The Author’s Corner with Scott Huffard

Engines of redemptionScott Huffard is Program Coordinator of History and Associate Professor of History at Lees-McRae College. This interview is based on his new book, Engines of Redemption: Railroads and the Reconstruction of Capitalism in the New South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Engines of Redemption?

SH: The book had its roots in a graduate seminar at the University of Florida where I explored the spread of yellow fever along Florida’s rail lines in 1888. This led to more and more reading about the New South and it really seemed like there was a dark history of railroad disasters that had not really been told. While southern historians had already noted the importance of railroads in the rise of Jim Crow, I felt that other aspects of the South’s railroad experience needed to be explored.

I also was in grad school during the depths of the Great Recession and the issues I write about in the book–about the power of distant corporations, danger of new connections, and importance of narrative to capitalism–were everywhere. A book is inevitably shaped by the historical moment in which it was conceived and Engines of Redemption is no exception. For example, at the same time I was reading sources calling the Southern Railway an “octopus,” commentators were calling Goldman Sachs a “vampire squid.”

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

SH: In the decades after the Civil War, the South was transformed by the expansion, standardization, and increased connectivity and circulation of the railroad network. Boosters used these new railroads to support the New South story, that capitalism redeemed the South, but this story obscured the ways in which the railroad and capitalism were uniquely destructive in the region.

JF: Why do we need to read Engines of Redemption?

SH: It helps re-center big business and capitalism as key forces in shaping the New South era and it implicates these forces in aiding the rise of white supremacy and many of the era’s disasters and crises. We have seen plenty of recent works (the “New History of Capitalism”) that argue for the capitalist nature of the Old South but Engines of Redemption extends this story into the late nineteenth-century. One of the more resilient aspects of capitalism is how it writes its own history and creates the narratives–like the New South story–that sustain it. We are in a historical moment where we can now more critically assess capitalism and its many disasters and the book hopes to contribute to these conversations and fold new characters and events into the history of capitalism. For example, I write how Railroad Bill, a black train robber active in Alabama in the 1890s, was a fearsome embodiment of the dangerous forces of capitalism for white southerners.

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

SH: My interest stretches all the way back to my elementary school years, when I became obsessed with the Civil War. I grew up in Pennsylvania and got really into the narrative of the war and the horrors of different battles. The idea of a war fought on American soil intrigued me and I remember always trying to get my family to stop at battlefields in Virginia while we were on the way to beach vacations. I saw the South as this foreign and haunted space and I think this fed into my desire to study the region (and its dark past) in graduate school. Now I like how the South has a way of challenging some of the myths and narratives we hold dear about America.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: I am working on a project that looks at the biography and legend of the railroad conductor Casey Jones. He ran the Illinois Central’s fastest mail train and died in a wreck in Mississippi while trying to make up lost time. He has since become perhaps the most famous conductor in America thanks to a whole host of ballads and songs. How did this conductor become the most famous railroad man in America and enter the pantheon of American folklore legends? It should be a fun project to work on and I am excited to jump into more research and writing.

JF: Thanks, Scott!

The Author’s Corner With Stephen Ash

rebel richmondStephen Ash is Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This interview is based on his new book, Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Rebel Richmond?

SA: After finishing another book some years ago, I began searching for a new topic. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone (Civil War-era social history) but was ready to try something new within that field.

I’d never written an urban history. The subject intrigued me, but at first I hesitated to take on Richmond. Several general histories of the city during the war have been published, and numerous books, articles, and dissertations have explored particular aspects of its wartime experience. But in doing research for my earlier books  I’d come across some extraordinarily rich primary sources that were unused, or under-used, by previous tellers of Richmond’s tale. So it seemed to me that the full story of Richmond during the Civil War remained to be told.

The earlier general histories depended heavily on newspapers, city council minutes, and published letters, diaries, and militar reports. This dependency skewed them: they have much to say about elite Richmonders, high government officials, and the battles around the capital, but not much about ordinary Richmonders and their daily struggles. Those sources have all been very useful to me, but the others I delved into—including census reports, soldiers’ military service files, records of Confederate government bureaus and manufactories and hospitals, and the correspondence of the Virginia governors—opened wonderful new perspectives.

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

SA: Between 1861 and 1865, Richmond experienced a storm of calamities and transformations like no other American city, before or since, has had to endure. The people–men and women and children, whites and blacks, rich and poor, bosses and workers, civilians and soldiers, secessionists and Unionists, long-time residents and wartime refugees–responded to this unprecedented crisis in very human ways, sometimes nobly and sometimes shamefully, but mostly somewhere in between.

JF: Why do we need to read Rebel Richmond?

SA: It not only tells us much that we didn’t know about the Civil War but also casts light on the broader question of how human beings cope with extreme circumstances.

In making my case, I emphasize the role of religion. Christian belief was at the heart of Richmonders’ understanding of the Civil War. White secessionists believed that God was on their side and would ensure Confederate victory, as long as believers were faithful to His commands. When the war turned against the South in 1863, some concluded that the sins of the Confederate people had cost them God’s favor; but others saw the military setbacks not as a judgment but as a test of their worthiness in God’s eyes.

Black Richmonders, by contrast, saw the war as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, promising freedom to the captives. As the war went on, they drew comfort also from the book of Daniel (11:15): “So the king of the north shall come . . . and the arms of the south shall not withstand.”

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

SA: I turned thirteen in 1961, the year that our nation began its observance of the Civil War’s centennial. That’s an age at which many people acquire a hobby and a focus, and that’s what happened in my case. I fell in love with the Civil War, read all I could about it in the succeeding years, chose to go to Gettysburg College and major in history, worked as a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg in the summers, and subsequently went to grad school at the University of Tennessee and wrote a dissertation about Middle Tennessee during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In all those years, I never really had any other aspiration besides studying the Civil War. I’m one of the lucky few who turned an adolescent fascination into a career.

JF: What is your next project?

SA: I wish I could answer this question. I think I’ve got at least one more book in me, but I haven’t yet found a topic that really intrigues me. If the readers of this blog have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them (sash@utk.edu).

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

The Author’s Corner with David King

God's internationalists.jpgDavid King is Karen Lake Buttrey Director at the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and Professor of Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. This interview is based on his new book, God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write God’s Internationalists?

