, display, and use things, we need to understand the ways in which history shapes museums’ connections with their communities, both source communities and audiences.

JF: Why do we need to read Inside the Lost Museum

SL: Understanding museum history is the best way to understand how museums can build on their strengths and overcome their disadvantages – to be useful. Museum curators and museum studies students will read Inside the Lost Museum to understand museum work and how museum history provides a foundation to build a new future. A general audience will read it to understand not only what goes on behind the scenes of museums, but also to understand their continuing importance. And I hope all readers will be fascinated by the thread that holds the book together: the curious story of John Whipple Potter Jenks, donor, director, and curator of the Jenks Museum.  

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

SL: As an undergraduate at MIT I became fascinated by the history and culture of science and technology, and went to graduate school to study alchemy and astrology. But I soon realized that reading Latin would never be my forte, and discovered more useful and interesting roots of modern science and technology in the business and political revolutions of the nineteenth century. That encouraged me to shift to American history, which led to a career in museums, which led to an interest in public humanities and museum history.  

JF: What is your next project? 

SL: For the next year, I’ll be a Mellon fellow at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, contributing to an exhibition project on “repair.” It’s a fascinating topic, encompassing both the material and the metaphorical, and I’m looking forward to exploring the museum’s collections and considering the meaning of mends, patches, and fixes in ways physical, moral, and political. 

JF: Thanks, Steven!

The Author’s Corner with Kate Brown

brownKate Brown is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Huntington University. This interview is based on her new book, Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law (University Press of Kansas, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law?\

KB: I have been fascinated with Alexander Hamilton since high school—long before Hamilton, the musical, made him a household name—so it was pretty much guaranteed that Hamilton would be a primary subject for my first book.  When I realized in graduate school that historians virtually ignore the legal side of Alexander Hamilton’s career—that is, Hamilton as legal and constitutional theorist, Hamilton as an in-demand lawyer, Hamilton’s thriving New York legal practice—I knew that I wanted to explore his accomplishments through the lens of the law.  This book does just that.

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

KB: 1) We are familiar with Hamilton’s political efforts to shape policy in the young republic; my research demonstrates how Hamilton used common law and constitutional law, more so than politics, to successfully accomplish his policy goals and statecraft.  (Each chapter details a particular Hamiltonian policy goal and the legal toolbox Hamilton used to accomplish it.)

 2) Alexander Hamilton’s legal legacy—that is, his influence on the jurisprudence of federalism, individual rights, judicial and executive power—is far-reaching and foundational, extending well into the nineteenth and occasionally the twentieth centuries.  For these reasons, Hamilton should be considered a true founding father of American law.  

JF: Why do we need to read Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law? 

KB: My insights into the ways Hamilton used law to accomplish his policy goals—achieving unity through union, creating economic prosperity and public creditworthiness, encouraging commerce and manufacturing, and developing judicial and executive authority, to name a few—offer a wholly novel perspective on Hamilton. Scholars and biographers before me had largely ignored or written off Hamilton’s legal career, yet I demonstrate that not only was his legal practice influential, but Hamilton’s legal legacy lasted for decades after his death.  By writing this analytical biography through the lens of law, I offer a completely unique perspective and analysis of an otherwise well-known founding statesman.

 (A quick note:  you do not have to be familiar with law or be a lawyer to understand Hamilton’s legal arguments and the legal history I’m writing here.  I minimize jargon, I explain my arguments in terms that do not require legalese, and I always emphasize the big, important points about Hamilton’s legal legacy over any legal minutiae.) 

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

KB: I caught the early-republic bug in high school, when I found Hamilton to be so remarkable (and seemingly uncelebrated, as compared to his contemporaries like Washington and Jefferson).  I did not formally decide to make history my profession, however, until I decided to go back to graduate school after a first career in corporate America. But once I decided to become a historian, there was no doubt that I would study American history, with a sub-specialty in legal history. Not only is American history fascinating, but its continued relevance for our informed understanding of twenty-first century politics and current events makes the study of history an indispensable public service. 

JF: What is your next project? 

KB: When researching Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law, I noticed that Hamilton kept making appearances in this important, and really unique, appellate court in New York state:  the Court for the Correction of Errors.  This court was so distinctive because it was the highest court in the state—trumping New York’s Supreme Court, and deciding hugely important cases dealing with matters relating to commerce, marine insurance, federalism, and individual rights—and yet it was consciously modelled after England’s House of Lords. The Court of Errors (as contemporaries called it) mixed the judicial and legislative powers inextricably—both the highest judges in the state and the state senators presided over the Court of Errors making judicial decisions.  And so, for almost 70 years, this court shattered norms about the separation of powers—and that is one reason I am so intrigued by it—but it also attracted the best legal talent in the early republic (including, of course, Hamilton).  The Court of Errors was a unique venue for lawyerly talent, as well as a recruiting ground of sorts for the U.S. Supreme Court.  Despite all of this, scholars have ignored the court and its influence on judicial power in the early republic.  I intend to change that by writing an institutional biography of the court, the legal professionals arguing in and presiding over it, and its formidable impact on early-republic jurisprudence

JF: Thanks, Kate!

