Episode 76: Howard Thurman: Theologian, Mystic, Activist

Howard Thurman was a mid-20th century theologian, writer, activist, and mystic who had a profound influence on the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Thurman’s writings–especially his 1949 work Jesus and the Disinherited–provided an intellectual and spiritual guide to those trying to make sense of an era of racial and social unrest. Our guest in this episode is historian Paul Harvey, the author of Howard Thurman & The Disinherited: A Religious Biography (Eerdmans, 2020).

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A reading group has read a biography of American president

This is a great story. Here is Southwest Journal (MN):

Every few months for more than a decade, Lynnhurst residents Jan Emerson and Tama Pudvah have met up with Linden Hills resident Lynne Nyustek at a local restaurant to share food over a lively discussion of an American president’s biography.

Starting in 2009, the three women have chronologically read the biographies of the first 44 American presidents, averaging about four books a year. Born out of a love of history, the book club will soon discuss the biography of Barack Obama. Then they’ll most likely take a break.

“We’ve been debating, honestly, whether we can stomach Trump at this point,” Pudvah said.  “I think Obama’s our last one for now.”

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Chris Mortenson

politician in uniform

Chris Mortenson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Ouachita Baptist University. This interview is based on his new book, Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?

CM: Lew Wallace is famous for the popular and enduring novel, Ben-Hur, as well as his negotiations with Billy “the Kid” during the Lincoln County Wars of 1878-81 in New Mexico Territory. However, he was also a controversial Civil War general.  I wanted to write a Civil War biography, and it is often easier to complete the work when the subject is interesting to the author. Wallace was a complicated fellow; he could be very effective as an officer, in certain circumstances, but then botch the next assignment. He desired acknowledgement as a professional soldier, but also disdained the culture of West Pointers with whom he worked. In fact, his conception of manhood differed in ways from that of West Point graduates and other professionals, causing him to not get along with superiors.

Along with all of the above, Wallace served at the Battles of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Monocacy (sometimes performing well, and sometimes not). On the other hand, his administrative and recruiting assignments may have offered a greater contribution to the Union, making for an interesting Civil War career.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?

CM: Despite creating problems for himself, such as a number of mistakes and his recurrent unwillingness to give speeches and recruit soldiers for the Union, Wallace concluded his Civil War service having contributed both politically and militarily to the war effort. His service as a volunteer general demonstrated how a politician in uniform should be evaluated differently than most professionally trained officers.

JF: Why do we need to read Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?

CM: Anyone interested in the Civil War, US Army politics, or generalship would hopefully enjoy the book. While the work focuses on questions asked by professional military historians about the qualities of good officers and the relationships between professional and political generals, the lay public will also enjoy a story about an interesting man whose temperamental nature often led to troubles that hurt his career–only to become very famous for other accomplishments later in life.

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

CM: I benefited from three excellent academic advisers: M. Philip Lucas of Cornell College (Iowa), Vernon L. Volpe of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and Joseph G. Dawson III of Texas A&M University.  Lucas’ undergraduate course on the Civil War hooked me, and I never turned back, as Volpe and Dawson continued to encourage progress. While battles and leaders initially drew me to history, I increasingly find myself interested in the lives of soldiers.

JF: What is your next project?

CM: A colleague and I are currently finishing a project; it is titled Daily Life of U.S. Soldiers: From the American Revolution to the Iraq War, and should be released in June or July. This project is a 3-volume reference work which will explore the lives of average soldiers from the American Revolution through the 21st-century conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each chapter (on an American war) with address topics such as recruitment, training, uniforms, weaponry, compensation, combat, the homefront, and the myriad issues that veterans have dealt with over the years. This work will also examine the role of minorities and women in each conflict, which will shed light on their long and difficult path in the U.S. military. Paul J. Springer (Air Command and Staff College) and I edited the volumes, and also wrote a couple of the chapters.

JF: Thanks, Chris!