DK: As a scholar always seeking to bring an international lens to American history, I have long been intrigued by the untold story of World Vision. Beginning in 1950 as a small missionary agency, the relief and development agency has now grown to become one the world’s largest Christian humanitarian organizations. I felt that World Vision’s story illustrates the role that major faith-based NGOs now play not only in foreign policy and humanitarian work but also in shaping the global imagination of millions of Americans. In many ways, they have taken the public role once occupied by western missionaries. How that transition occurred and what it means, I felt, was important and underexplored.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument for God’s Internationalists?

DK: In chronicling the organizational transformation of World Vision from 1950 to the present, I am making the case that American evangelicals changed in the ways they saw themselves and their world in the period following World War II in ways that push scholars beyond a singular focus only on politics and popular culture. Chronicling the evolution of World Vision’s practices, theology, and institutional development, I also hope to demonstrate how the organization re-articulated and retained its Christian identity even as it expanded beyond a narrow American evangelical subculture illustrating the complexities of faith-based humanitarianism that do not presume the scientific and secular dominance of the humanitarian and philanthropic sector.

JF: Why do we need to read God’s Internationalists?

DK: First, I believe readers will enjoy some of the colorful characters in the pages of God’s Internationalists. World Vision founder Bob Pierce was a larger than life character that traveled the world jumping out of helicopters on the front lines of the Korean and Vietnam wars. Yet, as World Vision grew, Pierce refused to grow with it. After he quit in a fit of rage, he would later go on to start another organization, Samaritan’s Purse, and he mentored Franklin Graham who took over once Pierce passed away. These intertwined histories are obviously still relevant today.

Beyond the immediate relevance of exploring the histories of organizations that still shape the global outlook of many American Christians, I believe it is also important to make the case that American Christians spend far more resources on global missions and international relief and development than they do on domestic politics. While religion and politics get our overwhelming attention for obvious reasons, I believe it is important to broaden our field of vision. Religious relief and development agencies like World Vision demonstrate a complex but oftentimes healthy set of working relationships that mix government, local congregations, private philanthropy, and a wide variety of religious or secular agencies partnering together. In our particular moment, seeing how these partnerships have developed and how they might lead us to common ground, I believe, is worthy of our time. Finally, I believe God’s Internationalists forces us to expand our field of vision beyond domestic issues to see how Christians at home and global Christians abroad have led to new ways of engaging with the world.

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

DK: I majored in history at Samford University and fell in love with the history of civil rights which came alive to me as I explored that history through oral interviews and site visits right there in Birmingham, Alabama, where so much of that history took place. I later focused on American religion with a particular interest in missions history through my work with Grant Wacker at Duke. After I finished a PhD in American religious history at Emory University, I continued to find a way to keep writing as a historian even as my own academic interests have continued to evolve over time taking me now into philanthropic studies, an interdisciplinary field, where I am presently rooted at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

JF: What is your next project?

DK: Speaking of philanthropy, I have just finished an edited volume with Philip Goff of IUPUI, on Religion and Philanthropy in the United States that looks at a variety of religious traditions and particular case studies over the long twentieth century up to the present that will be out with Indiana University Press in 2020. I am also excited to be writing with my colleague Eric Abrahamson a history that intertwines the lives of evangelical philanthropist, Howard Ahmanson, Jr. and evangelical civil rights icon John Perkins. In framing their improbable friendship with one another, we believe the book opens up many untold stories such as the history of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) as well as Ahmanson’s funding of controversial initiatives such as intelligent design and Christian reconstructionism to key global missions such as the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. Like Gods Internationalists, we hope it will open up another lens to explore American evangelicalism.

JF: Thanks, David!

The Author’s Corner with Cole Jones

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

JF: What led you to write Captives of Liberty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Cole!

The Author’s Corner with Cynthia Kierner

inventing disasterCynthia A. Kierner is Professor of History at George Mason University. This interview is based on her new book, Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Inventing Disaster?

CK: Oddly, the event that inspired the book was Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Jersey Shore (and New York City) in 2012. Because I grew up going to the shore, and still go there every summer, I found the news coverage of Sandy and the disaster relief efforts after the storm absolutely fascinating. I also noticed that the sorts of stories told about disaster victims and survivors—and the people who helped (or sometimes did not help)—were pretty much the same as after other recent disasters. This led me to wonder about the origins of this way of responding to disasters—what I call a culture of disaster.

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

CK: Inventing Disaster traces the gradual coalescence of this modern culture of disaster over nearly three centuries, in the British Atlantic world and then in the independent American republic. In the book, I argue that this new response to calamity grew out of three developments that scholars associate with the Enlightenment: the spread of information via trade, travel, and print; the belief in human agency and progress; and the growing influence of the culture of sensibility.

JF: Why do we need to read Inventing Disaster?

CK: What’s not to like about hurricanes, plagues, and exploding steamboats? Seriously, although the book includes engaging disaster stories and vivid contemporary illustrations, I believe that understanding the historical and cultural roots of our own culture of calamity is a prerequisite for assessing how we approach prevention, relief, and recovery efforts in these disaster-ridden times.

For instance, our approach to disaster today, as I said, is rooted in an Enlightenment-inspired confidence in humanity’s ability to conquer and control nature. Is that confidence sustainable now—was it ever? Should disaster prevention be a matter for government mandates, or for community voluntarism? Should disaster relief be a social priority, and, if so, which people or entities should provide aid to disaster victims and how should it be funded? Is disaster relief first and foremost an expression of sympathy, or an effort to maintain social order? How do disaster stories, in the media and elsewhere, shape our often-conflicted understandings of why disasters happen and how we should plan for them and react in times of crisis? These questions, which were first pondered during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, continue to drive the debates we have about disasters in twenty-first-century America.

For those less interested in current events, the book also offers a different perspective on topics ranging from the changing role of the state (in the British Empire and later in the American Republic) to the evolution of print and visual culture in post-revolutionary America.

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

CK: I decided to be a historian when I was in college. I entered university expecting to go to law school. But then I met some law students, saw what they were reading (and writing), and decided that history would be much more fun. I was torn between doing British and American history. Being an early Americanist seemed like the perfect compromise.

JF: What is your next project?

CK: I have several. First, I am coediting a collection of essays on American disasters. I also have two smaller-scale early American projects: a cultural history of the earliest U.S. censuses and an article-length study of a remarkably interesting and outspoken woman in revolutionary North Carolina. My next book-length project, however, will likely be a biography of Joan Whitney Payson, art collector, patron of the arts, horse enthusiast, and founding owner of the New York Mets.