 

 

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 Tom Cutterham

CutterhamTom Cutterham is a lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. This interview is based on his new book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic  (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: When I started out as a graduate student in 2010 I wanted to write a book that showed just how very wrong Sarah Palin and the Tea Party were about the founders’ conception of the state. Then I realised Max Edling had already written that book. But while I’d been reading through what Congressmen and pamphleteers were writing in the 1780s I became more and more interested not just in their explicitly political ideas, but in the ways they expressed anxieties about status and stability. The founding really was a revolution in favour of government, but what they wanted government to do, and what they wanted government to protect, were really not the things that I’d expected — so that’s what I wrote my thesis on, and that’s what became the book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: It argues that a hodge-podge of revolutionary elites formed themselves into something resembling a national ruling class over the course of the 1780s, largely as a result of their collective need to respond to what they saw as dangerously levelling and “licentious” democratic movements. On a slightly more meta level, it also tries to show how important political and moral concepts like “justice” itself are shaped by forms of (and struggles for) institutional and discursive power — so you can’t really understand ideas without social relations, or vice versa.

JF: Why do we need to read Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: So, so often I see accounts of the American Revolution skip merrily from Yorktown to Philadelphia, 1781 to 1787, with narry a glance at the years in between. Hamilton the musical does it in a few verses of one song. I hope people will read Gentlemen Revolutionaries and at the very least, get a sense of just how crucial the 1780s were. I also hope it will change the way they think about the process of revolution and the founding, both as a social and cultural epoch and as a series of political events. For one thing, Gentlemen Revolutionaries aims to force people to stop taking debates about the Constitution as the be-all and end-all of political struggle in that period. Of course, you also need to read the book for Noah Webster being a whiny brat, Joel Barlow helping to write a surreal anti-democratic poem, and a mini-revolution in Rhode Island that pretty much no-one ever talks about.

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

TC: I wanted to be a historian before I wanted to be an American historian. The latter part came towards the end of my undergraduate degree when I was studying the “Age of Jefferson” with Peter Thompson, who became my graduate advisor. Apart from my lamentable inability to learn ancient Greek, which meant I couldn’t be the historian of Alexander’s conquests that I kind of had my eye on being, I think the political context of both the War on Terror, and the global financial crisis (which peaked right in the middle of my undergraduate course) had the effect of always keeping my eyes on the United States as basically the epicentre of world events. That’s how it seemed to me at the time, so trying to understand the United States and its global impact was what I wanted to do as a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

TC: I’m writing a book about the age of bourgeois revolutions in the Atlantic world, which also happens to centre on the remarkable, transatlantic lives of Angelica Schuyler and her husband John Church. Since I began the research in the summer of 2014, Angelica has achieved a much bigger profile! But her life is so much more than her relationship with Alexander Hamilton: it took her to a Paris on the threshold of its own revolution, into the circles of radical reformist politics in London, and back to New York in time to see the age of Federalist dominance come crashing down. In Gentlemen Revolutionaries, I tried to give a sense of character and spirit in the people I wrote about, but this new project is an opportunity to do that in a much more sustained way. It’s about using individual lives to uncover massive structures and processes. Ultimately, the historical is always personal.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

The Author’s Corner with Mary Beth Mathews

mary beth mathews Mary Beth Mathews is an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Mary Washington. This interview is based on her new book, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars (University of Alabama Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Doctrine and Race?

MM: When I wrote my dissertation (which became my first book, Rethinking Zion: How the Print Media Placed Fundamentalism in the South), I kept wondering why white fundamentalists tended to be displaced southerners. Men like John Roach Straton, William Bell Riley, and J.C. Massee all grew up in the south and moved north to promote their theology. As I researched them, I realized that I couldn’t answer that question and that there was a more important question staring me in the face: how did white fundamentalists interact with African American evangelicals. By all rights, there should have been a common theological bond between these two groups, but there was no real contact between them. That became the narrative of Doctrine and Race

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Doctrine and Race?

MM: Doctrine and Race argues that African American evangelicals were excluded from participation in the emerging fundamentalist movement in the early twentieth century, yet they adhered to many of the same doctrinal and social views as white fundamentalists. Black evangelicals were not welcome at the fundamentalist table, in large part because white fundamentalists had created a racial definition of fundamentalism, one that depended on white interpretations of theology, culture, and religion, but these same black evangelicals turned that definition against white fundamentalists, arguing that no one who was a racist could claim the identity of Christian. 

JF: Why do we need to read Doctrine and Race?

MM: Doctrine and Race illuminates the racial tensions within evangelical Christianity, tensions that continue to this day. Many American historians and pundits have tended to lump all evangelicals into a single category—one that is white by default. By examining the similarities and differences between white and black evangelicals and by tracing the exclusion of African Americans from larger discussions about theology and culture, we can better understand African American evangelicals, their political thinking, and current debates over religion and politics in the U.S. 

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

MM: That’s a tough question to answer, since my doctorate is in Religious Studies but with a focus on American and European Religious History. I’ve been interested in history since childhood, but my passion for the subject of American religious history really took off when I was an undergraduate and took a class with David L. Holmes at the College of William and Mary. I declared a religion major and never looked back, except for a stint working on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant.

JF: What is your next project?

MM: I’m finishing up an article on the American Baptist Theological Seminary, a joint venture started in the 1920s by the black National Baptist Convention and the white Southern Baptist Convention. This project grew out of the research I did for Doctrine and Race but never quite fit into the book itself. I’m also looking at taking some of the questions I asked in Doctrine and Race and applying them to emerging Pentecostal traditions in the early twentieth century. 

JF: Thanks, Mary!

Author’s Corner with Joseph Locke

joseph lockeJoseph Locke is Associate Professor of American History at the University of Houston-Victoria. This interview is based on his new book, Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion (Oxford University Press, 2017). 