The Author’s Corner with Randal Jelks

faith and struggle in the lives of four african americans

Randal Jelks is a Professor of American Studies and African and African American Studies at The University of Kansas. This interview is based on his new book Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans?

RJ: I wrote Faith and Struggle because I wanted to think through African American understandings of faiths, what their usages were, and how they reshaped the inner lives of these four historically interesting people.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans?

RJ: The argument of the book is quite simple. I argue that the inner lives of the personalities in this book are as consequential as their outer actions as they faced gendered racism and personal individual struggle.

JF: Why do we need to read Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans?

RJ: I want readers to read Faith and Struggle because I want them to think about their inner lives and how their inner sense of self speaks to the times we currently live in. There are valuable lessons to be learned from others. This is why my own personal narrative is a through line all throughout the book.

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

RJ:  I was born in New Orleans. Above ground cemeteries forced me to always think about the interconnections between the past and the present. I decided on history as a methodology of inquiry as an undergraduate and have used it intellectually ever since. Professionally I became a historian when I decided to do a PhD in Comparative Black Histories at Michigan State University in 1989.

JF: What is your next project?

RJ: I am in the throes of finishing up a book titled ML: A Democratic Meditation. It is a collection of twelve essays about the current state of our polis as I think through the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are several more projects in the offing.  I am also an executive producer on a documentary on the writer Langston Hughes titled I, Too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled (dreamdocumentary.org).

JF: Thanks, Randal!

The Author’s Corner with Ben Wynne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Ben!

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

Do you want to know what evangelicalism was like before the Christian Right came along and politicized it?  Check out Greg Thornbury‘s piece at The Washington Post: “What evangelicals looked like before they entered the political fray.” Thornbury has just completed a biography of Larry Norman, one of the founders of “Christian rock” music.  His book is titled Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock.

Here is a taste of Thornbury’s piece in The Post:

In spring 1978, a young man named Mike Pence did two seemingly incongruous things, almost simultaneously. During one moment, he fist-pumped at a rock festival outside of Lexington, Ky., and in the next he knelt to pray and “receive Jesus Christ into his heart.” One of the artists headlining that concert had unwittingly created a new musical genre called Christian rock. His name was Larry Norman, and little did he know way back in 1969 when he recorded an album called “Upon This Rock” and wrote anthems such as “Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music?” he was pioneering what would become a cultural phenomenon and a billion dollar industry. Nor could he, as a person of faith making albums for secular record companies, have envisioned a time in which the majority of Christians thought of themselves locked in a “culture war” with the rest of society. Pence would go on to embody much of that culture war as governor of Indiana, and now as vice president of the United States. But less is known about Norman, the rocker whom Pence went to see.

Read the rest here.

I must admit that Norman came along a bit before my time.  I joined the evangelical ranks in the early 1980s.  Norman was still popular, but I never really connected with his music.  When evangelicals of a certain age think about Norman, his hit “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” comes immediately to mind.  But as a young evangelical I was always more intrigued (and often time scared to death) by his “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”  It served as the soundtrack to the cheesy (and frightening) 1972 evangelical rapture movie “A Thief in the Night.”  (The song picks up around the four minute mark):

 

Stacy Schiff on Writing Biography

SchiffIf you are unfamiliar with the work of Stacy Schiff I would encourage you to read her books on Ben Franklin and the Salem Witch Trials.  Over at The Paris Review, Schiff talks about her work and the writing of biography.

Here is a taste of the interview:

INTERVIEWER

So you don’t set out at the beginning knowing the story you want to tell?

SCHIFF

Absolutely not. I think it my obligation to set out with neither thesis nor agenda. Time and again I think of E. B. White’s counsel—“It is best to have strong curiosity, weak affiliations.” The preconceptions, the convictions are what blind you. Similarly, I feel the material should dictate the form of the life. With the Nabokovs, for example, there is throughout the book a sort of fox-trot between past and future. That was not something I could have anticipated. I’m not sure I ever actually think without a pencil in my hand. Certainly I never wind up where I thought I would. I’m unapologetic about this. It means the reader and I arrive together at our destination, which strikes me as the point of the exercise. 

