Description of Past Solar Eclipses


From the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society:

Charles Francis Adams wrote about the eclipse he witnessed in Boston on 12 February 1831.

But as there must always be something or other to distract my attention, so today it was taken off by the eclipse of the Sun which took place about noon.  I spent some time in observing this phenomenon. The Sun was not entirely darkened as the eclipse was not total, consequently the light was but partially affected. The cold however was considerable, and the temperature did not recover it throughout the day. The sight is a splendid one…. Every body was looking and little was done. The appearance of the Streets was certainly curious. Men, Women and Boys all gazing at a spectacle the nature of which there were not many to comprehend.

The eclipse of 5 August 1766 is described in a newspaper.  A Boston newspaper published on 11 August 1766 includes a short piece about the eclipse. As was common at the time, newspapers would republish news from other locations, and the heading on the piece about the eclipse is: “Portsmouth. August, 8.”

Last Tuesday being fair Weather and very Hot we had a distinct View of the remarkable ECLIPSE of the SUN–At the Time of greatest Observation, it appeared larger than is represented in the Almanack–the Air was considerably darkned, so that some who did not know of the Eclipse, were surprised.

Read more descriptions here.

Should Philip Vickers Fithian Make His Debut in a Young Adult Nonfiction Book?

62a78-fithian2bbookI am always amazed when I talk to people who develop strong emotional connections to the characters in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I did not expect the book to be a tearjerker. The title is long and technical.  It is published by a university press.  Most bookstores do not carry it.  When my first royalty check arrived, I spent it all on Christmas presents. When the second royalty check arrived, I spent it all on a nice dinner for my family.  Today I can still splurge for dinner with the annual check, assuming that the meal is eaten at Arby’s.

But since the book first appeared in 2008, a few dozen people have told me that they cried at the end.  This week at the Princeton Seminar, five teachers mentioned that the final chapter brought them to tears.

Philip Vickers Fithian’s story does have an emotional ending, but I am still surprised that a book about the Enlightenment in America resonates with readers in this way.

Last week several K-8 history teachers (and at least one school librarian) attending the Princeton Seminar strongly encouraged me to write a biography of Philip for the young adult nonfiction market.  I am taking their advice seriously.  I don’t know very much about this market, but I want to learn more.  After listening to these teachers, and thinking about this a bit more myself, I think that teenagers might find Philip’s story interesting for what it teaches us about everyday life in colonial America, the early years of the American Revolution, love and courtship, education, self-improvement, and life on the frontier.

Stay tuned.  And if you have any advice I would love to hear it.

On the Mission of Colonial Williamsburg


The Editorial Board of The Virginian-Pilot has something to say about this:

A taste:

If that core mission is some variation on being a “tourist attraction,” an entity that helps support the local Williamsburg economy, that touts “a preserved Colonial neighborhood with musket echoes, horse carriage rides and actors playing the roles of early settlers,” as recounted in The Pilot last week, then it probably will slowly die.

And should. This was never the idea.

It only became the idea, in part, when so many people began showing up in the post-World War II era. That’s when much of the commercial growth occurred in areas surrounding Williamsburg. That’s when the collective mentality began to shift toward making money.


Now that the crowds have thinned and appear unlikely to return in grand numbers, this may be an opportunity to restore the purposes of the restoration, which was, in the words of John D. Rockefeller, Colonial Williamsburg’s great benefactor, so that “the future may learn from the past.”

What does that mean?

It means a style and approach to public and civic education unique to Colonial Williamsburg, that involves — first and foremost — seriousness of intent and technique.

It means providing a safe haven for scholars and professionals, ensuring that the passing whims of the foundation’s leadership do not come at the expense of the people who have given their careers to the study of early American Colonial life, meaning the ones who do the research, the writing and the instruction that effectively sets the foundation apart from some half-baked tourist draw.

It means less fixation on the needs of the local Williamsburg economy and vastly more on the civic needs of America and the extension of democratic ideals throughout the world.

It means that nothing — virtually nothing — occurs within the historic area of Williamsburg that has the effect of trivializing or diminishing the values that long distinguished the foundation’s work.

