The Author’s Corner with Kirsten Fischer

Kirsten Fischer is Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota. This interview is based on her new book, American Freethinker: Elihu Palmer and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in the New Nation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write American Freethinker?

KF: Elihu Palmer was notorious in his own day, but after he died in 1806, he fell into relative obscurity. When I first encountered his book, Principles of Nature, I found it strange and confusing. Palmer kept talking about a unified material world infused with a divine life force, and he was sure these “principles of nature” mattered enormously for human happiness. Only when I read the works of the obscure authors he quoted at length, did I begin to understand that Palmer had been influenced by vitalist physiology coming out of medical circles in Europe, and also by Eastern religions as represented to him by a world-traveling Englishman. John “Walking” Stewart had traveled to India and Thailand, and he shared with Palmer the power of meditation to grasp the unified whole of the universe. Stewart persuaded Palmer that the smallest particles of matter are sensate, meaning they experience and retain sensations like pleasure and pain. These particles are constantly in motion, and as they jump from one thing to the next, they carry sensation with them. This idea changed everything, Palmer thought, because it meant that in the interconnected web of life, every individual action affects the whole. I found the idea fascinating, not least because it upends notions of who and what merits compassion and respect.

At first, I thought I could write only about Palmer’s ideas, not the man himself, because Palmer left very little in terms of a personal archive, really just a few letters. We did not even know the name of his hometown in Connecticut. Then it occurred to me to look in the archives of people who might have known him, ministers who opposed him, for example. Their letters led me to information about Palmer’s movements and his activities. I traveled to Connecticut and used lists of names engraved on headstones to search for Palmer families buried in small-town cemeteries. Once I found his family headstones in a tiny village, I could use local church and land records to fill in blanks about Palmer’s family and his upbringing. To my immense good fortune, I even found the manuscript diary kept by Palmer’s childhood minister. Putting together the many tiny pieces I found, I was able to write a new and accessible biography of this very colorful figure in the early Republic.

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

KF: American Freethinker recovers Palmer’s long-forgotten notion that everything in the universe is connected in a special way—through sensitive atoms in constant exchange—which means that everything ultimately partakes of the same, shared fate. The book shows that in sharing his religiously unorthodox ideas in the face of social pressure to desist, Palmer expanded in practice the freedom of speech that was aspirational but not yet guaranteed in the early American Republic.

JF: Why do we need to read American Freethinker?

KF: In writing the book, I came to understand that the new United States was born with divergent impulses. Religious pluralism flourished, but so too did anxiety about the public expression of that diversity. We see some of these tensions still today. The ability to accept, never mind welcome, religious diversity remains a challenge for many, even as the country is irrepressibly diverse. Americans continue to accuse one another of harboring religious beliefs incompatible with patriotism. Palmer’s life story shows how religious freethought developed in tandem with the efforts to contain it. The struggle persists, it waxes and wanes, and it might be with us for a long time.

The reader also learns, as I did, that the early United States was full of freethinkers. Palmer was in conversation with all kinds of people, and the book reveals new characters and unfamiliar religious contests. Religious freethought did not necessarily mean rejecting Christianity. Many people—including Palmer himself, initially—pursued freethought from within Christian frameworks. Palmer preached in Universalist churches until he was refused access to the pulpit. He did eventually break with Christianity, after he was slandered in the press for advertising a lecture against the divinity of Jesus.

Palmer reached for creative new answers to pressing questions: How to achieve social justice and equality without incurring violence? How to have a shared morality without relying on a shared religious foundation? And how to recognize the interdependence of all life on the planet Earth? These questions remain relevant today. In a world riven by inequality, political disagreement, racialized violence, and climate change, we need to find common ground amidst our differences. Palmer banked on a transformative psychology, one based on the recognition of a shared fate in an interconnected web of life. His answers may not be ours, but he was asking questions that still await creative solutions, and he did it with a passion and an optimism I find inspiring.

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

KF: After living in Germany as a teenager, I returned to my native United States in the 1980s, only to be shocked by the racial segregation I experienced in Boston, Massachusetts. Watching the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series in 1987, I decided to attend graduate school to study the Civil Rights Movement along with the tenacious racism that made courageous action so necessary. Pursuing the roots of racism led me to the eighteenth century and the development of racial thinking in a slave society. My first book, Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina, shows how intimate relationships among ordinary people—white, free black, and enslaved—and the laws that either outlawed or overlooked these relationships, codified the racial hierarchy and made race seem real. Over the course of my career, my research topics have changed, depending on which current social and political questions seem most compelling and in need of historicizing. Underlying all my work is a fascination with the experiences of otherwise unknown “ordinary” people who participated in struggles of historic importance—struggles that have remained unresolved into the present time.