JF: Thanks, Cynthia!

The Author’s Corner with David Hall

the puritans a transatlantic historyDavid Hall is Bartlett Professor of New England Church History Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School. This interview is based on his new book, The Puritans: A Transatlantic History (Princeton University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Puritans?

DH: The Puritans: A Transatlantic History grew out of my ambition to understand the British side of the story more fully; or, to say this otherwise, to replace the paradigms that accompany all versions of “American” Puritanism with paradigms appropriate to an older, richer, and much more significant phase of religious and political history.

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

DH:  I answer (to my satisfaction) the question of “Who were the Puritans?” by rooting the British movements firmly in the context of the Reformed international, and I link the immense difficulties of the 1640s, when a promising alliance between Covenanter Scotland and the Long Parliament broke down, to a straightforward theological question, the nature of the church.

JF: Why do we need to read The Puritans?

DH:  For anyone who knows next to nothing about Reformation Scotland and the remarkable insurgency of 1637-38 (my ignorance was complete before I decided to invest myself in Scottish history), fresh light is  thrown on every aspect of the Puritan movement, and especially its political travails and triumphs.  On the English side, my substantial survey of the “practical divinity” and its problems–up to and including the emergence of “Antinomianism” in the years 1620-1650–is a persuasive alternative to the (tired) history of English “Calvinism,” an alternative more fully attuned to devotion and  the rhythms of spiritual life.  My survey of a “reformation of manners” brings social history into the story, as well.

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

DH: As a child I began to read historical fiction, some of it dating from the end of the C19 (books belonging to my parents or grandparents), books that cast a spell over me that has never quite vanished.  I also fell in love with American literature after being introduced to it in a serious manner in college and, briefly, pondered doing a Ph.D. in English, the compromise being American Studies.  It was accidental that my earliest books were on the seventeenth century, as I really wanted to be writing about the nineteenth; but the turn toward “popular” religion/culture in early modern studies captured my imagination and the rest is (history).

JF: What is you next project?

DH: The Puritans was a very challenging book to write, so I’m turning to something simpler, probably an edition of two seventeenth-century manuscripts.

JF: Thanks, David!

The Author’s Corner with David Prior

between freedom and progressDavid Prior is Assistant Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. This interview is based on his new book, Between Freedom and Progress: The Lost World of Reconstruction Politics (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: I stumbled into the project through primary source research. When I started my graduate work, my advisor encouraged me to look at U.S. foreign relations during Reconstruction. In the process of doing that, I wrote an early seminar paper on American interest and involvement in an insurrection by Greek Orthodox Christians on the island of Crete against Ottoman imperial rule from 1866 to 1869. I was struck by how people in and from the United States, including former Confederates, not only discussed the insurrection, but argued over its meaning through competing sets of analogies to slaveholders, Apaches, Mormons, Poles, and Russians. Those analogies, and the underlying worldview they stemmed from, became what my book was about. I researched a number of seemingly disparate case studies that people at the time connected to each other and to Reconstruction, which is itself a term borrowed from Europe through analogy. I found myself attempting to fathom why these events, places, and individuals all called out for attention from people who, one would think, would have been narrowly focused on the South and its relation to the Union.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: In the broadest sense, the aim of the book is to take a new look at the cultural, intellectual, and political landscape inhabited by Reconstruction’s partisans—those who struggled over and with Reconstruction’s core issues. Between Freedom and Progress does this by recovering why and how they imagined themselves as actors in world history, and in particular how a belief that struggles for freedom and progress transcended the globe stood in creative tension with a closely related assumption that history was about and made by coherent, distinctive groups of people (nations, races, religions, tribes) with their own characters.

JF: Why do we need to read Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: To recover a sense of the otherness of the past, even while we continue to acknowledge the ways that racism and inequality link the United States and the world today back to the contested politics of the postbellum decade.

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

DP: I loved history, as well as economics, going back to high school and double majored in college. When I started thinking about graduate school, I decided I enjoyed history a touch more, although I’ll admit I’ve always missed being able to engage with both disciplines.

JF: What is your next project?

DP: Right now I am working on an edited volume entitled Reconstruction and Empire that looks at the various ways in which the legacies of the Civil War and abolition shaped the imperial moment of the late 1890s and early 1900s.

JF: Thanks, David!

The Author’s Corner with Erik Seeman

speaking with the dead in early americaErik Seeman is Professor of History and History Department Chair at the University at Buffalo. This interview is based on his new book, Speaking with the Dead in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Speaking with the Dead?

ES: In my large lecture class, “Death in America,” Spiritualism is one of my students’ favorite topics. I had long wondered how a religious movement with such a specific starting point–the Fox Sisters’ communication with a ghost in 1848–could claim “millions” of adherents within a decade (leave aside for a moment that the claim was likely exaggerated).

So I started Speaking with the Dead with a simple question: Where did Spiritualism come from? But I quickly became dissatisfied with previous historians’ answers, which had focused on relatively marginal movements in the 1830s and 1840s: Shakerism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism. The deeper I dug, the more I found examples of people imagining communication with the dead, not only in the nineteenth century, but going back to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century England.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Speaking with the Dead?

ES: Protestantism is a religion in which the dead play a central role. From the Reformation forward, many Protestants have maintained relationships with the dead, a tendency that increased over time and culminated in what I call the antebellum cult of the dead.

JF: Why do we need to read Speaking with the Dead?

ES: Historians have long insisted – as in one recent account of the Reformation – that “Protestantism stripped religion of mediation and intimacy with the dead.” Speaking with the Dead offers countless examples from historical, literary, and material culture sources to demonstrate that such assertions must be revised.

To use categories formulated by the religious studies scholar Robert Orsi, historians have usually conceived of Protestantism as a religion of “absence,” in contrast to Catholicism, which is seen as a religion of the “presence” of supernatural beings other than God and Christ (saints, deceased loved ones, the Virgin Mary). In my account, Protestantism is very much a religion of presence.