It means making Colonial Williamsburg “important” once again, by drawing to its historic venues authors and public figures who reflect the same civic excellence and commitment of those who first inhabited Williamsburg, brought it international fame and locked it into history.

Does that mean engaging and illuminating the American Revolution as both an historic and political event? You bet.

Read the rest here.  Sounds good to me.

Early American Religion at the Smithsonian

Aerial_view_of_National_Museum_of_American_History (1)

Are you looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not head to Washington D.C. to see the new “Religion in Early America” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History?  The exhibit, which is curated by historian Peter Manseau, is part of a larger exhibit on American identity titled “The Nation We Build Together.” It opened this week.

Over at Religion News Service, Adelle Banks reports on the new exhibit:

Enter the “Religion in Early America” exhibit and there are objects you expect to find: Bibles, a hymnal and christening items.

But on closer inspection, a broader picture of faith in the Colonial era emerges: a Bible translated into the language of the Wampanoag people, the Torah scroll of the first synagogue in North America and a text written by a slave who wanted to pass on the essentials of his Muslim heritage.

“Religion in early America was not just Puritans and the Pilgrims, and then the Anglicans and the negotiation of Christian diversity,” said Peter Manseau, curator of the exhibit that opens Wednesday (June 28) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“It was a much bigger picture. It was a story of many different communities with conflicting, competing beliefs, coexisting over time with greater and lesser degrees of engagement with each other.”

Read the rest here.

Paul Revere’s Church Bell

Revere Bell

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

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

Here is a taste:

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

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

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

Read the entire post here.


Who Cares About the Weather?

eacac-fithian2bbookYesterday I read Sarah Grossman‘s interesting post at Process blog about the Smithsonian Meteorological Project (1849-1870).  According to Grossman, the project “was the first weather data collection effort in the United States that brought together a national coalition of volunteer observers based around the pursuit of citizen science.”

Learn more here.

Grossman’s piece reminded me of what I said about the weather in my first book.  While I was working on The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I had to make a decision about what to do with the many, many references to the weather in Fithian’s diaries.  Anyone who reads early American diaries knows that it was a common practice to say something about the weather at the beginning of each entry.   Sometimes a reference to the weather (“clear” or “cold”) is the only thing mentioned in a given diary entry.

One option was to just ignore these references and treat them as unimportant trivia.  But the more I read the diary the more I became convinced that I could not do this.  Fithian’s references to the weather told me something about his world and the way understood his place within it.

This is what eventually made it into the book:

As Philip moved through the agricultural seasons his thoughts were often preoccupied with the weather.  This was yet another sign of his intimate knowledge of the Cohansey landscape he called home.  It is common for people to begin their farm diaries with references to current weather conditions.  It is even more common for historians who study diaries to ignore these references, skimming over such apparently unimportant jottings on their way to the “real lives” of their subjects.  This is unfortunate for it misses a vital dimension of what actually defined “real life” in places such as eighteenth-century Cohansey.  Philip obsessed about the weather.  He did not start his journal entries with notes on the weather because such remarks represented proper form or provided an adequate preamble to the day’s more important events.  Philip wrote about the weather because his family and neighbors were at its mercy: “We know not what a Day may bring forth.”  The weather, more than anything else, provides our best insight into the limits of an eighteenth-century agricultural life.  No degree of human initiative could tame it.  Few technological improvements could ease the anxiety that it brought to farmers.