JF: What is your next project?

KF: My next project is a hybrid of memoir and archivally researched family history. Titled “Unfamiliar Truths: A Bicultural Family Narrates its Twentieth-Century German Past,” the book explores the four generations of my father’s German family that experienced displacement through two world wars, the country’s political division, and voluntary migration. I want to know what they experienced, and how their stories have shaped my own understanding of home and belonging.

JF: Thanks, Kirsten!

The Beechers

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Walter Woodward, the Connecticut State Historian, discusses the most accomplished family in Connecticut history.  A taste:

The son of a New Haven blacksmith, Lyman Beecher (1775 – 1863) became one of America’s most influential Second Great Awakening ministers while fathering 13 children who helped profoundly transform 19th-century America’s views on slavery, education, women’s rights, and religion. Beecher himself was a complex figure: though virulent in his anti-Catholicism, he was co-founder of the American Temperance Society and an outspoken anti-slavery voice who modeled the concept of passionate advocacy for his children, many of whom followed in his footsteps.

All seven of Lyman Beecher’s sons who survived to adulthood became ministers and anti-slavery advocates. Edward (1803 – 1895) organized the first anti-slavery society in Illinois. Charles (1815 – 1900) moved to Florida at war’s end to minister to newly freed slaves.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Strother Roberts

StrotherStrother Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. This interview is based on his book Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)

JF: What led you to write Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: As an undergrad I double-majored in economics along with history. The melding of these two disciplines has influenced my research over the years and, in particular, helped spark my interest in environmental history as a sub-field. Economics, at its heart, considers how societies allocate scarce resources. Environmental history similarly studies how past human societies have grappled with the challenges of scarce natural resources, but within the social, cultural, and historical context that is all too often absent from purely economic models. Economics also has a very explicit focus on the power of trade. A number of excellent scholars before me have written about the environmental history of New England, but I often found their work too insular. In the United States today we are used to thinking of ourselves as living in a globalized world. We are less likely to appreciate the fact that the indigenous and European inhabitants of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America were also experiencing the influences of relatively rapid globalization. I wrote Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy to tie the ecological changes that settler societies introduced into New England to the transatlantic commercial and political forces that drove them.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: Colonial New England was an integral part of England/Britain’s imperial commercial empire and everyone from imperial planners to its earliest settlers fully expected colonization to contribute exports to the imperial economy and the larger Atlantic World of which it was a part. Colonists and indigenous communities responded to the incentives offered by transatlantic markets to selectively extract resources from the region’s environment and in the process transformed New England’s physical and political landscape to the point that, by 1790, both would have been unrecognizable to an observer living two centuries earlier.

JF: Why do we need to read Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: The book takes a number of disparate threads from the contemporary historiography of early America and weaves them together into a coherent pattern – while also introducing significant new insights along the way. As I mentioned in my response to your first question, other scholars have done excellent research on the environmental history of New England, but the most influential studies are from the 1980s (and are becoming a bit dated) while even more recent works have tended to be rather insular in their focus. By contrast, most of the rest of the field of early American history stresses the interconnectedness of “the Atlantic World” or self-consciously situates the individual colonies or regions within a #VastEarlyAmerica. One manifestation of this trend has been the proliferation of so-called commodity histories, histories that trace the life of individual commodities from their site of production – usually in the colonies of America – through their processing and marketing, and eventually into the hands of their final owners – usually in Europe or colonial urban centers. Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy combines this new interest in commodity exchange networks and weds it to older discussions of environmental change, to show how the colonial ecology of New England was inextricably tied to the broader transatlantic economy beyond its shores.

The book also cuts through the decades-old argument over whether New England’s economic development was driven by domestic production and demand or by trade with Europe and other colonial regions. A similar argument over whether the consumer revolution and industrial revolution were the result of domestic economic forces or whether they were driven by overseas colonialism has long plagued British history. The best histories, in my opinion, recognize that these are false dichotomies. For instance, the New England farmer who felled an oak to make barrel staves and then sold them to a local merchant likely did not know or care whether those staves were ultimately fated to hold locally-milled flour that would never leave his township, or whether they would be traded to the West Indies to hold slave-grown sugar on a sea-voyage to London. Settlers, from the very first colonists up to the citizens of the early Republic, fully expected to participate in an interconnected system of local, regional, and transatlantic markets. The indigenous inhabitants of New England, too, contributed commodities to these markets, either as the eager consumers of novel European goods and weapons or, increasingly in later decades, as a result of the violent and/or legal coercion exercised by the region’s increasingly hegemonic Anglo-American society. Much of this participation in colonial and Atlantic markets, at whatever level, necessarily rested on the extraction of resources from the regional environment, and each act of extraction had a physical impact on that environment.