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

ES: I went to college “in Boston” (as Harvard grads like to say, evasively). I was a History major but not at all on a path toward becoming a historian, until I started primary source research for my junior-year paper, sort of a mini-thesis. I started taking the T and the commuter rail to the Mass Archives at Columbia Point and the Essex County Courthouse in Salem. I couldn’t believe they handed over stacks of eighteenth-century wills and inventories and letters to an untested twenty-year-old. The next year I continued my research on the social history of the Great Awakening, expanded my geographic compass, and spent so much time in the archives that I got a D on my Icelandic Saga midterm. At that point I asked my Teaching Fellow, Mark Peterson, “How do I do what you do?”

JF: What is your next project?

ES: Continuing the Boston theme, I’ve just started a book I’m calling “The Pox of 1721: Boston’s Deadliest Epidemic.” It’s going to be a social history of the sort I started writing as an undergrad. This is the smallpox epidemic famous for the “inoculation controversy”: Cotton Mather and Zabdiel Boylston favored the new (or new to Euro-Americans) practice of inoculation, while William Douglass and others strongly opposed it. This controversy left an ample published record that has drawn lots of scholarly attention. But what about ordinary people? How did this epidemic play out among the unfree as well as the free, the poor as well as the well-to-do? We’ll see if I’m able to unearth enough sources to tell that story.

JF: Thanks, Eric!

The Author’s Corner with John Brooke

there is a northJohn Brooke is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History and Professor of Anthropology at Ohio State University. He is also Director of the Ohio State University Center for Historical Research. This interview is based on his new book, “There is a North”: Fugitive Slaves, Political Crisis, and Cultural Transformation in the Coming of the Civil War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write “There is a North”?

JB: I am thrilled that my book is out, and want to thank the University of Massachusetts Press for doing such a nice job with the production. I began thinking about this project in 2010 for two reasons: I wanted to write about how people experience “events,” and I wanted to address the central issue of the history of the republic. Here, I was dissatisfied with the dominant narrative, which focuses on why the South seceded. The new literature on the politics of slavery during the American Revolution and Early Republic makes it plain that the South would secede whenever the slaveholders faced a fundamental threat to “the institution.” 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of “There is a North”?

JB: The central question regards how and when the fundamental threat to slavery emerged. It is equally clear that, while the abolitionists worked long and hard, they had not before the 1850s convinced a strategic block Northern opinion to stand up against slavery.

JF: Why do we need to read “There is a North?

JB: Readers should consider “There is a North” because it describes this conversion between the fall of 1850 and the spring of 1856, focusing on the way in which the Fugitive Slave Law was turned into a cultural weapon against slavery through the efforts of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also the efforts of hundreds of other authors, musicians, and theatrical producers and performers. This process involved a fundamental though fleeting creolizing encounter of black and white American cultures, unfolding in a contested by real confluence of black and white interest against slavery and the Slave Power. By the time that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, this drawn out “media event” had reshaped public opinion. While both the political and cultural dimensions of this story have been the subject of important works, “There is a North” is the first to focus on both equally, and on their synergies.

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

JB: My interests in American and also world history have their origins in my childhood, and were nurtured at Cornell and then at Penn, where I became an early American historian, eminently advised by Michael Zuckerman and his many colleagues. “There is a North” is my fourth book on society and culture in the American North from the Age of Revolution to the Civil War.

JF: What is your next project?

JB: Teaching global environmental and climate history at Tufts and Ohio State led to my global book, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. The next several years will be devoted this project, producing a 2nd edition and a spin-off undergraduate text.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Fox-Amato

exposing slaveryMatthew Fox-Amato is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Idaho. This interview is based on his new book, Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Exposing Slavery?

MFA: I was (and still am) interested in how social movements have used the power of culture to effect change. I also wanted to better understand the role that images of suffering have played in shaping modern experience and, more specifically, American politics. Initially, a project about abolitionist photography seemed the way to pursue these interests. I was aware of the many photos of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth as well as certain images that abolitionists circulated during the Civil War, such as the “Scourged Back” (1863), in which a fugitive slave poses with his flagellated back towards the camera. My plan was to examine how abolitionists drew upon this new visual technology to fight racism and expose the violence of bondage.

But the project changed as I began finding evidence in the slave South. I came across a few digitized photographs, commissioned by enslavers, of enslaved people in the 1850s. I found written sources suggesting enslaved people actively engaged the medium, as in, for instance, a newspaper article about African Americans purchasing photographs from an itinerant daguerreotypist in a small town in Alabama. These and other sources led me to revise how I was conceptualizing antebellum photography. The medium was more than simply a tool for abolitionists: it served as a cultural middle-ground, through which various historical actors–in both the North and South–made claims about themselves and the world. How, I now asked, did photography influence the culture and politics of slavery? And how was the medium shaped in the process? My book aims to answer these questions.

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

MFA: Photography exacerbated the political crisis over slavery. In turn, those most invested in the potential futures of slavery–enslavers, enslaved people, abolitionists, and Civil War soldiers–turned photography into a political tool.

JF: Why do we need to read Exposing Slavery?

MFA: It is abundantly clear that the digital world has reshaped the intertwined relationship between media and U.S. politics–whether one looks to changes in newspapers or the influence of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. To make sense of these changes, we need a more textured understanding of how media have shaped politics in the past. My point in Exposing Slavery is not that the emergence of photography simply helped promote freedom and equality and diminished anti-black racism. It is, instead, that photography catalyzed conflict, because actors from across the political spectrum seized on it for different political goals–much like we see with social media today.

I also want readers to come away with a new approach for conceptualizing historical actors. Exposing Slavery puts visual culture at the center of American history in a very specific way. Not only does it analyze images as evidence (rather than simply illustrations), but it also foregrounds how non-artists helped produce images and delves into the ways in which they circulated, displayed, and gazed upon those images. I show, for instance, how some enslaved people preserved photographic portraits of their loved ones, a practice that enabled them to maintain familial ties amidst the disruptions of the domestic slave trade. Likewise, I reveal how white Union soldiers helped craft interracial scenes during the Civil War. These images, which routinely pictured black men kneeling beneath and serving white soldiers, reinforced racial hierarchy as slavery crumbled. These and other instances demonstrate how non-artists shaped history through photography. We see the past anew once we begin to grapple with the many consequential ways that ordinary historical actors (not just trained artists) have used and made meaning from images.

