The Author’s Corner with Sarah Pearsall

Polygamy An Early American HistorySarah Pearsall is University Senior Lecturer in the History of Early America and the Atlantic World at the University of Cambridge. This interview is based on her new book, Polygamy: An Early American History (Yale University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Polygamy?

SP: When I started working on this project, fierce debates over same-sex marriage erupted at the center of U.S. politics, and marriage controversies also kept emerging in my research and teaching. In the course of research on my first book about Anglo-Atlantic families, I started to notice a negative version of the ideal marriage: the harem, supposedly ruled only by lust, greed, and fear, never true love. In an undergraduate course I was teaching on early American travel narratives, depictions of polygamy appeared over and over again. Why were people so fascinated—and sometimes so horrified— by other people marrying in what they felt was the wrong way? What did differences over marriage highlight about society and politics? Polygamy seemed a good way to open up these vexing issues. Yet I could find few books about it, and none focused on colonial America. With a few notable exceptions, most studies of early American colonialism treated disputes over polygamy as something like mere local color in the background of a borderlands drama. Yet sometimes different ideas about households were not the backdrop; they were the drama. I wanted to know more about this drama, and the women and men who shaped it.

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

SP: Most Americans, even (early) American historians, presume the history of polygamy in North America only really began with Western controversies surrounding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in the nineteenth century. In fact, I argue that what happened to the Mormons was near the end, a decisive battle in a long-standing war for monogamy which reveals a great deal about women, men, households, and power in early modern encounters.

JF: Why do we need to read Polygamy?

SP: This book places women and men, and their intimate, sometimes physical, relations, at the center of an analysis of colonialism and nationhood. This somewhat unusual perspective yields some compelling surprises and fascinating stories. Many of the major actors in this narrative were Native American or African American. I hope that the book prompts readers to question their own assumptions about this allegedly “backwards” form of marriage. Even more significant, though, is that readers take away that centering marriage changes how we think about major events and processes, including the Pueblo Revolt (which I first discussed in an article in the American Historical Review), King Philip’s War, and even the American Revolution. The book ranges widely but deeply across many times and places, so even specialists should learn something new. Finally, one friend jokingly suggested that displaying a copy would make the reader look hip and attractive, but I could not possibly comment on that.

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

SP: Strangely, I became an American historian when I left the United States and went to study in England. I came to Cambridge University as a master’s student to study British history. While there, I increasingly felt the pull of early American history. An exceptional high school teacher, Melinda Hennessey, as well as many amazing teachers at Yale had already ignited my passion for history. I was fortunate to be able to return to the U.S. to do my PhD in early American history at Harvard with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, with a strong interest in British and Atlantic history. My first book reflects those joint interests. In the end, I fell in love with early American history because it is at once familiar and alien. It also involves so many rich and dynamic encounters between different people; for better or worse, these contacts continue to shape our world. I hope my new book gives a flavor of them.

JF: What is your next project?

SP: I have enjoyed working on this topic so much that I am now writing a global history of polygamy with a long temporal span. I also have a project on the American Revolution in the works, as well as one on slavery and marriage.

The Author’s Corner With Kelly Ryan

RyanKelly A. Ryan is Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Professor of History at Indiana University-Southeast.  This interview is based on her new book Everyday Crimes: Social Violence and Civil Rights in Early America (New York University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Everyday Crimes?

KR: When I was researching my first book, I ran across records of abused wives in the revolutionary era and early republic who had the courage to report their husbands to a local justice of the peace. I was surprised by the activism of these women as we know that reporting abuse often leads to greater violence. I wondered about the resistance of slaves and servants –  two other groups categorized as legal dependents – and whether or not they had more or less success in stymying the violence of their masters. Focusing on these groups and newly freed African Americans from the colonial era through the early republic allowed me to get a glimpse of whose voices were privileged and the many ways that legally and socially subordinated individuals fought for their human and civil rights in a society that did not value them as highly as their social superiors.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Everyday Crimes?

KR: Everyday Crimes argues that the resistance of wives, servants, slaves, and free African Americans to violence expanded their human and civil rights.  Although it was dangerous to contest assaults, legal and social dependents obtained greater access to legal rights to sue and offer testimony, expanded divorce and separation options, saw alterations in slave codes, and the emergence of emancipation statutes.

JF: Why do we need to read Everyday Crimes?

KR: In the past few years, our society has grappled with whose voices are privileged in cases of assault and murder. Everyday Crimes shares stories of the victims of violence and the ways our legal and social system indemnified some prosecutors of violence from condemnation. It’s important for Americans to understand how our history is a legacy that continues in the modern era, even as African Americans, women, and children have access to civil rights. We must keep searching for ways to better protect Americans and prevent violence.

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

KR: Like most historians, my interest in history stems from amazing teachers in high school and college. Maryknoll High School in Honolulu, Hawaii had passionate instructors of United States, European, and Asian history who taught history as a way of understanding our modern world. I was interested in a great number of things when I arrived at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia as a first year student, but the history professors there, most importantly Lawrence Levine and Howard Smead, made history relevant to everyday life and taught with such great joy. It was infectious. Moreover, I felt that history allowed me to continue focusing on my love of art, anthropology, and literature because all are sources of inspiration and research for historians.

JF: What is your next project?

KR: After 15 year of being a professional historian, I have so many stories connected to sexuality and violence in early America that I have not been able to tell as part of my previous scholarship.  I’d like to bring more of a biographical focus to the men and women who have encountered our criminal justice system. I’m really interested in sharing some of the information I’ve gathered about how early constables and police have been victims of and prosecutors of violence. I also have two forthcoming chapters in planned series edited by other scholars in the Routledge History of American Sexuality and the Cambridge History of the American Revolution.

JF: Thanks, Kelly!

North Carolina General Assembly Session Records Are Now Online

NC Map

“History for All the People,” a blog of the State Archives of North Carolina, recently announced that the state’s General Assembly session records are now online.  Here is a taste of the post:

After three years, The General Assembly Session Records digital collection is now online!

This digital collection covers the session records from 1709 to 1814, located in the State Archives of North Carolina. The physical collection includes records that extend to 1999, but we wanted to highlight the history of colonial North Carolina and the days of early statehood. The documents include Senate and House bills, joint resolutions, propositions, filed grievances, boundary disputes, and petitions that typically discussed divorces, inheritances, name changes and emancipation.

Learn more.

Muslims Were in America Before Protestants

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Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, called Job ben Solomon (1701-1773) in African dress, with the Qu’ran around his neck via Wikimedia Commons
 

Yes, as Sam Haselby reminds us, this is true.  Here is a taste of his piece at Aeon: “Muslims of Early America“:

The writing of American history has also been dominated by Puritan institutions. It might no longer be quite true, as the historian (and Southerner) U B Phillips complained more than 100 years ago, that Boston had written the history of the US, and largely written it wrong. But when it comes to the history of religion in America, the consequences of the domination of the leading Puritan institutions in Boston (Harvard University) and New Haven (Yale University) remain formidable. This ‘Puritan effect’ on seeing and understanding religion in early America (and the origins of the US) brings real distortion: as though we were to turn the political history of 20th-century Europe over to the Trotskyites.

