A Writing Group of Boston-Area American Historians Gets a Story in *Publishers Weekly*

GeorginiCheck out Alex Green’s piece at Publishers Weekly.  The writers group, known as “The Squad,” includes historians Kevin Levin, Liz Covart, Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.  (Covart and Georgini have been guests on the The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Listen to our conversation with Covart here.  Georgini here).

Here is a taste of Green’s piece:

Kevin Levin got his first taste of having his work reviewed by the historians in the Book Squad as they finished their obligatory postdinner course of mint chip ice cream. “It took me a little bit of time to pick my ego up off the floor,” Levin said. Despite the intensity of the critique, Levin (who is a faculty colleague of the author of this article at Gann Academy) came to depend on the process for writing Searching for the Black Confederates (Univ. of North Carolina, Sept.). “I don’t think I would have finished the book without it,” he said.

The Book Squad first gathered when Liz Covart, host of the history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, wanted to create a writing group to motivate her to write. Levin signed on, as did historians Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.

The group began meeting monthly at each other’s houses in 2015. The host is responsible for dinner and a piece of writing for review. For Georgini, who was completing her dissertation and converting it into a trade title, the group offered an opportunity to share her work with published writers.

“We didn’t do the traditional fetishizing of the person’s work with comments like ‘I really love what you did here,’ ” Georgini said. “We went straight into it.” Her Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family was published by Oxford University Press in February.Black Confeds

In one instance, Heather Cox Richardson told Nelson, “You went the first 18 pages of this chapter before you had a single color.” Nelson, whose The Three-Cornered War will be published by Scribner in February 2020, said the advice has stayed with her, and as a result, she often thinks about ways to bring a more vivid sense of place into all of her writing.

After each session, each member sends written manuscript edits to the author who presented that night, which Silber said was invaluable as she finalized her edits for This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, which was published by UNC Press in 2018.

For Silber, who is an academic, working with the group was challenging at times. “Being in the group, I thought a lot more about how to make my writing lively and engaged and compelling,” she said. “But it was very hard for me to tell this as a story and not add a lot of analysis.”

Silber’s struggle reflects a wider issue. “We’re in this moment where historians are torn between writing for an academic audience or a trade audience,” Georgini said. “What does it mean to write for both? So a lot of these conversations in the Book Squad were about these readers who we were imagining and also the readers we hoped to attract. That was some of the richest dialogue we had.”

Read the entire piece here.

Mapping 1648 Boston

Boston 1648

Who lived in Boston in 1648?  History professor Chris Parsons and his team at Northeastern University have initiated the “Birth of Boston” project.  The centerpiece of the project is an interactive map of Boston in 1648 that allows users to click on land parcels to learn about the person who lived on it.

Here is a description of the project:

This project builds on the pioneering efforts to reconstruct the social history of Boston by the amateur historians Samuel C. Clough and Anne Haven Thwing, both of whom worked in the early decades of the twentieth century. Clough, a trained surveyor, worked for decades on a topographical history of Boston that remained unfinished when he died in 1949. Thwing produced an index of approximately 50,000 residents who lived in Boston during its first two centuries. Their projects have been partially digitized by the Massachusetts Historical Society (where the Thwing and Clough collections reside) and the New England Genealogical Society. The prototype map as of November 2018 includes the 1648 Clough land parcel map, with information from the Thwing collection about the people who lived and worked there.

The next phase of the BRC will greatly expand the number of historical maps that are available as reference points for datasets (such as census or land use data), and will enable the project team to use the 1648 map as a model for other historical maps of Boston. It will also expand the project’s scope to incorporate materials not covered by Thwing and Clough, including indigenous spatial histories and archives from Boston’s African American communities. In the long term, the team plans to develop walking tours and other pedagogical materials that will widen the project’s reach and use for students, researchers, and the public.

Access the map here and have fun with it!  Read an article about the project here.

On the Road in Late July

Fea at Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon Museum

I am in the at the midpoint of two weeks of work with the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  As some of you know, this last week I was in Mount Vernon, Virginia and Boston filming a 12-week lecture course on colonial America for elementary school history and social studies teachers.  We filmed the lectures in a hotel in Framingham, Massachusetts and filmed five-minute lecture introductions in the tobacco fields and at the slave quarters at Mount Vernon, the Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon, the Boston Long Wharf, Old South Meetinghouse, King’s Chapel Burial Ground, the Massachusetts State House, Harvard University, the Boston Public Library, and Boston College.  It was hot and the work was rigorous (one day I gave five 50-minutes lectures to a camera!), but this kind of work is rewarding and hopefully useful to teachers–the men and women on the front lines of preserving, sustaining, and strengthening our democracy.

Fea at Mansion

Thanks to the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for the opportunity to work on this course.  And special thanks to Sarah Jannarone and Peter Shea of Gilder-Lehrman and Garrett Kafchinski of Diagonal Media for all their hard work this week.

I understand that this course will be published at the Gilder-Lehrman website as part of its forthcoming “History Essentials” series sometime next year. Stay tuned

Fea Boston Public

With a 1656 map of New Spain at the Boston Public Library map room

Tomorrow I will be back in Princeton for what is becoming an annual event:  the Gilder Lehrman Institute summer seminar on Colonial America.  Stay tuned.  I will be blogging every day from Princeton.  (Click here to see some of my posts from 2018).  As always, I will be working with Nate McAlister. Nate is my partner-in-crime, a high school history teacher in Kansas, and the 2010 National History Teacher of the Year!

Here are some pics from 2018. I am hoping for another great week:

Princeton--Philly Trip

Philadelphia bound!

Princeton-Nate

Nate with a Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Princeton-Boudreau

In Philadelphia I introduced the teachers to the legendary George Boudreau

 

Princeton--Kidd

We ran into esteemed early American religious historian Thomas Kidd and some of his students in the Princeton graveyard

Princeton--Why

What If Your Faith Makes You “Unpatriotic?”