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

MFA: I was riveted by my first serious work in an historical archive. When I was writing my undergraduate thesis about the Hollywood Production Code (film censorship enacted in the 1930s), I spent time at the Margaret Herrick Library in LA, poring over letters between Code executives and studio producers. I was captivated by the letters I read–documents full of conversation about what should be kept, altered, and cut in various film scripts. I felt like I had a front-row seat to the creation of popular culture, and was struck by the idea that my thesis would be dramatically shaped by the questions I asked about these sources. It was in this moment that I knew I wanted to study the past for a living.

JF: What is your next project?

MFA: I’m beginning a new book-length study about the historical relationship between visual journalism and the White House. The project examines how sketch artists and photojournalists have visualized the presidency, and how administrations began to create and disseminate their own news pictures. I’m fascinated by connections between visual media and the uneven development of democracy. This book explores one part of that larger story.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

The Author’s Corner with Carl Guarneri

Lincoln.jpgCarl Guarneri is Professor of History at Saint Mary’s College of California. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln’s Informer: Charles A. Dana and the Inside Story of the Union War (University Press of Kansas, 2019).

JF: Why did you decide to write Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: I hatched plans for Lincoln’s Informer many years ago when I learned that Charles Dana, whose experience at the Brook Farm commune I had covered in my first book, The Utopian Alternative (Cornell University Press, 1991), moved on to a fascinating—and virtually unstudied—Civil War career. My interest was piqued when I learned that Dana’s war memoirs, published in 1898, were actually ghostwritten by the muckraker Ida Tarbell and, I discovered, riddled with mistakes. I took the absence of a trove of personal Dana papers as a research dare, along with the several thousand wartime telegrams sent by him that are recorded on microfilms at the National Archives. Although the Civil War had not previously been my scholarly focus, I had been teaching it for three decades, which stimulated my desire to do some original scholarship in the field. Several other book projects clamored for my attention first. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the long delay because it enabled me, once I returned to the Dana project, to benefit from so much fine Civil War scholarship that appeared in the intervening years.

As an Assistant Secretary lodged in Washington’s corridors of power and a special agent sent by Lincoln and Stanton to the front to file confidential reports, Dana, I sensed, was a wonderful source for telling the inside story of the Union war. My friends kept pointing out that he bore a resemblance to a fictional character (like Forrest Gump) who just happened to be present in the middle of a series of momentous historical events. But Dana was real, and he did more than observe history; he made it. His reports helped to make Union generals like Grant and break others, such as McClernand and Rosecrans. Meanwhile, at Washington he supervised Union spies, lobbied legislators for Lincoln, and helped police the contentious Union home front. My research brings out Dana’s important behind-the-scenes role, while the book’s sideways approach allows me to take the measure of Union leaders like Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant without adding to the leaning-tower pile of their published biographies.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: This is not primarily a thesis-driven book but a dramatic and (I hope) colorful narrative that clarifies along the way many controversies about Civil War battles, generals, and events, and offers a fresh look at Lincoln, Stanton, Grant, and Union leaders. Its cumulative effect is to highlight Dana’s substantial contributions to Union victory, and, more generally, the indispensable role that people most readers have never heard of–special agents and bureau chiefs in the War Department–played in organizing and sustaining the Union’s massive war effort.

JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: Scholars and history buffs who can’t get enough of the Civil War will, I trust, not require strenuous convincing! For them, and for students and other readers, Lincoln’s Informer addresses important and perennially fascinating Civil War questions (Why did northerners reject secession? Who freed the slaves, and why? How did Lincoln finally find the right generals? Did the President’s use of patronage help or hinder the war effort? Was there a Confederate conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln?), but it does so from a fresh angle by excavating the actions and views of a little-known confidant of Union war leaders, an administration insider with surprising influence. The book’s narrative suggests some “revisionist” answers to these questions. Equally important in my view, as Lincoln’s Informer tells its story in detail it gives a feel for the way the Civil War’s momentous events unfolded day-by-day in the eyes of key participants.

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

CG: In retrospect, our autobiographical paths always seem clearer, even predestined. As a curious kid in a home-bound, working-class Italian-American family, I found escape in the vicarious travel of poring over maps and collecting stamps, and in the backward time-travel of historical fiction. I had the benefit of encountering inspiring history teachers in high school and college, too. But the truth is that I studied economics and art history as an undergraduate, and only in approaching graduate studies did I turn—or return—to history. It was a professor of French history who urged me to focus on the United States—which I had not studied in college—and to examine its transatlantic and global connections. It turned out that studying US history this way satisfied my curiosity about other times and places while also illuminating our own. Since then I have veered between “ballooning”—assessing the US in global perspective—and “burrowing”—digging deeply into specific events and primary sources, rejoicing that practicing history allows me to do both.

JF: What is your next project?

CG: Deconstructing Charles Dana’s ersatz memoirs has whetted my appetite for exploring issues raised by Civil War memoirs as problematic historical sources, which can be mined—always with caution— for information about wartime events, but can also be examined as explorations in the workings of memory, as survivors’ attempts to fix historical legacies, and as interventions in ongoing military and political controversies. I’m hoping to pursue this further. Meanwhile, in keeping with my interest in transatlantic history, I am preparing an edition of Dana’s newspaper reportage of the 1848 Revolutions in Europe.

JF: Thanks, Carl!

The Author’s Corner with Niels Eichhorn

liberty and slaveryNiels Eichhorn is Assistant Professor of History at Middle Georgia State University. This interview is based on his new book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Liberty and Slavery?

NE: The project started in my freshman year in college when I took a Civil War history class (senior-level class), where I became interested in German-U.S. relations. I was especially curious about Rudolph Schleiden, Bremen’s diplomatic representative in the United States. Schleiden, a former 1848 revolutionary, who had tried in April 1861 with a visit to Alexander Stephens in Richmond to stop the war, seemed to have a unique story to tell. I wanted to know more about him. As I continued in graduate school, I expanded to include other Schleswig-Holstein revolutionaries of 1848 and how they translated their experiences from Europe to the United States. Aware that this was still a narrow subject matter, I went even larger and decided to also include Irish, Polish, and Hungarians, who shared a similar set of arguments about political and national oppression with the U.S. South. All four of these migrant groups had important leaders involved politically or militarily in the U.S. Civil War. Born was Liberty and Slavery, European revolutionaries facing southern secession.

JF: In three sentences, what is the argument of Liberty and Slavery?