Think of history as the depth and breadth of human experience, as what actually happened. History makes the world, or a place and people, what it is, or what they are. In contrast, think of the past as those bits and pieces of history that a society selects in order to sanction itself, to affirm its forms of government, its institutions and dominant morals.

The forgetting of early America’s Muslims is, then, more than an arcane concern. The consequences bear directly on the matter of political belonging today. Nations are not mausoleums or reliquaries to conserve the dead or inanimate. They are organic in that, just as they are made, they must be consistently remade, or they atrophy and die. The virtual Anglo-Protestant monopoly over the history of religion in America has obscured the half-a-millenium presence of Muslims in America and has made it harder to see clear answers to important questions about who belongs, who is American, by what criteria, and who gets to decide.

What then should ‘America’ or ‘American’ mean? With its ‘vast, early America’ programme, the Omohundro Institute, the leading scholarly organisation of early American history, points to one possible answer. ‘Early America’ and ‘American’ are big and general terms, but not so much as to be nearly meaningless. Historically, they are best understood as the great collision, mixing and conquest of peoples and civilisations (and animals and microbes) of Europe and Africa with the peoples and societies of the Western hemisphere, from the Greater Caribbean to Canada, that began in 1492. From 1492 to at least about 1800, America, simply, is Greater America, or vast, early America.

Read the entire piece here.

Attend a Lecture at the David Library of the American Revolution This Fall

David Library

What a great lineup!

Press release:

UPPER MAKEFIELD — The David Library of the American Revolution announced a schedule of educational programs that will be offered free in the library’s lecture hall, 1201 River Road, Washington Crossing.

The David Library is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of American history Between 1750 and 1800.

The lecture series will begin at 7:30 p.m. May 14 with a talk by Larry Kidder titled “George Washington’s Ten Crucial Days.” Kidder, who lives in Ewing, is the author of the new book, “Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Vision for Victory Unfolds,” as well as “A People Harassed and Exhausted: The Story of a New Jersey Militia Regiment in the American Revolution.”

Additional lectures scheduled at the David Library include “The Usual Suspects: General Washington, His Critics, and the Conway Cabal Reconsidered,” a lecture by Mark Lender author of “Cabal! The Plot Against General Washington,” at 7:30 p.m. June 13; “Occupied Philadelphia and the Disaffected of Revolutionary America,” a lecture by Aaron Sullivan, author of “The Disaffected: Britain’s Occupation of Philadelphia During the American Revolution,” at 7:30 June 25; “Revolution in the News,” a lecture by Joseph Adelman, assistant professor of history at Framingham State University and assistant editor for digital initiatives at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and author of “Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789,” at 7:30 p.m. July 24; “Remembering Material Worlds: The Stuff and Spaces of Interpreting Early America,” a lecture by George Boudreau, co-editor of “A Material World: Culture, Society, and the Life of Things in Early Anglo-America,” a new volume of essays on material culture by leading scholars from various disciplines,” at 3 p.m. Aug. 4; “The Founding Generation and their Spirits: How Consumption Shaped American Politics and the Presidency,” a lecture by Matthew Costello, senior historian of the White House Historical Association,” at 7:30 p.m. Sep. 13; “Supreme Injustice: The Proslavery Jurisprudence of John Marshall and the Legacy of the American Revolution,” a lecture on the 264th anniversary of the birth of John Marshall, fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court, by Paul Finkelman, president of Gratz College, and author of “Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court,” at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24; “The Providence of John and Abigail Adams,” a lecture by Sara Georgini, series editor for “The Papers of John Adams” at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and author of “Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family.” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10; and “Quartering the British Army in Revolutionary America,” a lecture by John Gilbert McCurdy, author of “Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution,” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22.

David Library Lectures are free of admissions, but reservations are required. Call 215-493-6776 ext. 100 or visit www.dlar.org/events.htm for or more detailed descriptions of the programs, and for possible program additions.

The Author’s Corner with Jacob Lee

Masters of the Middle WatersJacob Lee is Assistant Professor of History at Penn State University. This interview is based on his new book, Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi (Belknap Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Masters of the Middle Waters?

JL: In large part, my research is driven by things that surprise me. Years ago, I read about George Rogers Clark’s campaign into the Illinois Country during the American Revolution and realized that, although Clark and his soldiers had gone to fight the British, they mostly encountered French farmers and merchants. Across the Mississippi, they interacted with Spanish officials at St. Louis. At that point, my knowledge about colonial America was more or less limited to the traditional, Anglo-centric narrative, and I wanted to know more about who these people were, why they were there, and how they fit into the story of early America.

That curiosity about the Illinois Country intersected with a longstanding interest in empires and colonialism. I’m especially intrigued by how empires work, how they acquire power, and why they succeed or fail in their ambitions. Because multiple Indian nations and four empires claimed part or all of the Illinois Country during the period I cover, that region provided an ideal place to pursue questions about power and resistance in early America and to think about different models of colonialism.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Masters of the Middle Waters?

JL: Empires exist to dominate, but their authority is often proscribed, because it depends upon alliances with local peoples. In the North American midcontinent, power flowed through the kinship-based social networks that controlled travel, trade, and communication along the region’s many rivers.

JF: Why do we need to read Masters of the Middle Waters?

JL: Masters of the Middle Waters offers new ways to think about North America and its colonial history. First, it places kinship at the center of the story. Both Native peoples and European colonists organized their societies around kinship, and they understood the power of kinship ties in trade, politics, and diplomacy. Second, this book embeds intertwined Native and imperial histories in the physical geography of the midcontinent. Several of the continent’s most important rivers – the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, Wabash, Tennessee, and Cumberland – all meet in a relatively small space in Middle America. These waterways were the conduits of most economic, military, and political activity in the region. Commanding those rivers allowed Native peoples and Europeans to vie for status, influence, and wealth. Bringing these two threads together demonstrates the power of personal relationships in a complex, dynamic environment to shape the course of empires.

Additionally, his book narrates the story of early America from the center of the continent. Waterways linked the vast interior of North America, and along them, social networks joined disparate and distant groups of Indians and Europeans in an interwoven social landscape of movement and interaction. As a result, the consequences of events in the midcontinent reverberated throughout eastern North America and across the Atlantic. The history of Middle America is central to the history of early America.

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

JL: I inherited my interest in American history from my parents. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history. As I mention in the book, my earliest memory is walking up Monk’s Mound at Cahokia on a family vacation. But, the realization that I wanted to be a historian – and that I could become one – was slow in coming. I grew up in rural Kentucky far outside the world of academia. I was lucky to have great undergraduate mentors, who encouraged my passion for research and writing. Just as important, they also gave me guidance about the historical profession and helped me see the path that I ended up taking.

JF: What is your next project?

JL: My next project is a history of the Louisiana Purchase. Many historians have told the story of the negotiations between the United States and France over the purchase. This book picks up after the treaty was signed. Despite the agreement between the two empires, U.S. ownership of Louisiana was tenuous at best, and the decades after 1803 were filled with contests for control over the region. I am exploring how the U.S. state acquired and wielded power in the trans-Mississippi West but also how various groups of Native peoples and colonists in the region limited federal authority deep into the nineteenth century.

