The Author’s Corner with David Hall

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

JF: What led you to write The Puritans?

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read The Puritans?

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

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

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

JF: What is you next project?

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

JF: Thanks, David!

The Author’s Corner with James Delbourgo

619ROeDHlSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJames Delbourgo is Associate Professor of History of Science and Atlantic World at Rutgers University. This interview is based on his new book, Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum (Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Collecting the World? 

JD: My first book was on electricity in colonial North America and I wanted to see what the pursuit of science looked like from a completely different angle. When I learned that Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum (1753), had been in Jamaica and made natural history collections there, I was fascinated. What was the future founder of the world’s first national public museum doing in the Caribbean and what were the links between slavery and the origins of that museum? I was never taught this in school and thought many readers would be interested in the answer. I was also fascinated by the idea of a universal collection and a museum that aspired to contain every kind of thing in the world. We live in an age where universalism is often critiqued and mistrusted but the early modern era and the origins of museums were powerfully inspired by notions of the universal.

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

JD: One argument is that collecting things always involves collecting people: there is no such thing as “a collector” in the sense of an isolated individual and Sloane relied on worldwide networks to accumulate the thousands of objects which the British Museum was created to house. The second is that Sloane is vital for understanding the complex legacy of the Enlightenment: out of slavery and imperialism emerged the first articulation of an ideal of universal free public access to museums and their collections, an ideal we still cherish and must defend today.

JF: Why do we need to read Collecting the World?

JD: It is the first book to tell the full story of how the world’s first public museum came into being, and shows how that enlightened institution owes its origins to slavery and imperialism, while also championing Sloane’s legacy in calling for universal access to museums and knowledge. Sloane is a compelling contradiction and defies easy categorization: he embodies the relationship between enlightenment and imperialism and his collections embody the great global collision of peoples that took place in the long eighteenth century. It’s also a story about universal knowledge and the dream of total information, and what their pursuit actually entailed. This dream is familiar to us today through digital technology and the internet, but Sloane’s house in eighteenth-century London — where he sought to assemble a universal museum — is an important to precursor to this ongoing ideal of somehow collecting the entire world in a single place. Finally, it’s a book that connects several historical subdisciplines — from the history of science to the history of the African diaspora — and urges us to move beyond academic specialization to tell richer, more complex stories for a broad reading public.

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

JD: I was completing my first year as an undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia in the UK and wrote a seminar paper about Abraham Lincoln’s theory of the union for Professor Dan Richter who was visiting professor that year. It was a liberating experience to try to understand someone else’s thinking in a completely foreign time and place. As one wit has quipped, all the best stories are true. I once explained my work to a member of my family, who listened carefully and then replied, “But you really live in the past then?” Yes.

JF: What is your next project?

JD: I have several current research interests which include the history of collecting; global & Atlantic histories of science especially in the early modern period; and the transport of key objects from around the world into various museum collections.

JF: Thanks, James!

Ben Franklin: Revolutionary or London Intellectual?

a647a-benjamin-franklinThe answer is both.

Over at the website of Smithsonian Magazine, George Goodwin, the author of the brand new book Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of an American Founder, argues that Franklin was an intellectual in the British Atlantic world before he became an American revolutionary.

Here is a taste:

…It was only then, at the age of nearly 70, that he discarded his loyalty to the British state and became a fierce advocate of American independence.

Yet even as an American patriot, Franklin once again returned to Philadelphia with British enlightenment values that influenced his fellow Founding Fathers. Having arrived in London with two slaves, Franklin now supported calls for abolition. Though he did not convince Thomas Jefferson on that matter, he did on others. Jefferson’s choice of portraits for his entrance hall at Monticello is instructive. In the most prominent position are three of Franklin’s own British influences: Bacon, Newton and Locke. There is also a fourth. It is of Benjamin Franklin.

