The Author’s Corner with Robert Michael Morrissey

Robert Morrissey is Assistant Professor of History at University of Illinois. This interview is based on his new book, Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in the Colonial Illinois Country (University of Pennsylvania Press, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in the Colonial Illinois Country?

RM: Growing up in the Midwest, I was always aware of a “hidden” colonial history of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley. A college course on Native American history followed by a trip to the Boundary Waters wilderness area in Northern Minnesota prompted me to start learning about the history and environment of the mid continent in a serious way. By the time I started working on this project, many historians were debating the nature of empire in early America. I knew that the kind of colonialism that people created in the interior of North America was a special and diverse phenomenon, a product of multicultural negotiation on an early American frontier. This book was my effort not only to recover some of the “hidden” history of the colonial and Native Midwest, but also to tell the story of a fascinating kind of politics that took shape here.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Empire by Collaboration?

RM: In the middle of North America, Indians, colonists and successive imperial governments made a distinctive political culture over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries which was not what any of them would have planned, but which had benefits for many participants. Not just a matter of accidental accommodation, this political order was a conscious collaboration of many interests and the root of a distinctive, diverse, and durable colonial culture in the mid continent.

JF: Why do we need to read Empire by Collaboration?

RM: Although it is still sometimes overlooked, Illinois Country was an important place. The Illinois were among the most numerous Native groups in North America at the start of contact. The initially-illegal French and creole communities that developed in their midst eventually numbered around 1500 free and enslaved inhabitants, making them some of the largest frontier communities in North America. Their geographical location was an important ecological and social transition zone in North America and brought together diverse peoples in a rich cultural mix. For historians of the early American frontier, what happened in this special region challenges some popular conceptions of what contact zones and “middle grounds” were all about, even as it encourages a new understanding of the early modern French empire.

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

RM: My teachers helped me make that decision. First of all, my history teachers in high school were the reason I became seriously interested in the subject. Then my college professors showed me how much stories we tell about the past do matter in our present day lives. It was that realization that really pushed me to try to become a professional historian, and it started from a pretty early age.

JF: What is your next project?

RM: My next project is entitled “The Illinois and the Edge Effect: People and Animals in the Tallgrass Prairie Borderlands.” It is a study of the relationship between people and non-human nature in one of North America’s most distinctive ecological and social frontiers from 1200 to 1850.

JF: Sounds interesting. Thanks Bob!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with T.J. Tomlin

T.J. Tomlin is Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Colorado. This interview is based on his book, A Divinity for all Persuasions:Almanacs and Early American Religious Life (Oxford University Press, October 2014).

JF: What led you to write A Divinity for all Persuasions?

TT: I wanted to know how early American popular culture reflected or responded to changes in church membership between 1730 and 1820. Of course, much has been written about the causes and consequences of denominational shifts during this period. So I was curious to see if popular culture might add something new to the debate. I turned to almanacs because they were early America’s most widespread genre. I expected to find either critiques of upstart and “unrefined” denominations like the Methodists or populist attacks on Anglicans and other established churches. Instead I found Protestantism everywhere and denominational specifics almost nowhere. It became apparent very quickly that almanacs had much to say about “true religion” but were completely unconcerned with intra-Protestant competition. In fact, they argued that denominational rivalry was antithetical to authentic religion.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Divinity for all Persuasions?

TT: Early American religious life is best characterized by the pan-Protestant sensibility articulated in its most ubiquitous popular genre. Most early Americans defined and organized their religious lives around Protestant “essentials” and “golden rule” morality rather than denominational specifics.

JF: Why do we need to read A Divinity for all Persuasions?

TT: Early American religious history remains largely centered on what was going on in churches. This book fills an important gap in the historiography by using popular print rather than church-based sources to answer core questions about early American religion. I also hope the book generates new interest in and appreciation of almanacs. Their annual sales figures are astonishing. I think they offer unique insight into the everyday concerns of early Americans and religion’s fundamental role in helping people make sense of life and death.

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

TT: Both of my parents were teachers, so I always assumed I would teach something. I began college as a secondary-education/ English major. Around my sophomore year, I realized I was more interested in the context of the literary works I was reading than the content. About the same time, I began taking history classes with some great professors. I remember reading Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity and thinking: “I want to do this.”

JF: What is your next project?

