The Unruly Origins of American Democracy

Election day

George Mason University historian Rosemarie Zagarri explains what democracy looked like in early America.  Here is a taste of her post at Mapping Early American Elections:

Early American elections subvert conventional notions that portray the development of early American democracy as an orderly or systematic affair. In contrast to the well-organized procedures governing voting procedures today, elections during the first few decades of the new nation’s existence were often haphazard affairs. Everything from the location of the polls to the qualifications of the electors to the number of days the polls would be open varied from state to state, and often, from election to election. Sometimes going to polls could be injurious to one’s health, since they were occasionally the scene of riots. Democracy, then, evolved less by design and more from a constant push-and-pull between those seeking to cast their ballots and those who made the rules about when, where, and how the ballots were to be cast.

Article I, Section 4 of the US Constitution gave state legislatures the power to determine “the Times, Places and Manner” of federal elections, along with the power they already possessed to determine rules for state elections. Suffrage requirement for the lower houses of their legislatures also determined requirements for the federal franchise. As a result, the variation in election rules and procedures makes the task of generalization very difficult—and made the process of running the newly established federal government even more challenging.

There was, for example, no uniformly established day on which to hold elections. In New England and New York, for example, elections tended to occur in the spring for legislative gatherings that would convene later in the year. In the Mid-Atlantic states and Upper South elections were often held in the late summer or the early fall. South Carolina and Georgia preferred late fall elections, although they were soon moved to October to accommodate Congress’s schedule.

Before the election, candidates tried to meet potential voters and get their name into circulation. At this time, however, they seldom made formal speeches or directly solicited votes. Instead, they might make their views known through letters to the local newspaper or rely on friends and allies to celebrate their patriotic virtues and sterling leadership qualities. At least until the second decade of the nineteenth century, “electioneering,” as it was called, was disdained. Candidates did, however, have other ways of persuading their potential constituents. Although officially prohibited, the custom of “treating,” especially prevalent in the South, meant that in the days prior to the election candidates might invite voters to picnics featuring generous servings of barbecue, washed down by copious amounts of liquor. Prior to the 1758 election for the Virginia House of Burgesses, George Washington reportedly served over 160 gallons of rum punch, wine, beer, and other spirits to potential voters. Perhaps not surprisingly, the young Washington triumphed over his opponent.

Read the rest here.

The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice

Montville

My alma mater

Earlier today University of Western Washington history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner.  Yesterday he visited the pages of the Washington Post to talk more about public education.  As Neem correctly notes, the founding fathers believed that public schools were the foundation of a virtuous republic:

Here is a taste of his piece “Early America had school choice. The Founding Fathers rejected it.”

During the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility. Parents who could afford it taught their children at home, hired itinerant men or women who “kept” school for a fee, or sent older children to charter schools called academies. Most Americans had little formal schooling.

The revolution transformed how some Americans thought about education. These Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike. Many state constitutions included clauses like Georgia’s in 1777: “Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State.” But how to execute this directive? The best way, American leaders ultimately concluded, was to encourage local public schools and to limit the growth of academies.

As early as the 1780s, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams asserted that academies increased inequality because well-off families chose them over local district schools. Citizens, Adams argued, “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.” Others shared his concern. New York Gov. George Clinton argued in 1795 that academies served “the opulent” and that all children deserved access to “common schools throughout the state.”

Read more here.

The Author’s Corner with Kate Brown

brownKate Brown is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Huntington University. This interview is based on her new book, Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law (University Press of Kansas, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law?\

KB: I have been fascinated with Alexander Hamilton since high school—long before Hamilton, the musical, made him a household name—so it was pretty much guaranteed that Hamilton would be a primary subject for my first book.  When I realized in graduate school that historians virtually ignore the legal side of Alexander Hamilton’s career—that is, Hamilton as legal and constitutional theorist, Hamilton as an in-demand lawyer, Hamilton’s thriving New York legal practice—I knew that I wanted to explore his accomplishments through the lens of the law.  This book does just that.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law?