JF: What led you to write Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: While reading up on economic radicalism in Progressive Era Texas—I’d become enamored with Lawrence Goodwyn’s old book on the Texas Populists as an undergrad and had wanted to follow up on that story—I was struck by the utter dominance of prohibition as a political issue. For well over a decade, it seemed as if Texans and many others across the South could talk about little more than alcohol and drunkenness and saloons. My interest was already piqued—I grew up around teetotaling Baptists—but the more I read the more I realized something bigger was at stake. Prohibition wasn’t just about liquor; I was seeing a revolution in the way that white southern evangelicals conceived of their faith. And I was also, simultaneously, witnessing the death of an older tradition, a veritable culture of anticlericalism that I hadn’t expected to find in the South. Nothing I had read in the historiography of southern religion, for instance, prepared me for the over-the-top, anticlerical rhetoric of so many prominent anti-prohibitionists. And so I went to work trying to make sense of it all. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: That we’ve taken the marriage of religion and public life in the South for granted. The politicization of southern religion was a historical process—religious activists built up new institutional and cultural resources, redefined the bounds of their faith, waged war against a culture of anticlericalism, and churned notions of history, race, gender, and religion into a political movement that created much of the Bible Belt we know today. 

JF: Why do we need to read Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: The “Bible Belt” was not the inevitable consequence of white evangelicals’ numerical strength in the South. Instead, religious activists waged a purposeful, conspicuous, and controversial decades-long campaign to redefine their faith and inject themselves into public life. However much white religious leaders exerted themselves to defend slavery, secession, the Confederacy, and “Redemption,” tangible cultural and institutional limits still constricted the scope of religious thought and practice in the South at the turn of the twentieth century. Understanding the shattering of those limits complicates the narrative of southern religious history, offers insights into the historical relationship between religion and politics, and puts today’s melding of region and religion into historical context. 

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

JL: I grew up enamored with history and, as an undergrad, I took the advice to “major in what you love” without really knowing where it would lead. Luckily, inertia took care of the rest. 

JF: What is your next project?

JL: I’m juggling a few things: I’m wrapping up a long-gestating, comprehensive history of religion in Texas; I’m working to get The American Yawp, a massively collaborative, open-source American History textbook, ready for its forthcoming (spring 2018) publication with a major university press; and, in the meantime, I’m spending the remainder of the summer in Chicago researching the follow-up to a forthcoming article that explores Americans’ moral imaginings of Mexican immigrants and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands at the turn of the twentieth century. 

JF: Thanks, Joseph!

                                     

Author’s Corner with Mark Goldberg

MarkGoldenberg

Mark Goldberg is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston. This interview is based on his new book, Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands (University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Conquering Sickness?

MG: In graduate school, I became interested in how people in multiracial spaces negotiated power. I am also from Texas, and a particular exclusive set of stories about the 18th and 19th century tend to dominate here, flatting the texture and nuance of Texas history and silencing many narratives.  During research for my master’s thesis, which analyzed Caddo Indian trade in east Texas, I came across many interesting discussions about disease and healing practices that people employed, including peyote and amulets. I also had the opportunity to take a graduate course that traveled around the U.S. West, studying the history of race in the region. We visited the Levi Jordan Plantation in Brazoria, Texas, where archaeologist Ken Brown has led a team that uncovered a curer’s cabin, highlighting the healer’s use of syncretic African and African American healing practices in postemancipation Texas. These experiences pushed me towards the study of health and healing in Texas. 

Health is one of the most basic elements of life, so it offered me a window into popular culture in the 18th and 19th century.  The history of health and healing in Texas addressed my intellectual curiosities and my desire to write against mythic, popular representations of the Lone Star State.  The era that I cover, roughly 1780 to 1880, saw multiple waves of colonization in moments when Native peoples dominated much of the region.  It was ripe for the study of race, popular culture, and power, as different nation-states tried to assert control over Texas, while Comanches and Karankawas held the upper hand in many instances.  Power was fluid in this borderland, so what did cross-cultural interactions and exchanges mean in this place undergoing conquest? 

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

MG: The desire to build healthy settlements drove Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo conquests of Texas. Spaniards, Mexicans, and Anglo Americans defined healthiness environmentally and culturally, based around perceptions of how people lived, and they differentiated their own “healthy” behaviors racially, against Native and (during Anglo migrations) Mexican “unhealthy” ways of living.

JF: Why do we need to read Conquering Sickness? 

MG: First, I would say, for the stories.  I uncovered many fascinating examples of how individuals treated disease and how they thought about sickness and health.  The first story that caught my eye, which I still find captivating, concerns how the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas (one state at the time) confronted the 1833 cholera epidemic.  After a series of public health initiatives regulating when people were out and about, how they prepared food, town cleanliness, and leisure activities, failed to stem the tide of disease, the government came to employ a peyote remedy as its official prescription.  How could a nation-state, which was in the process of being built, promote a practice associated with so-called Indian superstition, when to be Mexican at the time meant culturally not Indian?  These types of healing exchanges occurred throughout the century under study, as did state governments’ efforts to legitimize their use of medicine that they simultaneously scorned.  Colonialism was largely about instituting particular ways of living beyond methods of healing, which colonizers in Texas often defined against nonwhite residents. Spanish missionaries, for example, justified conquest by trying to mold Indians into proper, civilized, healthy Catholics. Conversion, and by extension conquest, was not only about spirituality, but also about how one carried oneself. 

I also think it is important to see how a common idea—healthiness—was (and is) defined culturally and how science, which appears objective, has been shaped by local cultures and desires. For example, to live a healthy life in post-1848 Texas meant to embrace white, middle class values—temperance, sedentary agriculture, sexual restraint—showing the close relationship Anglo newcomers drew between morality and health. They often saw Mexicans and Indians as immoral and therefore unhealthy. Ultimately, then, this raises a question relevant today:  in what ways might we define something like healthiness in a culturally, religiously, racially, and sexually loaded manner?     