As for Franklin himself, he never quite gave up his Atlanticist dream, even after independence was secured. But now it was to be on a different basis. In 1784, he half-jokingly, if in strictest confidence, wrote to his long-time British friend William Strahan with this suggestion: “You still have one resource left and not a bad one since it may re-unite the Empire … if you have not Sense and Virtue enough left to govern yourselves, even dissolve your present old crazy Constitution, and send Members to Congress.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Carla Mulford

Carla J. Mulford is Associate Professor of English at Penn State University (University Park) and the Founding President of the Society of Early Americanists. This interview is based on her new book, Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM:  My book originated from an interest in Franklin’s writings on the Haudenosaunees (called the Iroquois or Six Nations, by the settlers). In thinking about Franklin’s ideas about Indians, I was led to ask myself the question: If Franklin’s views about Native peoples shifted across time and became more humanitarian, did a similar shift occur with regard to people of African descent? Contemplating the answer to this question led to an even larger question about Franklin’s views about the British Empire, its expansion into North America, India, and Ireland, and its fostering of a slave trade intended to benefit people back in Britain but leave British Americans unable to pursue “handicraft” (artisan) labor, improve their living standards, and develop their own systems of internal trade in the colonies of North America. To learn more, I studied early modern and early American economy, the histories of the peopling of North America, European imperial political economies, and the history of international legal views on sovereignty. This work dovetailed with my work as a Penn State professor. I began offering courses in literature related to early American environmental and social history and in historical and contemporary writings by Native peoples. The result, nearly twenty years later, is Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire, a book based in twenty years of reading and a decade of writing. Several pieces that didn’t make it into the book have been published as stand-alone arguments.

Franklin began his professional life working to shore up the British Empire in North America by supporting economic measures that would help colonists thrive financially and physically while also supporting the greater British Empire in the Atlantic world. Beginning in the 1750s, Franklin wrote a series of briefs – written in the form of letters to William Shirley, then governor of Massachusetts – articulating a platform of alliance with Britain but allowing for the colonies’ political and financial self-determination, because imperial policies were hampering the colonists’ abilities to build self-supporting enterprises and develop networks for mutual defense against the other European imperial efforts in North America. In the 1760s, as Franklin attempted to negotiate with British ministers about American matters, he was forced to deal with the clear indifference of Britons in England to the life situation of Britons in North America. He developed a legal argument supporting the original sovereignty of colonial Americans, and he finally relinquished any effort to retain an alliance with the Empire. He argued from the 1750s onward that the ends of any empire ought to be in supporting the wellbeing of all its peoples, wherever they happened to be living.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM:  Franklin believed in the ideals of freedom embodied in the early modern liberalism he imbibed as a tireless and voracious young reader aspiring to learn more about the British Empire. His experiences as printer, writer, politician, and diplomat taught him that if he really wanted to see the liberal values he admired – values said to have descended as the freedoms articulated in England’s Magna Carta – at work in North America, then the American colonies needed to break from Britain and form their own political, financial, commercial, and labor goals.
JF: Why do we need to read Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM:  My book attends to materials that many who study Franklin have given little comprehensive attention to: his readings as a youth (and what he might have learned from them and held onto as ideals); his theories of fiscal, social, and political economy; his concerns about the British Empire in India and Ireland; his changing concerns about Native American and African peoples; and his views on land title and sovereignty. Contrary to many historians who place Franklin’s turn against the British Empire in the mid-1770s, when he was denounced in the Cockpit by Alexander Wedderburn, my book shows that Franklin’s turn against Britain’s imperial system began in the middle 1750s and were articulated in a number of documents from that era onward.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CJM:  I believe I have always been fascinated about the impact of past events on present times. I can’t imagine living a life devoid of historical knowledge. How would we know why and how we got to the complicated place where we are, without a roadmap – roadmaps, really – of our past? And how would we understand how fully constructed historical stories have been, without a recognition of “spin culture” in our lives today?

As a student of early American literature, I studied the writings of people whose works were not very well known to the current generation of students, however well known they were in the era in which they were written. I helped to reform the established canon of literature by seeing that students of early materials would have available to them writings by women, Native peoples, Africans and African Americans, and laboring people – those who were not typically written about in the literary histories of the twentieth century.

My work on Franklin extends this trajectory of my interests by exploring understudied writings by a major American author. Among literary scholars, Franklin’s autobiography is often considered his sole piece of important writing. In Franklin studies, I wanted to show that the qualities of writing associated with his autobiography, a late-in-life writing, were available from the very beginning, not just in “literary” materials but in his writings on economics, politics, and society.
JF: What is your next project?

