The Author’s Corner with Carla Pestana

Carla Gardina Pestana is Professor of History, Department Chair, and Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America in the World at the University of California, Los Angeles. This interview is based on her new book, The World of Plymouth Plantation (Belknap Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The World of Plymouth Plantation?

CP: The simple answer, and one I allude to in the book’s acknowledgements, is that I participated in an NEH funded workshop at the living history museum Plimoth Plantation some years ago. During that multi-day meeting, I was struck by how Plymouth appears isolated from the wider world. Immediate interactions, especially those with the area’s original residents, received the focus of attention in conversations there and, I subsequently realized, in the literature around Plymouth as well. I felt inspired to think systematically about what connected Plymouth to a world beyond the neighboring Wampanoag peoples and the immediate location.

On another level, this project represents a return to my roots. My original research centered on New England; and though I have kept it in my sights in a number of more broadly framed projects, this is the first time I have returned to consider the region on its own. This return had not occurred to me, until a number of friends pointed it out.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The World of Plymouth Plantation?

CP: Plymouth Plantation was connected from its inception to other places, and those connections shaped its early history in ways both basic and profound. (That is one!)

JF: Why do we need to read The World of Plymouth Plantation?

CP: I realize this is my chance to make my own case, but I am not sure I would use the word “need”! (Obviously, I could be better at self-promotion.)

The World of Plymouth Plantation offers a readable account of everyday life as well as of what we might call their world view. It is organized around some basic categories that have shaped Atlantic history, specifically things, ideas, and people that circulated into and through the outpost. It uses those categories to shape 18 short chapters that each begin with a vignette (although not the usual ones) and consider an element from one of the three categories. So, it’s organized in an interesting (if subtle) way. It also reflects knowledge gained from many years of teaching and researching, without being didactic about it. My intended readers are not only scholars and students but also the wider public, so it is relatively short, not to mention nicely illustrated and written in an accessible style.

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

CP: I stumbled into the study of history in that I went to graduate school largely on the recommendation of my undergraduate faculty and without a clear idea of what I would find there. As an undergraduate, I had felt especially drawn to early American history so I continued in that vein, making me technically an American historian since the colonial period is treated as the first (and often least significant) chapter of US history. I stumbled across the Quaker executions in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the first months of my graduate career and quickly became obsessed with explaining them. I wanted, on the most basic level, to understand how Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: From Colony to Province and Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down could both be legitimate representations of an era (and some closely connected people during it) when their subject matters and findings seemed so vastly at odds. In a way, my dissertation and first book were an attempt to answer that question.

Since that time, I have wandered out into Atlantic, Caribbean, and even British topics, but I have always taught early American history. I continue to consider myself a historian of early America, even though now I am interested in that and more.

JF: What is your next project?

CP: Sadly, I am uncertain. Like most historians, I am missing the access to archives and libraries brought on by the pandemic. I want to get back into the Jamaican archives to answer some questions left hanging from a previous book. I want to think more deeply about maritime topics, and I would have been in the National Records Office in Kew looking at High Court of Admiralty records this summer had that been possible. I may put together an edited collection of articles by other scholars on the early modern global Caribbean, since I have been facilitating conversations around that topic for some time.

JF: Thanks, Carla!

The Author’s Corner with Francis Bremer

One small candleFrank Bremer is Professor Emeritus of history at Millersville University. This interview is based on his new book, One Small Candle: The Plymouth Puritans and the Beginning of English New England (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write One Small Candle?

FB: As we approached the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower and the settlement of the Pilgrim colony, I realized that for a long time scholars had neglected the religious dimension of the story. Anticipated new studies were going to examine the impact of the settlement on the lives and cultures of the indigenous people, and the contributions the settlers made to the political structure of the region. What was most important to the people themselves, their faith, was in danger of being ignored.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of One Small Candle?

FB: The congregation of believers commonly referred to as the Pilgrims was formed and shaped by English lay men and women of faith who moved first to the Netherlands and then to New England in order to continue their search for a further reformation. The example and advice they provided to the early settlers of Massachusetts determined the character of the new England Way of puritan church practice.

JF: Why do we need to read One Small Candle?

FB: Despite the best efforts of many scholars the popular perception of puritans is that they were steeple-hatted killjoys with dreadful fashion-sense who persecuted dissenters, and executed witches. These assertions are all exaggerated to various extents, but the fact is that most attention to the puritans (including the “Pilgrims”) focuses solely on the negative aspects of their beliefs and practice. In terms of legacy they are mistakenly portrayed as the source of modern evangelical conservative politics. While acknowledging the warts, I wanted to explore some elements of the story that are worth our consideration. Their belief in lay empowerment contributed to forms of participatory government in congregations, towns, and other political entities. Their belief in the importance of reading scripture led them to require all–men and women, servants and slaves–to be taught to read. Their openness to “further light” made them less dogmatic than most of their religious contemporaries, though not as open to diversity as we are. Their commitment to the welfare of the larger community as opposed to individual self-advancement provided a model social gospel, though one limited to their own small society.

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

FB: I have been interested in stories of the past for as long as I can remember. Short summer vacations in New England when I was a child focused my interest on that region. When I developed a taste for theology as an undergraduate at Fordham University, that, combined with my New England interest, made puritanism an attractive field of study. While I have taught courses on numerous aspects of American History, I consider myself a religious historian of the early modern Atlantic world. I have been studying, restudying, lecturing and writing on puritanism in the Atlantic world for over fifty years. Most of my teaching was directed at undergraduates and in my books I have tried to explain complex notions in a way accessible to ordinary readers, because I believe that knowing about and thinking about the past helps us to be better citizens.

JF: What is your next project?

FB: In recent years I have found myself reconsidering some of the assumptions about early New England and puritanism that I had adopted from the work of earlier scholars and promulgated myself. The results have been reflected in some of my recent works. In keeping with this revisiting of familiar views, I am reconsidering the role of women in the development of puritanism. While the “virtuous wives” written about by Laurel Ulrich and the radicalism of figures such as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer are part of the story, I am more interested in the women who formed congregations by attesting to covenants, who helped other believers understand the state of their own souls by sharing their professions of faith, who prophesied in formal and informal church settings, who wrote religious treatises, who voted in congregational meetings, and–in England–actually preached publicly.

JF: Thanks, Frank!

The Author’s Corner with Eric Smith

Oliver HartEric Smith is Senior Pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Savannah, Tennessee and Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. This interview is based on his new book, Oliver Hart and the Rise of Baptist America (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Oliver Hart?