TT: I am working on a history of chance in early America. While researching A Divinity for All Persuasions, I came across an eighteenth-century lottery ticket at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Intrigued, I learned that state and local governments, Ivy League Universities, and churches relied on lotteries to raise funds. The word chance also shows up quite a bit in almanacs as a critique of Atheism—the argument is that Atheists rely on the foolish notion of “chance” rather than God to explain the created order. Some churches condemned card-playing, dice, and other games of chance as an insult to God’s providential oversight of human affairs. At the same time, Moravians and others were casting lots to decipher God’s will. I want to place changing formulations of chance in the context of eighteenth century intellectual, scientific, and religious debates.

JF: Can’t wait to hear more about it! Thanks TJ.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of the Author’s Corner.

The Author’s Corner with Gregory O’Malley

Greg O’Malley is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This interview is based on his book Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Final Passages?

GO:In graduate school I hoped to study the interaction of African and European people (and especially cultures) in colonial America. But as I tried to learn which African peoples and cultures landed in particular American places, I kept stumbling across discrepancies between data on slave populations in certain colonies and data on the slave trade. For example, by the American Revolution, only Virginia and South Carolina had larger enslaved populations than North Carolina, yet very few slave ships had arrived in North Carolina from Africa. So how did slaves get there? Like many scholars, I figured there was probably a small intercolonial traffic that dispersed Africans between the colonies. It was only when I got tripped up by such a missing link in the historiography of the coerced migration for the third or fourth time that I realized it might be a significant topic for research. Once I started combing port records for such intercolonial shipments, I found that this trade dispersing African captives after their initial arrival in the New World was vaster than I had even imagined—and that it was even bigger across imperial borders than it was between British colonies. So the short answer is that I wrote Final Passages to improve our understanding of who went where in the African Diaspora.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Final Passages?

GO: Most simply, the argument is that hundreds of thousands of African people endured another phase of the slave trade after surviving the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, but the book goes beyond simply tracking the importance of such trade for the spread of slavery. Final Passagesshows that individual traders and imperial strategists exploited the intercolonial trade (and the high demand for slaves throughout the Americas) to facilitate commerce in other commodities, entangling the profits of all manner of trade with the profits from buying and selling enslaved people.

JF: Why do we need to read Final Passages?

GO: Legacies of slavery continue to haunt American society, and I think it is vital to reckon with that troubling past. American culture has a tendency to be self-congratulatory, and our interest in slavery reflects that. To the extent that most Americans consider slavery at all, the focus is on the Civil War as a war that ended slavery or on the Underground Railroad as a triumph over slavery. Those histories are of course important, but it’s also vital to wrestle with the painful reality that slavery worked—that certain segments of American societies profited mightily from their exploitation of enslaved people. Final Passages is important in this regard because it highlights an overlooked aspect of that profitable exploitation. Slaveholders forced slaves to work, of course, but traders also exploited slaves as commodities for exchange. And that exploitation of slaves’ commodity value extended beyond the prices paid for them. Labor shortages in the New World left many land owners desperate for workers, so many general merchants found that having enslaved people to sell brought planters (or even whole empires) to their table; and once such customers were buying slaves, they would engage in other trade as well. Traders saw slaves as a unique commodity, not for their humanity, but for this ability to facilitate commerce. Their profits from trading all manner of goods were contingent upon their buying and selling of people. Confronting that aspect of the system is crucial for understanding what was gained at the expense of enslaved people’s freedom.

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

GO: I pursued an undergraduate history degree with no intention of a career in the field; I just wanted a liberal arts education. I then went to work at an internet startup during that brief moment, ca. 2000, when internet startups were new and exciting—and mostly unprofitable. The particular company I worked for was failing to make money designing the first digital textbooks for college courses. I ended up managing the history product line, facilitating meetings between historians and our programming whizzes, trying to help the historians understand what our technology had to offer and help the programmers understand what the historians wanted to accomplish pedagogically. It was a fun job for a recent college grad with a history B.A., but I gradually realized I was much more interested in what the historians at the table were doing than I was in the internet economy. So I headed to grad school. I chose early America because I’ve always been fascinated by Americans’ struggles with the multicultural nature of their society. In the colonial era, the foundations for those struggles were laid.

JF: What is your next project?

GO: I’m not entirely certain, as I’m still kicking the tires of several possibilities. But one idea that I’m excited about would explore the remarkable growth of the enslaved population of North America. Historians have long struggled to explain why enslaved populations elsewhere needed constant replenishment through the slave trade, while a relatively small number of people delivered to North America grew to such a large population by the Civil War. Explanations have focused on harsh conditions in the Caribbean (in terms of labor and disease), but I see demographic growth in North America as the anomaly requiring explanation. Slavery was also harsh on the mainland, and infant mortality was appalling, so why did the population grow so dramatically? I plan to explore a multi-pronged answer that examines age and gender patterns in the slave trade, slaveholding practices in North America, and a problematizing of the numbers themselves with an eye to who was counted as “negroes” in early America. While the logic of the “one drop rule” in American understandings of race leads us to interpret those labeled as “negroes” as people of African descent, the ancestries of enslaved people were often more complicated. In other words, the slaves in the U.S. by the time of Civil War were not entirely descended from the 450,000 African people who arrived via the slave trade. The host population was larger but has been partly obscured from American memory.