Dyer

I am in Boston this week filming a series of lectures for an on-line course on colonial America produced by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  We have been shooting short introductions at places like the Long Wharf, Old South Meeting House, King’s Chapel Burial Ground, Harvard University, and the Boston Public Library.  (We shot some footage at Mount Vernon, Virginia earlier in the week).

Yesterday we filmed an introduction at the statue of Mary Dyer located at the corner of Beacon Street and Bowdoin Street adjacent to the Massachusetts State House.  I talked about Dyer’s relationship with Anne Hutchinson, her so-called “monstrous birth,” her conversion to Quakerism, and her eventual execution in Boston Commons in 1660.

I thought about Hutchinson and Dyer today as I read this tweet from Family Research Council President and court evangelical Tony Perkins.

I agree with Perkins and Pompeo.  We must defend religious liberty.  But I wonder if our current president thinks the same way.  Trump will preach religious liberty to evangelicals until he is blue in the face.  Evangelicals will eat it all up and pull the lever for Trump in 2020.  They will continue to call him the most faith-friendly president of all time.

But what would Trump say about religious liberty if a person’s religious convictions led her or him to criticize the United States for its past and present sins?  What would Trump say about religious liberty if someone’s faith-informed view of the world resulted in the criticism of him?

I don’t know if religious faith informs the moral vision of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Talib, or Ayanna Pressley (we did a post on Ocasio-Cortez back in June 2017).  But if it does, how might Trump reconcile religious liberty with his recent tweet telling these women to leave the country?  If someone’s faith leads one to oppose racism, nativism, xenophobia, misogyny, dishonesty and general cruelty, should we deem that person to be unpatriotic and encourage them to go back to their own country?

The analogy is not perfect (no historical analogy is), but it seems like the faith of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer led them to criticize the beliefs of the Puritan government in seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay.  They exercised liberty of conscience in a way that Trump might describe “unpatriotic.”  Hutchinson was not “sent home.” She was sent to Rhode Island.  I don’t think the Puritans were chanting “send her back, send her back” when they banned her, but I am sure they were thinking something similar.

Dyer, on the other hand, was “sent home.”

The Bachelorette and American History

Brown Bacjelorette

OK, I confess, I put the word “Bachelorette” in the title of this post just to garner a lot of hits. 🙂

But as an American historian I can’t pass up the opportunity to call your attention to Hannah Brown’s confusion.  Here is Emily Jashinsky at The Federalist:

“I don’t know much about Boston except that they threw a bunch of tea in some body of water.” So said Hannah Brown, ABC’s “Bachelorette” in residence, on Monday night’s episode.

“There was a chant, what was it?” she continued, searching her memory for scraps of Revolutionary-era history. “No taxation… No (sic) represation… No representation. No. No… without taxation. No taxation without representation!”

“Is that right?” a producer asked.

“I don’t know, I feel like it’s close,” Hannah replied, before proceeding to give one of her suitors a tour of Boston guided by purposefully bad facts like “Paul Revere invented the bike.”

Read the rest here.

But let’s also remember that this is The Federalist.  As a result, Ms. Jashinsky can’t help but lament our lack of historical knowledge.  I think someone needs to listen to Sam Wineburg in Episode 52 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

The Author’s Corner with Mark Peterson

The City-State of BostonMark Peterson is Edmund S. Morgan Professor of History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power (Princeton University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The City-State of Boston?

MP: I began work on this book by pursuing an observation that emerged while researching and writing my first book, The Price of Redemption—that early Boston and New England’s residents were deeply interested in and engaged with continental Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, the Caribbean, even the Indian Ocean, much more so than the extant historiography would lead you to believe. And I was also bothered by the way that the history of the United States casts its enormous shadow backward on the pre-independence world, encouraging historians to pay attention to those events, people, trends that contributed to the making of the United States, and obscuring those elements that did not. The sharp break that many historians make between pre- and post-independence North American history also troubled me, as I saw many continuities in the history of Boston and New England across that divide. In the end, I wanted to write what I thought of as a more honest and thorough account of the formation and development of a highly significant American colonial endeavor in its own right, taking the advent of the United States as neither telos nor chronological endpoint, but another shift in the city and region’s long history of negotiating imperial relationships.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The City-State of Boston?

MP: The City-State of Boston argues that the founders of Boston aimed to create an autonomous self-governing republic in church and state, and over the course of its first century, managed to do just that by expanding its political and cultural authority over the New England region, and developing an integrated economy that linked city and region to the slave plantation colonies of the West Indies. Through the eighteenth century, the region sustained much of its autonomy in the face of growing pressure from the British Empire, even to the point of open rebellion, but the compact it joined with the other newly independent states in 1788 gradually eroded the political, economic, and cultural bases for this autonomy, as Boston became economically intertwined with and under the governmental authority of an expansionist American slavocracy.

JF: Why do we need to read The City-State of Boston?

MP:  All over the world today, there are signs of crisis in various forms of self-government, regardless of what we call this tradition – liberal democracy might be the most convenient shorthand. From the persistence of various forms of secession movements (Scotland, Catalonia, Brexit) to the rise of authoritarianism in formerly democratic countries (Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, the list goes on) and the rise of far right parties in many more places, dissatisfaction with the current state of many forms of national government is evident. The City-State of Boston was written in part to offer an examination of one form of popular self-government, the small autonomous republic with strong ties to other (often larger) polities, a model that was extremely prevalent before the nineteenth century, but was largely swept away by that century’s various forms of national and imperial consolidations, including the United States. So in addition to simply the intrinsically interesting history of Boston, I would also suggest that its story is good to think with as we contemplate the prospects for a way forward from our current predicament.