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

MG:  I was always interested in history, but when I was an undergraduate, I was premed with an art history major for most of college. I only decided not to pursue a medical career and to become an academic historian during my senior year. I realized that my passion was trying to understand histories that never fit into a neat, master narrative. My own family history of multigenerational migrations; Eastern European, Jewish, Latin American, Latina/o, and Texas histories; and U.S. immigration does not easily meld into a dominant national narrative, so perhaps that influenced my interests. I started graduate school focusing on 20th-century U.S. history and ties between the civil rights movement and Latin America. I moved back in time and across regions, but my interest in race and U.S.-Latin American connections continued as I came to study of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

JF: What is your next project?

MG: I am bringing together my background in Latina/o history with a new interest in Jewish Studies. Continuing to ask questions about race, ethnicity, national identity, and cultural boundaries, I am examining Jewish Latina/o history and studying the connections among Latina/o, Jewish, and American identities. I am interested in how Jewish Latina/os in the 20th century have used different forms of storytelling—about the colonial past, around food and music—to link those identities. It is also a personal study, allowing me to apply my interests in the American West and borderlands, Latina/o history, and cultural history to my family and community’s story. 

JF: Thanks, Mark!

The Author’s Corner with Tera Hunter

WedlockTera Hunter is Professor of History and African American Studies. This interview is based on her new book Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Marriages in the Nineteenth Century (Harvard University Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Bound in Wedlock?

TH:  I started thinking a lot about marriage during slavery as I was researching my book: To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Harvard Press, 1997).  I was especially drawn to documents that I found during the period of Reconstruction, which demonstrated the depth and feelings and the challenges that former slaves faced in reconstituting their family ties after slavery ended. These records are tremendously rich and I felt like felt like I could not go deep enough to fully capture the complexity and range of intimate relationships that I saw. They raised a lot of interesting questions that could not be easily answered by focusing on the period following emancipation alone. To fully understand post-slavery marriage and family, I needed to trace them over the entire nineteenth century.

I was also very interested in closely examining the internal lives of African Americans. The literature on family was preoccupied with whether or not they conformed to dominant ideas about nuclear structure and gender norms of male-headed households. This led to a very limited view of both the internal values and meaning of marriage to African Americans and also the external constraints that they faced in creating and sustaining these relationships.

More recent debates about the status of black families in the twenty-first century have often invoked the legacy of slavery, often in very ahistorical and problematic ways. I wanted to scrutinize the misinformed assumptions often articulated by both liberal and conservative scholars, commentators, and political pundits. There is a long history of black families being stigmatized.  These perceptions are used as a barometer to discern the capacities of black humanity and fitness for citizenship, with insufficient appreciation of the historical forces they were up against.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bound in Wedlock?

TH: The history of African-American marriage in the nineteenth century teaches us about a pattern that has been continually replicated with each iteration of the seemingly forward movement toward greater freedom and justice. African-American marriage under slavery and quasi-freedom is a story of twists and turns, of intimate bonds being formed, sustained, broken, and repeatedly reconstituted under the duress of oppressive conditions and yet vilified for not conforming to dominant standards.

JF: Why do we need to read TITLE?

TH: To fully understand the history of slavery in the U. S., we need to know the role that the denial of marriage and family rights played in preserving the system. Slaves were not allowed to marry legally, although they were allowed to marry informally, at the discretion of slaveholders. The main reason why those relationships were denied legal standing was to preserve enslavers’ preeminent rights to control their chattel property and to profit from the literal reproduction of slaves as capital. Legal marriages granted couples control over women’s sexuality and labor, and parental rights over their children. All of those privileges were associated with freedom and conflicted with the very definition of slavery as an inheritable, permanent system of exploitation.

To fully grapple with the devastation that slavery caused black families, we need to know how they fought against the degradation, how they managed to create meaningful relationships despite the enormous constraints that they were up against. They established their own standards for conjugal relationships, which involved accepting, revising, and even rejecting conventional ideas about marriage. They were always creative, resourceful, and practical in responding to conditions of cruelty and uncertainty of slavery and post-emancipation life.

We now live in a time in which the U. S. Supreme Court has sanctioned marriage equality for all, making marriage rights available to lesbians, gays, and transsexuals. Many people assume that the history of heterosexual marriage has always been a privilege accessible and enjoyed by all straights, but that has not been the case. It took centuries of struggle for African American heterosexuals to achieve marriage equality in the law.

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

TH: I became fascinated with history my first year of college. I entered thinking I would become a lawyer, but I became increasingly interested in doing historical research and writing. I had very good teachers in college who opened new ways of thinking about the past, and offered an introduction to primary research, which I had not encountered in high school and fell in love with.

I wrote an honors thesis in my senior year, which confirmed that I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. Ultimately. I saw doing historical research as an alternative, and a more compelling way, to achieve some of what I wanted to do as a lawyer. I could address some of the travesties of injustice by unearthing stories of common people to paint a more comprehensive and complex portrait of our collective past.

JF: What is your next project?

TH: My next project grows out the epilogue in the book. I’m interested in exploring twentieth century African-American marriage. By the turn of the century, marriage was nearly universal, with blacks marrying slightly more than whites. But that began to change most dramatically starting in the post-World War II era. A racial gap in marriage has widened every decade since. The marriage rates for African Americans declined significantly over the course of the twentieth century. Scholars in other fields, like Sociology, have researched aspects of this trend. I think we need a longer historical perspective to understand the various economic, social, and political factors that have encouraged this decline including growing permanent unemployment, pre-mature mortality rates, and mass incarceration.