ES: I wrote Oliver Hart and the Rise of Baptist America mostly because I wanted to tell the story of Oliver Hart, arguably the most important evangelical leader of the pre-Revolutionary South, whose thirty-year ministry in Charleston transformed Baptist life in the region. I also wanted to tell the understudied story of American Baptist transformation across the long eighteenth century; Hart provides a particularly useful window into that narrative. 

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

ES: My book argues that Oliver Hart played a pivotal role in the rise of Baptist America in the second half of the eighteenth century by practicing a singular and understated style of religious leadership. Through his earnest piety, relational skills, and ability to integrate Baptist precisionism with the evangelical revivalism of the Great Awakening, Hart became Southern Baptists’ most important pioneer and a key contributor to Baptist ascendancy in America. 

JF: Why do we need to read Oliver Hart?

ES: My book is the only biography of Oliver Hart, Southern Baptists’ most important pioneer and one of the most important evangelical leaders of the eighteenth century. If you read my book, you will also discover how American Baptists began the eighteenth century a small, scattered, disorganized sect, but ended it a large, rapidly growing, increasingly sophisticated, and relatively unified denomination in the young republic.

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

ES: I have always been fascinated by the past! As a child in West Tennessee, I grew up enchanted by American history–exploring Shiloh National Military Park, listening to stories about Davy Crockett, watching the Ken Burns Baseball documentary on PBS with my dad, reading presidential biographies–and I’ve just never gotten over it. I’ve also always loved to write. So as a historian, I get to pursue the sheer joy of learning for myself, and then try to share what I’ve learned by telling the very best story I can to others. I’d love to produce for readers the kinds of informative and enjoyable stories about the past that I’ve benefited from through the years. My work so far has focused on Baptists, an important but relatively understudied group in American religious history. Since this is my own tradition, I have a personal interest in understanding how the Baptists have lived, worshipped, and participated in the larger American story (for good and for bad) through the centuries. Along the way, maybe I can shed some light on the Baptists for others, too. 

JF: What is your next project?

ES: I have completed a biography of the eccentric but highly influential Baptist John Leland, which is currently under consideration with a publisher, and I have begun work on a critical biography of the nineteenth-century Southern Baptist leader John A. Broadus.

JF: Thanks, Eric!

What happened to the Roanoke Colony?

Roanoke-colony-2

Yesterday in my U.S. survey course I lectured on the founding of Jamestown. When I talk about mercantilism and other motivations for settlement of Jamestown, I often mention the “lost” colony of Roanoke. But a new book on Roanoke claims that the so-called “lost colony” was never lost. Here is a taste of Alan Yuhas’s piece at The New York Times:

In 1590, the would-be governor of a colony meant to be one of England’s first outposts in North America discovered that more than 100 settlers weren’t on the small island where he left them.

More than 400 years later, the question of what happened to those settlers, who landed on Roanoke Island, off the coast of modern North Carolina, has grown into a piece of American mythology, inspiring plays, novels, documentaries and a tourism industry in the Outer Banks.

Stories have taken root that the colonists, who left no clear trace aside from the word “Croatoan” carved on a tree, survived somewhere on the mainland, died in conflict with Native Americans or met some other end.

new book about the colonists, “The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island,” published in June and citing 10 years of excavations at nearby Hatteras Island, aims to put the mystery to bed. The book’s author, Scott Dawson, a researcher from Hatteras, argues that the Native people who lived there took in the English settlers and that historical records and artifacts can end the debate.

Read the rest here.  Several scholars are skeptical.

The Author’s Corner with William Hart

For the good of their soulsWilliam Hart is Associate Professor of History at Middlebury College. This interview is based on his new book, “For the Good of Their Souls”: Performing Christianity in Eighteenth-Century Mohawk Country (University of Massachusetts Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write “For the Good of Their Souls”?

WH: I wrote my book, “For the Good of Their Souls,” in order to complicate our understanding of indigenous “conversions” to Christianity. Historians have begun to realize that the term “conversion” is inadequate to explain how and why Native peoples negotiated their relationships with missionaries and Christianity. I wanted to examine a nation that historians have long thought was nearly wholly Christian. Hence, my decision to study the Mohawks, who until not long ago, were commonly referred to as the “faithful Mohawks,” a term that carries a double meaning: Christian and loyal (to the English). In graduate school, I found the scholarly conversation among ethnohistorians about how to write about Native communities in contact with missionaries when the documentary evidence is so one-sided fascinating and challenging. My book is the first book to re-examine Mohawk Christianity in over eighty years.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of “For the Good of Their Souls”?

WH: I argue that most baptized Mohawks, which in time constituted a majority of that population, did not convert to Christianity (although some did), but rather “performed” Christianity–especially Protestantism–in order to continue to survive as Mohawks in a rapidly changing world. Performing Church of England Protestantism enabled many to acquire literacy, to attain social standing in their communities, to receive more favorable diplomatic and trade relations with the English, and for some to live by a new moral code.

JF: Why do we need to read “For the Good of Their Souls”?

WH: My book, the first full-length study of Mohawk Christianity since 1938, reveals the myriad ways baptized Mohawks controlled, manipulated, and shaped according to their needs their relationship with English missionaries and schoolmasters. My research revealed that such relationships were complicated and usually did not meet the expectations of their assigned missionary. Rather most baptized Mohawks–but not all–
“performed” the rites and rituals of Protestant Christianity situationally in the presence of English surveillants. In the process, they “translated” Protestant Christianity to fit their needs and understanding.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you worked with in the writing and researching of “For the Good of Their Souls.”

WH: My research drew heavily upon documents, Haudenosaunee culture, and scholarly research. My primary documentary sources included the Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (manuscripts), the foreign missionary society founded in 1701 affiliated with the Church of England, which contains voluminous correspondence and reports exchanged between Anglican missionaries in the British colonies and the Society in London; the multivolume records for the colonial history of New York, which contain the correspondence of civil and ecclesiastical leaders in the colony; the fourteen volume collection of the Sir William Johnson Papers; and calendars of the Dutch Reformed Church, and late eighteenth–early nineteenth-century records for early Canada. I also used evidence gleaned by anthropologists, historians, genealogists, material culturalists, linguists, archaeologists, and scholars of comparative religion, among others.

JF: What is your next project?

WH: I am interested in understanding the choices that racially marginalized people made living in the “Others’” hegemonic world in order to survive and thrive, which is the abiding theme of the Mohawk book. My next book project–“I Am a Man”: Martin Freeman, Race, Manhood, and the Cant of Colonization–examines the American Colonization Society through the life of Martin Freeman (1826-1889), a graduate of Middlebury College (salutatorian, Class of 1849), who became the first Black president of an American College–Avery College near Pittsburgh (1856-1863)–and who migrated to Monrovia, Liberia, in 1864 to teach at and become president of Liberia College. The book will take a microhistorical approach to colonization in that the details of Freeman’s life before, during, and after Middlebury will illuminate the larger cultural debate around the place of free Black Americans in nineteenth-century American society that informed the relationship between American colleges and the ACS.