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

MP: I think of myself as an early modern historian whose work focuses on North America (and until now, mostly on New England), rather than simply an American historian. As an undergraduate, I majored in the history and science of early modern Europe, and as a graduate student, working with Bernard Bailyn was a great opportunity to explore the relationship between European colonial projects in America and the wider Atlantic world.

JF: What is your next project?

MP: I am currently working on a small book with a big title, The Long Crisis of the Constitution, which will argue that the purposes for which the US Constitution was created in the 1780s, rooted in eighteenth century assumptions about power, economics, and population, had largely been carried out by the end of the nineteenth century, when the crisis began. It traces how subsequent efforts to shore up the relationship between the evolving nation and the Constitution have come undone and generated the governance problem we face today.

JF: Thanks, Mark!

Why Did God Allow the Great Boston Fire of 1760?

Boston Fire

Not familiar with the Great Fire of 1760?  J.L. Bell of Boston 1775 fame offers a short introduction here.  One the Bostonians who tried to make sense of the fire was Rev. Jonathan Mayhew.  Here is a taste of Bell’s piece on Mayhew’s response to the fire:

Given Boston’s religious heritage, the Great Fire of 1760 naturally caused people to ask what God meant by it. 

On 23 March, the Sunday after the fire, the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew preached about the calamity at the West Meetinghouse. That sermon said the destruction must be the result of divine will: 

When this fire broke out, and for some time before, it was almost calm. And had it continued so, the fire might probably have been extinguished in a short time, before it had done much damage; considering the remarkable resolution and dexterity of many people amongst us on such occasions. 

But it seems that God, who had spared us before beyond our hopes, was now determined to let loose his wrath upon us; to “rebuke us in his anger, and chasten us in his hot displeasure [a riff on Psalm 38:1].” In order to the accomplishing of which design, soon after the fire broke out, he caused his wind to blow; and suddenly raised it to such a height, that all endeavors to put a stop to the raging flames, were ineffectual: though there seems to have been no want, either of any pains or prudence, which could be expected at such a time.

The Lord had purposed, and who should disannul it? His hand was stretched out, and who should turn it back [Isaiah 14:27].[”] “When he giveth quietness, who then can make trouble? And when he hideth his face, who then can behold him? Whether it be done against a nation, or against a man only [Job 34:29].” 

It had been a dry season for some time; unusually so for the time of the year. The houses, and other things were as fuel prepared for the fire to feed on: and the flames were suddenly spread, and propagated to distant places. So that, in the space of a few hours, the fire swept all before it in the direction of the wind; spreading wider and wider from the place where it began, till it reached the water. Nor did it stop even there, without the destruction of the wharfs, with several vessels lying at them, and the imminent danger of many others.

Read Bell’s entire post here.

Become a John Winthrop Student Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society

MHS

I just learned about this great opportunity for high school students and their teachers at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston:

The John and Elizabeth Winthrop Endowed Fellowship encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Selected students will be referred to as “Winthrop Fellows”.  Winthrop Fellows and their supervising teacher will each receive a $350 stipend. This fellowship gives students the chance to learn how to navigate an archive, work directly with primary sources, and experience what it is like to be a historian.

Although students are welcome to work at the MHS Reading Room in Boston, online access to hundreds of recently-digitized documents from our collections now makes it possible for students from across the country to identify, incorporate, investigate, and interpret these primary sources in their work. Together with their teacher advisor (a current or past History or English teacher, member of Library/Media staff, etc), students decide on a research project proposal that uses sources from the MHS collections.  This can be a project already assigned in class.  With the support of MHS library and education staff, students then perform research using MHS materials during the spring and must complete their research project to the teacher advisor’s satisfaction by 1 June, and finally write a blog post about their experience.

The John Winthrop Fellowship empowers students to explore a topic of their interest and helps them to access the often intimidating world of historical research. One of the most valuable aspects of this fellowship is the opportunity for students to directly interact with materials from the MHS archives.  In reflecting on their experiences, many students were struck by the immediacy of the artifacts:

“I never expected to be staring at a three hundred year old letter in which Hugh Hall, one of Boston’s prominent slave traders, complains rather vehemently of seasickness. The letter was written in big, loopy handwriting, the polar opposite of Hugh’s brother Richard’s cramped impossibility, on yellowed old paper that felt somewhat slimy. For a moment, I was overcome by the idea that I was touching Hall’s DNA.” (2015 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

“It was incredible to see old newspapers that were transported along the Post Road to relay the world’s current events in the early 1700s, transformed into a computer document and displayed right in front of us.  The only thing that could top it was being able to hold the physical letter that essentially started the Boston Post Road. Oh yeah, we did that too!” (2016 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Many students appreciated the chance to draw their own impressions of history directly from primary sources rather than interpreted through a textbook:

“At points in the letters, Nora [Saltonstall]’s sense of humor and wittiness were evident which reminded me that she was indeed human and brought to life the events that transpired, in a way that textbooks are unable to.” (2013 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

“I suppose what I liked most was the ability to interpret the original documents on my own and draw my own conclusions around the actual evidence, rather than directly being told a conclusion by a third party.” (2013 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Students also valued the opportunity to work with MHS staff and librarians, who welcomed them to the archive and made the work of historical research more accessible:

“The staff always took me seriously, and was always ready to help if I had a question. Until now I had never used microfiche, but within two minutes the reference librarian had me set up and I knew all I needed to know to use it. I could even take pictures of the old documents and email them to myself so I could do work at home.” (2014 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

“Although we were entirely new to the MHS, the staff treated us as if we were any other historians. Along with finding great sources, the respect we received from the staff boosted our confidence in our historical research skills.” (2016 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Most importantly, students walked away from their fellowship opportunity empowered by their experience at the MHS:  

“I have always wanted to be a historian. My time at the Massachusetts Historical Society obliterated any lingering doubts in that ambition. Words cannot describe the joy of these encounters with the past, an opportunity I will never forget.” (2015 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Applications for 2019 John Winthrop Fellowships should be mailed no later 18 February 2019. Check out our website for more information on the Swensrud Fellowship and how to apply!