JF: Thanks Tera!

The Author’s Corner with Virginia DeJohn Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Virginia!

The 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!

The Author’s Corner With Doug Winiarski

WinarskiDouglas Winiarski is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Richmond.  This interview is based on his new book Darkness Falls of the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DWAn earthquake, actually, and a stunning discovery at a public library in Massachusetts. I was a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School looking for some interesting texts to study for a paper I had planned to write about popular religious responses to the famed Great Earthquake of 1727. On a broiling hot summer day in 1995, I drove up to the public library in Haverhill, Massachusetts—which was located near the epicenter of the earthquake—hoping to examine the town’s earliest Congregational church record book. The archivist gruffly informed me that the original volume was too delicate to be retrieved from their vault. But after a little prodding he wandered into the back room pulled out a small bundle of manuscripts: hundreds of neatly trimmed slips of paper bearing short religious narratives written by nearly everyone in the community, from wealthy merchants and Harvard graduates to obscure single women and African Americans.  Half of them had been composed during the surge of church admissions that followed the earthquake. The Haverhill relations turned out to be one of the richest—and certainly one of the largest—collections of religious autobiographical writings composed in British North America prior to 1750. And only a handful of scholars had ever seen them. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. I knew instantly that I had a story to tell about the religious experiences of ordinary people in eighteenth-century New England. Figuring out what that story was, however, required more than two decades of archival work in New England and abroad.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DWThe rise of trans-Atlantic evangelicalism during New England’s era of great awakenings sundered an inclusive and flourishing Congregational establishment. The key agents inciting this dynamic and divisive change were not prominent ministers and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, but ordinary people who learned to experience religion in extraordinary new ways over the course of the eighteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DW: Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is the first book to examine both the thriving Congregational system in provincial New England and the shattering of that system entirely through the religious experiences of lay men and women. The book features an eclectic cast of fascinating characters and unusual events. And it’s built on a vast array of remarkable manuscripts. Although Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is primarily a study of the transformation of New England Congregationalism, readers will come away with a greater appreciation for the diversity of denominations in the region by the time of the American Revolution: Anglicans, Baptists of varying stripes, sectarian groups, and “nothingarians,” or people who held all religious institutions at arm’s length. Above all, I devote considerable attention to examining the costs of the so-called Great Awakening revivals of eighteenth century, something that scholars have been slow to acknowledge. The “people called New Lights”—progenitors of today’s evangelicals—were religious insurgents, troublemakers, radicals; and many of them were bent on breaking apart the Congregational establishment. New Englanders struggled to come to terms with the marketplace of fractious and competitive religious groups that emerged from the revivals. It’s as important a story today as it was during the eighteenth century.

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

DWI guess you could say I’m a child of the American Bicentennial. I was caught up with the celebrations and pageantry of my home town in 1976. Four years later, my mother took me on a trip to visit Revolutionary War sites in Boston. I can still remember walking the Freedom Trail and visiting the Old South Church for the first time. I had no idea that these places would play such a prominent role in my professional life. It wasn’t until the final week of college that one of my mentors encouraged me to connect my interest in early American history with my recent undergraduate training in religious studies by applying to graduate school. Suddenly, everything seemed to fall into place.

JF: What is your next project?

DWI am currently working on a new book that explores the fascinating but troubled relationship between the earliest western Shaker converts and the followers of Tenskwatawa, the controversial Shawnee Prophet and brother of the famed war captain Tecumseh, during the years leading up to the War of 1812. The story of the Shakers and the Shawnee Prophet—at least as I envision it at this early stage—is about a religious culture that might have been, one that could have taken shape in the crucible of the early American frontier. It’s a tragic tale in which two notorious groups of dangerous religious outsiders briefly discovered common ground and mutual respect within a racially charged and violent backcountry world. Perhaps when it’s finished, the book may offer a cautionary message for our own times about how we, as a society, should think about religious difference and the relationship between religion and violence. We’ll see.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

The Author’s Corner With Jenna Weissman Joselit

StoneJenna Weissman Joselit is Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at George Washington University.  This interview is based on her new book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Set in Stone?

JWJ: The importance that so many contemporary Americans attach to having the Ten Commandments a visible part of their physical environment piqued my curiosity, prompting me to look for the origins of that relationship both within and without the confines of the sanctuary. I wanted to know more about how earlier generations of Americans kept these ancient dos and don’ts close at hand – and why.  Many twists and turns later, which brought me to phenomena as disparate as mid-19th century archaeological sites in central Ohio and 20th century Hollywood movies, I came away with a heightened understanding of the multiple ways in which the Ten Commandments imprinted themselves on the modern American imagination.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Set in Stone?

JWJ: The presence of the Ten Commandments is vital to, even an anchor of, American identity as well as a testament to the porousness of the divide between religion and culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Set in Stone?

JWJ: In a word: context.  By exploring how previous generations variously celebrated, redefined, visualized, domesticated, miniaturized and monumentalized the Ten Commandments, the book offers its readers the opportunity to think about the relationship of the past to the present and with it, the life cycle of a religious and cultural phenomenon that is at once divine and earthly, word and object.  In the wake of the Civil War, the Reformed Church Messenger suggested it was high time for Americans to take another look at the Ten Commandments, or, in its words, to “air” and “ventilate” them.  I’d like to think that, a century and a half later, Set in Stone does much the same thing.

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

JWJ: I wish I could say that I experienced some kind of eureka moment when everything fell into place and my career path was clearly set forth, but that didn’t happen.  Instead I drifted into becoming an historian. From a very young age, I loved to write and to concoct stories and majoring in American history at college seemed like a good fit as well as a creative outlet.  By the time I entered graduate school, I had come to understand that the discipline of history was also a high-stakes enterprise. I relish its fusion of creativity and responsibility.