KB: 1) We are familiar with Hamilton’s political efforts to shape policy in the young republic; my research demonstrates how Hamilton used common law and constitutional law, more so than politics, to successfully accomplish his policy goals and statecraft.  (Each chapter details a particular Hamiltonian policy goal and the legal toolbox Hamilton used to accomplish it.)

 2) Alexander Hamilton’s legal legacy—that is, his influence on the jurisprudence of federalism, individual rights, judicial and executive power—is far-reaching and foundational, extending well into the nineteenth and occasionally the twentieth centuries.  For these reasons, Hamilton should be considered a true founding father of American law.  

JF: Why do we need to read Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law? 

KB: My insights into the ways Hamilton used law to accomplish his policy goals—achieving unity through union, creating economic prosperity and public creditworthiness, encouraging commerce and manufacturing, and developing judicial and executive authority, to name a few—offer a wholly novel perspective on Hamilton. Scholars and biographers before me had largely ignored or written off Hamilton’s legal career, yet I demonstrate that not only was his legal practice influential, but Hamilton’s legal legacy lasted for decades after his death.  By writing this analytical biography through the lens of law, I offer a completely unique perspective and analysis of an otherwise well-known founding statesman.

 (A quick note:  you do not have to be familiar with law or be a lawyer to understand Hamilton’s legal arguments and the legal history I’m writing here.  I minimize jargon, I explain my arguments in terms that do not require legalese, and I always emphasize the big, important points about Hamilton’s legal legacy over any legal minutiae.) 

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

KB: I caught the early-republic bug in high school, when I found Hamilton to be so remarkable (and seemingly uncelebrated, as compared to his contemporaries like Washington and Jefferson).  I did not formally decide to make history my profession, however, until I decided to go back to graduate school after a first career in corporate America. But once I decided to become a historian, there was no doubt that I would study American history, with a sub-specialty in legal history. Not only is American history fascinating, but its continued relevance for our informed understanding of twenty-first century politics and current events makes the study of history an indispensable public service. 

JF: What is your next project? 

KB: When researching Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law, I noticed that Hamilton kept making appearances in this important, and really unique, appellate court in New York state:  the Court for the Correction of Errors.  This court was so distinctive because it was the highest court in the state—trumping New York’s Supreme Court, and deciding hugely important cases dealing with matters relating to commerce, marine insurance, federalism, and individual rights—and yet it was consciously modelled after England’s House of Lords. The Court of Errors (as contemporaries called it) mixed the judicial and legislative powers inextricably—both the highest judges in the state and the state senators presided over the Court of Errors making judicial decisions.  And so, for almost 70 years, this court shattered norms about the separation of powers—and that is one reason I am so intrigued by it—but it also attracted the best legal talent in the early republic (including, of course, Hamilton).  The Court of Errors was a unique venue for lawyerly talent, as well as a recruiting ground of sorts for the U.S. Supreme Court.  Despite all of this, scholars have ignored the court and its influence on judicial power in the early republic.  I intend to change that by writing an institutional biography of the court, the legal professionals arguing in and presiding over it, and its formidable impact on early-republic jurisprudence

JF: Thanks, Kate!

 

 

Nimrod Hughes and the Apocalypse of 1812

NimrodNimrod Hughes believed that one-third of the world’s population would be destroyed on June 4, 1812.  Read all about it at Past is Present, the blog of the American Antiquarian Society:

Hughes’s prophetic pamphlet was titled A solemn warning to all the dwellers upon earth, given forth in obedience to the express command of the Lord God, as communicated by Him, in several extraordinary visions and miraculous revelations, confirmed by sundry plain but wonderful signs, unto Nimrod Hughes, of the county of Washington, in Virginia, upon whom the awful duty of making this publication, has been laid and enforced; by many admonitions and severe chastisements of the Lord, for the space of ten months and nine days of unjust and close confinement in the prison of Abingdon, wherein he was shewn, that the certain destruction of one third of mankind, as foretold in the Scriptures, must take place on the fourth day of June, in the year of our Lord 1812. In it, Hughes claimed to have received apocalyptic visions from God during a recent imprisonment. A Solemn Warning was a bestseller, and many editions were published from mid-1811 into 1812, including at least six in English and two in German. On October 25, 1811, the Carlisle Gazette noted that “[Nimrod Hughes’s] prophecies are eagerly sought after from every corner, and the printers are hardly able to keep pace with the uncommon demand.” The popularity of this pamphlet eventually spawned a massive assault against Nimrod Hughes and his prophetic pretensions in the press.