When winter refused to yield to spring, the cold weather could lay waste to the Fithian’s orchard.  Philip described consecutive days of frost in late April 1766 and thought they would certainly “kill all our peaches.”  The summer’s tempests “of rain, wind and thunder,” arriving to Cohansey from the southwest, wreaked havoc on the Fithian’s fields, “blowing down the Flax, Wheat, & Corn very much.”  At other times the rain inundated the fields to such an extent that Philip was able to “track an Ox or a Cow” across them.  Cohansey farmers never watched the weather more closely than during the harvest season.  Philip often devoted an entire journal entry to an hour-by-hour chronicling of a particular day’s weather patterns: ‘cloudy this morning”; about nine or ten o’clock it broke away so that the sun shone”; about noon it rained again in showers”; at 3’oclock there came a thunder gust from the west, and rained excessively hard”; a while in the evening it cleared very pleasant.”  The unpredictable weather during the 1766 harvest season brought great anxiety to Cohansey farmers.  When the rains came as consistently as they did during this particular summer, the Fithians were given only a small window of time to harvest their crops.  Philip had never seen Cohansey farmers so apprehensive.  “From this time to next Wednesday,” he wrote, “will be the most hurrying and engaging time for harvest Men that perhaps ever was known; on account of the later rains.”

While these concerns were certainly real, they were made less frightening by the power of the Presbyterian God.  During times like the summer of 1766, Philip placed his hope for a successful harvest in the hands of a God who knew what was best for the farmers of Cohansey and worked all things together for the good of those who loved Him.  During times of uncertainty Philip did not turn to superstitions or the wisdom of man-made almanacs but instead did his best to rest in God’s care for his family.  In 1766 the God who controlled the weather looked favorably on the people of Cohansey.  “When the descending rains seemed to threaten us with entire desolation,” Philip reflected, “God is pleased to withhold the Showers.”  Though God could have chosen not to save the Cohansey harvest, this time around He elected to answer the prayers of His people.  The only response was thankfulness, a virtue that was not lost on any of God’s creation in Cohansey.  Even the “beasts & birds,” Philip proclaimed with appreciation, “express a sense of their joy and gratitude, for the plentiful provision, by their chearfulness and merryment.”

At other times, however, unfavorable weather patterns could be interpreted as signs of God’s judgment.  In the summer of 1769 Coahsney suffered through a particularly difficult drought…

If you have read this far, you can find out what happened on p.31. 🙂

History is Relevant



As I was preparing for class today I was hit once again with the relevance of the past.

Today in my U.S. History to 1865 survey course I will be lecturing on Bacon’s Rebellion.  In a timely e-mail, my friend Ben Wetzel of Notre Dame reminded me just what Bacon’s Rebellion was all about.  I have been teaching the rebellion for years, but Ben’s e-mail infused my preparation with even more relevance than usual.

Bacon’s Rebellion is the story of a rich, landed white guy named Nathaniel Bacon who gathered a group of disgruntled, poor, white frontier settlers to rebel against Virginia’s colonial government. His rebels burned the Virginia colonial capitol of Jamestown on September 19, 1676.  Bacon’s troops did not appreciate the fact that the colonial government was not protecting them against Indian raids on the Virginia frontier.  They opposed what they believed to be unfair taxes. They were sick and tired of living under a colonial government controlled by a few elites.  (There were a lot of swamps in colonial Virginia, but I am not sure if Bacon wanted to “drain” them).   I should also add that their hatred of Indians was heavily motivated by race.

Later in the day, in my Pennsylvania History course, I will be teaching about William Penn and religious freedom.  Pennsylvania was the second British-American colony (behind Rhode Island) to offer religious freedom to its inhabitants.  Eighteenth-century religious freedom often had its limits, but in Penn’s era it was a radical concept.

I don’t preach politics in my history classes, although I will bring up the subject if something a politician says or does provides an illustration of good or bad historical thinking.  Tomorrow I probably won’t mention Donald Trump, the 21st-century white working class, our present-day race problems, or the vetting of Muslim refugees. But one cannot ignore the fact that history can offer perspective on contemporary events.

It’s always a great time to study history!

A Guide to the Bible in Early America?


Over at The Junto, Joseph Adelman calls for the creation of a “Guide to the Bible in Early America.”

With the flourishing of digital projects, at this point I could foresee something online. The problem I want to solve is to understand particular passages in historical context, so I want to be able to look up a passage from the Bible that was used frequently by a group in early America and find an explanation of the Biblical passage as generally understood, some notion of how the group or groups read this passage, how understandings of the passage changed across time and space within early America, and possibly links to other resources. It wouldn’t have to cover the entirety of both the Old and New Testaments, but instead could focus on the most frequently used books, chapters, and verses.