Even Archbishops Wager on the Super Bowl

Archbishops

It looks like Archbishop Chaput (right) of Philadelphia and Cardinal O’Malley (left) of Boston have placed a friendly wager on the Super Bowl.

Crux reports:

NEW YORK – Ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl contest between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia have placed a friendly wager on the football game’s outcome.

Should the Eagles win, O’Malley has pledged to make a $100 donation to St. John’s Hospice in Philadelphia, which assists homeless individuals in finding stable residences.

If the Patriots win, Chaput has agreed to make a $100 gift to Catholic Charities of Boston, one of the major providers of social services in the archdiocese.

The two individuals are long-time friends, former classmates, and are both Capuchin friars. They also threw Boston lobsters and Philadelphia cheesesteaks onto their bets for good measure.

Read the rest here.

My Boston Trinity Academy Chapel Talk on Rural America

rural

Get the context here.  I gave this short chapel talk to the faculty and students of Boston Trinity Academy on January 16, 2018–JF

I am so pleased to be back at Boston Trinity Academy. (BTA)  I continue to reflect fondly on my last visit in May 2014 when I had the honor of serving as your commencement speaker.  It is great to see old friends and I have already made some new ones.

Students: please know how privileged you are to be at this place.  BTA is a school committed to the integration of Christian faith and learning at the highest level.  There are few places like this in the country.  Cherish your education here.  Thank God for it every day.  And be attentive to God’s voice so that you can obtain the wisdom necessary to know what you should do with this great gift you are receiving.

I am also excited for all of you as you spend your J-Term exploring the culture of rural America.  I wrote my first book about rural America.  It focused on a young man living in the 1760s and 1770s.  His name was Philip Vickers Fithian.  Philip left rural America, went to college at Princeton, and served his country during the Revolutionary War. But he never forgot the people from the rural community who raised him and taught him how to love God and others.  Philip’s path of education and self-improvement always seemed to lead him home.  So, needless to say, the topic you are studying this week is near and dear to my heart and I look forward to working with you today– the first day of your journey.

The countryside.  The frontier.  The hinterland.  The backcountry.  Whatever you want to call it—rural America played a powerful role in our understanding of who we are as Americans.  One of my favorite rural novels is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (if you haven’t read it, you should!).  I teach it at Messiah College in a course I offer on the history of immigrant America.  In this novel we meet a young man named Jim Burden.  He grew up on the East Coast, but after both his parents died he was sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  As Jim gets a first glimpse of the Great Plains he says: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Several days later he adds: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough shaggy red grass, most of it as tall as I.”

As he stands in the Nebraska fields, Jim starts to consider his own smallness: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out…  that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Jim Burden teaches us that rural America—with its pristine meadows and vast expanses of land—can have a humbling effect on those who experience it.  The rural writer Kathleen Norris, in her introduction to the edition of My Antonia I use in class, writes that Jim is “obliterated by the landscape.”

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence may have related to the fictional experience of Jim Burden.  “Those who labour in the earth,” Jefferson wrote, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”  Jefferson wanted to build the United States around the character traits that he saw in the ordinary farmer.  He used the word “yeoman”—a common term for a landholder—to describe this kind of farmer.

Throughout American history farmers have been committed to local places, to living lives in community and to the importance of family.   They understood the dignity of hard work.  They were often portrayed as healthy and strong.  They were people of faith—the kind of faith needed to place complete trust in a God who controls the weather.  They were patient folk who knew how to wait on the Lord.

At the same time, farmers were independent–the kind of people needed to sustain a nation founded upon freedom.  In other words, they were not dependent on others—such as manufacturers and bank owners–to survive.  They were not defiled by the corruption and self-interest of cities—urban centers filled with workers who were at the mercy of factory owners. Jefferson envisioned a country filled with landowners who would spread out across the continent.  Manufacturing and urbanization did not play a major role in his vision.  These things were part of the vision of his political rival Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson’s rural vision for America died after the Civil War.  It gave way to industry and railroads and factories and markets.  If Jefferson were alive today he would probably be appalled by how dependent we are on food processed by big companies.  He would not be happy that we pursue the American dream by going into debt to credit card companies and mortgage firms and banks. (This, despite the fact that Jefferson spent most of his adult life in debt).

Indeed, we don’t live the kind of independent lives Jefferson envisioned.  We trade the patience of the farmer for immediate gratification.   We want it all—and we want it now.  But the American rural dweller,–the farmer–teaches us to slow down and listen.  To endure.  To trust God for our most pressing needs.  Maybe even to suffer—as many farmers did when the weather did not cooperate.  Farmers understood (and understand) that that suffering produces perseverance.  They understood that perseverance produces character. They understood that character leads to hope (Romans 5:4)

There is a lot to commend in this vision of America.  But it also easy to get nostalgic about it.  The warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we read about Jim Burden or study Thomas Jefferson’s America can blind us to another side— a dark side—of the history of rural life.  Maybe you have heard of this term, “nostalgia.”  I think of it as a sort of homesickness for a time in the past when everything was wonderful or when we at least thought that everything was wonderful.   But nostalgia is an inherently selfish way of thinking about the past because it often fails to see how other people—people who are not like us—lived through the same era and did not think it was so great.