Read the entire piece here.

The best thing I have read on Nimrod Hughes and people like him is Susan Juster’s Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution.

More “Good Feelings”

Independence_Day_Celebration_in_Centre_Square

Last week we did a few posts on Sara Georgini’s series at the U.S. Intellectual History blog on “The Era of Good Feelings.”  Today we call your attention to Erick Trickey’s piece at Smithsonian.com.  Here is a taste:

Monroe won the 1816 election in a landslide and developed a plan to, in his words, “prevent the re-organization and revival of the federal party” and “exterminate all party divisions in our country.” His motives were mixed. Like Washington, he believed that political parties were unnecessary to good government, but he was also furious at the wartime Federalist secessionist movement. He froze out the Federalists, gave them no patronage, and didn’t even acknowledge them as members of a party. But publicly, Monroe made no partisan comments, instead appealing to all Americans on the basis of patriotism. “Discord does not belong to our system,” he declared in his inaugural address. “Harmony among Americans… will be the object of my constant and zealous attentions.”

 

Emulating Washington’s tours of the nation as president, Monroe set out on his first goodwill tour on June 1, 1817. He spent all summer touring the nation, traveling by steamboat and carriage and on horseback. Like politicians today, he shook hands with aging veterans and kissed little kids. He toured farms, hobnobbed with welcoming committees, and patiently endured endless speeches by local judges.

Boston was the biggest test of Monroe’s goodwill. Massachusetts was the nation’s citadel of Federalism, and it had voted for Monroe’s opponent, Rufus King, in 1816. But Boston seized the chance for reconciliation, greeting Monroe with boys clothed in mini-versions of Revolutionary attire and 2,000 girls in white dresses, decorated with either white or red roses, to symbolize the reconciliation of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.

The night of his victorious appearance on Boston Common, Monroe attended a dinner hosted by Massachusetts Governor John Brooks. To his surprise, other guests included John Adams, the Federalist ex-president, and Timothy Pickering, the former Federalist secretary of state who had recalled Monroe from his diplomatic post in Paris in 1796. “People now meet in the same room who would before scarcely pass the same street,” marveled Boston’s Chronicle and Patriot newspaper.

Boston swooned. On July 12, the Columbian Centinel, an ardent Federalist newspaper, published a headline, “Era of Good Feelings,” that would define Monroe’s presidency. “During the late Presidential Jubilee,” the story began, “many persons have met at festive boards, in pleasant converse, whom party politics had long severed.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner With Tom Cutterham

CutterhamTom Cutterham is a lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. This interview is based on his new book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic  (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: When I started out as a graduate student in 2010 I wanted to write a book that showed just how very wrong Sarah Palin and the Tea Party were about the founders’ conception of the state. Then I realised Max Edling had already written that book. But while I’d been reading through what Congressmen and pamphleteers were writing in the 1780s I became more and more interested not just in their explicitly political ideas, but in the ways they expressed anxieties about status and stability. The founding really was a revolution in favour of government, but what they wanted government to do, and what they wanted government to protect, were really not the things that I’d expected — so that’s what I wrote my thesis on, and that’s what became the book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: It argues that a hodge-podge of revolutionary elites formed themselves into something resembling a national ruling class over the course of the 1780s, largely as a result of their collective need to respond to what they saw as dangerously levelling and “licentious” democratic movements. On a slightly more meta level, it also tries to show how important political and moral concepts like “justice” itself are shaped by forms of (and struggles for) institutional and discursive power — so you can’t really understand ideas without social relations, or vice versa.