CJM:  My next monograph, titled Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Diplomacy, takes up a line of argument tangential to Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire. Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Diplomacy shows how Franklin attempted to use his scientific fame to influence political policy. Planned as a much shorter and complementary book, this new work embraces several fields, including the history of the circulation of books and manuscripts, the history of science, and the history of eighteenth-century British and French imperial decision-making. 

JF: Thanks, Carla!

The Author’s Corner with Jordan Landes

Jordan Landes is Research Collections Librarian for History at the Senate House Library, University of London.  This interview is based on her recent book London Quakers in the Trans-Atlantic World: The Creation of an Early Modern Community (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015).

JF: What led you to write London Quakers in the Trans-Atlantic World: The Creation of an Early Modern Community?

JL: When I started my PhD, I knew I wanted to work on religion and London. At the time, Simon Dixon, now of the University of Leicester, was working on Quakers in the parishes of London. I took many of the same people and examined their activity in the American and Caribbean colonies. The study that followed revealed inter-connected networks that have occupied me for nearly a decade. Frederick Tolles first wrote about Quakers in an Atlantic context in the 1950s, so the examination of the Society of Friends from that aspect has a long history. My study aims to place London Quakers and their networks in that context.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of London Quakers in the Trans-Atlantic World: The Creation of an Early Modern Community?

JL: In the first fifty years of the Society of Friends, the London Yearly Meeting and London Friends played a large role in Quaker activity throughout Great Britain, Europe, and the Caribbean and American colonies, creating networks and participating in the movement of ideas, goods and people. These networks, maintained through regular correspondence, exchange of print materials and a travelling ministry, overlapped trade and friendship networks to create a system that allowed Quakerism to be firmly established throughout the Atlantic world.

JF: Why do we need to read London Quakers in the Trans-Atlantic World: The Creation of an Early Modern Community?

JL: This book brings together many strands of historical study: London history, Atlantic history, religious history, economic history, book studies and early American history. I think many of the practices enacted by the London Yearly Meeting and its constituent meetings were innovative, such as shipping books and epistles on multiple ships to ensure copies arrived. In fact, I was surprised at the level of organisation and even bureaucracy London Quakers developed and adapted to maintain contact with scattered Quaker communities and to communicate the faith. Furthermore, the roots of the Quaker reputation in business, as abolitionists, and more, can be traced to and were enabled by the Quaker Atlantic activity before 1725.

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

JL: I am not actually an American historian but am flattered to be identified as one. I would describe myself as an Atlanticist with London tendencies on the history side, and a research librarian in history on the library side.

JF: What is your next project?

JL: My next projects are driven by the collections we hold in Senate House Library, including writing about walking in London. The walking project should allow us to look at why and how people moved around London over the course of four centuries, but especially at how and why that movement was recorded. I am hoping to include Quakers in the walking project, if possible.

JF: Thanks, Jordan!

The Author’s Corner with Stephen Hague

Stephen Hague teaches British, British imperial and modern European history at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.  This interview is based on his new book, The Gentleman’s House in the BritishAtlantic World, 1680-1780 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
JF: What led you to write The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World?
SH: Before becoming an academic historian, but after graduate training in British history, I worked for a number of years in museums and historic sites.  One site in particular, a house called Stenton in Philadelphia, was especially influential in my thinking.  When I went to work there it struck me how similar Stenton was to small classically-inspired houses dotted not only over the American landscape, but in Britain as well.  Much has of course been written about such houses in America, but it seemed to me that historians, architectural historians and others too often linked these (relatively) small houses in America with very large country houses in Britain.  This approach struck me as comparing apples and oranges. Instead, there seemed more than ample room to investigate similar houses, and, importantly, the people who lived in them, on both sides of the Atlantic. 
On a related note, one book that always troubled me is quite an old book now, Lawrence and Jean Stone’s An Open Elite?, which argued that by analyzing big country houses in Britain it was evident that social mobility had been limited.  The problem I had with their approach is that I had a sense that they had been looking in the wrong place:  big houses rather than the more modest ones that most interested me, and seemed the more likely venue for social change.  Scholars in the 1980s had pointed this out about the Stones’ work, but after twenty-five years no one had done the legwork to investigate further. 
A problem arose when I undertook research in Britain, where it became immediately apparent that this form of house had been almost completely ignored.  The quite extraordinary documentation of American classical houses (Historic structure reports, paint analyses, interpretive plans, archaeological surveys, research reports, extant collections, and so on) was entirely absent on the British side.  As a result, there was an enormous amount of research to be done on the British version of the small classical house, which led to the core of my book, a detailed exploration of one county in England, Gloucestershire. After that, I circled back to the American side to knit my research together into an Atlantic world study that I hope will be revealing for British and early American historians alike.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World?
SH: By looking at buildings, landscapes, spatial arrangement, furnishings and people together – a ‘material culture’ approach – we can learn a great deal about how eighteenth-century Britons staked out and defined their social position across the Atlantic world.  Such a social and cultural reading of small classical houses and their owners offers an account of moderate change and well-paced social mobility that reflects Britain’s stable but dynamic growth in the eighteenth century, with a particularly important transition point in the second quarter of the eighteenth century.
JF: Why do we need to read The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World?