NE: Liberty and Slavery illustrates that separatism was a universal experience across the Atlantic World during the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the various movements intellectually and personally influenced each other. European separatists who had feared political or national enslavement in Europe frequently looked to a southern minority forcing its will on, enslaving, the United States, whereas the vast majority of European migrants supported the Union against an aristocratic-looking minority intend on destroying or at least dominating the United States, eliminating the beacon many European separatists had looked to for help and inspiration during their own rebellions. Their European background and interpretation of the sectional struggle influenced their decision to side with Union or Confederacy.

JF: Why do we need to read Liberty and Slavery?

NE: Because it is a really important book … humor aside, Liberty and Slavery illustrates that residence alone did not determine allegiance. Only because Hungarians resided in the North did not mean they automatically sympathized with the United States. The book aims to illustrate the complexities of the ideological baggage migrants brought with them to the United States, especially revolutionaries, and their difficulty of translating their arguments and experiences into the United States. Furthermore, while the Irish are a relatively well-known group fighting in the Civil War, the Hungarians and Polish are much less familiar. The book has a heavy dose of European history in the first two chapters because scholarship of 1848 revolutionaries in the United States often overlooks the background these revolutionary migrants bring with them, their language and experiences, creating the perception that they are Union-loving, liberty-embracing anti-slavery advocates when they get off the boat. It was not that simple. Liberty and Slavery illustrates the complexities of nationalism and the construction of identity, especially when in a foreign country.

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

NE: Well, there are some out there who have openly wondered if I am actually a U.S. historian, I do think so, even if my approach is rather unique. The first spark came when my VHS recorder gave out on the last hour of Gettysburg–I had school the next day and could not stay up until midnight. It was incredibly tough finding any literature about the U.S. Civil War in German bookstores. That is where I started to read about U.S. history, mostly books brought home from vacations in the United States. The decision to pursue history professionally, came in my freshmen history class when I realized that German-U.S. relations had no literature. Thus I went from military history-interested to diplomatic history to transnational history.

JF: What is your next project?

NE: The difficulty here is that Liberty and Slavery has two concurrent projects. While working on this book, I have also been working with my friend and colleague Duncan Campbell at National University in San Diego on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism, the first-ever study placing the Civil War in a global context. I also have forthcoming later this year The Atlantic World in the Nineteenth Century (Palgrave), which takes a broad look at the Atlantic region and how people, ideas, commodities, and money continued to crisscross the Atlantic during the nineteenth century and how that helped to create a coherent and vibrant Atlantic community. These three were concurrent projects. About two months ago, I asked myself the same question you asked, what next. I am/was torn between two projects that really interest me going forward: a nineteenth-century history of the South to illustrate continuities within the region or my long thought about work on Civil War diplomacy. I have opted for the latter for the moment since I have most of the research in hand, but as I am going through the thousands of microfilm scans and archival-material photographs, I am not sure where this project will lead yet.

JF: Thanks, Niels!

The Author’s Corner with T.H. Breen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Prof. Breen!

The Author’s Corner with Carlton Larson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Carlton!

The Author’s Corner with Sarah Pearsall

Polygamy An Early American HistorySarah Pearsall is University Senior Lecturer in the History of Early America and the Atlantic World at the University of Cambridge. This interview is based on her new book, Polygamy: An Early American History (Yale University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Polygamy?

SP: When I started working on this project, fierce debates over same-sex marriage erupted at the center of U.S. politics, and marriage controversies also kept emerging in my research and teaching. In the course of research on my first book about Anglo-Atlantic families, I started to notice a negative version of the ideal marriage: the harem, supposedly ruled only by lust, greed, and fear, never true love. In an undergraduate course I was teaching on early American travel narratives, depictions of polygamy appeared over and over again. Why were people so fascinated—and sometimes so horrified— by other people marrying in what they felt was the wrong way? What did differences over marriage highlight about society and politics? Polygamy seemed a good way to open up these vexing issues. Yet I could find few books about it, and none focused on colonial America. With a few notable exceptions, most studies of early American colonialism treated disputes over polygamy as something like mere local color in the background of a borderlands drama. Yet sometimes different ideas about households were not the backdrop; they were the drama. I wanted to know more about this drama, and the women and men who shaped it.

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

SP: Most Americans, even (early) American historians, presume the history of polygamy in North America only really began with Western controversies surrounding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in the nineteenth century. In fact, I argue that what happened to the Mormons was near the end, a decisive battle in a long-standing war for monogamy which reveals a great deal about women, men, households, and power in early modern encounters.

JF: Why do we need to read Polygamy?

SP: This book places women and men, and their intimate, sometimes physical, relations, at the center of an analysis of colonialism and nationhood. This somewhat unusual perspective yields some compelling surprises and fascinating stories. Many of the major actors in this narrative were Native American or African American. I hope that the book prompts readers to question their own assumptions about this allegedly “backwards” form of marriage. Even more significant, though, is that readers take away that centering marriage changes how we think about major events and processes, including the Pueblo Revolt (which I first discussed in an article in the American Historical Review), King Philip’s War, and even the American Revolution. The book ranges widely but deeply across many times and places, so even specialists should learn something new. Finally, one friend jokingly suggested that displaying a copy would make the reader look hip and attractive, but I could not possibly comment on that.

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

SP: Strangely, I became an American historian when I left the United States and went to study in England. I came to Cambridge University as a master’s student to study British history. While there, I increasingly felt the pull of early American history. An exceptional high school teacher, Melinda Hennessey, as well as many amazing teachers at Yale had already ignited my passion for history. I was fortunate to be able to return to the U.S. to do my PhD in early American history at Harvard with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, with a strong interest in British and Atlantic history. My first book reflects those joint interests. In the end, I fell in love with early American history because it is at once familiar and alien. It also involves so many rich and dynamic encounters between different people; for better or worse, these contacts continue to shape our world. I hope my new book gives a flavor of them.

JF: What is your next project?

SP: I have enjoyed working on this topic so much that I am now writing a global history of polygamy with a long temporal span. I also have a project on the American Revolution in the works, as well as one on slavery and marriage.

The Author’s Corner with D.L. Noorlander

Heaven's wrath.jpgD.L. Noorlander is Associate Professor of History at the State University of New York at Oneonta. This interview is based on his new book, Heaven’s Wrath: The Protestant Reformation and the Dutch West India Company in the Atlantic World (Cornell University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Heaven’s Wrath?