JF: Why do we need to read Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: So, so often I see accounts of the American Revolution skip merrily from Yorktown to Philadelphia, 1781 to 1787, with narry a glance at the years in between. Hamilton the musical does it in a few verses of one song. I hope people will read Gentlemen Revolutionaries and at the very least, get a sense of just how crucial the 1780s were. I also hope it will change the way they think about the process of revolution and the founding, both as a social and cultural epoch and as a series of political events. For one thing, Gentlemen Revolutionaries aims to force people to stop taking debates about the Constitution as the be-all and end-all of political struggle in that period. Of course, you also need to read the book for Noah Webster being a whiny brat, Joel Barlow helping to write a surreal anti-democratic poem, and a mini-revolution in Rhode Island that pretty much no-one ever talks about.

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

TC: I wanted to be a historian before I wanted to be an American historian. The latter part came towards the end of my undergraduate degree when I was studying the “Age of Jefferson” with Peter Thompson, who became my graduate advisor. Apart from my lamentable inability to learn ancient Greek, which meant I couldn’t be the historian of Alexander’s conquests that I kind of had my eye on being, I think the political context of both the War on Terror, and the global financial crisis (which peaked right in the middle of my undergraduate course) had the effect of always keeping my eyes on the United States as basically the epicentre of world events. That’s how it seemed to me at the time, so trying to understand the United States and its global impact was what I wanted to do as a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

TC: I’m writing a book about the age of bourgeois revolutions in the Atlantic world, which also happens to centre on the remarkable, transatlantic lives of Angelica Schuyler and her husband John Church. Since I began the research in the summer of 2014, Angelica has achieved a much bigger profile! But her life is so much more than her relationship with Alexander Hamilton: it took her to a Paris on the threshold of its own revolution, into the circles of radical reformist politics in London, and back to New York in time to see the age of Federalist dominance come crashing down. In Gentlemen Revolutionaries, I tried to give a sense of character and spirit in the people I wrote about, but this new project is an opportunity to do that in a much more sustained way. It’s about using individual lives to uncover massive structures and processes. Ultimately, the historical is always personal.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

Missionaries in the “Era of Good Feelings”

The Author's Corner with Emily Conroy-KrutzOn Tuesday, we called your attention to Sara Georgini’s series on the “Era of Good Feelings” at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog.

The series continues with a piece by Emily Conroy-Krutz of Michigan State University. Some of you may recall that Conroy-Krutz visited the Author’s Corner in September 2015 to discuss her book Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic.

In her post at the USIH blog she discusses “Missionary Intelligence and Americans’ Mental Map of the World” in the Era of Good Feelings.

Here is a taste:

Throughout its history, an important part of the foreign missions movement was communicating what they termed “missionary intelligence,” sharing information about the world with their domestic supporters who might never leave their home communities. By the 1830s, missionary promoters were convinced that it was only American ignorance about the world that prevented the mission movement from receiving the high levels of support that they felt it deserved. The solution to such a quandary was for the foreign mission movement to continue to educate the country about the world at large. Geographic, ethnographic, and political information about the world made up much of the published materials of the mission movement of this era.

This educational role reveals the ways that missionaries saw themselves as important mediators between the world and the nation. Like trade and commercial networks of the same era, the foreign mission movement connected the United States to a much larger world. If we want to understand the mental map of early 19th century Americans, the foreign missions movement provides us with a helpful point of entry. And if we want to understand the diplomacy of the early republic, we ought to think more about these missionaries.

Read the entire post here.

The Erie Canal: Religion and America’s “First Great Social Space”

Erie

Lockport, NY on the Erie Canal, 1839 (Wikipedia Commons)

In The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society I wrote about the way the ABS used water as a metaphor to describe its work during the early 19th century:

The ABS owed owed much of its distribution success to burgeoning American infrastructure.  The construction of the Erie Canal and other canals reduced by months the time it took to send Bibles from New York to growing river and lake cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis.  ABS packages traveled down the Ohio or Mississippi and along the tributaries extending from these mighty rivers.  A representative from the Pittsburgh Bible Society described ABS packages as floating “messengers of salvation,” making visits to the “huts of the poor and destitute” on the frontier.  Fitting with a nation committed to building itself through travel across rivers, lakes, and canals, the ABS and its auxiliaries often used water metaphors to describe the distribution process.  The Bible traveled along “little streams” that flowed into the “mighty river” of the Christian nation that the ABS hoped to forge.  The distribution of the Bible was like the opening of a great “flood gate” that poured through the “arid regions” of the country, serving as a “streamlet to water every plant.”  The managers of the Indiana Bible Society, using a passage from the Book of Ezekiel, described the process of distribution as “Holy Water” issued from the “Sanctuary” that “spread wide and flowed deep, and all things lived wheresoever the waters came.” Both literally and figuratively, the ABS was using water to link remote and scattered settlements into a Bible nation.