Let me sketch out a quick example with a verse that I used in a lecture last week on the Puritans as an introduction to Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. When Puritans came to Massachusetts, they thought they were founding a new holy city in accordance with Revelation 21:10:[1]

10 And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and an high mountain, and he showed me that great city, that holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,

With a passage like this, I would want to know something about the consensus exegesis (am I allowed to do that to the English language?) of Revelation 21—a little primer on the chapter within the context of the entirety of the book for those of use not familiar with it. I would want to know a little something about John Winthrop and his “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon he delivered aboard the Arabella, and perhaps other examples of Puritan figures using the verse in order to support their arguments about the settlement of Massachusetts. Were there other groups in early America that drew inspiration from the same verse? I don’t know that well, but somebody does, and it would be interesting to be able to access that. And in this particular case, there could be an extension to discuss the resonances of the idea of a “city on a hill” in modern American politics.

What a great idea!  This sounds a lot like a cross between a Bible Encyclopedia and an Oxford English Dictionary for Bible verses instead of individual words.

And then Adelman delivers the part of the post that hit me right between the eyes:

In my mind’s eye, this kind of project would build on something like Lincoln Mullen’s fantastic America’s Public Bible project, which tracks the use of Biblical quotations in American newspapers. What I’m looking for would be a bit more interpretive, and take advantage of the expertise of a range of scholars. (Usually when I imagine it, John Fea plays a role overseeing the project. John, you’re not busy, right?) In fairness, it’s a massive undertaking, and might not even be feasible. But the Puritans didn’t get across the Atlantic by thinking small.

If someone would provide me with a multi-million dollar grant and a team of researchers I would happily consider “overseeing the project.”  🙂


More New Books on Early Canadian History

LittleBack in May we reported on Keith Gtant’s Borealia post on new books in early Canadian history.  Today we report on Part 2 of his roundup.

Here is a taste:

Welcome to Part 2 of Borealia’s 2016 roundup of forthcoming books on early Canadian history. (You can find Part 1 here.) The list is drawn from publishers’ catalogues and websites, including books scheduled for release in 2016. I have included a few recently-released titles that escaped my attention in January.

What kinds of books made it into this preview? Works of historical scholarship on any region of what eventually became Canada, to about 1870. I have included books that place “Canada” in transnational studies, and books whose chronological coverage extends beyond 1870, as long as there is substantial discussion of the early period. Naturally, this is all quite subjective, and my survey has likely overlooked a few titles. So please use the comments below or the contact form to suggest additional titles. 

A lot of good stuff here.

New Books in Early Canadian History

People and the BayI am a sucker for online roundups of new books. Over at Borealia blog, Keith Grant, the blog co-proprietor and a SSHRC Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholar, introduces us to some new books on early Canadian history.

Here is a taste:

Welcome to the first Borealia roundup of forthcoming books on early Canadian history. The list includes books scheduled for release in 2016, with information compiled from publishers’ catalogues and websites. I plan to post Part 2 later in the year to highlight Fall titles.

What kinds of books made it into this preview? Works of historical scholarship on any region of what eventually became Canada, to about 1870. I have included books that place “Canada” in transnational studies, and books whose chronological coverage extends beyond 1870, as long as there is substantial discussion of the early period. Naturally, this is all quite subjective, and my survey has likely overlooked a few titles. So please use the comments or the contact form below to suggest additional titles.

The books are listed by month of scheduled release. Descriptions have been supplied by the publishers, unless otherwise noted….

The People and the Bay: A Social and Environmental History of Hamilton Harbour, by Nancy B. Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank (UBC Press, January 2016).