DN: The project started when I was a graduate student at Georgetown University. I was reading a lot of colonial history for my classes and exams, and I noticed that British and Spanish topics tend to dominate the field. I had had an interest in Dutch history for a long time, partly because of my own family ties to the Netherlands (Noorlander is a Dutch name) and partly because I had lived there for two years and spoke the language, which is pretty rare in the United States! When the time came to propose a dissertation topic, there really wasn’t much question about doing something on the Dutch in early America.

At this point I honestly don’t remember how I came to focus on the Calvinist influence in the Dutch West India Company, but that’s what happened. In reading about New Netherland and other Dutch colonies, I think I just came to believe that American historians had paid a lot more attention to the former than it probably deserved, given its place of relative unimportance in the Dutch empire. And I came to see that historians had written a lot about Dutch commerce, but they had done less social, cultural, and intellectual history.

To give credit where credit is due, I think my eyes were also opened to all the rich opportunities in Dutch research by reading books like The Reformed Church in Dutch Brazil(F.L. Schalkwijk), Fulfilling God’s Mission(Willem Frijhoff), and Innocence Abroad religio(Benjamin Schmidt). They are very different books, but they all contained wonderful surprises regarding Dutch ideology, Dutch religion, and Dutch activities in West Africa and South America. The same company that oversaw New Netherland oversaw Dutch forts and colonies in these other places, too, so it just made sense to study them together.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Heaven’s Wrath?

DN: The Dutch Reformed Church and West India Company forged a close union, with significant consequences throughout the seventeenth century. Certain of those consequences were, from the Calvinist point of view, positive; but the union also encouraged expensive, destructive military operations and divisive campaigns against sinners and religious nonconformers in colonial courts.

JF: Why do we need to read Heaven’s Wrath?

DN: In my experience, Americans tend not to know just how active and influential the Dutch were in early America and the Atlantic world. Because they ultimately lost Brazil to the Portuguese and New Netherland to the English, it’s easy to forget that the Dutch once had an impressive Atlantic empire. Their endless attacks on the Spanish and Portuguese may have inadvertently assisted the English and French, as well, because the Dutch kept their enemies so occupied that they (the Spanish and Portuguese) couldn’t resist and quash competitors with the same vigor and capacity they would have had without having to fight the pesky Dutch for so many years.

In short, readers of my book will learn about a people who did far more than trade: They were pirates and privateers, they waged wars, they founded colonies — and yes, despite their reputation for pragmatism and tolerance, they pursued religious goals and exhibited the occasional streak of zealotry and intolerance. I’m not the only historian noticing and writing about these things today. But Heaven’s Wrath is unique, I think, as a history of the whole West India Company, no matter where it operated, and the book is unique in using the topic of religion to reveal and explore these diverse colonial goals and methods.

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

DN: I was an English major as an undergraduate student. I was a senior before I finally realized that, as much as I love literature, I was also reading a lot of history and a lot of biographies, even more so than fiction. So I took a year off after I graduated and I applied to an MA program in history. And I liked it enough that I decided in the end to pursue a PhD.

The more profound answer is this: I love stories, but sometimes the non-fiction variety of story is more fascinating than the made-up variety, maybe because with fiction, no matter how good and profound it can be, there’s always the slightly disappointing knowledge that “this didn’t really happen” and “this doesn’t involve real people” (except in the vague sense that fiction writers draw upon human experiences and the human condition). I also love the mystery and challenge of putting my “story” together, meaning searching it out in the archives and using scattered sources to reconstruct what otherwise isn’t clear. It requires a lot of patience and detective work and, yes, even a bit of imagination.

JF: What is your next project?

DN: Readers of Heaven’s Wrath will sometimes encounter a poet, lyricist, and colonist named Jacob Steendam. Over the course of his life he lived in Europe, Africa, America, and Asia. I’ve been collecting sources on Steendam for years, and I’m now going to write a whole book about his travels and writings. Because he’s such an obscure figure, it won’t be a simple biography. But I’m going to use him and his poetry to explore the many “worlds” of the Dutch Golden Age, meaning the places he lived and the less tangible worlds of early modern writing, publishing, music, and their place in colonial life and colonial thought.

JF: Thanks, Danny!

The Author’s Corner With Christopher Cameron

Black FreethinkersChristopher Cameron is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (Northwestern University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Black Freethinkers?

CC: Like countless scholars of African American religion, I began this project after reading Al Raboteau’s classic book Slave Religion. Toward the end of the work, he mentions that not all slaves “too solace in religion” and some could not believe in a just and all-powerful God who would allow his people to suffer under slavery. Raboteau’s discussion of atheism and agnosticism occupies just two pages yet was incredibly intriguing to me, as I’d encountered no other historians who explored religious skepticism in nineteenth century slave communities. This discovery led me to begin searching for examples of black freethinkers, both in the era of slavery and in the twentieth century, and what I found convinced me that black freethought was much more prevalent and important than scholars have realized.

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

CC: African American freethought began as a response to the brutality of the institution of slavery and developed in tandem with movements such as the New Negro Renaissance and Black Power. While freethinkers have constituted a small segment of the black population, they have nevertheless played critical roles in African American intellectual and political life since the mid-19th century.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freethinkers?

CC: Probably the most common response I get when discussing this book with people is “I didn’t know that person was a freethinker.” This is the case when discussing lesser-known figures such as Louise Thompson Patterson or more well-known freethinkers such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Black Freethinkers demonstrates that religious skepticism was prevalent among some of the most prominent voices in African American history, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Huey Newton. And these were not simply intellectuals and political activists who happened to be freethinkers but rather people whose political ideology/activism and literary production were profoundly shaped by their religious skepticism. Black Freethinkers thus helps us to more fully understand the intersections between religion and African American literary, intellectual, and political history, especially in the twentieth century.

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

CC: Following up on the discussion of atheism among slaves in Raboteau’s book, I began the research for Black Freethinkers by reading dozens of slave narratives. While historians have used these sources to document various aspects of slave religiosity, they are also useful sources to document the presence of religious skepticism in southern slave communities. For later chapters of the book, novels, poetry, memoirs, newspapers and other periodicals were key sources. I likewise found archival sources such as letters, unpublished memoirs, sermons, and records of liberal congregations such as the Harlem Unitarian Church to be incredibly valuable in writing the book.

JF: What is your next project?