INTERVIEWER

How does the book evolve? 

SCHIFF

I begin to write only after I’ve completed the bulk of the research. This is not the most efficient way to proceed, but it’s the only way I seem able to. The themes have emerged by then. Sometimes the shape of the narrative has begun to glint in the distance. Which won’t matter, as it will evolve anyway.

The years in the archives can feel endless, as if you’re on an eternal grocery-­shopping expedition and will never actually cook anything. If ever you were actually a writer, you are no more. You’re more like a sponge, with all the personality of one. Finally one day you wake to discover sentences forming in your head, the signal that it’s safe to leave the archive. And of course your deadline is by now also uncomfortably imminent, if not somewhere behind you. The panic is propulsive.

Read the entire interview here.

3 Books (So Far) on God and Donald Trump

Believe Me JPEGCheck out the recent piece at Religion News Service on three new books on Trump and Christian faith.  They are:

Stephen Mansfield, Choosing Donald Trump.  I have read it.  It is a straightforward narrative of Trump’s history with evangelicals.  Mansfield is a conservative evangelical, but he is not much a Trump supporter.

Steven Strang, God and Donald Trump.  I have read it.  Strang’s book can be summarized in one sentence:  Trump is God’s anointed one. I have blogged about it here.

David Brody and Scott Lamb, The Faith of Donald Trump: A Spiritual Biography.  I have not read it yet, but I have read Ed Kilgore’s review.  I should also add that Lamb just landed a new gig at Liberty University as “Vice President of Special Literary Projects.” Interesting.

In a few months my own book on Trump and evangelicals will appear.  I don’t need to tell readers of this blog that it will be a VERY DIFFERENT book.  Pre-order Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I will be hitting the road with the book after the June 30 book launch at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  We are currently booking dates through the end of the year.

Journalist Ed Kilgore Reviews Brody and Lamb’s *The Faith of Donald Trump: A Spiritual Biography*

Trump bioIt is not pretty.  Kilgore says that the book should actually be titled Our Faith in Donald Trump.  Here is a taste of his review at New York Magazine:

But ultimately, as the increasingly hagiographic tone of the book shows, Brody and Lamb and the conservative Evangelical thought-leaders they represent are working hard to overcome any doubts about Trump. The more the president outrages the Americans who aren’t pining for a return to the 1950s, the more these proud reactionaries cling to him like a Rock of Ages. Here’s conservative Evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas, who also wrote the foreword for this book, reacting to the furor over Trump’s comments defending the honorable intentions of the white rioters of Charlottesville:

We’re going to stand up for Trump a hundred times more. It’s been unbelievably despicable the way he’s been treated. And I think there’s some kind of demonic deception. I mean I’ve never seen anything like it begin to compare it to in my lifetime.

If faith is indeed (as Paul suggested in his Epistle to the Hebrews) “the evidence of things unseen,” then the passionate faith that conservative Evangelicals are placing in “their” president needs little sustenance from the man himself. And that’s a good thing for him and for them, if not for our country and all of the Americans who worship a God who’s not necessarily Republican.

Read the entire review here.

Ron Chernow’s Latest Biography

GrantHe became famous by writing the book on which the smash-hit musical “Hamilton” was based.  Now Ron Chernow‘s latest book is a biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  The Washington Post has the story covered.  Here is a taste of Karen Heller’s piece:

Ron Chernow’s timing is exquisite, even if it took six years and 25,000 index cards to get to this moment.

As Americans debate the continued reverence for Confederate general Robert E. Lee in the wake of the Charlottesville protests, the biographer of Hamilton — the “Hamilton” who inspired the theatrical juggernaut — delivers his latest brick of a book, “Grant” (publishing Oct. 10), to help rescue the Union commander and 18th president from the ash heap of history.