A few years before I started working on The Bible Cause, I was asked to appear on a radio show to talk about the relationship between early American religion and the Erie Canal. I declined the offer.  I was busy at the time and I did not think I had much to say on the subject.  When they asked me if I knew of anyone else who might be qualified to appear on the program I wish I knew about the work of S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate.

Check out the Hamilton College religious studies professor’s recent piece at Religion News Service, “The Eric Canal and the birth of American Religion.”

Here is a taste:

The first great social space in the United States was not Boston Common, William Penn’s Philadelphia squares or L’Enfant’s great avenues of Washington, D.C.

It was an artificial river, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, cutting across New York state.

Like the Silk Road in Asia, the Erie Canal not only established physical links across geographic regions, it also remade the social and religious lives of everyone it touched.

Albany newspapers, Genesee flour, Syracuse salt and Western timber traveled on the canal alongside theater groups, former slaves, tourists, industrialists and religious revivalists. This “one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne phrased it, exceeded its transportation uses to become an empire builder, a political-economic superpower that was inextricable from a spiritual empire.

Physical work on the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, when upstate New York was one vast wilderness in the eye of the young nation. Within three decades of its opening this “psychic highway” cultivated experimental spiritual groups, including the Mormons, the Adventists, spiritualists, followers of a revived apocalypticism and utopian communal societies such as the Oneida Community, with the Amana Colony and the Shakers passing through. The emotion-laden revivals of the Second Great Awakening also ignited along the way, giving rise to the evangelicalism that we know today.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Dawn Peterson

PeterDawn Peterson is Assistant Professor of History at Emory University.  This interview is based on her new book Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DP: I came to the adoption stories covered in Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion thirteen years ago. I had entered graduate school in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the United States’ subsequent “war on terror” and initially wanted to write about how discourses of race and family (particularly those emerging around white 9-11 families) supported imperial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as against immigrant communities and communities of color within this country. Yet after reading Michael Paul Rogin’s work on Andrew Jackson while in my third year of graduate school, I was compelled to go in search of the stories that inspired this book.

New to American Indian studies and early U.S. history, I was struck by one of Rogin’s footnotes, which indicated that, during the United States’ rapid expansion into Indian territories in the first decades of the nineteenth century, several white men, including Andrew Jackson, adopted American Indian children. I couldn’t stop thinking about these white adopters and Indian adoptees in the early U.S. Republic and kept traveling to archives to learn more about them. The research I uncovered showed me that, from the earliest moments of the early Republic’s founding, discourses of family and race played a central role in U.S. nation-making and imperial warfare, in this case against Native communities and enslaved people of African descent. I wanted to understand why this was the case and, just as centrally, how people shaped their lives and their communities in the face of U.S. imperial violence.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DP: Indians in the Family argues that pan-Indian unity movements solidifying in response to British-American and U.S. territorial expansion during the latter half of the eighteenth century collided with U.S. citizens’ ideas about race, family, slavery, and freedom to give rise to the imperial idea that Indian people and their homelands could—and should—be adopted into the free white populace of the early U.S. Republic. As the United States expanded its territories west, including those of slaveholding Southerners, this imperial idea subsequently informed a series of intimate struggles between U.S. whites, adopted Indian people, and enslaved people of African descent up through the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

JF: Why do we need to read Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DPAs the current president seeks to revive and celebrate the memory of early U.S. elites such as Andrew Jackson, Indians in the Family reveals the profound violence that propelled these figures to prominence. While many have argued that white impulses such as Jackson’s to adopt Native children are a sign of benevolence, the adoption stories that unfold in the book indicate that both ruling white men and everyday citizens within the United States saw themselves as entitled to own the material resources—and the very lives—of those deemed racially “inferior,” including Native children, not to mention people of African descent. Indeed, the fascinating, compelling, and even horrifying interactions between U.S. whites, Native people, and African Americans indicate that the law and culture of the United States was never oriented around freedom, democracy, or social justice, but was there to prop up white supremacy in general, and white nuclear families in particular. Just as importantly, just as the book illuminates the forms of violence historically supporting and emboldening “white” families in the United States, it shows the complex negotiations people of American Indian and African descent made to claim their bodies, their communities, and their lands as their own.