SNUBBED!

Junto 19We have had fun over the years with the Junto early American history March Madness tournament.

In 2017, I chided the selection committee for undermining democracy.

Back in 2016, I was mad at the selection committee for putting my Journal of American History article “The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment” in a first round battle against Jon Butler’s magisterial essay “Enthusiasm Described and Decried.”  Butler crushed us!

In 2015, the Journal of Philip Vickers Fithian was wiped-out in the first round by David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Persons of the World.  I was very disappointed with Philip’s 13th seed!  I tried to make a case that voters should vote for Fithian because he was a “pompous ass,” “an insufferable prig,” and a “schlemiel.”

In 2014, my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation suffered a 60%-40% defeat in the first round at the hands of Rebecca Goetz’s The Baptism of Early America.

In 2019, the Junto tournament is focused on digital projects.  The 2019 March Madness brackets are out and it looks like The Way of Improvement Leads Home, despite nearly 400 early American history author interviews, dozens of podcast interviews with award-winning early Americanists, hundreds and hundreds of early American-themed posts, and an audience of nearly 4000 folks a day, will be heading to the NIT this year!  (Where was my campaign manager?)  For Shame! 🙂

Here are my endorsements:

Ben Franklin’s World: We featured BFW Liz Covart on Episode 24 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Boston 1775:  A go-to blog for us here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I check it every day and often repost J.L. Bell’s stuff

Common-Place:  Check out my 2003 article “Research as Relationship.”

Founders Online: Indispensable.

Digital Paxton:  I will be using it extensively this semester in my Pennsylvania History course.

Enjoy the tournament.  To paraphrase Richard Nixon, “you won’t have Fea to kick around anymore.”

The 2019 Junto March Madness is Here!

Junto 19This year the Junto blog is staging a March Madness-style competition to decide the best digital project in early American history.   A taste:

It’s once again March and that can only mean one thing at The Junto: our March Madness tournament. We skipped last year to welcome our new members, so in case you’ve forgotten: you nominate, we bracket, and you vote. In previous years, we have hosted tournaments of books, articles, and primary sources in early American history.

This year, our tournament will focus on digital projects on early America.

Nominations open now and will close on Wednesday, March 6 at 5 p.m. eastern time. Consult the rules and add your nominations in the comments section below. Join in the conversation using the hashtag #JMM19. Voting will commence next week.

We define digital projects broadly. That includes, but is not necessarily limited to, online archives, digital editions of primary sources, visualizations, databases, twitter bots and social media projects, podcasts, teaching resources, blogs, etc. The project should be substantially—though not necessarily exclusively—focused on (vast) early America.

Learn more here.  By this definition, The Way of Improvement Leads Home Blog and The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast might be considered a “digital project.”  Maybe someone will nominate us.

Here is our resume:

Blog:   We have interviewed hundreds of authors who have written books in early American history.  (This has to be worth something, right?).  Of course we are always featuring early American history here at the blog.

Podcast:  Interviews with Daniel Rodgers, Julie Reed, Catherine O’Donnell, Christopher Graham, Erin Bartram, Chris Shannon, Amanda Moniz, Doug Bradburn, Kevin Gannon, Manisha Sinha, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Ann Little. Not to mention all the early American commentary that we do on the podcast.

Will the resume be enough to make the dance?  I will let readers decide if we belong.

The Author’s Corner with Paul Musselwhite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Paul!

Some Misunderstandings About “Evangelical Historians” and the Study of History

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Some of you may recall back in July 2017 when we featured University of Alabama religion professor’s Mike Altman‘s book Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu at The Author’s Corner.  It is an excellent book from an excellent scholar of American religion.

Today on Twitter, Altman, in response to ongoing debates about whether or not Phillis Wheatley was an evangelical, wrote this:

I can’t speak for other historians who share my evangelical faith, but I call Wheatley an evangelical not because I want to claim her today, but because the word “evangelical” is the best way of understanding her in her 18th-century context.  Most early American historians would agree.  Here is J.L. Bell, the prolific historical blogger from Boston 1775 (and my response):

So, in other words, I argue that “evangelical” is a term we can use to describe Wheatley because I think it best explains her religious beliefs in the context of the world in which she lived.  Just because the word “evangelical” has now become associated with other things (as I argue indirectly in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump) does not mean it is not useful in the eighteenth-century. If I were to quit evangelicalism, as I threatened to do after November 8, 2016, I would still say “evangelical” is the best word to describe Wheatley in her time. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

This whole debate is part of the reason I wrote Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Some critics have said that the book errs too far to the historicist side, but it is precisely for the issues under debate here that I wanted to use this book to call attention to what Gordon Wood calls the “pastness of the past.” It takes discipline to understand the past on its own terms.  This requires putting aside our contemporary views and trying our best to see the world from the perspective of those living in the past.  As Sam Wineburg writes, it is our “psychological condition at rest” to find something useful in the past–something we can use to advance our agenda in the present.  But mature historical thinking–to understand the foreignness of the past–is an “unnatural act.”  As I argue in Why Study History, it can also be a transformative act.

Moreover, if Altman is right about “evangelical historians,” then why have so many of us (myself perhaps more than most) written extensively about the fact that Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and many other founders were not Christians?  And why are we so critical of those, like David Barton, who argue that the founders were Christians? Wouldn’t we want to argue that the founders were evangelicals so they we can get them our side in the present?

 

Was Phillis Wheatley an “Evangelical?”

Wheatley

(This is the third and final post in a series on the word “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century and today.  Read the first post here and the second post here).

So is it fair to call Phillis Wheatley an “evangelical?”  Despite what some people may believe, I really don’t have a stake in this debate apart from historical considerations.  As far as I know, Phillis Wheatley never called herself an “evangelical.” That is because virtually no one used the term as a noun in the 18th century.   Historian Ed Blum, who is back on Twitter and, according to his Twitter bio, claims he is no longer interested in “contemporary politics,” will be pleased that I admitted this:

But was Wheatley part of the network of 18th-century men and women who made up the evangelical movement I tried to define in the first post in this series?  I would answer yes.  So would Tommy Kidd.  So would John Turner.  But let’s not stop there. Here, for example, are some quotes from literary scholar Vincent Caretta’s definitive biography Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage:

p.34: “[George] Whitefield and [Selena Hastings, Countess of] Huntingdon linked Phillis Wheatley to the larger transatlantic network of evangelical Christians that had brought Margate to Georgia.  They consequently also connected her to the earliest authors of African descent.  Whitefield’s American preaching tours exposed several members of the first generation of black authors to Methodism.  They use of lay ministers by Methodists and other Dissenting sects gave black authors like Equiano, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, James Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, George Leile, David George, and Boston King the opportunity and authority to exercise agency and influence in person and print.”

p.73: “In light of the catechetical “A Conversion between a New York Gentleman & Phillis” and the contemporaneous evangelical value placed on bearing witness to one’s faith, Wheatley’s emphasis on religious themes in her early poems is not surprising.  Evangelical Protestantism gave people of African descent, whether free or enslaved, access to literacy to enable them to read the Bible.   Short are the steps from reading the Bible to interpreting it for oneself, and from there to sharing interpretations with others in the forms of religious poems and spiritual narratives.  Wheatley began writing very soon after the first works by authors of African descent appeared in 1760s, inspired, authorized, and validated by the Great Awakening.  The works of the first such authors concern the faith shared between author and reader, rather than the complexion and social conditions that separated the black speaker and his or her overwhelmingly white audience.”

p.84: “Phillis Wheatley’s first published work, the poem “On Messrs. Hussy and Coffin,” appeared in the 14-21 December 1767 issue of the Newport Mercury, no doubt through the support and contacts of Susanna Wheatley.  The most likely contact was Sarah Haggar Wheaton Osborn (1714-96), a member of the First Congregational Church in Newport who was instrumental in the evangelical Newport revival of 1766-67.  She and Susanna Wheatley were acquainted with each other and shared a mutual correspondent in Rev. Occom.  The preaching of Whitefield and the Presbyterian evangelical Gilbert Tennent (1704-64) inspired Osborn to help create a female prayer society that met in her home weekly from the 1740s until her death.”