Ulysses S. Grant, you may recall, won the Civil War. He was the military architect who triumphed on multiple battlefields and vanquished Lee in Virginia after six other Union generals failed.

Yet after the South’s defeat, “Lee was puffed up to almost godlike proportions, not only as a great general, but as a perfect Christian gentleman, this noble and exemplary figure and an aristocratic example,” says Chernow, 68, sitting in his sun-splashed kitchen on the top floor of the 19th-century Brooklyn Heights brownstone where he rents two stories. “The glorification of Lee and the denigration of Grant are two sides of the same coin. We’ve created our own mythology of what happened.”

Read the entire piece here.

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!

 

 

John Boles Reassesses Thomas Jefferson

BolesOver at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Parry interviews John Boles, author of the recent Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty.  Reviewers are calling Boles’s book the best one-volume history of Jefferson in nearly fifty years.

Here is a taste of the interview:

What’s your position on the Sally Hemings debate ?

I believe that they had a long-term essentially consensual affair, and that in a different world they may have gotten married. She was technically, legally a slave. There was a law in Virginia that said that a free man could not marry a slave. She also was the half sister of his wife. There also was a law in Virginia that said that a man could not marry the sister of his deceased wife. So even if Sally Hemings were white and free, Jefferson could not have legally married her. He also had promised his wife he’d never remarry.

I don’t know if I want to say it’s absolute love, but it comes pretty close to that. After all, she looked very much like his wife. A lot of people just say offhand, he’s a powerful white man, she’s a black woman, it’s rape. Annette Gordon-Reed says, while that may be usually true, it’s not always true. And if we say that of every single situation like that, then we’re depriving everybody of any sense of agency.

Gordon Wood wrote that you sometimes allow your sympathy for Jefferson to get the better of you in your treatment of race and slavery. Another reviewer accused you of introducing “bizarre semi-justifications and rationalizations to soften the brutal reality of Jefferson’s callous racism.”

I don’t think what I’m saying is a bizarre rationalization. What I’m trying to do is to try to explain, if I can, why Jefferson acted and believed the way he did. One way is to say he’s a white racist, end of story. I’m trying to say there’s more to the story. And I’m disappointed that he doesn’t come down the way I would have. But he’s not living in 2017.

We’re living at a time when protesters at Jefferson’s alma mater, the College of William & Mary, and elsewhere have covered statues of him with sticky-notes calling him a “racist” and “rapist.” At a recent conference, the slavery scholar Hilary Beckles, head of the University of the West Indies, suggested that we should take down statues of Jefferson, just as we took down statues of King George after the Revolution. What’s your response?

That’s a very ungenerous way of looking at the past. And, actually, a lot of the things Jefferson says about liberty and freedom is the language that eventually is employed by those later on who do end up addressing the racial problems. In a lot of ways, he’s surprisingly modern. The Statute for Religious Freedom is one of really the great events in Western history. So things like that we just shouldn’t remember? No.

Read the entire interview and the introduction here

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!

What Trump’s View of History Tells Us About His Political Agenda

f7950-jacksonA lot has been written over the last day or two on Donald Trump’s claim that Andrew Jackson could have prevented the Civil War.  Historians have completely demolished Trump’s claims.

Jeet Heer of The New Republic offers a slightly different take.  Heer argues that Trump’s “bizarre and mistaken beliefs about the past are a window into his mind–and serve his political agenda.”