JF: What is your next project?

JWJ: At the moment I’m considering a couple of options.  Having very much enjoyed casting Set in Stone as a series of narrative accounts, I would like to try my hand at writing an honest-to-goodness mystery set in the past.  We’ll see.

JF: Thanks, Jenna!

The Author’s Corner with Kevin J. Hayes

GW BooksKevin J. Hayes, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, now lives and writes in Toledo, Ohio. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington, A Life in Books (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: After finishing The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, I began searching for a similar project, that is, another intellectual life of a major figure in early American history. Once I started researching Washington’s life of the mind, other historians tried to discourage me, asserting that Washington had little intellectual life. My preliminary research told me different. The more I researched the more I realized I could tell a story of Washington’s life unlike any previous biography.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: My book presents a biography of Washington that concentrates on how the books he owned and read shaped the man he became. Organized chronologically and thematically, George Washington, A Life in Books examines many different subject areas Washington studied — devotional literature, histories, travel writing, political pamphlets, agricultural manuals — and situates them within the context of his public and private life.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: Though there are numerous Washington biographies available, mine presents a fresh look at Washington, portraying him as both a reader and a writer. It provides a unique view of Washington’s life and adds a completely new dimension to the story of a man we thought we knew.

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

KJH: I chose to attend graduate school at the University of Delaware because it was one of the best places in the country to study American literature during the eighties. Professor J. A. Leo Lemay, a leading scholar of early American literature, informed me about the numerous opportunities in his field. In addition to the critical study of literature, the field of early American literature would let me pursue parallel interests in American intellectual history and the history of the book. Researching the literary history of early America, I could be both literary scholar and historian.

JF: What is your next project?

KJH: I write biographies. This summer, Reaktion, a London publisher, will release my next book, Herman Melville, as part of its series Critical Lives. Over the past few years I have unearthed a considerable amount of new information about Benjamin Franklin, which I am now incorporating in an book-length study of Franklin’s life and writings.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

The Author’s Corner With William Harrison Taylor

HarrisonWilliam Harrison Taylor is Associate Professor of History at Alabama State University.  This interview is based on his new book Unity in Christ and Country: Presbyterians in the Revolutionary Era, 1758-1801 (University of Alabama Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Unity in Christ and Country

WHT: This project had its origins during my time in graduate school. I was hoping to make my small contribution to our understanding of the American Revolution and I had decided that the best way for me to do so was by exploring the emerging religious marketplace. Presbyterians were still my primary focal point, but I was determined to examine the dimensions of how they were competing for membership against the myriad of democratically inspired churches. After a year or so of research I couldn’t overlook the obvious any longer. The more I read, the more it became clear that the loudest cry from the Presbyterian church was not one of competition, but rather for cooperation. Having decided to let the sources speak for themselves (wasn’t that kind of me?) I realized that by pursing their goal of Christian unity, the Presbyterians had a much broader influence than I originally envisioned and it was a story, I thought, that needed to be told.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Unity in Christ and Country?

WHT: In Unity in Christ and Country I argue that during the revolutionary era, as the American Presbyterians began to actively pursue the elusive dream of Christian unity, they not only helped to shape the period, but they also unintentionally planted the seeds that kept unity beyond their grasp, split their church, and helped to divide the nation.

JF: Why do we need to read Unity in Christ and Country?

WHT: From what I have read, reading is thought to be a great exercise for the prevention of Alzheimer’s, so there’s that. However, if you already have your Alzheimer’s preventative reading regimen in place, you may still find this book helpful if you are interested in learning more about the dynamics and influence of people’s faith during the American Revolution. Included are stories where belief transformed the understanding of who should hear the good news, encouraged people to struggle and fight against tyrannies (real and perceived), and fostered desires for temporal and spiritual unity where once animosity and self-interest prevailed.  Granted, these stories don’t all have pleasant endings, but that is partly why they can be useful.

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

WHT: I had some excellent story-tellers for professors as an undergraduate—Kit Carter and Allen Dennis standout in particular—who had a big impact on my decision to primarily study American history.  Yet, while they helped steer me to graduate study in American history, their work was aided by a foundation laid much earlier.  During most summers while I was growing up my family would trek to various places around the country as part of my dad’s job.  We drove everywhere and along the way we were forced to visit (at least at first) to what felt like every historical landmark within a hundred miles of our route.  I might not have admitted it then (what self-respecting and properly annoying teenager would give their parents the pleasure?) but I came to enjoy those side trips. Being so often immersed in an historical environment such as Colonial Williamsburg or Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri sparked an appreciation of the American past that not yet run its course.

JF: What is your next project?

WHT: Currently, I am exploring the depths of American anti-Catholic sentiment in the years leading up to the War for American Independence. Whether this will turn out to be anything more than my previous attempt to study the competitive nature of the Presbyterians in the religious marketplace remains to be seen. Still, my early reading suggests that there is much more to this relationship than has yet been revealed. Hopefully, the more I read, the more I will find to support this early optimism.

JF: Thanks, Harrison!

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Kidd

FranklinThomas Kidd is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.  This interview is based on his new book Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Ben Franklin?

TK: This book is a sort of follow-up to my 2014 biography of George Whitefield, the great evangelist of the eighteenth century. Franklin was the key publisher of Whitefield’s journals and sermons in America, but they also became close friends. They were two of the biggest celebrities in the Anglo-American world, yet the faiths of the evangelical Whitefield and the “thorough deist” Franklin would seem to have been worlds apart.