With this in mind, as we gather on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, we would be remiss, and historically irresponsible, if we did not think about this other side of rural America.  After all, for most of American history the countryside was the home of forced labor camps—white people called them plantations—where millions of enslaved Africans and their families cultivated the land. Abraham Lincoln described slavery in his First Inaugural Address as “250 years of unrequited toil.” The whip of the slaveholder drove the Southern cotton economy and contributed to the success of Northern manufacturing and industry.  The growth of American power went hand in hand with the growth of slavery.  The rise of American capitalism would be impossible without the labor of the enslaved.

Slavery ended officially in 1865, but the enslaved—now called freedmen—had a hard time escaping rural America.  Many of them returned to the fields as sharecroppers—a system of work that could be just as degrading as slavery. And they also came face-to-face with white rural Americans who were not happy that they were free.  For the next century these white Americans in the South would do everything in their power to deny African Americans the liberties they were entitled to.

Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew this history of rural America very well.  But they refused to let the past have its way with them. They fought to bend the trajectory of America’s future toward justice.  By the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many African-Americans had left rural life in search of opportunities beyond the cotton plantations of the South.  They traveled to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.  They came to work in the factories of Buffalo, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.  Even those who stayed in the South left the farm for cities like Greensboro, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.  Ironically, it was in cities like these where Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the racism born in the fields of rural America.

Today about 10% of African-Americans live in rural areas.  This makes rural America largely the domain of poor white men and women who do not have the financial resources to get out. They often live alongside immigrant laborers—most from Central America—who do farm work for the big corporations that now control most of American agriculture.

As the urban population of America grows, the rural communities of the United States lose about 30,000 people per year. Donald Trump was right when he described a rural America of  “rusted-out factories” scattered “like tombstones across the landscape.” Once-thriving town-centers in rural communities are now filled with closed storefronts.  People in rural America have limited access to doctors and are now more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than people living in the cities and the suburbs.  Suicide rates in rural areas are double that in urban areas.  People are living in despair.  Access to a good education is becoming more and more difficult.  If you want to get a glimpse of rural America’s decline in places like Kentucky and Ohio I encourage you to pick-up a copy of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  I re-read some of it on the plane on the way here.  It explains a lot about why so many rural Americans saw Donald Trump as their savior in 2016.

So what happened to Jefferson’s vision of a country built upon yeoman farmers?  Does Jim Burden’s Nebraska still exist?  What has the long legacy of slavery and racism done to rural places?  These, I hope, will be the questions you will try to answer this week.

As I close, let me suggest that your task in making sense of rural America must be guided by the practice of at least three virtues essential to any kind of educational endeavor:

The first is empathy.  For many of you here in Boston, “rural America” might as well be a foreign country.  Empathy will be your passport for entry into this strange land.  This is going to take some discipline on your part.  You will need to walk in the shoes of those who live in rural America.  Your mind must be open to the experiences of the people who have inhabited and continue to inhabit these places.  As historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, to practice empathy means you must make every effort to “understand their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, [and] their perceptions of the world.” I challenge you to see life on their terms, not yours.  Pray about this.  Ask God to open your eyes and ears to people who are different.  This, after all, is what school is all about.  The Latin word for education literally means to “lead outward”—to grow personally by encountering others.

This kind of empathy will ultimately lead to a second virtue:  humility.  Like Jim Burden, who felt overwhelmed and small from staring into the Nebraska sky, your experience with people who are different should make you realize that you are part of something much larger than this moment, this particular place, and this particular time.  As an individual, you are important.  You are a child of God.  That gives you a dignity that no one can take away.  But at the same time, it’s not all about you!  To take a deep dive into another culture or another part of the world, or even another part of the United States, is to realize that God’s human creation is much more diverse, much larger and wonderful, than the tiny little slice of the world that you experience here in Boston or through the screen on your cell phone.   Pray for humility this week.  Whenever we study people who are different we see the awesomeness of God’s glorious creation.  This kind of encounter should humble us.  If it doesn’t, the problem is not with the rural Americans you will be studying this week.  The problem is with you!

Third, welcome the stranger.  During J-Term you will be meeting people who live in rural America.  You will also encounter the voices of rural America visiting your classroom in the form of historical documents and pieces of literature and videos and online sources.  Listen to these voices.  Make them feel at home in your classrooms. Make them your guests.  I know that sounds kind of strange, but unless you show hospitality to the texts you read and the people you encounter—even in a virtual or imagined way—you cheat yourself and are rejecting an opportunity to learn.

So I wish you well in this educational and intellectual journey for which you are about to embark.  Remember that Boston Trinity Academy is a place where your teachers love you.  And because they love you they want to encourage you to love the Lord with your minds.  And for that we can say “thanks be to God.”

A Day at Boston Trinity Academy

BTA students

I don’t think there are many places in the country like Boston Trinity Academy (BTA).

Located in the Hyde Park section of Boston, BTA is:

  1. A very strong private school (grades 6-12) that consistently sends its graduates to some of the top colleges and universities in the country.
  2. A school with a faculty loaded with Ph.Ds and M.A.s who are deeply committed to excellence in the humanities and liberal arts.
  3. A school with a strong sense of mission rooted in a broad and generous evangelical Christian faith and the integration of faith and learning.
  4. A school with a diverse urban student population that is 34% white, 30% black, 19% Asian, and 10% Hispanic.

This blend of academic excellence, Christian commitment, and racial and ethnic diversity makes BTA unique.  More people need to know what is happening at this school!

In May 2014, I delivered the commencement address at BTA.  Yesterday, I was back in Boston to help the school launch its 2018 J-Term week.  Each January, BTA spends an entire week exploring a particular place in the world.  This year the theme was “Rural America.”  Students enrolled in special seminars with titles like:

“Jug Bands of the Early Southern United States”

“Poverty and Opportunity in Appalachia”

“Rust Belt Realities”

“Life at the Border”

“Black Odyssey: The Great Migration & African American Rural Narratives”

“Wampanoag and Eastern Woodlands Nations”

“Musical History of Appalachia: Roots and Rhythms”

“Race, Reconciliation, Awareness: The Rural Urban Divide”

“Environmental Issues Across the American Farmland.”