SH: From my perspective, perhaps the most important reason to read The Gentleman’s House is because it seeks to break down barriers and build bridges between several bodies of literature.  First, it is an effort to position a material object – a type of house – at the center of analysis and use that as a way of constructing a social group that we can analyze.  Secondly, in so doing I attempt to draw together not only architecture, but spatial arrangements, interiors, furnishings, and the social action that all these things enabled.  In other words, in the first instance the emphasis is on things (i.e. buildings), but the real attention is on people, what they did with and in those things, and what those things represented about them.  Thirdly, the book tells us a lot more about small classical houses in Britain and the genteel people who inhabited them than we have known before, including their many transatlantic links.  Fourthly, it takes exception to American exceptionalism, and seeks to craft a British world narrative that views provincial Britain and British North America similarly.  Viewing the eighteenth century in this holistic way offers, I think, very interesting insights, and helps to make more sense of British society up to (and even after) the American war for independence.  Finally, The Gentleman’s House provides a different perspective on the important issue of social mobility and how eighteenth-century Britons constructed their identities.  The book suggests that houses like these were more about confirming status in British society in a particular position, rather than necessarily aspiring to a more elevated position.  This incremental version of social change is more realistic, and with better explanatory power.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SH: To be honest, I never did.  I have always thought of myself as a British historian, and teach primarily British and European history.  But having spent years on both sides of the Atlantic, eighteenth-century America has always struck me as quite a British place.  Moreover, having worked in historic sites and museums in America, having looked at American collections, studied material objects in America, and having benefitted particularly from the wisdom of early American colleagues in Philadelphia, it seemed readily apparent that there should be much more communication between early American historians and historians of Britain.  If the book achieves this in even small measure then I will be happy to be co-opted as an American historian!
JF: What is your next project?
SH: As I studied small classical houses for this book, I became increasingly interested in the subsequent use to which they were put, as residences, museums, hospitals, schools, and so on.  This got me thinking more about the way history has been used in various historical revivals and the issue of historical memory and how the past constructs the present.  Although I am still thinking about the exact direction I want to take with my next project, it will be an outgrowth of a forthcoming essay I wrote entitled, “‘Phony Coloney’:  The Reception of the Georgian and the Construction of Twentieth-century America,” due out next year in a volume on the Neo-Georgian movement. Weaving my interest in the eighteenth century together with transatlantic relations, material culture, and the cultural history of the British empire, I am currently (and very tentatively) calling my new project, ‘Interpretations of the Georgian, the Anglo-American Aesthetic and the idea of Greater Britain, 1870-1950’.  I am spending this summer in Britain, reading, researching, and bouncing these ideas around at several conferences and workshops, which is naturally good fun.
JF:  Thanks, Stephen!

The Author’s Corner with Lindsay O’Neill

Lindsay O’Neill is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California. This interview is based on her new book, The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World (University of Pennsylvania Press, October 2014).

JF: What led you to write The Opened Letter?