Thanks Greg!

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author’s Corner!

The New "Early American Studies" is Here

Not the cover of the current issue


The Paradox of Sagadahoc: The Popham Colony, 1607–1608
Christopher J . Bilodeau

‘‘Bring them what they lack’’: Spanish-Creek Exchange and Alliance Making in a Maritime Borderland, 1763–1783
James L. Hill

Enlightenment and Revolution: The Case of Louisiana, 1768
Samuel Biagetti

With a Song in Their Hands: Incendiary Décimas from the Texas and Louisiana Borderlands during a Revolutionary Age
Carla Gerona

Rods and Reels: Social Clubs and Political Culture in Early Pennsylvania
Kate Haulman

Rus-Urban Imaginings: Literature of the American Park Movement and Representations of Social Space in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
John Evelev

“Consider the Source”

‘‘Exactly as they appear’’: Another Look at the Notes of a 1766 Treason Trial in Poughkeepsie, New York, with Some Musings on the Documentary Foundations of Early American History
James H. Merrell

Do Not Saunter About the College Yard or You Will Receive Corporal Punishment!

Ben Franklin: 1st President of the College of Philadelphia

I was doing some reading last night in the eighteenth-century trustee minutes of the College of Philadelphia (which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania).  On March 19, 1761, the trustees unanimously approved its “Rules for the Discipline & Good Government of the Students and Scholars.”  Here is a taste:

If any Student or Scholar, without a reasonable Excuse, shall on the Lord’s day neglect attending divine worship in some one or other of the religious Societies in this City, he shall on proper Conviction thereof pay six Pence and moreover, if he perseveres in such Neglect after due admonition, he shall be chastised if under fourteen Years of Age, and if above that age be brought to publick Confession, degraded, subjected to some Exercise or presented to the Trustees as the Faculty shall think proper…

If any Students or Scholars shall be found guilty of fighting or quarreling both Parties shall be chastised for the first Offence, & if found to be notoriously quarrelsome or troublesome after due Admonition, they shall be presented to the Trustees...
In every School belonging to this Institution, there shall be a Monitor or Monitors appointed weekly at the Direction of the Professor or Master who has the Care of such School & it shall be the Business of such Monitors to note down and deliver into the Faculty after Prayers every Evening & before the Dismission of the Schools, the  Names of the Delinquents, as oft as ny of them shall be guilty of talking, whispering or behaving any wan indecently in the time of Prayer, reading the holy Scriptures, or calling the Roll; which Delinquents shall be immediately punished or fined as above directed, agreeable to the Nature of the Crime… 
“If any Student or Scholar shall saunter about the College or College Yard or go out without Leave, or make Use of another Book or Books without his Permission; he shall be subject to corporal Punishment, or a Fine not exceeding four pence for every such Transgression.”

The New "Common-Place" is Here

Stay tuned for some possible posts and/or links on individual articles.

From the editors:

The Spring 2013 issue of Common-place takes readers from seventeenth-century Northampton, MA, to the borderlands of New Mexico in the 1870s. Marion Rust compares the stories of girls in the throes of religious enthusiasm in Great Awakening-era New England to a 2012 outbreak of inexplicable fits among high school girls in western New York.  Amanda Taylor-Montoya maps the shifting boundaries of interracial marriage in the southwestern borderlands in the nineteenth century. Common-place is also honored to be able to publish a piece by the late Jack Larkin, growing out of the work he was doing at the time of his death earlier this spring on the Boston illustrator David Claypoole Johnston.  These features, plus Megan Walsh on slave narratives, the introduction of “Just Teach One,” and two different looks at grave stones in early Newport, Rhode Island, can be found at

Early American Periodicals That Were "One-Hit Wonders"

Over at Past is Present, the blog of the American Antiquarian Society, Vincent Golden calls our attention to a few early American periodicals that did not make it past the first issue.  For example, I am guessing that none of you have ever heard of The Gambler’s Mirror (1845), The White Man’s Newspaper (1851), or Smith & Barrow’s Monthly Magazine (1864).

