The Author’s Corner with Paul Musselwhite

urban dreams, rural commonwealthPaul Musselwhite is Assistant Professor of History and the Vice-Chair of the History Department at Dartmouth College. This interview is based on his new book Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake?

PM: As an undergraduate taking courses on medieval and early modern Europe, I became fascinated by the idea that towns and cities were miniature self-governing communes. In graduate school I decided to pursue early American history, but I wanted to know more about how that vision of the city shaped early colonialism beyond the archetypal New England town. Although I was in Virginia, I assumed that I would need to look elsewhere for examples because the scholarly literature was so adamant that the Chesapeake was completely rural. After a little digging, though, I was astonished to come across Robert Beverley Jr., the famous champion of Virginia’s early plantocracy, sponsoring an act in 1706 to establish incorporated self-governing towns across the colony, replete with guilds, markets, and provincial representation.

I quickly realized that this was the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere I looked through seventeenth-century Virginia and Maryland, people were talking about building towns—what it would achieve, how it should be done, and where others had gone wrong—and they were unmistakably drawing from the rich traditions of European chartered boroughs and self-governing cities. The Chesapeake’s rural character, which has largely been portrayed as a product of environmental determinism, suddenly appeared as an active choice made by a particular section of colonial society in response to these questions. I realized that in looking for towns, I had found some of the critical building blocks of rural plantation society.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake?

PM: Our usual picture of the colonial Chesapeake is of a starkly rural society of tobacco and slavery that inhibited the development of towns and cities, but I reveal that urban development was actually one of the most hotly contested topics in the region throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I argue that the absence of major urban places was not a product of plantation agriculture; rather, the relationship was quite the opposite, because decades of failed urban development were instrumental in forging the political structures and economic policies that facilitated big plantations in the Chesapeake and in shaping the agrarian outlook of the planter class in the new republic.

JF: Why do we need to read Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake?

PM: Urban Dreams will challenge the way you think about the development of the plantation system, early American urban places, and the roots of agrarian republicanism. For those interested in the relationship between slavery and the birth of capitalism, the book offers a new deep backstory, tracing the way large-scale plantations emerged in dialogue with the idea of the incorporated town just at the moment when the role of distinct urban civic communities in local market regulation was being co-opted and liberalized by the state. By exploring places that are traditionally overlooked in early American urban history, the book also argues that we have fundamentally misunderstood how contemporaries thought about cities and towns; it makes the case that urban history needs to pay closer attention to constitutional, legal, and ideological significance rather than simply counting populations or the volume of trade. Finally, Urban Dreams will also appeal to anyone interested in the roots of Jeffersonian agrarian republicanism. Historians have long searched for the reason why planters in the Chesapeake were particularly drawn to “country” ideology and classical republicanism, but they have never looked far enough back because they have mostly dismissed the seventeenth-century Chesapeake as a kind of “wild west” where pragmatism ruled. Civic republican ideas, though, were a critical part of debates over urban planning from the foundations of Jamestown, and the book uncovers planters’ gradual and conscious shift from viewing cities as the bastions of civic order to envisioning private plantations as the foundations of an agrarian republic.

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

PM: I’m an American historian because of the birth of online discount flight booking. When I was a teenager growing up in the UK, every summer my dad would scour very rudimentary websites for flights to corners of the US that didn’t normally attract British tourists, and then we would embark on mammoth road trips. That travel, especially around the South, introduced me to so many complex and contradictory facets of American society that as soon as I got to university, I signed up for early American history. From then on, I was hooked

JF: What is your next project?

PM: My new project, tentatively entitled Plantation: From Public Project to Private Enterprise, is a study of the long-noted but unexplored transformation in the meaning of “plantation” around the English empire during the seventeenth century. In the late sixteenth century, “plantation” in Ireland, Scotland, and America was predominantly understood as a process by which private individuals established new civic societies in conquered lands, but by 1700 it was widely recognized as a place of private commercial agriculture that pursued profit by exploiting enslaved laborers. The adaptation of “plantation” to describe this evolving socioeconomic system was conscious and highly significant; colonists engaged in particular forms of economic enterprise chose to call their estates “plantations” because the term allowed them to claim particular forms of authority within the imperial state and the commercial market. One particularly exciting part of this project involves building a database of the names given to plantations around the Atlantic world; I hope that tracking changing patterns in these naming practices will reveal shifts in the implicit assumptions about the social and economic structure of the plantation

JF: Thanks, Paul!

When You’re Teaching Edmund Morgan’s *American Slavery, American Freedom* and a Student Brings Some Tobacco Leaves to Class…

Tobacco was life in seventeenth-century Virginia.  It defined everything about Chesapeake society–race, class, gender, labor patterns, family life, marriage, religion, economy, and politics.  So far I am having a great time teaching Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. (I hope my Colonial America students are enjoying it as well).

Today one of my more inspired students showed-up with some tobacco leaves.  He got them from an Amish tobacco grower here in south-central Pennsylvania.