Here is a taste:

Trump adheres to an extremely crude version of the Great Man theory, which posits that exceptional figures are born to lead during key moments in history. This can be seen not only in Trump’s admiration for Jackson, but also his frequent allusions to military generals like John Pershing, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur. Trump often attributes to these men almost superhuman powers of leadership, as in a false story Trump is fond of telling that Pershing defeated a Muslim insurgency in the Philippines by dipping bullets in pig blood. This admiration for strong men is in keeping with Trump’s disturbing authoritarian tendencies, including his habit of praising autocrats like Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

To be sure, Trump is not alone in adhering to the Great Man theory. After all, biographies are the most pervasive form of popular history. But when Barack Obama read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the lesson he learned was about organizing a strong cabinet, not being a strong man. And when Hillary Clinton evoked the musical Hamilton, it was in the service of praising the ideal of an engaged citizenry. In other words, what sets Trump apart is not that he has historical heroes, but that he admires heroes who are “tough” and push people around, whether it be Jackson in the nullification crisis or various generals in running the military. Patton and MacArthur were the most authoritarian of American military leaders, known for bullying their troops and disobeying the rules.

Read the rest here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Maurizio Valsania

JeffersonsBodyMaurizio Valsania is Professor of American History at the University of Turin, Italy. This interview is based on his new book, Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Jefferson’s Body?

MV: I have always enjoyed reading biographies of American founders and past figures in general. However, wonderful though many biographies are, I often feel that something is missing. Biographers make forays only into the several corporeal dimensions that make us who we are—so that the reader can get basic information about how tall, imposing, elegant, or gentle the subject of that life was. Biographers look for the character, the intellect, the mind, the spirit. But they do not turn the body into the main subject of their analyses. And yet, philosophers and anthropologists have made clear that the body is more than just an appendix or the external coat of the self: it is through the body that we come to be who we are. Our consciousness, cognitive processes, deepest emotions, and beliefs are usually shaped and structured by corporeality and corporeal interactions. This means that our body is often the main actor—at least as important as the mind—of the ongoing drama we call life. By writing Jefferson’s Body, I’ve answered my need to push biographers’ comfort zone a little further up (or, better, further down), and to make the genre more materialistic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jefferson’s Body?

MV: As a typical 18th-century a man who lived in the age of theater and amid all the excitement coming from the emerging middle-class standards, Thomas Jefferson was singularly engaged with his own corporeality. His body, and not only his mind, took up many challenges and made him into an “appropriately” modern, natural, and masculine type—while setting this same type apart from the other bodies (Native American, African American, and female bodies) that were considered less-than-normal.

JF: Why do we need to read Jefferson’s Body?

MV: Over the last 15 years or so, excellent studies of single dimensions of American 18th-century corporeality have emerged, from clothing and fashion to manners, from medical sciences and dietary habits to consumption, from whiteness and masculinity to sexuality. Relying on more and more sophisticated methodologies, these studies have discovered many new elements. Readers may find it interesting to go through a book that encompasses these different fields and, for the first time, applies different methodologies to tell the corporeal biography of one of the most singular, challenging, and at times peculiar man.

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

MV: When in the late 1990s I did my PhD in intellectual history, I became fascinated by a strain of radicalism crossing Europe and reaching the shores of the Atlantic colonies during the second half of the 18th century. “Reshaping the world anew” became the catchphrase of many philosophers, politicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The new American nation has remained my repository of case-studies since.

JF: What is your next project?

MV: I’m well into drafting a corporeal biography of one of the most beloved American hero ever, George Washington. I promise I will deliver a man not many Americans are familiar with.

JF: Thanks, Maurizio!

Happy 321st Birthday Esther Wheelwright!

LittleMy favorite early American history book of 2016 was Ann Little’s The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright.  Over at Historiann, Little informs us that the subject of her book was born 321 years ago today.  Happy Birthday Esther!

I highly recommend The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, but don’t take my word for it.  Listen to Little talk about Esther, women’s history, and biography in Episode 11 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

It looks like we are not the only historians who like the book.  Here is a taste of Little’s post:

It’s Esther Wheelwright’s 321st birthday! She was born March 31, 1696 (Old Style).*  Since Esther has been dead for 237 years, I was thrilled to accept a birthday present on her behalf in the form of a rave review of my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, at the Christian Century!  (H/t to friend and blog reader Susan for passing it along.)  In “Women Who Do Things,” Margaret Bendroth, the executive director of the Congregational Library and author of The Last Puritans:  Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (among many other titles), gets my book exactly right.  