“In 1865, John Smoke braved the ice on Burlington Bay to go spearfishing. Soon after, he was arrested by a fishery inspector and then convicted by a magistrate who chastised him for thinking that he was at liberty to do as he pleased “with Her Majesty’s property.” With this story, Nancy Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank launch their history of the relationship between the people of Hamilton, Ontario, and Hamilton Harbour (a.k.a. Burlington Bay). From the time of European settlement through to the city’s rise as an industrial power, townsfolk struggled with nature, and with one another, to champion their particular vision of “the bay” as a place to live, work, and play. As Smoke discovered, the outcomes of those struggles reflected the changing nature of power in an industrial city. From efforts to conserve the fishery in the 1860s to current attempts to revitalize a seriously polluted harbour, each generation has tried to create what it believed would be a livable and prosperous city.”

Fragile Settlements: Aboriginal Peoples, Law, and Resistance in South-West Australia and Prairie Canada, by Amanda Nettelbeck, Russell Smandych, Louis A. Knafla, Robert Foster (UBC Press, February 2016).

“Fragile Settlements compares the processes through which British colonial authority was asserted over Indigenous peoples in south-west Australia and prairie Canada from the 1830s to the early twentieth century. At the start of this period, as a humanitarian response to settlers’ increased demand for land, Britain’s Colonial Office moved to protect Indigenous peoples by making them subjects under British law. This book highlights the parallels and divergences between these connected British frontiers by examining how colonial actors and institutions interpreted and applied the principle of law in their interaction with Indigenous peoples “on the ground.””

Read the entire list here. And stay tuned to Borealia for Part 2.

Scale and Religious Geography in Early America

ChurchI only made it to one session today at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  I spent the morning in the book exhibit and then attended a meeting of the OAH Committee on Communication and Marketing.

In the afternoon I was torn between a session on podcasting and a session titled “Scale and Religious Geography in Early America.”  In the end I decided that I had attended to too many podcasting sessions in the last couple of years.  I opted for the religious geography session and got to hear some excellent papers by three young[er] historians of early American religion: Shelby Balik, Christopher Jones, and Kyle Bulthuis. (Heather Miyano Kopelson commented and Aaron Fogelman chaired the session).

It looks like I was the only one in the room who was live-tweeting the session.  The OAH has storified the tweets.  You can see my thoughts there.

Will You Pay $14.92 a Year to Read an Internet Rag Like the Junto Blog?

j-moneyHere you go:

After nearly three-and-a-half years, we are preparing to move on to the next level. Beginning Monday, April 4th, The Junto is moving to a paywall system. (That the results for the Final Four #JuntoMM2016 are to be released on Monday is only a coincidence, I assure you.) Over the past few years, our annual operating expenses have come to run into the tens of dollars. Also, our MOOC, JuntoX, never really took off like we’d hoped (or at all). And, with early America getting vaster every day, it is taking an increasing amount of free labor to cover. Also, we’d be lying if we said all the Hamilton talk over the past year hasn’t been bringing out our inner capitalists a little bit.

Therefore, you can get your shiny new Junto subscription for the low, low price of anywhere between $14.92 and $18.12 per year (your choice). Think about it: that’s a maximum of $1.51 per month, or $0.35 per week, or $0.05 per day. So, for the price of one piece of Bazooka Joe (in 1989), you’ll continue to get all the same content you used to get for free. That’s basically a steal!

More details will follow on Monday morning including the P.O. Box address where you can send your check or money order (NB: the e-commerce is going to take another week or so to get up-and-running).

Look, I love early America.  And the Junto writers post some great stuff.   But those folks are not getting a cent of my money!  Especially Hattem, Adelman, Owen, Jones, and Park.

Not a cent I tell you!!!!!

Mark Noll Visits “Ben Franklin’s World”

Noll BibleLiz Covart, the host of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast, talks with Notre Dame University historian Mark Noll about his most recent book  In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life,  1492-1783.