Caretta is also the editor of the Penguin edition of Wheatley’s complete writings.

Other Wheatley scholars agree with Caretta.  Wheatley was part of an 18th-century transatlantic evangelical movement.

Here is Phillip M. Richards in an essay titled “Phillis Wheatley: The Consensual Blackness of Early African American Writing,” in New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (University of Tennessee Press, 2011)

p.256: “Wheatley deploys this sentimental and aesthetic language vividly in her letters, which embody and enact a form of Christian friendship with her correspondents, moving in much the same way as does Osborn’s writing.  She thus writes her evangelical mentor, the British missionary John Thornton, referring to the Puritan convention of awakening on a sickbed: ‘O that my eyes were more open’d to see the real worth, and true excellence of the word of truth, my flinty heart Soften’d with the grateful dews of divine grace and the stubborn will, and affections, bent on God alone their proper object, and the vitiated palate may be corrected to relish heav’nly things….’ Wheatley’s observations not only describe her spiritual state but signal her shared sensibility of broken will, ambivalence toward the self, internalized authority, and benevolent love of God–all of which establish her membership in the company of saints constituted by Thornton’s missionary group….From her earliest poetry, Wheatley fashioned a literary persona based upon the language of evangelical conversion…”

Here is historian Catherine Brekus in Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America

p.185: “Perhaps the most remarkable female author in the eighteenth century was Phillis Wheatley, a slave who had been kidnapped from Africa as a child.  In order to gain acceptance in the republic of letters, Wheatley emphasized the depth of her Christian faith, and in 1770 she published an elegy lamenting the death of George Whitefield.  Because she was young, female, and a slave when she published her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, in 1773, the volume included a testimonial signed by eighteen of Boston’s leading gentlemen, including the governor, swearing that an ‘uncultivated Barbarian from Africa’ had indeed written her own poems.  No other female author in early America faced the same degree of skepticism or hostility.  Yet as Wheatley made clear in her poems, her authority to write came from her rebirth in Christ–on other words, from God himself.”

I could quote other scholars as well, but I think you get the idea.  Wheatley was an important voice in the 18th-century movement defined by a shared commitment to the new birth.  We can call that community “evangelical,” “New Light,” Whitefieldarian,” or something else, but in the end it was a spiritual fellowship of believers, certainly ensconced within 18th-century views on race, gender and social class, that came together around the shared experience of the new birth.

During the Kidd-Merritt debate, Merritt sought out a few religious studies scholars to bolster his view that it was “weird” to call Wheatley an evangelical.  Under fire from scholars and some of his Twitter followers, he needed to find a usable past quickly.  And he found a few scholars to help him:

It seems like this debate offers an excellent opportunity for historians to teach their students the importance of historical thinking.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez gets it:

Both Bass and Ingersoll assume that Kidd and me are trying to take 21st century evangelical religion and impose it on the 18th century and Wheatley.   We are accused of anachronistic thinking and “pasting” modern evangelicalism onto the 18th-century.  I can’t speak for Tommy Kidd, but I don’t think I was doing what I have been accused of doing.  As I have tried to show in the the posts in this series, there was an 18th-century evangelical movement and Wheatley was part of it.  That’s it.  No agenda except trying my best to interpret Wheatley’s life in its historical context.

Modern scholars of religion may not like the way white men and women used Wheatley, or may not like the fact that her membership in this community of the new birth does not offer them a usable past in their present-day battles against evangelicalism in America, but to suggest she was not an evangelical in the 18th century requires mounting a case against the best Wheatley scholarship and the best scholarship in early American history.

Should Evangelicals Be Defined By Their Spiritual Commitments or Something Else?

George-Whitefield (1)

(This is the second post in a series on the word “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century and today).

In my first post in this three-post series, I made the case that there was a religious movement in the eighteenth-century that can be identified as “evangelical.”  Of course I could never make this case in just one blog post, so I cited several prominent scholars who have made the case in a much more thorough way.

I also noted in that post that the word “evangelical” is a contested term.  Today there are historians who believe that doctrine, theology, or spirituality is not the best way to define the word.  In other words, these scholars believe that the “evangelical” movement in America (and elsewhere?)  is really about something other than religious experience.  It is really about white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism or nationalism (at least primarily).

Tim Gloege is a historian who believes that the definition of  “evangelical” should not be tied primarily to theological. religious, or spiritual principles.  In a January 2018 piece at the old Religion Dispatches, he took a few shots at the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” historian David Bebbington’s four-point definition of what it means to be “evangelical.”  For Bebbington, an evangelical is someone who believes in:

  1. Conversionism: The belief that one must be “born-again” through a conversion experience that will result in a life of following Jesus.
  2. Activism: The belief that one must express one’s born-again faith in the proclamation of the gospel through missionary and social justice efforts.
  3. Biblicism: The view that the Bible is the word of God and the ultimate guide to Christian living
  4. Crucicentrism: The belief that Jesus redeemed humanity through his death on the cross.

Gloege argues that there are many manifestations of Christianity, (and even non-Christian religions) that affirm Bebbington’s four points.  If this is true, he asks, what makes the Bebbington Quadrilateral unique to evangelical religion? (“Muslims convert too,” he writes).  Writing in the context of evangelical support for Donald Trump, Gloege believes that anyone who uses the Bebbington Quadrilateral to define what it means to be “evangelical” is trying to advance an “agenda.” In this case, he casts his net widely.  Those who believe that the Bebbington Quadrilateral is a useful interpretive tool are ignoring the fact that being “evangelical” has less to do with one’s sincerely held religious beliefs and more to do with racism, patriarchy, free-market capitalism, or the policing of sexual ethics.  (I responded to this piece, in the context of present-day evangelicalism, here).

I am not sure if Gloege would say that the Bebbington Quadrilateral is useful for understanding 18th-century evangelicals.  His piece in Religion Dispatches seems to be mostly concerned with twentieth and twenty-first century evangelicals.  (Gloege’s wrote his dissertation and book on Moody Bible Institute). If he does not find the Bebbington Quadrilateral useful to interpret the evangelical movement in the 18th century, he is not alone.  Many historians of the period agree with him, but for very different reasons.