Read the rest here.

Episode 11: Biography: an Appraisal

Podcast IconPerusing the shelves of your local bookstore, it’d be easy to assume that historians love biographies. However, historians have long wrestled with the problems of hero worship that are so often present within biographical literature. Join host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling as they discuss this genre of historical writing. They are joined by historian Ann Little, who discusses her latest work on the eighteenth-century life of Esther Wheelwright.

 

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Mason

Apostle of Union.jpgMatthew Mason is Associate Professor of History at Brigham Young University. This interview is based on his new book, Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Apostle of Union?

MM: Years ago I started work on what I thought was going to be a group biography of the “doughfaces” – Northern politicians whose willingness to compromise on slavery was key to Southern domination of the federal government and Congressional compromises.  In the midst of that research, I was agonizing over how to possibly fit Edward Everett into one chapter of that study.  His career in slavery politics was so long and complicated, and revealed so much about an understudied Unionist political culture throughout the antebellum era, that I couldn’t see just one chapter on him.  Plus he was more interesting to me than many of the Democratic doughfaces I was studying, because he was seeking to balance a strong Whiggish commitment to moral reform with a conservatively antislavery position (whereas the Democrats tended to be simpler, just wanting to exclude morality from politics).  So I decided to pursue this single biography instead and have never looked back.

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

MM: Edward Everett had an unusually complicated political career – stretching from the 1810s through the Civil War – operating at the unstable intersection of the politics of slavery, reform, and Unionism.  The shifting ways he sought to balance those competing priorities, and the shifting popular responses he got to those efforts, tell us a lot about the nature and fortunes of Unionism in the antebellum decades and the Civil War.

JF: Why do we need to read Apostle of Union?

MM: For scholars, I hope the book illuminates multiple political episodes stretching across five decades.  It seeks to do so by connecting the political history to the cultural history, given that Everett linked those two repeatedly (never more effectively than during his campaign during the late 1850s to save Mount Vernon as a shrine for Unionism).  It shows how one especially acute politician and orator shifted his stances on slavery in response to the constantly changing context in which that issue came up, so I hope it will advance our understanding of how the politics of slavery worked.  For those scholars and general readers concerned with the causes of the Civil War, the book makes the best case I could make for how the sectional conflict was actually a 3-way rather than a 2-way conflict.  I think a biography is a good way to put a human face on all these complex antebellum issues, and Everett I think is a pretty sympathetic character overall.  Finally, for scholars and general readers alike in the 2010s, there is a salience to our own times in studying how a moderate sought to deal creatively with the vexations of a polarizing political climate.

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

MM: I decided to embark on this path as an undergraduate taking history classes at the University of Utah in the early 1990s.  I found that my American history classes resonated powerfully with events shaping our nation at that point in its history.  None of the themes of those classes seemed more relevant than the history of race relations in America, even for a 20-something in Utah.  I certainly don’t think that has changed in 2016.

JF: What is your next project?

MM: Right now I’m at work on a study of the Anglo-American politics of slavery from the era of the American Revolution through the late 19th century.  The British presence in the American debates over slavery and abolition has been an important subtheme in much of my previous work, but I want to devote my full attention to this issue, across this long period of time.  I also want to investigate the impact of the American presence in British debates over slavery and abolition, something I have not attended to much in my past work.  I am at times terrified by the scope of this project, but most of the time I am energized by it.

JF: Thanks, Matthew! Sounds like some great stuff.

Paul Putz Reports From AHA 2016 on American Religious Biography

OsborneThe reports from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta keep rolling in here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Paul Putz is  Ph.D student in American history at Baylor University writing a very interesting dissertation on the history of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  Paul reports from a session on the writing of religious biography.  –JF

My first trip to the winter AHA/ASCH meeting was a whirlwind of activity. One of the best aspects was getting to meet many of the historians I’ve gotten to know online through twitter and blogging. It really seemed like many of the conversations we’ve had online seamlessly transitioned to the offline world.