Here is a taste of what you will discover in this episode:

  • The role the Bible played in the lives of American colonists
  • How Americans in different regions interpreted and used the Bible
  • The bibles European immigrants brought to and used in North America
  • Details about the Geneva Bible
  • The separation of church and state and why it happened in the United States
  • Religious pluralism of the thirteen British American colonies
  • How colonists adapted biblical scripture to fit their North American environment
  • The role the Bible played in the public lives of Puritans and Pilgrims
  • How American Protestants’ reliance on the Bible affected American literacy rates
  • How historians measure literacy rates in early America
  • Protestant groups that settled in North America
  • How religious pluralism affected how colonial Americans interpreted scripture
  • The First Great Awakening
  • Participation in the Great Awakening by African Americans and Native Americans
  • African American interpretations of scripture
  • Women and scripture
  • How early American men incorporated the Bible and scripture into their lives
  • How the Bible fit within Americans’ conceptions of the British Empire
  • The American bishop controversy

The Author’s Corner with Alejandra Dubcovsky

Informed PowerAlejandra Dubcovsky is Assistant Professor of History at Yale University. This interview is based on her new book, Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Informed Power?

AD: I was writing a graduate student paper on the Stono Rebellion, the largest slave rebellion in colonial North America. I kept thinking: “how do the slaves in South Carolina know that if they reach Spanish Florida they will be freed?” Answering that seemingly straightforward question evolved into a dissertation and then into a book-length project that explored what information moved in the colonial world, who was responsible for spreading news, and how those processes unfolded. As I mapped the intricate and intersecting channels of information exchange, I realized that most of the nodes in these networks were made and maintained by native peoples. Furthermore, the ties that bound these networks together depended on non-epistolary and unofficial forms of communication. I had uncovered communication networks neither centered on European hubs nor dependent on written modes of communication. These multiethnic and multilingual channels of communication (and the relations they afforded) were actually instrumental for disseminating news and ideas in the American South, a region that lacked a regular mail system and operated until the 1730s without a printing press.

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

AD: Informed Power argues that communication networks were crucial to the creation, development, and growth of colonial spaces and the conflicts that emerged within them. Indian, European, and African modes of communication, which are quite often unobserved and unremarked upon, help uncover everyday articulations of power that gave shape to the early South.

JF: Why do we need to read Informed Power?

AD: The study of communication networks provides a new approach to early American history. It shows the links among peoples who shared no consensus of the physical or political boundaries of their worlds without losing sight of the differences and inequalities among them. Examined alongside each other, Indian, European, and African networks generate a story about communication in which the main takeaway is neither the lack of information that plagued the colonial world nor the technological advances that, as time went on, supposedly facilitated the circulation of news. These communication networks show the uneven, varied, and interconnected relations that not only bound the early South but also informed power.

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

AD: I was a freshman at UC Berkeley and Robin Einhorn was my first professor; she taught history with such passion, power, and clarity that I was enthralled from day one. I did not grow up in the United States, so I was hearing the story of early America for the first time. American history was confusing, paradoxical, and fantastic in every possible way. I also found the whole process of doing history compelling: the archive, the sources, as well as the interpretative and analytical work. But for all my curiosity and drive, I would not be an American historian without programs like the McNair and Haas Scholars Program or the support of my teachers and mentors.

JF: What is your next project?

AD: My next project is on the multiple fronts of Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). And I have two concurrent collaborative projects. The first is an interdisciplinary study of the role of translation and literacy in the colonial world. And the second is also an interdisciplinary study that uses and interrogates anthropology and archeology to study the American South.

JF: Thanks, Alejandra.  Great stuff!


Spotted in Oxford: Douglas Sweeney, *Edwards the Exegete*

One of the most popular features of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog is our Author’s Corner series in which we interview authors of new books.

Over the course of the next several days I will be posting pics of books we have featured in the Author’s Corner and that I spotted last week at the Oxford University Press bookstore in Oxford, England.

Here is Douglas Sweeney’s Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment.   Read his Author’s Corner interview here.




The Author’s Corner with Abigail Chandler

Abigail Chandler is Assistant Professor of History at University of Massachusetts at Lowell. This interview is based on her new book, Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England 1650-1750: Steering Toward England (Ashgate Pub Co., 2015).

JF: What led you to write Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750?