Students also spend time during J-Term working on projects related to rural America.  In my wanderings through the classrooms I saw students working on Amish quilts, playing Jazz music, studying literary narratives of rural America, and exploring rural America through popular culture.

From the moment I entered the building at 7:30am on Tuesday morning I felt the energy of students fully engaged in their education.  Frankly, I was a bit jealous that my own girls could not attend a school like this.

BTA

I was there to help BTA kick off its J-Term with a plenary chapel talk on rural America.  (I will post my 15-minute talk later today–stay tuned).  I also taught two seminars on the history of rural America.  Throughout the day, I participated in conversations about my forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and my 2011 book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

In Fall 2017, American history teacher Dr. Mike Milway assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to his senior students.  The students spent five or six class periods dissecting my argument and their Fall exam required them to write a 2-hour book review.  Needless to say, they knew the text very well and challenged me with a variety of questions and critiques.  I was flattered, exhilarated, humbled, and frankly in awe of the their level of engagement.

Thanks so much to Frank Guerra, Tim Belk, Judy Oulund, and especially Terri Elliott-Hart for bringing me to BTA!  (And it was also great to meet math teacher Shelby Haras, a member of the Messiah College class of 2013!).

Jane Kamensky Talks John Singleton Copley

KamenskyCheck out Mark Cheathem‘s interview with Harvard historian Jane Kamensky.  She talks about her award-winning book A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley.

Here is a taste:

For those who haven’t read your book, would you please provide a synopsis?

Jane Kamensky (JK): A Revolution in Color tells an off-kilter story of British America in the age of the American Revolution through the biography of the New England-born painter John Singleton Copley. Born on the eve of King George’s War, Copley came of age in a thoroughly British Boston, with streets named Queen and King, and book stores and coffee houses touting the latest news from London. He identified thoroughly with an imperial imaginary, dreaming of a world in color an ocean away. When Boston grew heated over taxes in the 1760s, he identified as a Son of British Liberty, and hoped for a return of the status quo ante. He painted men and women on all sides of the conflict–Paul Revere and Thomas Gage, Samuel Adams and Francis Bernard–who doubtless gave him an earful while they sat for their portraits. But when shouting turned to shooting, he, like Melville’s Bartleby, simply preferred not to. Copley’s life and work make visible, literally visible, the viewpoints of that large group of early Americans whose preferred side in Britain’s American War was neither. As Yeats would say of another revolutionary conflict more than a century later, he thought “the worst [were] full of passionate intensity.” He himself lacked political conviction, focusing his own intensity on art and family strategy rather than matters of nation or party. His rise and fall show both the terrors of revolutionary fervor, and the costs of passivity in an age where people insisted on forging their own destinies. Like the Revolution itself, it’s a very ambivalent story.

I would venture to say that many Americans have never heard of John Singleton Copley. What led you to choose him as the subject for this book?

JK: If they haven’t heard of Copley, they’ve seen his work. His Paul Revere is surely the second most famous face of revolutionary America, and we see a version of it every time we hoist a bottle of Sam Adams lager. And of course, Bostonians know Copley as written into the very landscape of the city: Copley Square, the Fairmont Copley Hotel, Copley T station. But the irony is, Copley’s life doesn’t support his use in contemporary culture, which follows a kind of New England nationalism. That gap was interesting to me. Plus, the evidence is very rich: in addition to his dazzling painted work, Copley and his kin left hundreds of letters, which is true for very few artists. Those letters allowed a muddled, middling character to emerge from the swirl of events in the age of revolution. Like a Copley portrait, he’s a well mottled character. We have too few of those in the literature of revolutionary heroes and villains.

Read the rest at The Republic Blog

 

Black Boston

Shaw

Robert Gould Shaw Monument, Boston

The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and the Tufts Data Lab are working together to document Boston’s African-American history.  Learn more about the African American Freedom Trail Project in this piece at WBUR.

Here is a taste:

Boston is a city rich in American history. Tourists come here to explore the city’s central role in some of the United States’ pivotal moments. But its historical narrative is whitewashed, often omitting the influence and accomplishments of the city’s African-American community.

That’s according to Kerri Greenidge, who teaches history at Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts Boston. She specializes in the African diaspora in New England and the Northeast.

“If you have the same people tell the story, you’re not going to get recent scholarship that challenges the story we accept,” says Greenidge.

The narrative Boston has accepted, Greenidge notes, doesn’t exactly highlight the African-American influence and experience beyond slavery.

The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, where Greenidge is on staff, wanted to help change that. So, together with the Tufts Data Lab, the center embarked on a mission to document significant sites that reflect local African-American history.

Greenidge and Kendra Fields, the center’s director, created a digital map that both tourists and curious locals could use to explore underrepresented but important events in the city’s history.

Read the entire piece here.

Prayer Books and the American Revolution

Book_of_common_prayer_1662Over at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Sara Georgini of the Massachusetts Historical Society examines the impact of the American Revolution on Boston Anglicans through a close reading of their prayer books.  Georgini describes the “humble prayer book” as “a key intellectual artifact of the revolution.”  In the process she also provides us with a nice little slice of revolutionary-era lived religion.