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

DPI decided to become an American historian because I needed to learn the deep roots of U.S. imperial and white supremacist policies as well as the various resistance strategies that have challenged them. I felt that in order to live ethically in the world that surrounded me, I had to both understand the mechanisms informing European-descended peoples’ vision of themselves as more worthy of material resources and physical safety than anyone else and, as a white women who materially benefits from this history of violence, engage with and support the life-affirming practices that seek to dismantle colonialism.

JF: What is your next project?

DP: My next project continues to explore Native history and its intersections with early U.S. imperialism. In it, I examine how Southeast Indian women navigated extractive U.S. economic policies that aimed to strip Native communities of their economic independence and, in turn, expand Southern slavery into their territories. Focusing on women’s roles in agricultural production, as well as their savvy in local and international trade, I seek to better understand Native women’s efforts in maintaining the economic vibrancy of their communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Southeast.

JF: Thanks, Dawn!

The Author’s Corner with Jason Opal

OpalJason Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University.  This interview is based on his new book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Avenging the People?

JO: I had always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson and his intense following in the United States, especially in the wake of his controversial invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida in 1818. I was also struck by the tone and vehemence of the Congressional debates that followed in early 1819. The pro-Jackson representatives talked about the “laws of nations” and the “rights of nature,” suggesting that Old Hickory symbolized a new claim to national sovereignty within the brutal world he saw.

But what made me want to dig deeper was what happened right after these debates—not the bitter controversy over slavery in Missouri, but the severe economic crisis that lasted from 1819 to 1822. Here, Jackson was an arch-conservative foe of public banks, stay laws, and other assertions of democratic sovereignty against international “laws” of commerce. Here, he rejected some of the most popular—and, in some sense, nationalistic—measures of his day. This just did not fit with the traditional view of Jackson as a patriotic champion and democratic reformer. Nor did it align with the usual critiques of Jackson, which stress his hostility to native peoples and black Americans.

So, I wanted to offer a new look at the towering enigma from Tennessee, one that stayed as close as possible to primary sources (rather than historiographical debates) and that scrutinized Jackson’s early career and political education (rather than his legendary times in the White House). I did not intend to besmirch Jackson, nor to condemn his fans. I just wanted to see what he was about, and to understand why so many Americans loved him so fiercely.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Avenging the People?

JO: I argue that Jackson led and embodied one version of American nationhood—of the American people as a nation who shared blood—that grew out of the long struggle with the British Empire and its native and black proxies during the post-Revolutionary decades. This kind of nationhood asserted American sovereignty vis-à-vis its enemies, including the right to avenge American blood around the globe, while restricting their sovereignty in times and places of peace, that is within the society they reluctantly composed.

JF: Why do we need to read Avenging the People?

JO: Especially since the United States, unlike most western democracies, still functions according to its first written Constitution (with amendments), it is always important to study the Founding era. In a way, this history is not history at all, but a kind of ongoing past.

Jackson was not one of the Founders of 1787, but he was probably the single most important figure in the later, longer rise of “democratic” models of American nationhood and popular sovereignty. Understanding that is especially important now that President Trump repeatedly and (I think) sincerely invokes Jackson’s name to authorize an “America First” course of action.

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

JO: I have loved history for as long as I can remember and was determined to become a history professor by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade. (One viewing of Les Misérables at the Shubert Theatre in Boston clinched it.) I honestly can’t imagine anything more compelling than the debatable record of what people have done and what it all means.

I decided to study the early United States after I took Mary Beth Norton’s class on the American Revolution at Cornell in the spring of 1996. I turned to cultural and social history after working with Jane Kamensky at Brandeis in 1999. Inspiring teachers have that effect!