In my last post, I noted that some eighteenth-century historians, including Doug Winiarski, believe that the Bebbington Quadrilateral does not go far enough in defining 18th-century evangelical religion.  But rather than seeing the 18th-century evangelical movement as a guise for racism, patriarchy, or something else, Winiarski thinks Bebbington’s category of “conversionism” is too “flat.”  He thinks that evangelicals in early New England were defined by a spiritually powerful experience of the New Birth that transformed their lives in profound ways–a type of conversion that was much more radical, Holy Spirit-empowered, and instantaneous than the old Puritan “morphology of conversion.”  Thomas Kidd makes a similar argument in his history of the First Great Awakening.  If Gloege wants to apply his Religion Dispatches argument to the 18th-century (and, again, I am not sure he does), he is going to have to engage with these historians and others.

In my view,  the eighteenth-century evangelical movement must be defined primarily by the born-again experience (as Jesus taught in the Bible, as centered on the cross, and as an impetus for evangelism, missionary work, and social justice). This, it seems, is the only way to distinguish someone associated with the evangelical movement from someone who was not.

Gloege says that “a definition should connect to a movement’s most salient features (what sets it apart).”  Agreed.  Were 18th-century evangelicals patriarchal, racist (by today’s definition), entrepreneurial, etc.?  Of course they were.  So were most other 18th-century British-Americans:  Old Lights, Old Sides, Deists, continental Protestants (Lutherans, Huguenots, Dutch Reformed), Catholics, Jews, etc….  Even the Quakers, if recent historiography is correct, were a bunch of wealth-seeking slave-holders who “prayed for their enemies” on Sunday and “preyed on their enemies” during the rest of the week.  I am not suggesting that we should ignore these darker dimensions of eighteenth-century life, but none of them really make evangelicals unique or set them apart from the rest of British provincial culture.  But their religious beliefs do set them apart.  And most people living in the 18th century also believed that the religious beliefs and spiritual practices of evangelicals set them apart.

Another scholar who wants to suggest that “evangelical” is more than a spiritual term is Calvin College historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez.

I embedded this tweet for its final sentence.  Du Mez notes that she is part of a group (“us”) who have been “contesting a (primarily) doctrinal definition” of evangelical religion.  Gloege is part of that group.

In a piece at The Anxious Bench blog, Du Mez historicizes the term “evangelical” in a way Gloege does not..  She writes (along with her co-author Hannah Butler):

Thinking of evangelicalism as a historical and a cultural movement invites closer scrutiny to the centrality of racial identity, patriarchal power, and Christian nationalism in shaping the contours of the movement, and to the politicization of American evangelicalism that has occurred over the past half century.

It’s important to realize that this isn’t the first time “evangelicalism” has been a topic of public conversation. And it’s not the first time that the term has been reinvented. In fact, linguistic analysis reveals multiple shifts in meaning, and these shifts often correlate with spikes in public usage. In other words, people talk about evangelicalism more when its meaning is shifting. (Or, the more people talk about evangelicalism, the more its meaning can shift).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term emerged in Germany and Switzerland as a way to distinguish the Lutheran from the “Reformed,” or Calvinist church. In Germany, “evangelical” came to signify Lutheranism specifically, or Protestantism more generally. Circa 1537, the OED reports that “evangelical” also began to signify being “characteristic of the Gospel dispensation,” and did so until 1875. During the 18th century, “evangelical” also came to specify a particular doctrine of salvation by faith, a definition continuing into the 1890s.

Looking to American history, one can observe shifts in the meaning of the term “evangelical” through corpus analysis, the study of linguistic phenomena through analysis of language corpora, or collections of words.

Again, if we examine evangelical religion historically, should we conclude that it has always been a movement defined primarily by “racial identity, patriarchal power, and Christian nationalism”?  Are these the things that “set evangelicals apart,” to use Gloege’s phrase?  How do we distinguish an 18th-century evangelical from everyone else in the century who believed in white supremacy, patriarchal power, and Christian (British) nationalism?

Once we establish that 18th-century evangelical religion was defined primarily by a belief in the new birth and the spiritual power associated with such an experience, then we can move to a debate over historical continuity.  In other words, we can then advance to a discussion about whether or not the new birth and the life-transforming faith that millions of people claim to have experienced is what defines (primarily) an evangelical today (or in the 19th century or in the 20th century).  A lot of early American historians who study the eighteenth-century, whether they have a stake in twenty-first century religious debates or not, have suggested that such continuity does exist.  For example, Winiarski writes :

Incited by Whitefield and fascinated by miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit–visions, bodily fits, and sudden conversions–countless New Englanders broke ranks with family, neighbors, and ministers who dismissed their religious experiences as delusive enthusiasm. These new converts, the progenitors of today’s evangelical movement, bitterly assaulted the Congregational establishment.

But, of course, this does not mean, as Du Mez notes, that we historians should not also be concerned with change over time.

Finally, these attempts to define evangelical religion as something other than a deep spiritual commitment to an instantaneous and radical new birth remind me of the argument American religious historians have been waging for a long time about the necessity of treating religious belief as a legitimate category of analysis rather than as a guise for something else.

The First Great Awakening, and the larger evangelical movement, as understood in its 18th-century context, was a ultimately a religious movement–a movement about spiritual experience informed by an encounter with God through the new birth.  This encounter, many believed, had the potential to transform a person’s life and launch it in a new direction characterized by service to Jesus Christ.  When historians make it primarily about something else–the coming of the American Revolution, a manifestation of racism and patriarchy, an example of consumer culture–they miss what the movement meant to its participants and they undermine spiritual belief and lived religion as a legitimate category of analysis.

So why am I making such a big deal about how to define 18th-century evangelicals?  Because I will address this question in my next post in the context of the fallout from the Kidd-Merritt debate and the role I played in it.  And yes, Phillis Wheatley will be mentioned!  🙂

Yes, There Was an “Evangelical” Movement in the Eighteenth Century and it Should Be Defined Theologically

Darkness(This is the first post in a series on the word “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century and today).

If the Jonathan Merritt dust-up had a positive result, it was that it got historians thinking again about the meaning of the word “evangelical.”  There has been a lot of good Twitter banter on the subject.

(Caveat:  My criticism of Merritt had less to do with the definition of “evangelical” and more to do with his attack on a historian I respect and the idea of historical expertise in general. If you go to his Twitter page he says that I attacked his credentials and platform.  He is right.  I did criticize his platform, but not because I don’t think he uses it well or it  is bad to have a platform.  I criticized his platform because I wanted to make clear that his Twitter followers and “influencer” accolades do not qualify him to denounce historians like Thomas Kidd, a historian who has spend his whole career studying a subject.  In other words, you cannot simply dismiss decades of scholarship in a few tweets.  But I digress).

In the age of Trump, everyone seems to have a definition of the word “evangelical.”  As Linford Fisher has argued in a recent essay in Religion & American Culture, the meaning of “evangelical” has been contested for a long time.

What is interesting to me is the way that evangelicals and former evangelicals seem to be so invested in the definition of the term.  Everyone is angling for a definition that will support their present-day understanding of American religious life.  Some are ex-evangelicals or progressive evangelicals trying to find a usable past to justify their belief that white evangelicals are racists, patriarchal, too wed to nationalism, etc.  Others are descendants of the neo-evangelical movement that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s and want to find a historic definition of evangelicalism that helps them strengthen that identity in the present.