Here is a taste of her post:

Church records tell us half the tale of how people “lived” religion while turning their hearts and minds to full-scale war. But modern revolutions run on reading material, and all books have biographies. To get at early America’s shifting worship politics, let’s “track changes” in the Books of Common Prayer amended by Anglican and Episcopal laity in the 1770s and 1780s (shown here). As they changed ways of daily worship, Americans imprinted a new language of selfhood and statehood. They road-tested national rhetoric, long before they had any clear, constitutional vision of what that nation might look like. (For more, check out John Fea’s #ChristianAmerica? post, too). Parishioners moved around sacraments to suit new needs. The laity’s handwritten edits in prayer book margins—scraping off “King of Kings” and pasting over rote prayers for the royal family—operated as cultural cues for political change. At critical moments in the war, as colonists endured sieges and made sacrifices, they edited their prayer books to endorse turns in popular thought at the local level. During a holiday week when we think about declarations of independence big and small—and in a year marking the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary—the humble prayer book still serves as a key intellectual artifact of revolution.

At the same time, these volumes were signs of consensus and communion in the Atlantic World. Books of Common Prayer first reached America’s shores alongside the earliest settlers. Often, the 1662 edition printed by London’s John Baskerville was formally issued to new American churches by the Royal Wardrobe. At Old North Church in Boston, vestrymen of 1733 opened a green-baize lined trunk mailed “from the Jewell Office.” Next to sterling silver communion plate, velvet pulpit cushions, and a Bible emblazoned with the royal arms, lay a second cache. Old North vestry received two prayer books, “bound in Turkey leather strung with blue garter ribbon and trimmed with gold fringe” and a dozen more for the community to share, all “bound in Calf Gilt & filleted & strung with blue Ribbon.” Prayer books were more than highly prized signals of royal favor. These worship aids consolidated five liturgical texts: daily offices, Litany, Holy Communion, pastoral offices, and the ordinal. As Rowan Williams suggests, the Book of Common Prayer outlines theological positions, but it is “less the expression of a fixed doctrinal consensus… more the creation of a doctrinal and devotional climate.” Across the Atlantic World, Anglo-American clergy used them to convey a community’s civilization, and learning. In fractured parishes, buying prayer books was often the sole purchase that everyone agreed on.

Read the entire post here.

Paul Revere’s Church Bell

Revere Bell

Yesterday we reported on “The Nation We Build Together,”  a new floor of exhibits at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.  One of those exhibits is “Religion in Early America.”  It was curated by Peter Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the museum.

Over at “O Say Can You See,” the blog of the museum, Manseau writes about one of the featured items in the exhibit.

Here is a taste:

For several decades after the Revolution, Paul Revere was as famous for his church bells as for his midnight ride. His role as a horse-powered early warning system filling the Massachusetts countryside with shouts of “The British are coming!” in 1775 did not become the stuff of legend until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his heroic poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1861. Yet he was always known as a man who could use sound in the service of his country.

While he is often remembered simply as a patriot silversmith, Revere’s career and reputation were far more complex during his lifetime. The opening days of the struggle for independence included the events that would eventually make him known to history, but he spent the latter part of the war under a cloud for the charges of insubordination leveled against him during the disastrous Penobscot Expedition, a chaotic naval operation that cost Continental forces hundreds of lives in 1779. Eventually exonerated of any wrongdoing, he continued to work to clear his name and improve his standing in the new nation.

With military laurels beyond his reach, Revere sought to rise socially through business. He broadened his metal-working to include a bell foundry in 1792, when the congregation to which he belonged, the New Brick Church, required a replacement bell for its tower. Between 1792 and his death in 1818, Revere’s company—Revere and Son—made more than 100 bells. The family-run foundry would ultimately cast 398, with the last bell sold in 1828.

Read the entire post here.

 

Early African Americans and Consumerism

hardesty frontOver at the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society, Jared Hardesty of Western Washington University has a fascinating post about how the eighteenth-century consumer revolution influenced African Americans in Boston.  Hardesty is the author of Unfreedom:: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston.

If you want to learn more about this book check out our April 2016 Author’s Corner interview with Hardesty.

Here is a taste of his post:

Pasted onto the pages of the nineteenth-century bound volume were eighteenth-century town crier documents kept by Arthur Hill. Hill’s records consist of lists of goods lost and found, or “taken up,” by Boston’s residents between 1736 and 1748. Required to submit these records to Boston’s selectmen, Hill seems to have had someone else keep records for a few years before taking over for himself in the early 1740s. Most importantly for our purposes here, people of African descent found a large number of the lost items recorded by Hill. Even more to the point, if we read this list in the context of both the rest of Hill’s records and eighteenth-century Boston, they provide insights into the everyday lives and lived experiences of early African Americans.

First, though, it is important to understand the function of a town crier during this period. Town criers were fixtures in early modern English towns, including those in the Americas. They would make public announcements, but also served as a sort of lost and found, collecting items people found and spreading word about items lost. Of course, this function was all for a fee. Although it started as an official, elected government position in Boston, by the time Hill became a town crier, the position had been largely privatized. As J.L. Bell describes in a series of blog posts (here, here, and here), men like Hill would apply to the selectmen for a license to be a crier. In return for permission and a promise to record all transactions, the licensee kept and recorded all the lost and found goods and charged a finders’ fee for his public announcements. That said, Hill seems exceptional in the sense that he kept such extensive records of items lost and found. His lists of goods are the only ones contained in Boston’s early town records, despite a number of criers operating during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

All told, Hill’s extant records list 380 items that were lost or found. Records for goods found dwarf the items reported to Hill as lost (368 found vs. 12 lost). Let’s look at the records for goods found as it provides a much larger sample for analyzing this list. Hill made fairly meticulous notes as to who found what goods. He recorded occupation and relationships. He also recorded race, often using the term “Negro” to describe people of African descent who took up lost items. Under that or related terminology (“Negro Fellow,” etc.), Hill recorded 36 items found by black Bostonians. That would mean they found 9.8% of the total items recovered, similar to Boston’s black population during this time period, which was roughly 10-12% of the total population. Of course, there is also evidence that Hill did not always record race, such as numerous references to “Maid,” “Man,” “Servant,” or “Boy.” Without racial nomenclature, however, I will err on the side of caution and only use the 36 men and women Hill explicitly recorded as black.