LO: Growing up as the world of the Internet developed gave me a front row seat to communicative change. It also revealed to me the strains such alterations create. But I knew this was not the first communications revolution the world had seen and so I became curious about previous moments of transformation. This drew me to the British Isles in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: a time when print culture was blossoming, the post office was permanently opened to the public, and the British world was expanding geographically. It was a period that had and needed new modes of communication. At first, it was print and the growth of the newspaper press that captured my interest, but that lacked the frisson of the personal. I wanted to know how people connected with each other over long distances. I found the answer in letters. However, I also wanted to do something different with these letters. My investigations suggested that they connected whole social networks rather than simply two individuals. This led me to the world social network analysis, which allowed me to map out the webs of connection embedded in letters. Explaining what these uncovered became The Opened Letter.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Opened Letter?

LO: As the British world expanded geographically and individuals circulated through it more frequently letters became a critical mode of communication and connection. They allowed the British to establish and extend the social networks that increasingly kept their world turning during a time of geographic and social change.

JF: Why do we need to read The Opened Letter?

LO: First, the book helps us understand how the geographically expansive British world of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries functioned socially, economically, and politically by recognizing the importance social networks. However, second, it also helps us question and think about our own communicative world. We too live in an increasingly global world that is dependent upon new forms of media. I hope that reading my book will push people to put their own experience of change into a wider historical context.

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

LO: I always tell people that I became a British historian because I wanted to study America. I grew up loving American history. I remember getting chills when reading about “the shot heard ‘round the world” in fifth grade and my family possesses embarrassing video footage of me giving a tour of Gettysburg in eighth grade. However, when I took classes in college I was inundated and intrigued by the histories of other countries – places that had very unfamiliar and new stories to tell. In British history I found a happy medium: I got to explore the history of a place that was foreign to me, but one in which the future America rested.

JF: What is your next project?

LO: One story haunted me while I was doing research for The Opened Letter. It seemed that every letter book I opened mentioned the plight of two African princes from Delagoa in east Africa who had arrived in London in 1721. They had boarded a ship to see England, but the captain nefariously sold them into slavery in Jamaica instead. Miraculously, after almost two years as slaves, they were freed and ended up trying to drum up support in London to get back to home. This story gripped me and has not let go, so presently I am tracing the travels of these princes and the motivations of those who got involved with them. Besides giving me the chance to tell a story full of drama and tragedy, their journey will also allow me to delve deeper into the nature and organization of British global power in the early eighteenth century.

JF: Thanks Lindsay, sounds intriguing!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

"The Making of the English Working Class" Turns 50

The Guardian is running a nice piece by Emma Griffin on the 50th anniversary of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a classic work of English social history.  Griffin is most impressed by the way Thompson’s canonical book “managed to weather Marxism’s subsequent fall from academic grace.”  Here is a taste:

The Making, with its preface so memorably declaring the book’s intention “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘Utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”. The book’s mythic status should not distract us from the raw originality of the work. In 1963, weavers and artisans were not the stuff of history books. Pioneering social historians had been studying working people since the early 20th century, but the focus remained squarely on the tangible, the measurable, the “significant” – wages, living conditions, unions, strikes, Chartists. Thompson touched on the trade unions and the real wage, of course, but most of his book was devoted to something that he referred to as “experience”. Through a patient and extensive examination of local as well as national archives, Thompson had uncovered details about workshop customs and rituals, failed conspiracies, threatening letters, popular songs, and union club cards. He took what others had regarded as scraps from the archive and interrogated them for what they told us about the beliefs and aims of those who were not on the winning side. Here, then, was a book that rambled over aspects of human experience that had never before had their historian. And the timing of its appearance could scarcely have been more fortunate. The 1960s saw unprecedented upheaval and expansion in the university sector, with the creation of new universities filled with lecturers and students whose families had not traditionally had access to the privileged world of higher education. Little wonder, then, that so many felt a natural affinity with Thompson’s outsiders and underdogs.

And there was something more. Running through The Making was a searing anger about economic exploitation and a robust commentary on his capitalist times. Thompson rejected the notion that capitalism was inherently superior to the alternative model of economic organisation it replaced. He refused to accept that artisans had become obsolete, or that their distress was a painful but necessary adjustment to the market economy. It was an argument that resonated widely in the 1960s, when Marxist intellectuals could still believe that a realistic alternative to capitalism existed, could still argue that “true” Marxism hadn’t been tried properly.