JF: Thanks, William!

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Pearl

conceived in crisisChristopher Pearl is Associate Professor of History at Lycoming College. This interview is based on his new book, Conceived in Crisis: The Revolutionary Creation of an American State (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Conceived in Crisis?

CP: At face value, that question seems simple, and people ask me that question a lot. But, at the same time, it is hard to answer succinctly. So, I apologize for this rather lengthy response.

If I had to sum it up, I think it started out of simple interest–I wanted to understand the causes and consequences of the American Revolution. I love the literature on the American Revolution, but always debated how the interpretations of the more imperial centered histories and domestic revolutionary histories worked together (a rather standard starting place, for sure). We have an extensive body of literature that interprets the causes of the American Revolution through an external lens, particularly through the dispute between the British Parliament and the colonial legislatures over constitutional issues, especially sovereignty. Then, we have another excellent vantage point looking at domestic problems rooted in the intersection of economics and politics. Adding to that, we have a vibrant history of the frontier and the racial, economic, and political motivations for dissent and revolution there, which often bridge the divide between imperial and domestic origins. And then we have investigations of the revolutionary war that see that period as dynamic for the foundation of the United States. I wanted to understand how all of those issues and periods intersected.

I think the other motivation for this book is my interest in governance–both how people in general experience power as structured in a particular government and how they understand what a government should do on the ground. We have a rich history about how early Americans thought about the limits of government, but, the other question, I think, is asking what early Americans thought about the place of government in their daily lives, or, quite simply, what government should and could do?

My book is an attempt to bring those questions together by looking at the structure of government, the practice of governing, and how people wrote and thought about both. I tried to do that in one colony turned state, Pennsylvania (sometimes on a very mundane level). For example, how do debates over the structure of the local courts or the regulation of fishing, hunting, lotteries, wagon wheels, oysters, bread, leather, the quality and price of consumer goods, or something as large and significant as land and property ownership (to name just a few) reveal essential aspects of early American visions of government and governance, and how did that understanding of government and governance shape the causes of the American Revolution and the states that were birthed in that moment? I try to address those questions directly in my book, showing how the dialogue about colonial and imperial governance shaped both the causes of the revolution and how the new states were formed and governed.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Conceived in Crisis?

CP: At a basic level, Conceived in Crisis argues that the American Revolution was not just the product of the Imperial Crisis, brought on by the British Parliament’s attempt to impose a new idea of empire on the American colonies. To an equal or greater degree, it was a response to the inability of individual colonial governments to deliver basic services, which undermined their legitimacy. Factional bickering over policy, violent extralegal regulations, and the dreadful experiences of conducting an imperial war while governing a demographically growing and geographically expanding population all led colonists and imperial officials to consider reforming the colonial governments into more powerful and coercive entities. Using Pennsylvania as a case study, my book demonstrates how this history of ineffective colonial governance precipitated a process of state formation that was accelerated by the demands of the Revolutionary War.

JF: Why do we need to read Conceived in Crisis?

CP: I think my book is important for its investigation of how problems of governance at the localist of levels helps explain the causes of the American Revolution and how colonies became states. Moreover, I think my book is important because it makes us grapple with how revolutionaries understood the basic principles of governance during a foundational moment for the United States. As I look out at the political landscape, I am continually struck by how many Americans don’t quite understand or have a very narrow conception of how the founding generation understood government. We tend to focus on “the founders” and the limits of government rather than how that generation envisioned what governments do and why they do it. I think my book is essential in filling that gap.

Despite my confidence in what I just laid out, I want to emphasize that my book is an attempt. I think more needs to be done to understand the myriad of ways that governments and the governed worked out the basic contours of governance in the revolutionary era.

Happily, many of the issues I see as intimately intertwined with what I tried to do are being done or have been recently done. I think recent works by Brian Philips Murphy, Robert Parkinson, Alan Taylor, Jessica Roney, Cole Jones, Patrick Spero, Ryan A. Quintana, Whitney Martinko, and Max Edling, coupled with some anticipated books by Hannah Farber, Susan Gaunt Stearns, Michael Blaakman, and Matthew Spooner, for instance, are and will be really important. The collective history here, I think, tells a significant story about the revolutionary era in a way that should make us rethink standard narratives, and through that, the thrust of history in the United States. As scholars, we all have individual focuses, and sometimes we disagree, but taken together our work tells a rich history and I think we are in an excellent moment for a new understanding of the revolutionary era.

As I look out at the new and coming literature on the American Revolution, I am energized. It has made me appreciate something Thad Tate wrote about the field in 1977. For Tate, the bicentennial of American Independence influenced scholars, from a host of directions, who tried to come to grips with the American Revolution. Surveying the scholarly scene, Tate thought that “the results were so impressive as to appear to leave limited room for additional work in the immediate future.” Time, Tate concluded, was necessary to digest and make sense of it all. I think that we are in the early stages of something similar, and I am excited.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the sources material you worked with in the writing and researching of Conceived in Crisis.

CP: I wanted to understand the practice of governing in the revolutionary period, so I started by creating a database of petitions to Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature from 1740 to 1775, trying to find common complaints and requests. Through that, I focused on public petitions, or, rather, petitions signed by multiple people asking for legislative action. Once there, it became readily apparent that there was a severe disconnect between how the government and the governed understood the basic elements of governance. Tracking the dialogue between “the people” and the government in other sources, such as court records, legislative minutes, statutes, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and private papers framed the book as it now exists. I think it all came together when I started to see the same requests over and again demanding reform of the judicial system and regulatory policies. Those were key reform issues throughout the eighteenth century. As Laura F. Edwards demonstrates in her book, The People and Their Peace, local legal institutions had a significant impact on the lives of all people in early America. The way they functioned shaped everyone’s economic existence and the security of their communities. In essence, courts and regulatory policies at the most local of levels, shaped by colonial, and, eventually, statewide laws, represented the totality of governance for most early Americans. When I found that those local grievances started to make their way into a wider public political dialogue in the 1760s and 1770s, essentially linking something disparate into something far more oppositional, and then the same ideas for change informed the state constitutions and subsequent legislation by the state governments during the revolutionary war, I knew I had an interesting thread to track down and write about.

JF: What is your next project?