Of all the sessions I attended, I took my most detailed notes on the Thursday afternoon panel, “New Approaches to Religious Biography: Reexamining American Protestant Life-Writing.” It had a stellar cast of participants: Sara Georgini, David Mislin, and Elizabeth Jemison presenting, David Holland commenting, and Catherine Brekus as the chair. Brekus’s Sarah Osborne’s World is one of my favorite religious biographies, so I was very pleased to see her involved.

Just before I made my way to Atlanta last week I read Slate’s study of popular history books, so I had biographies on my mind. Not surprisingly, Slate’s report found that the vast majority of trade press biographies published last year (71.7%) were of men. In that regard, the all-male biographical subjects featured on the panel would have fit right in. On the other hand, two of the three presenters on the panel were women, markedly different than the disparity between men and women when it comes to authorship of trade press biographies.

Sara Georgini, PhD candidate at Boston University and assistant editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, was up first. Her paper, part of a larger dissertation project on the religion of the Adams family from 1583-1927, featured the travels/pilgrimages of Charles Francis Adams Sr. (son of John Quincy Adams), looking at how they contributed to his spiritual development. Georgini also connected Adams’s experiences and reflections with the broader story of nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism’s place within the United States.

Next, Clemson professor of religion Elizabeth Jemison used the autobiographies of Lucius Holsey and Isaac Lane, two late-nineteenth-century Colored Methodist Episcopal Church ministers, to explore the intersection of religious and racial identities in South. She provided sharp insights into the surprising ways that those identities could merge and interact, and their part in the social construction of race in the post-emancipation South. Unlike the other two papers, Jemison’s was not part of a larger biographical project, but rather stemmed from her dissertation-turned-book-project, tentatively titled Protestants, Politics, and Power: Race, Gender, and Religion in the Post-Emancipation Mississippi River Valley, 1863-1900.

The last paper came from David Mislin, a professor at Temple University who recently published his first book, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Cornell University Press). Mislin’s paper featured late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Congregationalist pastor Washington Gladden. Gladden is often viewed as a leading figure in the shift towards liberal theology and social reform in establishment Protestant churches, but Mislin focused instead on Gladden’s work as a pastor, looking at how he was connected to and shaped by the everyday needs and experiences of his congregation. The paper was a small part of a new biography of Gladden that Mislin hopes to publish in the next couple years.

The three papers were excellent, and I look forward to reading the larger projects once they hit the market. That said, I was a bit surprised that the papers didn’t really address questions of methodology. Rather than discussing new approaches to writing religious biographies, they were new religious biographies. Harvard Divinity professor David Holland helped to fill that void with his comments. Holland found commonalities in the approaches taken by the three papers – like any good biography, he said, all three turned on a surprise. And all tended to be sympathetic, listening closely to what the subjects of study said about themselves.

But even if they were sympathetic, Holland noted that the papers did not entirely escape the tendency to emphasize contemporary interests rather than those of the biographical subjects. Citing Perry Miller, Holland spoke of how biographers often “amputate” from their subjects what they don’t like or what they find unimportant to present concerns. This, Holland said, is an almost inescapable problem. So, too, is the tension between the uniqueness of the single biographical subject and the need to make big arguments or grand claims for the importance of one’s subject. In Holland’s view, biographies exist in tension between the “historicized particularity” and the “quest for significance” – and in that sense, the three papers did not necessarily offer markedly new approaches, but rather wrestled carefully with the age-old problems of the biographical angle.

All in all, it was an insightful and thought-provoking panel, one that I am very glad I attended. I also suspect that TWOILH’s fearless leader may have a thought or two about these questions and issues, given the subject of his first book.