CC: I have two projects in the works right now. One is an edited collection (with Phillip Luke Sinitiere) entitled Race, Religion, and Black Lives Matter: Essays on a Moment and a Movement. The second is a monograph entitled Liberal Religion and Race in America that explores African Americans engagement with liberal sects such as the Unitarians and Universalists from the revolutionary era to the creation of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism in 2015.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

The Author’s Corner With Thomas Balcerski

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

JF: What led you to write Bosom Friends?

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

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Bosom Friends?

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Tom!

The Author’s Corner With Matthew Clavin

ClavinMatthew Clavin is Professor of History at the University of Houston.  This interview is based on his new book The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community (New York University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: I am captivated by stories of extraordinary slave resistance that have for a variety of reasons been largely forgotten. Historians have known about Negro Fort for a long time, but I wanted to bring the story of its rise and fall to a wide audience. More than ever, it is vitally important for professional historians to communicate directly with the general public, especially regarding the long and complicated history of race and racism both in the United States and the world.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The Battle of Negro Fort marked a significant moment in early American history. By destroying a fugitive slave community in a foreign territory for the first and only time in its history, the United States government accelerated its transformation into a white republic, which served both the interests and the ideology of an emerging Slave Power.

JF: Why do we need to read The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The demonization of people of color on the opposite side of the United States’ southern border is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, American citizens and officials have long referred to these people as murderers, savages, and the like to score political points and secure what they considered important public policy. Following the War of 1812, slavery’s proponents depicted Negro Fort as an existential threat to the southern frontier. Eventually, they were able to convince the federal government to launch an illegal invasion of Spanish Florida to kill or capture the fort’s black inhabitants. The Battle of Negro Fort illuminates how—and why—in the four decades since the Declaration of Independence, much of the American republic’s ambivalence over the institution of slavery had disappeared.

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

MC: Since I was little, I have always been fascinated with the history of race and racism. While writing my senior thesis in college on nonviolent direct action and the Civil Rights Movement, I first considered the idea of research and writing history professionally. It wasn’t long after turning in that paper that I decided that I had to become an historian. A lot of people told me that I could never be a historian. I am so glad I did not listen to them.  

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently writing a book that examines the intersection of slavery, anti-slavery, and nationalism in the United States in the decades before the Civil War. The goal is to show just how much love of the American nation justified and inspired revolutionary slave resistance.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

The Author’s Corner With Bryan Rindfleisch

GalphinBryan Rindfleisch is Assistant Professor of History at Marquette University.  This interview is based on his new book George Galphin’s Intimate Empire: The Creek Indians, Family & Colonialism in Early America (University of Alabama Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write George Galphin’s Intimate Empire?

BR: The idea for the book started with a one-off conversation I had with my mentor – Joshua Piker – as a second semester doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma. I was toying with all sorts of different ideas for a dissertation project, but none of them really stuck. Then, Josh mentioned “George Galphin” and how curious this one man’s life was, who popped up all over the place in the documentary record related to the Creek (Muscogee) Indians and European empires in the eighteenth-century, but only leaving fragmentary details along the way. Josh said something to the effect of “see what you can find out about him,” and from there I ran headlong down the rabbit hole. My first research seminar paper revolved around Galphin and the Lower Creek towns of Coweta and Cusseta during the American Revolution, and it was at that point I knew I had something. Yet in the course of my research over the next seven years, I discovered that the story was not about Galphin per se, but about the multitude of family members – immediate and extended relatives who were Creek Indian, African American, Irish, and Anglo-French – that he surrounded himself with throughout his life. And in a sense, I’ve been living with the Galphin family ever since.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of George Galphin’s Intimate Empire

BR: Among the several arguments I make in the book, the most important is that empire and colonization were far from impersonal processes, but intensely intimate and revolved around the families who made the empire possible or real on the ground, and these families were oftentimes intercultural. I also demonstrate how Creek peoples, and Native Americans writ large for that matter, are not only essential parts of the early American story, but critical partners – at times even purveyors of empire – as much as they were opponents of empire in the eighteenth century, because of the family/kinship ties they fostered with imperial subjects like Galphin.

JF: Why do we need to read George Galphin’s Intimate Empire?

BR: While I’d love to say that everyone needs to read my book, that’s a pipe dream. First of all, it’s a first book and – of course – there are stories left out, ideas unrealized, and other things that I am sure book reviewers will point out soon enough (half-joking). And while I hope my arguments speak to the broader field of early American history, I’m also engaging with a particular niche in early American and Native American history: the American and Native Souths. However, the book grapples with a number of themes and events that are relevant to many audiences, be it family and kinship, immigration, empire and colonization, intercultural relationships and violence, slavery, the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, among others.

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

BR: I only gravitated toward history as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire because I learned the hard way that I didn’t want to be an elementary school teacher! I believed I was “good” at history in high school – yes, the memorization of events and dates – and like many of our undergraduate students, I was obsessed with World War II and other global conflicts, therefore I decided to major in history. It was only when I took Native American History with Richard St. Germaine (Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe) that I realized how flawed my understanding of history was, as he literally threw my world upside down. Because of St. Germaine, I double-majored in American Indian Studies and history, and knew that I wanted to educate others in the same way that he had re-educated me.

JF: What is your next project?

BR: I’m currently working on two book projects. The first revolves around the intra-Indigenous connections – kinship, cultural, ceremonial, political, economic, linguistic, etc. – between the Creek and Cherokee peoples during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I’m hoping for this project to be an intervention of sorts in Native American and early American history, by reorienting scholars’ attention to the intra-Indigenous world that existed side-by-side, and at times proved more important than, the Indigenous-European world.

The second project is a microhistory focusing on a particular Creek family over the course of the eighteenth-century, to illustrate the various themes and events that defined the Indigenous/Creek and early American worlds. This book is an outgrowth of my frustrations as a teacher, in which undergraduate students often have a hard time investing themselves in a distant past (early America) or unfamiliar histories (Native America). Over the past couple of years, though, I realized that the particular stories I tell about Native America and early America matter a great deal (duh!), as students more readily embrace stories and the individuals within those stories to understand such histories. This project is my attempt to do the same in my writing/research, by following two Creek brothers – Escotchaby and Sempoyaffee of Coweta – and their family and clan relatives to illustrate the many themes and events that defined the Native American and early American worlds, as well as the profound transformations ushered in by the Seven Years’ War and American Revolution to both Indigenous and early American worlds.

JF: Thanks, Bryan!