CP: I am currently working on a book project that analyzes the development of American executives during the American Revolution by looking at the wartime tenures of the fledgling state governors, presidents, and plural executive councils of five states–Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Such a study seems both timely and necessary considering the prevalence of modern discussion concerning the proper reach and remit of executives (of all stripes) as well as recent trends in the scholarly literature reemphasizing the importance of the war years to the development of the United States. Through this project, I am trying to understand how the war years shaped how executives acted, but more importantly, how people on the ground perceived and debated executive powers. I want to tease out how early Americans, from all walks of life, envisioned and experienced executive power. I think this new project will show how executive action and the public dialogue that it instigated had a lasting impact on a particularly American variety of executive power during the early republic and beyond. Thankfully, I will be a research fellow at The David Center for the American Revolution and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies next year to help complete the project.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

New Jersey and the Albany Congress

Belcher

Jonathan Belcher

Some 18th-century history today:

Yesterday I was reading the minutes of the Spring 1754 meeting of the New Jersey General Assembly held in Perth Amboy.

The meeting opened with a message from royal governor Jonathan Belcher urging the Assembly to send a delegation to Albany, New York in June 1754 to participate in the Albany Congress.

Belcher wrote: 

I… earnestly recommend to your most deliberate and mature Consideration, these extraordinary Proceedings [in Albany]; and then I shall not doubt your doing every Thing in your Power, in Aid and Assistance with the rest of the English Colonies: I say, I hope you will cheerfully unite with them, to ward off from yourselves and your Posterity, the fatal Consequences that must attend the present unjustifiable Violences and Insults of the French (in Conjunction with the Indians).

As Belcher notes, the Albany Congress was called to discuss the mutual defense of the British colonial frontiers against French and native American invasion. (It is best known, however, for Ben Franklin’s so-called “Albany Plan of Union“).

The New Jersey Assembly responded to Belcher’s call in the negative. They refused to participate in any plan of mutual colonial defense until other colonies–especially Pennsylvania and Maryland– committed first:

it does not appear that Schemes are concerted by the several Governors of the Colonies, for preventing the Incroachments of the French, upon His Majesty’s Dominions; nor does it appear, that the Colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania, have yet done any Thing in that Affair; though they are situated much nearer to the French Forts: That his House is of Opinion with your Excellency, that there should be strict Union amongst all his Majesty’s Colonies, on this Important Affair: But as this Colony, have never been Parties to any Treaties with the Five Nations; and their Allies, nor Partakers of the Benefits of the Indian Trade, and consequently quite unacquainted with the Interest and Trade of those Indians; they therefore hope it will not be taken as a Neglect of the Common Cause at this Time, to leave the Management of the Treaty to the Colonies that are accustomed to carry on those Negotiations.

In other words, the New Jersey Assembly said that the French and Indian threat on the frontier was not really their problem. They were happy to help, but only after other colonies more susceptible to French and Indian raids stepped-up.

The Assembly also commented on Virginia’s attempts at fortifying western forts in Ohio country:

They are of Opinion from Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie’s Letters to your Excellency that Nothing appears in them more than a Design to build a Fortification in the Forks of Ohio, in order to check the Incroachments of the French and to protect the Indians in Alliance with Great Britain, in that Part of the Country: And from the Time these Things have been in Agitation in the Colony of Virginia, they are in Hopes they are, before this Time, happily completed: However, the Duty and Loyalty of the good People of this Colony, sufficiently appears by their Conduct on former Expeditions.

In other words: “we would love to help, but:

This Colony, though lying under a great Load of Debt, by assisting his Majesty in the late Wars against Spain and France, are, however, willing chearfully to contribute towards the Assistance of the other Colonies, in what is necessary towards preventing the Incroachment of the French on his Majety’s Dominions  ,but at present, are not of Ability to do it; having no Money in the Treasury, nor any Funds upon which it can be raised.” 

Sorry. No money.

Needless to say, Belcher was not happy about this response. First, he corrected the Assembly by informing them that Pennsylvania and Maryland had indeed agreed to send representatives to Albany in June. Second, he said that the New Jersey colony would benefit from peaceful relations with the Indians, especially on the “Northern Boundary of this Province.”

Belcher thought that the Assembly was acting selfishly. If they really wanted to do their part for the British Empire they could raise money through taxes. (This would become a heated political issue down the road).

Moreover, by refusing to participate in the conversations at Albany, New Jersey might lose “his Majesty’s Favour.” Belcher makes an interesting point here. Some have interpreted the Albany Congress–the first attempt to bring all the colonies together for a common purpose–as a forerunner to the American Revolution. These historians point to the fact that the Albany Plan of Union, proposed by Ben Franklin at the meeting, was invoked by the First Continental Congress in Fall 1774 as a model for political union amid the imperial crisis. But that is not what was happening here in 1754. Belcher, a representative of the Crown, makes it clear that New Jersey’s failure to send delegates to Albany would hurt their standing in the British Empire.

On June 5, after a committee of assemblymen considered Belcher’s response, the body seemed to be more open to working with their neighbors. The committee concluded:

That a strict Union among his Majesty’s Colonies is absolutely necessary, to prevent the unjust Encroachments of the French on his Majesty’s Dominions; and that the House ought to join with the rest of his Majesty’s Colonies in the Expence of any well-concerted Scheme for that purpose.

The Assembly voted 18-3 in favor of considering support for their neighbors as soon as a “well-concerted Scheme” was in place. 

Belcher thought this was a weak response:

I have this Session laid before you, the Necessity of your enabling me to send Commissioners to meet at the present Congress at Albany, and also to make a suitable Present to the Indians, to continue them our Allies and Friends. I have also recommended to you, your doing something to strengthen the Forces raised in Virginia, to repel the French out of the King’s Dominions on the River Ohio; but to all this you have turned a deaf ear: Neither the Expectations of his Majesty, his Honour and Dignity, and Peace, Happiness, Safety, and Lives of his Subjects, in these his Dominions, have moved you; but rather than to give a helping Hand, you seem willing to suffer the French to enter into, and possess themselves of, a great Tract of Land (undoubtedly belonging to the Crown of Great Britain) and tamely permit a most cruel and barbarous Enemy, to have it in their Power, at their Will and Pleasure, to murder and destroy Hundreds of Families in this and the neighbouring Colonies; which more certainly will be the Case, if the French are allowed to continue on the Lands of the Ohio.”

Belcher railed against the Assembly’s unwillingness to send representatives to Albany until the delegates who attended this meeting put forth a “well-concerted Scheme.” He wrote: “Can this be judged any Thing but an intended Evasion? Do you expect to be consulted in the Scheme, or Plan of Operation?” Belcher wanted New Jersey to have a seat at the table in Albany.