In researching Franklin’s religious journey, however, I came to believe that Franklin’s Puritan background exercised a major influence on his adult life. Although Franklin maintained doubts about basic Christian beliefs, the deep imprint made by his parents’ piety and his thorough knowledge of the King James Bible hardly dissipated when he discovered deism as a teenager.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Ben Franklin?

TK: Franklin arguably represented the American epitome of the “Enlightenment,” with his scientific discoveries, incessant charitable projects, and worldly-wise skepticism. But as Franklin’s long life proceeded, his skepticism was restrained by the weight of his Puritan background, by ongoing relationships with evangelicals like Whitefield and Franklin’s sister Jane Mecom, and by the seemingly providential events of the American Revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read Ben Franklin?

TK: If all we know of Franklin’s religion is the Autobiography’s description of how he jettisoned his parents’ faith and became a deist, we miss the extraordinary religious depth of his life and writings. Franklin not only published a great deal of religious material as a printer, but even as an author he seems to have published more on religious topics than any other eighteenth-century American layperson. Some of Franklin’s writing on religion, especially in the 1730s, displayed an amazing sophistication and polemical edge, even on complex topics like the imputed righteousness of Christ.

JF: You are a very productive scholar.  Any writing tips for us mere mortals?

TK: I frequently write about productivity and the writing process in my weekly newsletters. The advice I keep coming back to, however, is the importance of making daily writing progress, even if it is only a couple hundred words. Writers get in trouble when they let their projects languish for weeks and months at a time.

JF: What is your next project?

TK: I am writing a two-volume American History textbook for B&H Academic, which (Lord willing) should be out by 2019.

JF: Thanks, Tommy!

The Author’s Corner with Jason Opal

OpalJason Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University.  This interview is based on his new book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Avenging the People?

JO: I had always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson and his intense following in the United States, especially in the wake of his controversial invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida in 1818. I was also struck by the tone and vehemence of the Congressional debates that followed in early 1819. The pro-Jackson representatives talked about the “laws of nations” and the “rights of nature,” suggesting that Old Hickory symbolized a new claim to national sovereignty within the brutal world he saw.

But what made me want to dig deeper was what happened right after these debates—not the bitter controversy over slavery in Missouri, but the severe economic crisis that lasted from 1819 to 1822. Here, Jackson was an arch-conservative foe of public banks, stay laws, and other assertions of democratic sovereignty against international “laws” of commerce. Here, he rejected some of the most popular—and, in some sense, nationalistic—measures of his day. This just did not fit with the traditional view of Jackson as a patriotic champion and democratic reformer. Nor did it align with the usual critiques of Jackson, which stress his hostility to native peoples and black Americans.

So, I wanted to offer a new look at the towering enigma from Tennessee, one that stayed as close as possible to primary sources (rather than historiographical debates) and that scrutinized Jackson’s early career and political education (rather than his legendary times in the White House). I did not intend to besmirch Jackson, nor to condemn his fans. I just wanted to see what he was about, and to understand why so many Americans loved him so fiercely.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Avenging the People?

JO: I argue that Jackson led and embodied one version of American nationhood—of the American people as a nation who shared blood—that grew out of the long struggle with the British Empire and its native and black proxies during the post-Revolutionary decades. This kind of nationhood asserted American sovereignty vis-à-vis its enemies, including the right to avenge American blood around the globe, while restricting their sovereignty in times and places of peace, that is within the society they reluctantly composed.

JF: Why do we need to read Avenging the People?

JO: Especially since the United States, unlike most western democracies, still functions according to its first written Constitution (with amendments), it is always important to study the Founding era. In a way, this history is not history at all, but a kind of ongoing past.

Jackson was not one of the Founders of 1787, but he was probably the single most important figure in the later, longer rise of “democratic” models of American nationhood and popular sovereignty. Understanding that is especially important now that President Trump repeatedly and (I think) sincerely invokes Jackson’s name to authorize an “America First” course of action.

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

JO: I have loved history for as long as I can remember and was determined to become a history professor by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade. (One viewing of Les Misérables at the Shubert Theatre in Boston clinched it.) I honestly can’t imagine anything more compelling than the debatable record of what people have done and what it all means.

I decided to study the early United States after I took Mary Beth Norton’s class on the American Revolution at Cornell in the spring of 1996. I turned to cultural and social history after working with Jane Kamensky at Brandeis in 1999. Inspiring teachers have that effect!

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Moving to Montreal in 2009, right when I was starting this project, gave me a new vantage point on American history. It also revealed the importance of other languages, which had always been a weak point for me. I’m comfortable at last in French and am now studying Portuguese, both of which will help for my new book project, a global history of Barbados. As many early Americanists have shown, this island was the center of the early English empire and the starting point for its seventeenth-century turn to black slavery. I want to retell the island’s long ordeal by drawing in the associated histories of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British empires and of the many African nations that later gave rise to the Bajan people.

I’m also working on two collaborative projects. The first is a collection of essays on the “Patriot” rebellions of the late 1830s along the US-Canadian border. I’m writing about the economic priorities that underlay US-British rapprochement and that helped to doom the Patriots. Maxime Dagenais of McMaster University and Julien Mauduit of Université du Québec à Montréal are editing this book, which I hope will reach people in both French and English Canada and in my native country. Second, I’m writing a history of epidemic diseases and the American people with my dad, Dr. Steven Opal of the Brown University School of Medicine.