Morgan Tobacco

Princeton Seminar 2017: Day 3

Burr

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Colonial Era” teachers seminar (aka the “Princeton Seminar“) is rolling along.

This morning in the lecture hall we finished our discussion of colonial Virginia. I made the connection between mercantilism and tobacco culture and challenged the teachers to consider the social and cultural influence of tobacco on race, social structure, gender, and labor in the seventeenth century colony. We ended this lecture with an examination of Bacon’s Rebellion.

Midway through the morning session we turned to colonial New England.  We did a lot of background work today.   My lecture developed along these lines:

  • The settlers of New England were Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Calvinist Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were English Calvinist Protestant Christians

We then discussed Winthrop’s idea of a “City Upon a Hill” and how Puritan theology influenced politics and regional identity in Massachusetts Bay.  On Thursday, when we return to New England, I am hoping to say a few words about social life in the region, drawing heavily from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives.

The teachers spent the afternoon with master teacher Nate McAlister.  He continues to work with the teachers on their lesson plans and the use of primary documents.

After dinner we all headed over to the Princeton Cemetery.  I gave a very brief lecture at the graves of the early Princeton presidents–Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon.  For some reason the grave of Aaron Burr Jr. got more attention than it has in years past. 🙂

We will be in Philadelphia tomorrow with George Boudreau!

Weed

2017 Princeton Seminar: Day 2

Tour

Today the teachers got a tour of early American Princeton

Monday was a long and busy day at the Princeton Seminar.

We began with a morning of lecture and discussion about how we should think about “colonial America.”  I tried to get the teachers to think historically about the colonies and try to rid themselves of a Whig-centered interpretation of the period.  In the process we spent a lot of time talking about the difference between a “civics” approach to the past and a “historical thinking” approach to the past.   I challenged the teachers to try to understand the colonial American past on its own terms and, at least for a week, pretend that the American Revolution never happened.

I also introduced the teachers to what has been called “The New Indian” history.  What might our understanding of colonial America look like if we examine it from the perspective of native Americans?  I focused this lecture around three concepts: “Facing East” (Dan Richter), the “Indians’ New World” (James Merrell), and the “Middle Ground” (Richard White).

Finally, we got started with a lecture on the colonial Chesapeake and tried to make sense of why so many people starved to death in the early years of Jamestown.  We will be finishing this discussion today by carrying the Virginia story through Bacon’s Rebellion.

In the afternoon, Nate McAlister introduced the teachers to their lesson-plan assignment. Every teacher needs to pick a primary source from the colonial era and write a lesson that they can use with their students.   It is always fun to see the documents that they choose and the lessons that they design.

After dinner we split into two groups and got a historical tour of Princeton.  My tour guide, Leslie, was excellent.  She took us through Princeton University, Princeton Theological Seminary, the home of Albert Einstein, the home of Richard Stockton (Morven), and the Princeton Battlefield Monuments.  We got caught in the middle of a thunderstorm while visiting Einstein’s house, but Leslie pushed us through.  There we were–standing outside of Morven in the pouring ran listening to Leslie expound upon the life of Stockton.  These teachers are real troopers!

About half of us ended the night at the Yankee Doodle Tap Room at Princeton’s Nassau Inn.  This is the place where the Princeton Seminar goes to solve all world problems. Tonight was no exception!

Looking forward to day 3!  Stay tuned.

The Author’s Corner with Kristalyn Shefveland

anglonativevirginiaKristalyn Shefveland is Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. This interview is based on her new book, Anglo-Native Virginia: Trade, Conversion, and Indian Slavery in the Old Dominion, 1646-1722 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: During my PhD program at the University of Mississippi, I took two seminars on the American colonies, with emphasis on the Southeast. One was a history seminar in which we discussed at length the Chesapeake school and the evolving issues of race, particularly as it related to the work of Edmund Morgan and Winthrop Jordan, and the seminal work of Powhatan’s Mantle. The other was an anthropology seminar in which we were introduced to the body of scholarship on the Eastern Woodlands and the emergence of the trade in skins and slaves. Out of these two courses I came away with many questions about the Stegg/Byrd family and the role of Virginia in the Indian slave trade. I was inspired by the work of Alan Gallay, Robbie Ethridge, and Charles Hudson and wanted to know more.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: Anglo-Native Virginia argues that attempts to regulate and control trade and indigenous peoples via a tributary system was at the foreground of Virginia’s native concerns from Governor Sir William Berkeley to Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. This tributary system and its accompanying categories and rules represent an era of deep upheaval in the indigenous communities of the coastal plain and piedmont, resulting in the enslavement of native peoples as the colonies used the frontier exchange economy to finance their emerging plantation complex.