He concluded:

Your Conduct has rendered it absolutely my Duty, for the Honour of his Majesty, and the future Well-being of his Colony, to dissolve this present Assembly; thereby putting it in the Power of the good People of this Province, to show how they stand affected in the Choice of their future Representatives, for the Good of the great and common cause, recommended to you this Sessions.

Would New Jersey send a delegation to the Albany Congress?

Stay tuned! (Or go look it up).

Christian historians and the “imago Dei”

Why Study HistoryEarlier today I posted on the politicization of the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings are created in the image of God.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in the imago Dei informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Historians are not in the business of studying God; they are in the business of studying humans. Those committed to the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God created us in his image. Human beings are the highest form of his creation and thus have inherent dignity and worth independent of their actions and behavior. Because we are made in the likeness of our creator and thus share, in some fashion, the divine image, human life is precious and sacred. There are no villains in history. While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subject bears the image of God and thus has value in God’s eyes.

The imago Dei should also inform the way a Christian does history. This doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past. It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.

An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer. Let me illustrate this from my own subdiscipline, the study of colonial American history.

Lately, historians have been complicating the very definition of what we have traditionally called “colonial America.” Recent scholarship on the history of the North American continent between 1500 and 1800 has suggested that “colonial America” is a loaded phrase. For most of my students, “colonial America” is equivalent to the “thirteen colonies”–those individual settlements that came together in 1776 to rebel against England and form the United States of America. When I ask them why we should study the colonies, they inevitably answer by saying something about the importance of understanding the reasons for the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. For most of them, the purpose of studying the colonial period is to locate the seeds of their nation–as if these seeds were somehow planted in the soil of Jamestown and Plymouth, were watered through a host of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century events, and finally blossomed in the years between the resistance to the Stamp Act (1765) and the writing of the Declaration of Independence (1776). The colonial period thus becomes part of the grand civics lesson that is the American history survey course.

This approach to teaching history has demographic implications. Who are the most important actors in the stories we tell about the American colonies? Since the United States survey course has always been taught as a way of producing good American citizens, the most important people and events will be those who contributed to the forging of a new nation. In this view, the worth of particular humans living during this period, or the degree of prominence that these humans will have in the stories we tell about the period, is based on the degree to which they contributed to the creation of the United States rather than their dignity as human beings created in God’s image.

For example, we might give short shrift to humans living in North America who did not contribute in obvious ways to the founding of the American republic. We all know the usual suspects: Native Americans, women, slaves, and anyone not living in the British colonies. But if the colonial period is understood less as a prelude to the American Revolution and more as a vital and fascinating period worthy of study on its own, then these marginalized historical actors become more important and our teaching becomes more comprehensive, inclusive, and, according to recent scholarship, historically accurate.

Consider Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, a history of colonial America published in 2002. For Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, the colonies should not be studied solely for how they served as the necessary forerunner to the events of the American Revolution. Rather, they should be studied for the story of European imperial expansion in North America and for the impact that such expansion had on whites, natives, and slaves. The changes that this expansion brought to the lives of ordinary people, Taylor argues, were the real “revolution” that took place on the continent between 1500 and the turn of the nineteenth century. For Taylor, European expansion did more to change the lives of the inhabitants of North America than did the hostilities between the British colonies and the mother country in the years leading up to 1776. This was a social revolution, not a political one.

Taylor turns the concept of the “New World” on its head, suggesting that the colonial expansion of Europe throughout the Atlantic (and Pacific) basin brought profound changes to the Indian populations who were already there, the Africans who would arrive as slaves, and even the Europeans themselves. The American colonies were diverse and “multicultural” places. Africans, Indians, the French, the English, the Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Russians in the Pacific Northwest encountered one another in this new world. And everyone involved in this encounter was forced to adjust and adapt. All of these groups helped to create a truly global economy and, conversely, were profoundly influenced by global economic trends. Slaves were shipped as commodities to the Americas. Indians and their wars had an effect on European markets for skins and furs, even as Indian culture itself was changed by access, if not addiction, to British, French, and Spanish consumer commodities. Such an engagement also had environmental consequences as both Europeans and Indians overworked the land. European disease changed the indigenous populations of North America forever.

As for the United States, the colonial period was important for the way all of these “colonies,” with their very diverse backgrounds and cultures, assimilated over time into one national story. The British colonies and their gripes with Parliament and the king were only one part, albeit a very important part, of this larger narrative.

Some might argue that Taylor’s analysis of the colonial period is driven more by politics than by good historical practice. By including the stories of Native Americans and slaves in his narrative, Taylor is engaging in political correctness. He is giving short shrift to the white Europeans who planted the American colonies. According to such a critique, American Colonies is just another example of the left-wing historical takeover of American history.

But what if we looked at the changes in the field of colonial American history, as portrayed in Taylor’s American Colonies, from a theological perspective rooted in the belief that we are all created in the image of God and thus have inherent dignity and worth? If we view colonial America, or any period in American history for that matter, from God’s eyes, then we get a very different sense of whose voices should count in the stories we tell. To put this differently, everyone’s voice counts, regardless of whether that person or group contributed to the eventual formulation of the United States.

Now, of course, certain white Europeans–such as the founding fathers–will appear prominently in our accounts of the American Revolution and its coming, but Whig history too often only celebrates the winners, the beneficiaries of liberty and progress, or the most privileged figures in the history of Western civilization. Whig history neglects anyone who does not fit this mold, and it fails to consider the imago Dei as a legitimate category of historical interpretation.

Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless. God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs.” What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past? On closer examination, much of this new scholarship in colonial American history seems to be more compatible with Christian teaching about human dignity than the nationalistic narratives that have dominated much of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century and which still have influence today. A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but it will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

How fast did news of American independence spread?

Declaration spread

I just ran across this Smithsonian piece from 2017. Fascinating:

It was the breaking news to end all breaking news—the fledgling British colonies of North America were committing treason and declaring independence. But in an era long before smartphone push alerts, TV interruptions and Twitter, breaking news broke a lot slower. How slow, though? Last year, a Harvard University project mapped how quickly the Declaration of Independence spread through the colonies based on newspaper archives.

A fascinating animation breaks down the dissemination of the news. The full text of the Declaration of Independence was first published in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6 in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress had been meeting to compose it. Other Philadelphia newspapers reprinted the document, including a German newspaper that translated it for the area’s large immigrant population, in the following days. (The same German-language newspaper also holds bragging rights for being the first paper to report on the Declaration of Independence.)