JF: Thanks, Jason

The Author’s Corner With Douglas Thompson

RichmondDouglas Thompson is Associate Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University.  This interview is based on his new book Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I never intended to write this book. A lot of the research for this project had been done for a dissertation. When I completed the Ph.D., I already had a job in a teaching university so publishing a book, particularly turning a dissertation into a book, did not register on my radar. Once I abandoned the “dream” of being a dean because it took me away from the classroom, I sketched out a research agenda that included a project on how automobiles transformed the American South. When I applied for a sabbatical, the plan was to begin the research on that project and develop an article for publication to float the idea for the larger project. Every time I sat down to work on the car project, however, I kept thinking about the Richmond research. Just before my sabbatical I pulled out the dissertation and began tearing it apart.

After a feverish month I had a chapter written and drafted out the reimagined book. I sent the chapter off to two people I trust—one a specialist in religious history and one who is not—and told them to decide whether I should pursue the book on Richmond. Both readers encouraged me to write it, so I spent the sabbatical covering some new research and writing the book. The peer review draft went to the University of Alabama Press as I came off sabbatical.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of the book?

DT: Outside the glare of the 1960s spectacles of marches, kneel-ins, and sit-ins Richmond’s ministers and congregations provide a compelling story about how white Christians wrestled with social change. Without overstating the findings, their variety of responses shed light on Christianity as an agent of change in social movements.

JF: Why do we need to read Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I wrote the book for a middle ground between academics and practitioners of Christianity. While I dislike the term microhistory, the narrow focus helps us see how events on the ground both looked like the larger civil rights narrative but also how people disrupted that story.  My hope is that people will read about how folks tried to make progress and used denominational mechanisms to bring about change but also to impede change in desegregating schools and congregations. Chapter one addresses an idea found initially in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and repeated since then that the church is not the church unless its functions in its ideal form. Even as Myrdal praised black congregations for conserving cultural identities within African American communities, he blamed white Christians for failing to condemn segregation and racism. In fact, the same forces that help black congregations sustain cultural norms also inform how white congregations might resist desegregation.

In Richmond, I found lots of Christians doing what Myrdal called for but I also found other people attempting to maintain segregation in churches. A good example of this is when white Presbyterians opened a two-week desegregated summer camp in 1957 and maintained the practice through the end of the decade and beyond, but First Presbyterian Church, Richmond spent three years trying to undo that work. The traditional way to interpret this episode is that the progressive move to desegregate was prophetic and that FPC had a conservative reaction. The problem with that simple reading is that it misses two points about desegregation. First, the presbytery had created at least two black congregations so there were children within the presbytery who would not be able to attend and it could not afford a separate camp. Second, the arguments for desegregation were not forward thinking but backward glancing. Presbytery leaders took seriously the command in the Torah, emphasized in prophets like Amos, and taught in Jesus’ treatment of the neighbor that the stranger is a son or daughter of God. The nature of the prophetic voice is not politically progressive although we tend to think about it that way. Richmond’s religious newspaper editors, ministerial association, as well as Methodists and Presbyterians present an array of approaches to desegregation. Their stories can help us understand social change and churches in our present day.

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

DT: I am still coming to terms with that one. There was a day not long into my sabbatical when I had written something and realized that idea was all mine. A few weeks later someone asked what I did and I responded “I am an historian” for the first time, usually I would say teacher or professor.

The other way to answer that question is to tell the story of my first semester in seminary. I had Bill Leonard—Baptist historian now at Wake Forest—for church history. Since Southern Baptist Theological Seminary did not have an official advising program, I asked Bill if he would be my adviser. Within a few weeks of the start of the relationship while visiting in his office, he asked what I was going to do with an MDiv. I said I wanted to be a campus minister. Given our conversations up to that point and the rapid changes taking place in Southern Baptist circles, he said something like “you’ll never get hired.” Talk about existential angst. In hindsight, he was correct. I drifted through classes for the next couple of weeks wondering what I was doing in seminary. Shortly before the end of the term and sitting in one of his lectures, I thought, “I want to do that.” The Ph.D. program at Virginia tweaked that idea a little more and a teaching fellowship at Mercer landed me doing what I do today.

JF: What is your next project?

DT: I have a contract with University of Georgia Press for a book tentatively titled “A Journey of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, and the Struggle for the Soul of America.” I am also in the early stages of a project on Wendell Berry. The car project is always with me.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

 

The Author’s Corner with William Hogeland

Black SnakeWilliam Hogeland is a writer and historian.  This interview is based on his new book Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: When I stumbled over the story of the first war this nation ever fought, I had strong feelings that its obscurity had to be undeserved.  As I began to explore the story and its nuances, that impression only grew.  Not I think its one of the two or three pivotal events of the American founding, and that both its importance and its strange obscurity are revealing of the deepest themes in American life.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: Victory in the war of 1791-1794 to conquer what is now the Midwest — the war in which the nation’s army was first formed, against strong political opposition to forming a national army — ignited American empire. The desire of speculators and developers — George Washington is probably the most famous — to gain possession of that territory had been integral to American independence and American nation; defeating and removing the people of indigenous nations formerly occupying that region begins with the founding generation, and with the Washington administration, and is a hallmark of the republic’s founding. 

JF: Why do we need to read Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: It’s pretty hard for me to claim that anyone really needs to read my book. I hope the characters, action, and themes I’ve discovered in the story I tell will make it rewarding reading for anyone interested in the origins of the nation and the key issues we continue to struggle with today. 

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

WH: I began telling stories of the American past after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. I didn’t think that project would necessarily continue after my first book, The Whiskey Rebellion, so an exact “why” is hard to come up with, but I was interested at that moment in violence and terror in the American origin story. 

JF: What is your next project?

WH: TBD

JF: Thanks, Bill.