There is nothing wrong with trying to find a usable past.  The past must always speak to the present in some way.  But when we get caught up in searching for a usable past there is always a danger of forgetting that the past is a foreign country.  This is especially the case when we start to dabble in eighteenth-century evangelical history, the subject of the debate between Kidd and Merritt.  And when you bring an African-American poet like Phillis Wheatley into the mix, the debates will take on added weight.

So let’s start first with the meaning of the word “evangelical” in the 18th-century British Atlantic World.  (I say “British Atlantic World” and not “13 Colonies” because historians of the 18th-century English-speaking world are in almost universal agreement that we cannot understand what is going on in British North America without understanding these colonies as part of a larger culture that spanned the Atlantic and included Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Caribbean, and other so-called British provinces.  Today the students in my “Colonial America” answered a final exam question on this very topic.  My favorite book on this subject is Ned Landsman, From Colonials to Provincials: American Thought and Culture, 1680-1760).

As Fisher, and more recently Daniel Silliman, has noted,  the word “evangelical” has pre-18th century origins.  But in the 1730s and 1740s, a distinct Protestant culture emerged that was centered around a belief in the “new birth” or the “born-again” experience.  The phrase comes from the Gospel of John when Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3).  There was an eighteenth-century religious movement that rose-up around the idea of the “New Birth and the inward-looking pietism that came with such an experience.  Some used the adjective “evangelical” to describe this movement and to separate it from other forms of Christianity that may have still believed in something akin to a born-again experience, but did not privilege it.  (I should add that I am talking here about the word “evangelical.”  The word “evangelicalism” does not appear in any 18th-century works published in America in the 18th century or at least the books, pamphlets, and broadsides that appear in the Evans Early American Imprints database).

For example, in Scotland those who favored the new birth and the Holy Spirit-infused experiential piety that it produced were called, and called themselves, the “Evangelical Party.”  (As distinguished from a “Moderate” Presbyterian party that drew heavily from the Scottish Enlightenment and opposed revivalism).  It is telling that when the champions of evangelical religion who founded the College of New Jersey at Princeton needed a new president in 1768 they turned to the Scottish clergyman John Witherspoon because he was the leader of Scotland’s Evangelical Party.  There was clearly a transatlantic evangelical movement that was discernible and real and it was defined by a commitment to the new birth.

Some historians go even further when using the term “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century context.  Historian Douglas Winiarski is one of them.  Here are a few passages from his Bancroft prize-winning book Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakening in Eighteenth-Century New England (Omohundro Institute/UNC Press, 2017):

p.8: “Darkness Falls on the Land of Light examines the breakdown of New England Congregationalism and the rise of American evangelicalism during the eighteenth century.”

p.15-17: “The…term ‘Whitefieldarians’ comes closest to naming those eighteenth-century Protestants who contemporary historians have identified as evangelicals.”

If I read him correctly, Winiarski thinks the Bebbington Quadrilateral” is weak because it does not do enough to define 18th-century evangelical religion as a predominantly spiritual movement.  (Tommy Kidd makes a similar argument in The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America.  Winiarski writes (p.16-17):

David Bebbington’s frequently cited quadrilateral definition–conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism–masks far more than it illuminates the popular religious cultures of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic.  In New England, Whitefield’s fascination with conversion as an instantaneous event was quite unlike the more traditional seventeenth-century puritan morphology of conversion, which ministers and lay people often conceptualized as a lifelong pilgrimage through the wilderness of the world.  Although provincial Congregationalists were steeped in the scriptures, during the Whitefieldian revivals and the decades that followed new converts such as Hannah Corey learned to think of the Bible as a detextualized voice that pierced their minds with supernatural force…The “people called New Lights” diverged from their puritan ancestors in two specific ways: their preoccupation with Whitefield’s definition of the new birth and their fascination with biblical impulses.  

It appears that those scholars, like Winiarski, who do not have a political or religious stake in the historical meaning of the word “evangelical” today seem to have no problem using the term or identifying it primarily with a theological/spiritual definition.  Winiarski uses “evangelical,” “evangelicalism,” “New Lights,” and “Whitefiedarians” as synonyms.  Whatever “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” means today, it was always understood as a spiritual movement in the eighteenth century.

So Winiarski seems to think that there was definitely some kind of spiritual “movement” that we can describe as “evangelical.”  He is not alone.  These works also make a similar case:

Frank Lambert’s Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Thomas Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2009)

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Eerdmans Publishing, 1991)

Peter Choi, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Eerdmans Publishing, 2018)

Susan O’Brien, “A Transatlantic Community of Saints: The Great Awakening and the First Evangelical Network, 1735-1755,” The American Historical Review (1986)

Timothy Hall, Contested Boundaries: Itinerancy and the Reshaping of the Colonial American Religious World (Duke University Press, 1994)

Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2013).

Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (Inter-Varsity Press,  2011).

John Fea, “Wheelock’s World: Letters and the Communication of Revival in Great Awakening New England,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 2001).

So I think it is safe to say that there was an evangelical movement in the 18th-century.  It revolved primarily around a commitment to the New Birth.  All of the authors above would also agree that changes in consumer culture, print culture, increased human mobility, celebrity, and other non-religious factors became staples of this movement or helped it grow, but these are all secondary factors in explaining what the movement was, in essence, all about.

I will stop there.  In my next post I want to talk about some folks who want to define evangelical as primarily something other than a spiritual movement.  And I also eventually want to discuss how Phillis Wheatley may or may not be related to this eighteenth-century movement.

Stay tuned.

The Author’s Corner with Scott Heerman

51OxW8sArCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Scott Heerman is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Miami. This interview is based on his new book, The Alchemy of Slavery: Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730-1865 ( University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Alchemy of Slavery?

SH:  I began with a question: how do you make a free society? I’m not the first to ask that question, but by focusing on Illinois before the Civil War I found a time and place where we didn’t have a good answer. I knew that slavery existed in Illinois when the French claimed it in the eighteenth century, and that eventually it became a “free state.” Yet I struggled to understand this change, as most of the forces that drove abolition in the north–a powerful free black community, newspapers and pamphlets, religious communities–seemed to be missing. Instead I found that each attempt to abolish slavery in the region, including the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the first and second state constitutions, state supreme court rulings–failed to accomplish that task. In each instance, what I thought should have abolished slavery led only to a new variation on coerced labor taking root. In light of this I found myself forced to rethink many of the organizing concepts of the scholarship: free states and slave states, radical abolitionists and proslavery fire eaters, gradual and immediate emancipation. That this one very important place could confound so much of the conventional story led me to write The Alchemy of Slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Alchemy of Slavery?

SH:  I argue that we need to set aside the idea that slavery was an institution, and instead we need to approach slavery as an adaptable set of power relationships. Slavery was not a status that people held; masters enslaved people using a wide range of ever-changing coercive practices, which for decades allowed them to reinvent slavery in the face of abolition laws.

JF: Why do we need to read The Alchemy of Slavery?