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Noeleen McIlvenna

Early American RebelsNoeleen McIlvenna is Professor of History at Wright State University. This interview is based on her new book, Early American Rebels: Pursuing Democracy from Maryland to Carolina, 1640–1700 (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Early American Rebels?

NM: All my work starts from the premise that the poor are not stupid. They know when they are being used and abused. But, in most eras on most continents, it’s very difficult to do anything about it. Power has all the weapons and they are relentless in their pursuit of more power and wealth. Working people have only numbers. And there is so much to fear: losing one’s livelihood, one’s health, the unknown future. So organizing ourselves to act collectively and then maintaining that solidarity over time and under varying pressures is a very tough road to climb. That’s why revolutions occur so rarely.

This is my third book on southern colonial history. As an immigrant myself, who grew up on one side of the Atlantic and crossed in my early twenties, I identify with the first generation of settlers along the North American coastline. I understand how one carries over cultural baggage and must adjust to a New World. So I write about those people: in North Carolina (A Very Mutinous People), in Georgia (The Short Life of Free Georgia), and now in Maryland.

Early American Rebels began as a prequel of sorts to A Very Mutinous People. While I was in the middle of the Georgia book, a genealogist contacted me and asked if I was aware that one of the Mutinous People protagonists had been in trouble in Maryland earlier. I was totally unaware; North Carolina historians had always felt that the first settlers came from Virginia. So when the Georgia manuscript had been sent to the publisher, I began to follow up, thinking I would write a small article about this story. But very quickly, I realized I had stumbled into a much bigger story: a whole network of activists had organized and organized and organized over two generations, struggling to establish a society based on Leveler ideals. Levelers were the radicals of the English Revolution: they wanted a society with a level playing field: no monarchy, no aristocracy; a vote for every man. Equality. We think of that as a basic American value, but it was revolutionary in the seventeenth century. And too often, Americans are taught that those ideals came from Virginia planters of the eighteenth century. But that is wrong. Poor indentured servants a hundred years before the American Revolution held those ideals and fought for them.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Early American Rebels?

NM: A network of settlers in the Chesapeake region fought for a say in their own governance in the mid-late seventeenth century. American democratic ideals are their legacy.

JF: Why do we need to read Early American Rebels?

NM: It is important for us to understand that we should look to those at the bottom of any society for leadership on how to change it. Early American Rebels gives us a guide on what it takes to create a more equitable world. It warns us how we might fail if the powerful separate us by race and make us compete for the crumbs. I hope you will get a sense of the playbooks of both the rebels and the elite.

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

NM: That occurred in several stages. The most important was the first day of eighth grade, back in Northern Ireland, when my new history teacher wrote the preamble to the Declaration of Independence on the blackboard and told us to copy it into our notebooks. When I got to the phrase, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish [their government],” I looked up and met his eyes. I repeated the phrase to him and he nodded, smiling. As a poor Catholic girl growing up during the Troubles, no one had really said that clearly to me and I knew immediately its significance. We mostly studied European history for the rest of high school, but I was hooked on understanding how some people came to have power and some did not. If someone had told me that there was such a job as an historian and that a poor Catholic girl was allowed to have that job, I would have signed up for it at age thirteen. But I had no concept that such a thing was possible.

I studied History as an undergraduate in Northern Ireland, but still did not grasp that I could become a history professor. No women taught history at that university. It seemed that a woman who loved history had one outlet: teach the subject at the high school level. Fast forward some years, an emigration or two and a few adventures and I was working at the University of Tennessee as a staff archaeologist. I saw lots of women professors and graduate students. When my boss told me I needed an MA and history was close enough to archaeology to suffice, I walked across the parking lot to the History department. The first graduate class I signed up for was Colonial America. That was that.

JF: What is your next project?

NM: I want to write an economic history from the bottom up. That is, how did the seventeenth-century Atlantic World economy function, starting at the workplace of an indentured woman in the Chesapeake and moving up and out until we finish with the King, politicians and financiers in London. We would see how much work she does to earn enough to eat, how the tobacco she works on, or whatever she produces gets sold and resold, who enjoys the profit at what stage and so on.

JF: Thanks, Noeleen!

The Pilgrims and the 1625 London Plague

London Plague

Over at We’re History, early American historian Peter Wood writes about the London plague from the perspective of Plymouth Rock.  Here is a taste of his piece:

But in 1625, New England’s “hideous and desolate” isolation suddenly began to seem a God-given blessing in disguise. Captain Miles Standish had been sent back to England, aboard a ship laden with furs and fish, to negotiate with overbearing creditors for their “favour and help.” He went at “a very bad time,” Bradford related, for their home country was “full of trouble.” To his dismay, Standish found “the plague very hote in London, so no business could be done.”

Hot indeed. England’s plague had arrived, apparently from Holland, early in 1625, but it went undetected through most of March. George Wither, a poet who survived the epidemic, recalled how the stealthy sickness first approached London through the city’s “well-fill’d Suburbs” and spread there undetected for weeks…

By the end of 1625, the contagion had claimed nearly 70,000 lives across England. More than half the deaths had been in London. There, the disease had killed well over 35,000, in a city of fewer than 330,000 people. Many more may have been undiagnosed victims. One Londoner wrote that “to this present Plague of Pestilence, all former Plagues were but pettie ones.” Another lamented that no prior chronicle had “ever mentioned the like” for “our famous citie.”

As for Standish, he found the English adventurers who supported the Plymouth Colony were fearful in the midst of an economic collapse and a public health disaster. When the New Englander sought a loan, they could only offer him money at a whopping 50% interest rate.  As Bradford later summarized: “though their wills were good, yet theyr power was litle. And ther dyed such multitude weekly of the plague, as all trade was dead, and litle money stirring.”

In early April 1626, the Plymouth colonists welcomed Standish home safely, but his mission had been unsuccessful, and “the news he brought was sad in many regards.” Numerous English allies had been struck down financially and physically, “much disabled from doing any further help, and some dead of the plague.” Faced with such news and given “the state of things,” Bradford observed of his colonists, “it is a marvell it did not wholy discourage them and sinck them.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with John Turner

They Knew They Were PilgrimsJohn Turner is Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: A few years ago, I had finished writing the second of two books about the Latter-day Saints. I wanted to write about a new topic, but one that had some continuity of themes, namely religious persecution, exile, a quest for the true church. Obviously, the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and the founding of Plymouth Colony are well-worn subjects. But I discovered that most historians neglect the story of Plymouth after the first Thanksgiving, perhaps returning to the colony with the advent of King Philip’s War. I found that there was a great deal more to the story.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Americans inaccurately have praised the Mayflower passengers for planting the seeds of republicanism that bloomed at the time of the American Founding. I argue instead that we need to examine the debates about liberty–religious liberty, political liberty, and the enslavement–present in Plymouth Colony on their own, local, seventeenth-century terms.