Previous environmental histories of New England have failed to appreciate just how profound these physical changes were, or how early they began. In fact, I even surprised myself with some of what I discovered. Take the fur trade, for instance. Gripped by the “Little Ice Age” and facing the depletion of furbearer populations in Europe and eastern Asia, European consumers purchased a tremendous number of furs – most notably beaver pelts – from North America over the course of the early modern period. Native American hunters in New England gladly embraced the trade as a source of European tools, weapons, and cloth, sacrificing tens-of-thousands of beaver for use in European cold-weather fashion. The result was the extirpation of beaver from much of New England by the 1670s and the drainage of hundreds-of-thousands of ponds and wetlands – formerly maintained by beaver dams – by the turn of the seventeenth century. While other scholars have argued that significant ecological change did not come to New England until the supposed advent of commercial farming at the turn of the nineteenth century, my work shows that New Englanders were always commercially-oriented and that profound change began much earlier. In fact, my work on the fur trade suggests large swathes of the New England landscape had been profoundly altered by transatlantic trade before any European ever laid eyes on  its “natural” (or, at least, pre-European encounter) state.

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

SR: That depends on what you mean by “American” historian – my Master’s thesis and my early work in my PhD program focused on First Nations history in Canada. But as I began to consider possible dissertation topics, my PhD advisor pragmatically suggested that a more southerly focus would serve me better with publishers and on the U.S. job market. Since I was most interested in the processes of North American history – the meeting and clashing of indigenous and settler societies and the subsequent formation of new systems and economies that came out of those transatlantic encounters – I shifted my attention to the source-rich and historiographically-storied archives of New England. Both Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Ecology and my next project are defined, at least partially, by the geography of New England (and specifically by the Connecticut River Valley in the case of Colonial Ecology). At the same time, though, I have never wanted to be limited by this geography, which is why the book focuses so much attention on how connections to different parts of North America (and Europe) influenced New England’s environmental history.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: My next book project is an environmental and social history of dogs in the indigenous and Euro-American societies of early New England and New France – which means I get a chance to return to Canadian history. The Cliff’s Notes version so far  is that dogs were essential to indigenous economies as hunting partners and sources of meat, that English settlers intentionally persecuted indigenous dogs as a way to weaken Native American societies to the degree that they were extirpated and replaced by dogs of European descent, that European settlers also relied on dogs for economic purposes and as weapons of war, and that the ecological success of introduced dogs eventually led Euro-American societies to implement policies to control their populations. Today, dogs are the most populous large, non-human, omnivorous predator in the world. Now, that last sentence contains a lot of qualifiers, but it essentially means that once you start looking at things bigger that bugs, rats, and chickens – it’s just dogs and us as the most numerous meat-eaters out there. This was certainly true of the indigenous dogs that inhabited the northeast prior to 1600.  A conservative estimate would suggest that the region was home to at least twice as many dogs as it was wild wolves, while some sources suggest that this ratio would have been far higher. Early English records suggest that introduced colonial dogs were just as numerous as their indigenous cousins were. And yet, I can’t think of a single environmental history that seriously considers the effect that dogs had on the natural environment prior to the nineteenth century. And even those tend to focus on urban environments. Dogs were humanity’s first domesticated partners and the only form of livestock kept by New England’s Indians. They played important roles in the economies and societies on both sides of the European conquest of New England, and, in an important cultural sense, helped define how all of the cultures involved understood what it meant to be human. It is, in my opinion, high time that someone wrote a dogs’ history of early America.

JF: Thanks Strother!

The Author’s Corner with Virginia DeJohn Anderson

VDA Book CoverVirginia DeJohn Anderson is a Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This interview is based on her new book, The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write   The Martyr and the Traitor? 

VDA: I first encountered the story of Moses Dunbar years ago when I wrote an undergraduate paper about loyalists in Connecticut during the Revolution.  I was intrigued by the fact that he was the only loyalist convicted of treason by a Connecticut civil court and hanged. Dunbar was mentioned in passing in a number of secondary sources, but there were few details about his unusual case.  This left me with several unanswered questions.  Who was Moses Dunbar and what led him to remain loyal to Britain?  Did it have anything to do with his decision to leave the Congregational Church and become an Anglican?  What were the circumstances leading to his arrest and trial? Why was he the only one executed for treason?   