SH: This book shows that slavery and freedom are both historical processes. It is easy to think of slavery as a fixed status, but this book encourages us to think of it as an every    changing power relationship. As a consequence, slavery could look very different over time: Illinois Indians raided and exchanged their captives, Europeans held African-descended people in lifelong chattel conditions, U.S. settlers in Illinois held African Americans as lifelong, uncompensated, servants, and masters kidnapped free people, turning them into slaves. People in each of these conditions were slaves, and yet their lives looked very different. When we recognize just how adaptable the power to enslave people is we can appreciate many of the hallmarks of American history differently.

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

SH: As an undergraduate student, a professor asked me a question that I still think about most days: how do the powerful stay in power? In time, I recognized that various hierarchies existed, both now and in the past, and some of them are seen as legitimate and others of them are seen as unjust. I could not stop wondering: how and why does society sort these various forms of inequality? Most interesting of all: how do kinds of inequality move from just to unjust, from being seen as normative to being seen as an affront to the values of society? It is that question of how the powerful adapt, or don’t, to changing norms in order to stay in power that motivated me to become a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: I am at work on a book project that studies the international kidnapping of freed men and women. I look at cases when enslavers carried freed people, for instance, from the U.S. North to the Caribbean, from the British Caribbean to Havana, and from Haiti to the U.S. South.  It argues that there was a connection between abolition and the rise of more powerful nation states during the early nineteenth century. It is commonplace to argue that Civil War emancipation demanded new forms of state power—chiefly birthright citizenship and Civil Rights legislation that offered a ringing endorsement of black freedom and equality before the law. Yet those developments are almost always cast as a consequence of the wartime experience and crucible of radical reconstruction. Pushing against this trend, my work explores how kidnapping cases inspired new kinds of state action, and pushed ahead new types of governance. As Prime Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries, antislavery activists, and Afro-descended people tangled over these cases they confronted profound questions about the laws of nations. Theories and conceptions of subjecthood and citizenship were at the core of these cases. As various different governments confronted these cases they worked through what it meant to be part of a sovereign nation, and what rights and protections extended to its people.

JF: Thanks, Scott!

Father Junipero Serra is OUT at Stanford

Serra

Here is the Stanford press release:

Stanford will rename some campus features named for Father Junipero Serra, the 18th-century founder of the California mission system, but will retain the Serra name and the names of other Spanish missionaries and settlers on other campus features, based on the recommendations of a university committee of faculty, students, staff and alumni.

The Stanford Board of Trustees accepted the committee’s recommendations to rename certain campus features and also accepted a recommendation by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne to use the opportunity to honor university co-founder Jane Stanford. As a first implementation step, Tessier-Lavigne is initiating a process seeking approval from Santa Clara County and the U.S. Postal Service to rename Serra Mall, the pedestrian and bicycle mall at the front of the Stanford campus that serves as the university’s official address, as “Jane Stanford Way.”

The Serra dormitory and small academic building with the Serra name also will be renamed, with the new names to be determined. However, Serra Street on campus will retain its current name, and the university will pursue new educational displays and other efforts to more fully address the multidimensional legacy of Serra and the mission system in California.

After extensive research and outreach, the committee applied a rigorous set of principles that a previous Stanford committee had developed for considering the renaming of campus features named for historical figures with complex legacies.

Serra’s establishment of the mission system is a central part of California history, and his life’s work led to his canonization by the Roman Catholic Church in 2015. At the same time, the historical record confirms that the mission system inflicted great harm and violence on Native Americans, and Stanford has several features named for Serra even though he played no direct role in the university’s history.

Read the rest here.

Want to learn more about Serra?  I recommend Steven Hackel’s Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father.

Constitution Day Reading

Federalist Papers

Today is Constitution Day.

Here are some history books (and one primary source) on the Constitution that I have found helpful:

The Federalist Papers

Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution

Jack Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution

Pauline Maier, The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Max Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State

Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic

Akhil Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography

Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

Ronald Hoffman, R.I.P.

Hoffman BookI did not know Ron Hoffman well.  He was the Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture at William & Mary when I was coming of age as an early American historian.

I first met Ron in March 1998 on the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  I was a graduate student presenting a paper on Philip Vickers Fithian at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Studies Seminar.  Ron was present at the seminar.  He gave me some great feedback on my paper during the conversation.  Later I learned he drove nearly three hours from Williamsburg to attend the session.  From this point forward, he took an interest in my Fithian project and always seemed to go out of his way to say hello (and get an update on my progress) at conferences.  I always appreciated Ron’s willingness to encourage a graduate student (who did not attend William & Mary) in this way.

Here is the Omohundro Institute obituary for Ronald Hoffman:

The OI is very sad to share the news that Ronald Hoffman, who retired as Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture and Professor of History at William & Mary in 2013, passed away on September 4th.

He is survived by his partner, Sally Mason; his daughter and son-in-law, Maia Hoffman and Avi Melamed; his son and daughter-in-law, Barak Hoffman and Dora Lemus; and his sister, Joanne Giza.

A distinguished scholar of the American Revolution, author or editor of dozens of books, and the editor of the Papers of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the last of the signers to die, Dr. Hoffman was the seventh, and longest serving, Director of the Omohundro Institute.

Born in Baltimore, Dr. Hoffman graduated from Baltimore City College in 1959. His high school career included playing the position of lineman on the football team, which, depending on who is recounting the story, won a fierce contest against a local private school team quarterbacked by a later professional colleague, Professor Peter H. Wood. Following his graduation from City, Ron joined the United States Navy, and served as a Sea Duty Helmsman aboard the USS Newport News, an experience that remained a source of pride to him throughout his life. When his enlistment ended in 1961, he enrolled in Baltimore Junior College and upon finishing his course of study there, completed his undergraduate degree in 1964, at the George Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University). At the urging of a mentor at Peabody, Dr. Hoffman entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he was a member of the seminar directed by the renowned historian Merrill Jensen. He earned his Ph.D. from Wisconsin in 1969 and joined the history department at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he was, during his tenure (1969-1992), Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, then Professor of History. Johns Hopkins University Press published his first book, A Spirit of Dissension: Economics, Politics, and the Revolution in Maryland, in 1973. Dr. Hoffman also co-authored a textbook, The Pursuit of Liberty: A History of the American People, with R. Jackson Wilson, James Gilbert, Stephen Nissenbaum, Donald Scott, and Carville V. Earle (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), and contributed essays and articles to scholarly journals and edited collections.

Beginning in 1978, Dr. Hoffman, at the request of the United States Capitol Historical Society’s founding president, Iowa Congressman Fred Schwengel, convened a series of historical conferences focused on the American Revolutionary and Confederation periods through the creation and ratification of the Constitution and the early years of the new Republic. These meetings produced a remarkable fifteen volumes of essays, edited by Dr. Hoffman, his colleague and collaborator Dr. Peter J. Albert, as well as a number of other scholars as co-editors and published by the University Press of Virginia. Among these is Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, edited by Dr. Hoffman and his longtime friend, fellow University of Wisconsin alumnus, and College Park colleague, the late Dr. Ira Berlin.