Here is Golden’s description of The White Man’s Newspaper:

Issue no. 1 is dated May 1851.  No other issue has been found of this anti-abolitionist newspaper.  In the first issue, it boasted as having $50,000 of capital backing the publication of this radical newspaper.  Apparently that was not enough as it disappeared as suddenly as it made its debut.  AAS and Harvard have the only recorded copies of the first issue.

And here are a few musical “one-hit wonders” from the 1970s for your consideration:

Al Zambone’s Notanda

Looking to beef up your blogroll?  I recommend Al Zambone’s “Notanda.”  I especially like Zambone’s “commonplace book” in which he posts short quotes from the founders and other characters from early America. Here is today’s entry, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Finds Marylanders to Be Without Manners.”

…The [Maryland] assembly happens to be sitting at this time…I was surprised on approaching it to hear as great a noise and hubbub as you will usually observe at a publick meeting of the planters in Virginia. The first object which struck me after my entrance was the figure of a little old man dressed but indifferently, with a yellow queüe wig on, and mounted in the judge’s chair. This the gentleman who walked with me informed me was the speaker, a man of a very fair character, but who by the bye, has very little the air of a speaker. At one end of the justices’ bench stood a man whom in another place I should from his dress and phis have taken for Goodall the lawyer in Williamsburgh, reading a bill then before the house with a schoolboy tone and an abrupt pause at every half dozen words. This I found to be the clerk of the assembly. The mob (for such was their appearance) sat covered on the justices’ and lawyers’ benches, and were divided into little clubs amusing themselves in the common chit chat way. I was surprised to see them address the speaker without rising from their seats, and three, four, and five at a time without being checked. when a motion was made, the speaker instead of putting the question in the usual form, only asked the gentlemen whether they chose that such or such a thing should be done, and was answered by a yes sir, or no sir: and tho’ the voices appeared frequently to be divided, they never would go to the trouble of dividing the house, but the clerk entered the resolutions, I supposed, as he thought proper. In short everything seems to be carried without the house in general’s knowing what was proposed.

Thomas Jefferson, To John Page, May 25, 1766

I might also add that Al is a “cattleblogger.”  I am not sure what this means, but I think I am becoming a fan.

Religion in the Early South

The new issue of The Journal of Southern Religion is out.  In addition to its wonderful collection of book reviews, it also contains a roundtable, edited by Rebecca Goetz, on religion in the early South.  Here is the table of contents with links to the articles:

Religious Diversity and the Coming of Christianity in the Prerevolutionary South
Rebecca Goetz
Catholicism in the Early South
Maura Jane Farrelly
Protestantism in the Early South
Travis Glasson
Native American Religions in the Early South
Tracy Neal Leavelle
Protestant Dissenters in the Early South
Jewel L. Spangler
African Religions in the Early South
Jason Young

God and the Weather

During the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History this past weekend I got the chance to hear T.J. Tomlin, University of Northern Colorado history professor and shedworker extraordinaire, present a paper on his current book project on almanacs and popular religion in eighteenth-century America.  The paper was entitled “Popular Culture and Religious Authority in Early America.”

While I was listening to T.J. deliver his talk, I sent off the following tweet: @johnfea1

After listening to TJ Tomlin’s talk on almanacs in the 18th c., I think we need a good book on weather and religion in early America. 

Well, lo and behold, it looks as if someone is already working on this topic.  “The Beehive,” the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society, reports on the work of Lauri Coleman, a graduate student at the College of William and Mary.  Here is a taste:

On Wednesday, 3 October, research fellow Lauri Coleman from The College of William and Mary, gave her brown-bag lunch talk, “ ‘Some are Weatherwise, Some are Otherwise’: Popular Almanacs and Weather Cosmology in Mid-eighteenth Century America.” Coleman’s dissertation research explores how mid eighteenth-century New Englanders, from the 1740s to the 1780s,  experienced and made sense of the weather generally and natural disasters such as draughts and earthquakes in particular. New Englanders during this period experienced the weather in two distinct yet interconnected ways: “providentially” (as a sign of God intervening in human affairs) and through the discourse of natural philosophy, scientific observation through which divine laws might be discerned. Coleman argues that these two frameworks for understanding weather – one through which God is understood to act disruptively and violently, the other through which God is seen to act benevolently and in an orderly fashion – exist together in collective consciousness throughout the period.  In the face of natural disasters, these two interpretations were often pitted against one another in public discussion (in newspapers and sermons, for example) as citizens attempted to make sense of the event.

Sounds like a great project.  Maybe Lauri and T.J. can get together for a panel on almanacs at the next major historical conference. I would attend that session.