JF: Why do we need to read They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: It’s not quite as essential as physical distancing during a pandemic, but… we think we know the story of Plymouth Colony. The Mayflower passengers are the most famous colonists in American history, their lives scrutinized by armies of genealogists. I did not realize how poorly I had understood them until I began the research for this book. I begin my book with Robert Cushman, who as of 1603 was an apprentice to a grocer in Canterbury. He was excommunicated for posting “libels” on church doors, dabbled with something akin to antinomianism in Canterbury, became a wool comber in Leiden, had a falling out with the other organizers of the colony, and preached a remarkable lay sermon during his very brief stay in Plymouth. If you think you know the Pilgrims, think again. I promise that what you’ll learn in this book will surprise you.

I also discovered that the seventy-year history of Plymouth Colony contains a host of remarkable episodes about a variety of peoples. If you read They Knew They Were Pilgrims, you’ll learn about an expanded cast of characters: an African American slave who became one of the first “English” casualties in King Philip’s War; the decades-long struggle of Quakers for religious liberty; a female sachem who held her community together for two decades amid war and dispossession. In addition to fresh material about seventeenth-century understandings of liberty, there are a lot of gritty human stories in this book.

JF: You have now written books with subjects based in the 20th century (Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ), 19th century (Brigham Young), and now the 17th century (Plymouth). What are the challenges of writing across such a wide historical spectrum?

JT: The foremost challenge is getting up to speed on the existing scholarship. Let’s face it – there’s a tremendous volume of books appearing on so many elements of American religious history. It’s a golden age for the field, from my vantage point. So many scholars are writing deeply researched and eloquently written books. It’s very hard to keep up! Just think about the deluge of titles published in the last decade on twentieth-century evangelicals or on the Latter-day Saints.

At the same time, though, I’ve found it very refreshing to immerse myself in new places and times. We require our students to study things with which they are unfamiliar, so it’s good for us to do so as well, at least from time to time. I also love meeting new people, both people from past centuries in archival sources and new scholars who work on various subjects.

My research strategy has always been to immerse myself as much as possible in a new subject and its sources. I really marvel at the many people in our field with the ability to trace a phenomenon or group across time and place. Many recent examples come to mind, such as Erik Seeman’s Speaking with the Dead in Early America, David Silverman’s This Land Is Their Land, or to mention some slightly older but even more expansive and synthetic books, Colleen McDannell’s Heaven or Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries.

JF: What is your next project?

JT: I’m writing a biography of Joseph Smith. It seems that despite my penchant and preference for new subjects, I can’t quite get away from early Mormonism.

JF: Thanks, John!

American Historical Association James Grossman on Research Access and Scholarly Equity

Here is Grossman at Perspectives on History:

Access to research materials—both print and digital—is crucial for any historian engaged in scholarship and teaching. For historians working outside of well-resourced colleges and universities, gaining access to these materials has become increasingly difficult, particularly with the increasing breadth and depth of commercial databases often accessible only to scholars affiliated with a well-resourced university.

This trend is an often-overlooked aspect of the changing landscape of historical research. More and more research material has been digitized by commercial database companies, who then control its dissemination. These firms rely on institution-to-institution contracts with large, well-funded university libraries. Historians working within these universities have full access, while those on the outside are excluded, placing them at a severe disadvantage in their ability to produce first-rate scholarship and excel as teachers. For a complex set of reasons, providers rarely offer individual subscriptions to scholarly databases. At the same time, contracts with vendors often make it difficult (or even impossible) for libraries to grant access to individuals outside these institutions. These structural barriers create difficult challenges for many historians.

And this:

The AHA encourages history departments to provide full library access to their own scholar alumni and to unaffiliated historians in their regions. History departments and academic units can play a positive role by supporting the scholarship of their alumni and by bringing more unaffiliated scholars into their orbit. Providing these historians a university affiliation—whether as a visiting scholar or by whatever means is feasible—will help close the gap between those with and without adequate research access. These actions will enable every historian to fully realize their potential as scholars and contributors to our discipline.

Read the entire piece here.

I can really relate to this post.  For the past two or three years, I have been trying to work with the Adam Matthew digitized CO5 files from the National Archives, UK.  This database offers access to thousands of documents on North America from 1606-1822.  I can’t afford to go to London to view these documents, so the database is my only option.  These documents are absolutely essential for my current book project.  At some point I am going to have to bite the bullet and go to London or find a research university who will let me use their collection on site or give me a password.

I realize that I have been blessed at Messiah College.  Early in my tenure, the college library purchased the Readex Early America Imprints I, Early American Imprints II (Shaw-Shoemaker), and Early American Newspapers.  This gives my students access to thousand and thousands of primary sources.  These databases have been amazing resources for my own work as well.  Messiah’s library staff has also managed to get trial access to the Adam Matthew CO5 files, but the trials are limited in time and scope and it is always hard to find time to do research during the academic year. The college cannot afford to purchase this database and Adam Matthew will not allow an individual subscription.

I also realize that I am privileged to have an academic job that gives me access to library resources.  I regularly use the databases, e-books, search engines, and interlibrary loan services that the Murray Library offers to the Messiah College community.  Grossman calls attention in the piece to adjunct and contingent faculty who lose access to these resources when they stop teaching or are not rehired.

I appreciate Grossman’s call for Research I History Departments to grant access to alumni.  Unfortunately, my Ph.D-granting institution doesn’t even own the databases I have noted in this post.

I’ll keep working on this one.  If anyone can help, please let me know: jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu.

The Author’s Corner with Owen Stanwood

The Global RefugeOwen Stanwood is Associate Professor of History at Boston College. This interview is based on his new book, The Global Refuge: Huguenots in an Age of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Global Refuge?

OS: My first book examined Anglo-American politics and religion during the late-1600s, and when I was conducting research I noticed that everyone was talking about Huguenots–the French Protestants who scattered around Europe in response to persecution by Louis XIV during the 1680s. Some of these refugees came to England and America, but beyond that, English people at all levels of society seemed obsessed with French persecution. This puzzled me because I knew that there were relatively few Huguenots in colonial America, and they had far less demographic staying power than other groups like Germans or Ulster Scots. I wanted to find out what made them so prominent, but I soon learned that to answer the question I would have to move beyond colonial America or even the British empire. So I expanded my gaze not just to Europe but to the global Huguenot diaspora, which included British America but extended to the Caribbean, South America, South Africa and the Indian Ocean. By taking a global approach I finally began to understand why (and how) the Huguenots played such a key role in imperial history.