Throughout his academic career, Dr. Hoffman served as editor and project director of the Charles Carroll of Carrollton Papers. In 2001 he published, with co-editors Sally D. Mason and Eleanor S. Darcy, the first three of a projected seven volumes. Entitled Dear Papa, Dear Charley: The Peregrinations of a Revolutionary Aristocrat, as Told by Charles Carroll of Carrollton and His Father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, with Sundry Observations on Bastardy, Child-Rearing, Romance, Matrimony, Commerce, Tobacco, Slavery, and the Politics of Revolutionary America, the books won the Maryland Historical Society Book Prize and the J. Franklin Jameson award from the American Historical Association for outstanding editing of historical sources. The previous year he published, in collaboration with Sally D. Mason, a scholarly analysis of the Carroll story entitled Princes of Ireland, Planters of Maryland: A Carroll Saga, 1500-1782. In 2001, the monograph won the Southern Historical Association’s Frank L. and Harriet C. Owlsey Prize and the Library of Virginia’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, and in 2002, the Maryland Historical Society Book Prize. Dr. Hoffman, Dr. Mary C. Jeske, and Ms. Mason were at work on the final four volumes of the Carroll Papers at the time of his death. These volumes will be published by the Maryland Historical Society in 2019.

On his retirement, Dr. Hoffman remembered that leading the Institute had felt to him like “assuming a sacred trust.” The Institute, founded in 1943 and sponsored by William & Mary, publishes the flagship journal in the field, The William and Mary Quarterly, has a book program co-publishing with the University of North Carolina Press, awards fellowships to scholars, and convenes meetings and conferences. Appointed director in 1992, Dr. Hoffman guided the organization through significant changes that helped to advance the field of early American history. Investing extraordinary energy in developing innovative scholarly programs and publications, he inaugurated an annual convening of early Americanists aimed especially at supporting the work of scholars who were just entering the profession. Among the dozens of national and international forums he organized were a series of conferences designed to foster historical scholarship on slavery. These began in 1998, with a meeting to introduce the publication of the W. E. B. Dubois Institute Dataset of Slaving Voyages and included a conference held in Ghana in 2007 to mark the 200th anniversary of British efforts to end the transatlantic slave trade. He played an instrumental role in the intellectual lives and professional development of dozens of leading early American scholars, many of whom held fellowships at the Institute during his tenure. He also shepherded the Institute’s naming gift from Malvern H. and Elizabeth Omohundro.

At Maryland and at William & Mary, Dr. Hoffman was a mentor and advisor to scores of graduate students. His undergraduate and graduate courses on the American Revolution were justly famous among William & Mary students for the depth and breadth of reading he required. He was honored with the Pullen Chair in History at William & Mary from 2004-09. He also served on a number of academic advisory groups and editorial boards.

Dr. Hoffman will be buried at Moshav Sde Nitzan in Israel, long a dream of his. He will be deeply missed by his family, friends, and colleagues, all of whom remember him with abiding affection and gratitude.

On November 6, the Omohundro Institute will host a celebration of Dr. Hoffman’s life from 5:00-7:00 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Sir Christopher Wren Building at William & Mary.

Memorial gifts may be directed to the Omohundro Institute, which sponsors the Ronald Hoffman Postdoctoral Fellowship in his honor. Omohundro Institute, PO Box 8781, Williamsburg, VA, 23187-8781, or contact Shawn Holl at  saholl@wm.edu.

Let’s Remember What Thomas Jefferson Thought About Religious Liberty for Muslims

Jefferson and Religious Liberty

Check out Elahe Izadi‘s piece at The Washington Post.  It quotes several scholars of early American history, Islam, Thomas Jefferson, and religious liberty including Denise Spellberg, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, and John Ragosta.

Here is a taste:

Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and asked that it be one of just three accomplishments listed on his tombstone. The Virginia law became the foundation of the religious freedom protections later delineated in the Constitution.

Virginia went from having a strong state-established church,  which Virginians had to pay taxes to support, to protecting freedom of conscience and separating church and state. Jefferson specifically mentioned Muslims when describing the broad scope of protections he intended by his legislation, which was passed in 1786.

“What he wanted to do was get the state of Virginia out of the business of deciding which was the best religion, and who had to pay taxes to support it,” said Spellberg, a professor of history and Islamic studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

During the bill’s debate, some legislators wanted to insert the term “Jesus Christ,” which was rejected. Writing in 1821, Jefferson reflected that “singular proposition proved that [the bill’s] protection of opinion was meant to be universal.”

He continued:

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo [Hindu], and Infidel of every denomination.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner With L.H. Roper

RoperL.H. Roper is Professor of History at the State University of New York at New Paltz.  This interview is based on his recently edited book The Torrid Zone: Caribbean Colonization and Cultural Interaction in the Long Seventeenth Century Caribbean (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Torrid Zone?

LHR: In 2012, I began a correspondence with Laurie Wood (now at Florida State) in which we lamented both the perennially secondary position the Caribbean occupies in our understanding of ‘colonial America’ and the particular lack of a comparative treatment of the history of the region’s colonization by Europeans.  We decided to do something about this state of affairs and we began recruiting ‘partners in crime’.  Happily, there are a number of young and talented historians who are working on the Caribbean whom we were able to recruit along with several ‘seasoned veterans’.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Torrid Zone?

LHR: The agendas and behavior of Native people had a significant effect on Caribbean history well into the eighteenth century. The Torrid Zone, particularly by virtue of the global extension of the personalities involved in its colonization and their conceptions of society and politics, constituted a fully representative, but not especially distinctive, manifestation of the sensibilities at work in European overseas colonization.

JF: Why do we need to read The Torrid Zone?

LHR: The contributions are filled with insights on the history of the seventeenth-century Caribbean generally and of places such as Jamaica and Suriname particularly.  Since this region constituted the primary target of European interest in the Western Hemisphere at this time, it is impossible to have helpful understanding of the expansion of European interests, including the colonization of North America, or the cultural interactions that this expansion generated—and the effects of these phenomena—without some knowledge of what went on in the Torrid Zone.  The essays also shed helpful light on the networks of merchants and political figures—operating both in the Caribbean and outside of it—who managed European operations in the region and who extended their social and political influence elsewhere.  Readers will learn a good deal about the Native agendas and responses to European activity in the Torrid Zone as well.

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

LHR: Although I was trained nominally as an American historian, I regard myself primarily as a historian of the expansion of overseas European (particularly English) interests and of the cultural interactions this generated.  While I was in graduate school during the ‘Pleistocene Era’, it dawned on me that the best way to comprehend ‘early American history’ was through a better understanding of the social and political worlds in which overseas traders and colonizers operated, from which colonists (and colonizers) derived their worldviews, and with which colonists (perhaps to a surprising degree) maintained close social, political, and economic associations.  This view has only strengthened over the course of my career.

JF: What is your next project?

LHR: I hope to begin work on two (having just finished two books in the past year).  The first is a further investigation of English involvement in the ‘Guinea trade’ and the other is an examination of the European colonization of the region bounded by the Connecticut and Susquehanna Rivers and Chesapeake Bay between 1636 (the founding of the Connecticut colony) and 1741 (the Treaty of Lancaster).

JF: Thanks, Louis!