JF: Why do we need to read Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: As an interdisciplinary work of ethnohistory, I hope this book finds an audience in a number of venues, including but not limited to scholars of Atlantic trade, colonial settlement, Southern Studies, slavery studies, and Indigenous peoples. The book asks us to consider the central role that indigenous and colonial interaction played in the larger narrative of the plantation South. It asks us to look more closely at how trade with Native peoples shaped Virginia history as it transitioned from a fledgling colonial outpost to a settler society dependent upon slave labor. I argue that the Southeast cannot be understood without understanding Virginia and one cannot understand Virginia without understanding the tributary system. The framework of this project came from my interest in demonstrating the importance of Native history for broader narratives. Until fairly recently, Native peoples of Virginia have been in the background of important studies that have focused on the Atlantic slave trade, mercantilism, and the plantation economy. A full understanding of the important role that Virginia tributary and foreign Natives played in the trade in skins and slaves as it relates to the Atlantic economy and mercantilism has been the subject of important recent scholarship and I think my work complements this emerging field.

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

KS: I started writing stories at an early age and they always had a historical element. I split my childhood between the small Mississippi river town of Wabasha, Minnesota and a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I was always drawn to the historic sites of the two very different communities, one barely 2,500 people and the other a sprawling rustbelt town where suburbs converged into one another. In Minnesota, I was raised on the history of Euro-Native interaction, trade and settlement, and the folklore of the river valley. Across the river in Wisconsin was the Big Woods that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about and the town of Maiden Rock. In sum, I always loved a folktale and a yarn, a lifelong love affair that my parents greatly encouraged by going through historic towns and stopping at roadside markers, even when it added an hour or three to our regular road trips to Minnesota or Florida. In Ohio, I had the opportunity to work with an incredible high school teacher, Steven Abbey, who allowed me to take independent studies on a wide variety of historical topics and then I had the pleasure to attend Bowling Green State University where I studied under the Great Lakes historian, Edmund Danziger. He fostered my love of stories and helped to guide my scholarship towards the field of ethnohistory. In his seminar courses as well as the eye-opening classes I got to take with the Latin American historian, Rob Buffington, I knew that I wanted to pursue the field of history beyond undergrad. I was lucky to land at the University of Mississippi to work in interdisciplinary collaboration on indigenous peoples with Sheila Skemp and Robbie Ethridge. In a bit of kismet, I moved south to study peoples who came originally from Lake Erie.

JF: What is your next project?

KS: I am currently at work on a book on historical memory of indigenous peoples in Florida, particularly the town of Vero Beach, on the Indian River. This is a project of personal importance to me as it is a place I have known all my life and yet its deeply manicured history of settler pioneers and adventurous rogues reveals an incomplete narrative. I came to this study because of a large Spanish-mission style building that overlooks the town center with a relief carving of Pocahontas. Indian River produce advertisements from the 1880s-1970s depict idyllic jungle scenes, complete with friendly and noble Indians of vaguely Plains motifs—a vision at odds with the region’s indigenous past. Yankees, calling themselves pioneers and colonizers, moved to the region in waves throughout the early 20th century, viewing Southerners with scorn as the wealthy Northern investors built empires of citrus and sugar.

The Indian River Farms Company of Davenport, Iowa made the greatest strides toward conquering Florida. While settling the region, the company created a romantic narrative to sell land to potential Yankee colonizers. Street names included Seminole, Osceola, Cherokee, Mohawk, Kickapoo, and Ute. Buildings included the Chief Sleepy Eye Lodge and the Pocahontas Arcade. All names considered “picturesque” by would be settlers. Situating these endeavors within the broader context of Yankee imperialism in the Caribbean, particularly Cuba, I am reconsidering the legacy of a colonial southern past alongside the emergence of the vacation south to explore its potential impact on studies of the Indigenous south.

JF: Thanks, Kristalyn!

2014 Gilder-Lehrman "13 Colonies" Seminar: Day Two Recap

Firestone Library–Princeton University

It was a full day in Princeton.  The Gilder-Lehrman “13 Colonies” seminar is off to a great start (or at least it is from my perspective as the instructor).  We started the day problemetizing the “Whig” interpretation of history and trying to imagine what the history of the American colonies might look like if we did not view the colonies solely as a precursor to the American Revolution.  Alan Taylor’s American Colonies was very helpful on this front.

We spent the rest of the morning on native American history.  Most of what we discussed was informed by Taylor’s American Colonies, James Merrell’s The Indians’ New World, and Dan Richter’s Facing East from the Indian Country.  My goal was to get these K-8 history teachers to see the world through the eyes of the native Americans, to get them to think culturally (rather than geographically) about the concept of the “New World,” and to see moments of native American agency on the “middle ground.”

After lunch we began our exploration of the early Chesapeake by exploring death and mercantilism in Jamestown.  This morning we will finish that story.

Nate McAlister is my partner in crime this week.  Yesterday afternoon we met with Stephen Ferguson, the rare book librarian at Princeton’s Firestone Library.   On Thursday afternoon we are taking the teachers into the Firestone so that they can touch, hold, read, and discuss some seventeenth and eighteenth-century books.  I get the privilege of creating the book list.  Nate and Stephen suggested that the list should include everything read by Philip Vickers Fithian.  We may also get to look at the original diaries that I worked with for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  This should be exciting.