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

OS: The Huguenots distinguished themselves in a world of empires by simultaneously promoting themselves as religious martyrs and potential producers. They played up their status as chosen people who had suffered under Catholic persecution — which appealed greatly to Protestant leaders — but they sealed the deal by discussing their skills and aptitudes in making things like silk and wine, which made them especially desirable settlers on imperial frontiers.

JF: Why do we need to read The Global Refuge?

OS: When I started writing this book almost a decade ago I had no idea how relevant it would be to our own political moment. Obviously refugees are in the news a lot now, and this book offers a great primer on an era when much of political discourse of refugees originated. (The word entered common English usage in the seventeenth century to describe the Huguenots.) In particular, it shows us that in previous eras, some leaders not only considered it a religious duty to help the Huguenots; they also believed that accepting these newcomers would be an economic windfall. As one political economist noted at the time, sometimes charity and self-interest can go together.

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

OS: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history. I grew up in a small town in Washington state that was especially proud of its past, and I worked as a teenager with local museums and preservation organizations. This interest in local history eventually transformed into curiosity about how North America developed over the longue durée. I love history because it simultaneously allows me to recover lost worlds while also understanding the real world that I live in a bit better.

JF: What is your next project?

OS: I am sticking with the Huguenots but moving back in time more than a century to the 1560s. A group of French Protestants attempted to establish a colony in Florida, which sputtered along for a few years before being wiped out by the Spanish. Despite its short duration I think it was quite important in establishing some of the patterns that would characterize the next few centuries of American colonialism. It also demonstrates how America was linked to the twin processes of Renaissance and Reformation that transformed sixteenth-century Europe.

JF: Thanks, Owen!

Governor Franklin Was Worried About His Stamps

WilliamFranklin2-570x381

William Franklin

Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765. This law was designed to raise revenue in the wake of the French and Indian War through the sale of stamps on paper products, including attorney licences, land grants, playing cards, newspapers, and pamphlets.  Prime Minister George Grenville appointed men to distribute the stamps shortly after Parliament passed the act.  The Stamp Act would go into effect on November 1, 1765.

Grenville appointed Philadelphia merchant William Coxe to distribute the stamps in New Jersey, but amid pressure from the New Jersey Sons of Liberty, including threats to Coxe’s life, he resigned his post on September 3, 1765, weeks before the stamps even arrived in the colony.

Last night I read New Jersey Governor William Franklin‘s September 14, 1765 letter to British general Thomas Gage concerning the Coxe’s resignation. Franklin writes from Burlington, New Jersey and Gage, the British commander-in-chief of North America, is in New York.  Here is the letter:

The Person appointed Distributor of Stamps for this Province having resigned his Office on Account, as he Says, of the Intimidations he had received that both his Person & Property would otherwise be endangered, & having likewise refused to take Charge of them on their Arrival here, it becomes my Duty to do all in my Power for the Preservation of what is of so great Importance to His Majesty’s Revenue.  I have summoned the Council to meet here [Burlington] on Tuesday the 24th Instant, to ask their Advice on the Occasion; and as I have Reason to think it will be their Opinion that the Stamps should be placed in the Barracks in this City, under a guard until His Majesty’s Pleasure should be known thereon; and as it may be dangerous to employ the Inhabitants in that Service, considering the risque there is of their being infected with the Madness which prevails among the People of the neighboring Provinces, I should be glad to be informed by you, Sir, Whether if I should find it necessary to call upon you for the Aid of the Military I may be assured of receiving it. I imagine that about 60 men, with officers, will be sufficient, as the Barracks may be easily made defensible….P.S. By What I can learn, the Stamps are not expected here till some Time next Month.”

And here is Gage’s September 16th response:

I have the Honor of your Letter of the 14th Instant, and take the earliest opportunity of informing you that you may depend upon the Aid of the Military that you demand & seem to think necessary for the Preservation of good Order in the Province of New Jersey.  The Troops are at present a good deal dispersed but I shall give Orders for their being immediately assembled, and One Hundred Men with proper Officers, Shall be ready to march at your Requisition. I beg leave to remark that the sooner you come to a final Resolution the more effectual Service the Troops are likely to be of.”

Both of these letters can be found in CO 5/987, The National [British] Archives, Adam Matthew Database.

The Author’s Corner with T.H. Breen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Prof. Breen!

An Introduction to the Winthrop Family Papers

MassHistorichq

Massachusetts Historical Society

Peter Olsen-Harbich, a Ph.D Candidate at William & Mary, reflects on his experience working with the Winthrop Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  Here is a taste:

Among the austere manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection resides an unassuming assemblage. Weighing in at precisely ten boxes, it bears a substantive though middling rank in the vast archival stock of America. An additional marker of ordinary quality concludes the title of the collection: “Transcripts.” These are thus ten boxes of derivative, copied papers—primary documents by proxy only. Yet a full examination of the collection title suggests a content that is anything but mundane, for these are the “Winthrop Family Papers [Transcripts],” also known as Ms. N-2211, a trove of transcribed, unpublished correspondence from the family whose various progeny presided at the very center of seventeenth-century New England’s political orbit.

Read the rest here.

Are you looking for some good books on the Winthrop family?  Here are a few titles:

Francis Bremer, John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father

Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop

Daniel T. Rodgers, As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon

Walter Woodward, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676.

Richard Dunn and Laetitia Yaendle, ed., The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649: Abridged Edition.

The Author’s Corner with D.L. Noorlander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Danny!

How Jamestown Embraced Slavery

Cultivation_of_tobacco_at_Jamestown_1615

At Zocalo, Dartmouth historian Paul Musselwhite explains how it all happened.  Here is a taste of “How Jamestown Abandoned a Utopian Vision and Embraced Slavery“:

In the summer of 1619, some of England’s first American colonists were carving up land seized from the Powhatan empire along the James River in Virginia. While the first settlers had arrived back in 1607, they had only recently discovered that they could turn a profit growing tobacco. Tobacco production had increased 20-fold over the past two years, and agricultural land was suddenly at a premium.

Yet the surveyors, instead of laying out private estates for upwardly mobile colonists, were mostly tracing the bounds of thousands of acres of common land. These vast tracts of public land were intended to accommodate hundreds of new colonists and their families, who would serve as tenants, raising crops and paying rents to support infrastructure while learning agricultural skills.

This symbiotic vision of common land and public institutions was one of the most dramatic innovations in the history of English colonialism to that point. But we have lost sight of that original vision and how it was undermined.

Read the rest here.