AC: When I was seventeen, I came across an account of another seventeen year old named Rachel Atkins who purchased much of modern day Small Point, Maine, from three Abenaki in 1675. Several years later, I read that her older sister took their father to court on incest charges in 1668 and that led to my wider research in the colonial New England court records, where I began noticing both changes over time and differences between the individual colonies. If Massachusetts was founded by colonists seeking to rewrite English law and English society, colonists in both Maine and Rhode Island modeled their early legal systems more closely on English common law. Maine colonist Thomas Gorges wrote in 1642 that he wanted Maine’s law “to steare as neere as we could to the course of Ingland” and this idea of law steering towards or away from England is what pulled all the different trials together into a larger story about the shifting role of English law in colonial New England’s sexual misconduct prosecutions.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Law and Sexual Misconduct, 1650-1750?

AC: Law and Sexual Misconduct is about the legal process used to prosecute sexual misconduct in the colonies of Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island between 1650 and 1750. It argues that John Murrin’s “Anglicization” thesis, the idea that the English colonies were at their most English on the eve of the American Revolution, is better described as a process of “Alternating Anglicization” as each colony considered its own relationship with English law differently at different times.

JF: Why do we need to read Law and Sexual Misconduct, 1650-1750?

AC: There have been many books written about growing imperial control over the British North American colonies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and this is a topic we know a great deal about. What we know less about is how this process felt to ordinary colonists experiencing it on the ground in North America. My research demonstrates that both sexual misconduct laws and the resulting courtroom procedures shifted in response to these wider imperial changes. And because sexual misconduct was a crime which was consistently tried over long periods of time and which targeted both men and women, examining sexual misconduct trials in relation to the imperial process provides a window onto the impact these changes had on the daily lives of colonists, particularly women, in the New England colonies.

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

AC: Finding that account of Rachel Atkins’ land purchase when I was seventeen started me reading colonial New England history in high school and, eventually, drew me to graduate school and my work as an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. My first history conference in graduate school was the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture conference, which was held in Boston that year. I gave my paper in a building opposite the street from the Granary Burying Ground where Rachel is buried. After giving my paper, I crossed the street to the Granary to say thank you.

JF: What is your next project?

AC: At first glance, my next project has nothing to do with this first book as it’s a comparative study of the Stamp Act crisis throughout the British North American colonies in 1765 and the Regulator Rebellion in North Carolina in the late 1760s and early 1770s. However, my interests in the shifting role played by English law in the wider Anglo-American world and in the lives of ordinary colonists play an equally large role in this project and so it does feel like something of a sequel to me.

JF: Thanks, Abigail!


The Author’s Corner with Jen Manion

Jen Manion is Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College. The interview is based on her book Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Liberty’s Prisoners?
JM: Liberty’s Prisoners is very much a “people’s history” of the origins of the prison system in America. I felt like it was such an important story that needed to be told from the bottom up, through the lives and perspectives of the most vulnerable people in Early American society: the poor, enslaved, immigrants, African Americans, and women. Mass incarceration is such a pressing social issue in the present but there is much for us to learn about how we got to this place.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Liberty’s Prisoners?
JM: Liberty’s Prisoners argues that changing attitudes about work, freedom, property, and family shaped the creation of the penitentiary system in the United States, which was designed to reestablish order, both behind its walls and in society at large. Liberty’s Prisoners shows that those who were subject to surveillance and regulation were not blank canvases for social experimentation but rather played an active part in instigating, manipulating, and resisting these forces.
JF: Why do we need to read Liberty’s Prisoners?
JM: Liberty’s Prisoners paints a vivid picture of a dynamic moment in American society when slavery was being gradually abolished, a new national government was established, people were rising up and challenging social and political hierarchies like never before, and the penitentiary was born. It puts women in the heart of a story that is often told only through the perspective of men while analyzing how race, gender, and sexuality shaped punishment and freedom in sometimes unexpected ways. Most importantly, it is full of detail about the great public debates that took place two hundred years ago over the purpose of punishment in society, very similar to the debate that has gripped the nation the past few years.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JM: Studying history in college really helped me to make sense of the world around me, especially American race relations, polarizing social issues, and people whose experiences were very different from my own. As a historian, I like to dig up records about the lives of ordinary people who are generally neglected from history’s grand narratives. I want to understand how social change happens and how regular people respond to the restrictions and opportunities in their lives.
JF: What is your next project?
JM: My next project is called, “Born in the Wrong Time: Transgender Archives and the History of Possibility, 1770-1870.” It charts the lives of another group of people who have been largely neglected by history, those who crossed genders from female to male and lived as men for part or all of their lives. The primary source material is very rich and I hope the project will illuminate some longstanding questions about the role of sexual difference in society.