Hill provides little information about these 36 individuals. Of the 36, 31 are simply listed as “Negro,” while there is one described as “Neagar,” two listed as “Negro Woman,” one as “Negro Man,” and a “Negro Fellow.” Hill did, however, provide information about their masters. Indeed, most entries describe these men and women by demonstrating ownership, such as listing one “Negro Woman” as “Capt. Alexr Sears Negro Woman.” Only one entry does not have an owner listed, suggesting the other 35 were enslaved. It is also safe to assume that 34 of the 36 were men, especially considering Hill went out of his way to record “Negro Women” in the other two entries.

If these documents do not tell us much about the biographies of these men and women, what do they explain? At the very least, Hill revealed that people of African descent had quotidian and pedestrian interactions with quasi-officials at the most intimate levels of government. They had access to and participated in local institutions, in this case reporting lost goods they found. Black Bostonians were not socially dead, but part of a vibrant world of material goods and exchange.

These lists, then, help to open up the material worlds of enslaved and free blacks in early Boston. During the eighteenth century, Boston and most other British colonies in the Americas underwent a consumer revolution. Fueled by early industrialization in England, the colonies became dumping grounds for cheap consumer products such as cloth, pottery, clothing accessories (buttons, buckles, pocketbooks, and the like), and silverware amongst many others. Colonists purchased these goods and began associating consumption to class and social status. While scholars have long studied this phenomenon for white colonials, only recently have they started to pay attention to the consumption inhabitants of people of African descent.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner with Jared Hardesty

hardesty front.jpgJared Hardesty is Assistant Professor of History at Western Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston (NYU Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Unfreedom?

JH: I originally wanted to write a history of tobacco cultures across the Atlantic world, but quickly realized I also wanted to finish graduate school. I’ve long had an interest in slavery in the British North American colonies and when preparing for my comprehensive examinations, I realized that nobody had written a history of slavery in Boston. One of my graduate advisors then told me about a collection of court file papers at the Massachusetts State Archives that has a plethora of material about slaves and slavery, but was underutilized by scholars. That collection, the Suffolk Files, became the corpus for writing the dissertation and later Unfreedom.

The records contained in the Suffolk Files opened an entire new world of slavery for me. There are a large number of depositions and testimonies that allowed me to listen to enslaved voices in a unique and interesting way. While legal documents are inherently problematic, I was able to learn and synthesize quite a bit of information about individual slaves and their experiences.

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

JH: Unfreedom examines the lived experiences of enslaved Bostonians by embedding them in a larger Atlantic world characterized by multiple categories of bound labor, structured by ties of dependence, and maintained by deference. In this hierarchical and inherently unfree world, Boston’s slaves’ testimonies make clear they were more concerned with their everyday treatment and honor than with emancipation, as they pushed for autonomy, protected their families and communities, and demanded a place in society.

JF: Why do we need to read Unfreedom?

JH: The short answer is that historians and general readers interested in slaves and slavery will find Unfreedom unique and interesting in two ways. First, it is the first and only history of slavery in Boston. There are many works on slavery in New England, but none of them focus on Boston alone. Second, the book offers a new interpretative device for understanding slavery in the early modern Atlantic world: the continuum of unfreedom. This device allows us to understand the experiences of enslaved people living in a world characterized less by universal notions of individual liberty and more by multiple forms of dependence and oppression.

The longer answer is that Unfreedom moves slaves’ individual stories to the forefront of our discussion and understanding of slavery. In doing so, it makes an argument about the importance of context in understanding slavery and the lives of enslaved people. At the end of the day, Unfreedom demonstrates slaves and slavery cannot be divorced from that larger context. In the case of slaves in eighteenth-century Boston, they lived in a place quite different from our own and which had its own set of values, mores, and idiosyncrasies. It was a society where nearly 75% of the population lived in some state of dependence and where deference and understandings of traditional liberties and privileges structured the social order. Slaves were full members of this unfree world, which caused them to lay claim to a set of defensible rights, form communities across racial and class lines, find value and empowerment in their work, and appropriate communal institutions for their own use. Living in a world structured more by a continuum of unfreedom than by dichotomous conceptions of slavery and freedom, slaves often sought autonomy and to reshape the terms of their enslavement. Even if a slave won his or her legal freedom, liberty was always tenuous in a world that steadfastly refused to acknowledge black freedom. In this world where liberty could be just as fraught as slavery, then, Unfreedom demonstrates how enslaved Bostonians became masters of their status.

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

JH: Ha, this might be the hardest question of the interview! I think I sort of fell into it, but growing up in Ohio, I knew I wanted to be an educator and I loved history. Some of my fondest memories as a child involved history, such as my parents taking me on a road trip to Gettysburg when I was in 5th grade. Then, in high school, I had the opportunity to take college courses at the local branch campus of the Ohio State University. Despite having to take a number of required courses, all I wanted to study was History. When I transferred to Ohio Northern University as a freshman, I took a class in colonial American history. From the moment I first learned about the encounter between Native Americans and Europeans, the creation of settler colonies, and the rise of African slavery, I wanted to learn more and explore further. That passion for the history of the American colonies—and some great mentors along the way—has carried me through my undergraduate career, through graduate school, into a tenure-track job, and now through the publication of my first book.

JF: What is your next project?

JH: I am currently at work on two projects. The first is a short and accessible synthetic history of slavery and emancipation in early New England. The second is an exploration of fort construction across British North America between 1689 and 1715 to better understand the intersection of labor and empire in colonial America.

JF: Thanks, Jared!