I put the project aside for quite a long time while I finished graduate school and wrote two books about seventeenth-century colonial America.  In coming back to it, I realized that there wasn’t enough material on Dunbar alone to warrant a book, but if I combined his story with that of Nathan Hale, the famous patriot hanged by the British as a captured spy, I could construct a richer narrative about how colonists chose sides in the Revolution and address questions about why we remember some historical figures and forget others.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Martyr and the Traitor

VDA: The book argues that neither patriots nor loyalists were destined to choose the sides they did in the Revolution, but rather reached those decisions as much in response to highly localized experiences as to the larger issues raised by the imperial crisis with Britain.  The stories of Hale and Dunbar reveal that no side in the Revolution held a monopoly on principle, and remembering only the “winners” of the War for Independence distorts our understanding of the event and its impact on ordinary lives.

JF: Why do we need to read The Martyr and the Traitor? 

VDA: The vast majority of biographical studies of Revolutionary figures focus on the Founding Fathers.  Many of these works are valuable, but they nevertheless tend to satisfy a popular desire for a “heroic” version of history instead of challenging Americans’ understanding of their past.  By offering equally sympathetic portraits of a patriot and a loyalist, who both started out as ordinary Connecticut farm boys, my book invites readers to imagine a far more complicated story.  It shows how the choice of allegiance in the contest with Britain was embedded in the context of everyday life, as pre-existing social relationships based on family, friendship, and community became politicized.  The book emphasizes historical contingency, noting that Hale and Dunbar both died when there was every indication that Britain would win the war.  Had that happened, we might remember Dunbar as the martyr and Hale as the traitor. 

The intense polarization that characterizes our contemporary political scene had its counterpart in the Revolutionary era, particularly when the outbreak of war in 1775 eliminated the possibility of anyone taking a neutral position.  For many Americans, Nathan Hale represents the epitome of a Revolutionary patriot, but as Moses Dunbar discovered, many of the self-styled patriots in his own community tried to beat those who disagreed with them into submission—not the kind of behavior typically attributed to the Revolution’s advocates.  Even in a relatively homogeneous place like Connecticut, the Revolution was a civil as well as imperial conflict, and the rifts it opened up would take time to heal. 

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

VDA: I grew up in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a town founded in 1634.  When I was about twelve years old, I became fascinated by the colonial-era houses in town and wondered who had originally lived in them and what those residents’ lives had been like.  At the University of Connecticut, my undergraduate institution, I was fortunate to learn from a number of wonderful historians—Richard Brown, Harry Marks, William Hoglund, Emiliana Noether, among others—who helped to transform my rather naïve interest in the past into a more sophisticated understanding.  In the years since then, I have focused my research on ordinary individuals caught up in extraordinary events—in my first two books, the establishment of English colonies in America, and now the Revolution.  I hope this doesn’t sound too pompous, but I’ve grown to believe that as a scholar I have a duty to bear witness on behalf of people in the past who might otherwise remain silent and invisible. 

JF: What is your next project?

VDA: I’m not quite sure yet, but since I began The Martyr and the Traitor I have grown more interested in the possibility of a movie based on Moses Dunbar’s story. There are very few good films about the Revolution, so I may next try my hand at a screenplay.   

JF: Thanks, Virginia!

Memo to Spielberg: Connecticut DID Back the Thirteenth Amendment

Rep. Joe Courtney was a history major at Tufts University.  Perhaps this is why he noticed a blatant historical inaccuracy in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film Lincoln.

The movie includes a scene in which two Connecticut congressmen vote against the 13th amendment.  Courtney caught the error.  In fact, all of the members of the Connecticut congressional delegation–four in all–voted in favor of the amendment that outlawed slavery in the United States.

Here is a taste of the Associated Press article:

“How could congressmen from Connecticut – a state that supported President Lincoln and lost thousands of her sons fighting against slavery on the Union side of the Civil War – have been on the wrong side of history?” he said in his letter.


Courtney praised the film’s acting and cinematography but said artistic license does not permit it to inaccurately put Connecticut on the wrong side of history, particularly on an issue as powerful as slavery. In a letter to Spielberg, the four-term Democratic congressman includes a tally of the 1865 vote by the state’s congressional delegation and a passionate defense of the state’s role in emancipating millions of blacks.
Courtney, who majored in history at Tufts University, asked that the movie, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, be corrected before its release on DVD.