JF: Thanks, Jen! 

Newspapers and British Identity in 18th-Century Quebec City and Halifax

If you have not discovered Borealia, you should go check it out.  The editors of this blog are pushing us to expand our understanding of early America to include Canada. (Of course scholars have been doing this for a long time, but I appreciate the effort of the folks at Borealia to bring the conversation to a larger reading public).

I just finished reading Keith Grant’s excellent review of Michael Eamon’s Imprinting Britain: Newspapers, Sociability, and the Shaping of British North America. Eamon uses newspapers to show how the so-called “public sphere” found its way to the British cities of Quebec City and Halifax.  I have been fascinated with these kinds of studies since graduate school.  Discussions of print culture, sociability, and the Enlightenment in early America influenced my 2008 book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

Here is a taste of Keith Grant‘s review:

Eamon’s cultural definition of Britishness also includes the moderate Enlightenment’s emphasis on “useful” and “improving” knowledge. He gives us enticing glimpses of Haligonians who participated, however modestly, in the transatlantic Republic of Letters, as well as the surprising liberality of Governor Frederick Haldimand’s Quebec Library. Newspapers, almanacs, and magazines disseminated Enlightenment science in abridged form to a broad reading public.
Colonial newspapers were closely allied with other kinds of face-to-face sociability. The pages of colonial newspapers aired debates about the propriety of Freemasonry, theatres, and coffeehouses, with printers often advocating for their usefulness. As the detailed appendices demonstrate, those papers prove to be one of the few windows into colonial associative life, and readers are indebted to Eamon for cataloguing mentions of societies, coffeehouses, and plays performed in Halifax and Quebec City. Northern winters were no obstacle to flourishing social scenes, as one Quebec City correspondent reported in December 1790: “Tho’ surrounded with Ice and Snow, we enjoy health & are at least as social as in any other quarter of the Globe” (116).
Eamon charts a shift in colonial associative life as the eighteenth century progressed, from sociability for the sheer pleasure of it toward an increasing concern for the public good. “Let the social virtues shine / Doing good is sure divine,” declared a Masonic song printed in a Nova Scotia newspaper (135). (The Illuminati conspiracy theorists among our readership will be interested—perhaps apprehensive—to know that every eighteenth century governor and lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia was a Freemason! [133])
Mention “print” and “sociability” in the same sentence, and cultural theorist Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the “bourgeois public sphere” is sure to come to mind.  However, though it was incubated in similar coffee houses and likewise deliberated through a burgeoning print culture, the public sphere of British North America, Eamon argues, was less egalitarian than its bourgeois European or republican American counterparts. The colonial print community created “hybrid spaces of sociability and social control” (11), and its discourse “favoured consensus and balance over discord and radical change” (189). Imprinting Britain will find a place on reading lists on British North American sociability and the public sphere, alongside works by Jeffrey McNairn, Darren Ferry, and David Sutherland.

Gilder-Lehrman Online Course on Colonial North America Begins Tonight

Tonight I will see how well my teaching style translates into an online course.  It is the first night of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute’s “Colonial North America” graduate course.”  We have about 120 people registered (I don’t think this is includes auditors) who will be getting graduate credit at Adams State University in Colorado.

I am happy to be working with Kathy White of Gilder-Lehrman who will serve as the course’s “master teacher.”  Wayne Kantz of Manheim Central High School in PA and Aaron Bell of American University will be my teaching assistants.  Lance Warren and his team at Gilder-Lehrman will be the brains and technological support behind the operation.
I will do my best to post my thoughts about teaching online here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home
The registration for the course is currently closed.

The Author’s Corner with Jordan Landes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Jordan!