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Moving to Montreal in 2009, right when I was starting this project, gave me a new vantage point on American history. It also revealed the importance of other languages, which had always been a weak point for me. I’m comfortable at last in French and am now studying Portuguese, both of which will help for my new book project, a global history of Barbados. As many early Americanists have shown, this island was the center of the early English empire and the starting point for its seventeenth-century turn to black slavery. I want to retell the island’s long ordeal by drawing in the associated histories of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British empires and of the many African nations that later gave rise to the Bajan people.

I’m also working on two collaborative projects. The first is a collection of essays on the “Patriot” rebellions of the late 1830s along the US-Canadian border. I’m writing about the economic priorities that underlay US-British rapprochement and that helped to doom the Patriots. Maxime Dagenais of McMaster University and Julien Mauduit of Université du Québec à Montréal are editing this book, which I hope will reach people in both French and English Canada and in my native country. Second, I’m writing a history of epidemic diseases and the American people with my dad, Dr. Steven Opal of the Brown University School of Medicine.

JF: Thanks, Jason

*Hamilton* in the *Journal of the Early Republic*

hamilton

Over at Professor Park’s Blog, historian Benjamin Park calls our attention to a historian’s roundtable on Hamilton published in the latest issue of The Journal of the Early Republic.

Joanne Freeman, Andrew Shocket, Heather Nathans, Marvin McAllister, Benjamin Carp, and Nancy Isenberg contributed to the roundtable.

Here is a taste of Park’s post:

But is Hamilton historically accurate? Benjamin Carp says that might be the wrong question to ask. Attendees should know that it’s not accurate history–the characters are breaking out into song and dance, after all. Rather than wondering if it is “good history,” we should rather ask, “is it good for historians?” (292) At its best, the play asks intriguing questions regarding how history and myth are constructed. It is left to historians to take advantage of the doors that are opened.

Nancy Isenberg, as you might expect, is not as optimistic. She worries that by merely celebrating the play, historians are abdicating their duty to hold popular memory accountable. She says the historical errors in Hamilton are not peripheral, but “massive” (296). The play distorts Hamilton’s personality and, especially, his commitment to power structures. (I especially enjoyed her discussion of the “faux-feminism” politics in the play [299].) Hamilton is not helping the promotion of accurate and useful history. “Americans ought to feel uncomfortable about their collective past,” she concludes. “We look foolish otherwise, as cheerleaders of American exceptionalism” (303).

Read the entire post here.

The Daring Women of Philadelphia

Daring Women

I am in Philadelphia today.  This morning I was interviewed for a documentary film on women, religion, and anti-slavery in the early American Republic (1789-1848) titled “The Daring Women of Philadelphia.”  The Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmakers at History Making Productions are producing the film.

I don’t pretend to be a historian of women in the early republic.   There will be many other historians in the film who will speak authoritatively on this topic.  I was asked to participate for the purpose of providing general background information about the Second Great Awakening, benevolent societies, and the religious impetus behind moral reforms movements in the early 1800s.  I have no idea if anything I said was useful or will make the cut, but it was fun talking about Charles Finney’s visit to Philadelphia, the Orthodox-Hicksite Quaker schism, Lucretia Mott, “moral suasion,” and the American Bible Society (of course).

Stay tuned.

More on the Trump-Jackson “Bromance”

OpalThis piece comes from McGill University history professor J.M. Opal, author of the forthcoming Avenging People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation.

Here is a taste of his piece in the New York Daily News:

Bottom line: The Civil War began because of the aggressive expansion of slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, not the tariff disputes of the 1820s and 1830s. If Jackson and the Democrats had continued to run the country, there might have been no Civil War — but there would have been a lot more slavery, for a lot longer. The United States would have become like Cuba and Brazil, weighed down by slavery well into the late 1800s, long after Britain (in 1834) and France (in 1848) had done away with it.

Why does this matter? Trump’s quasi-history hurts us in two ways. First, it glosses over the terrible fact of slavery. To hear it from Trump, Jackson had nothing to do with slavery, which is a bit like saying that Donald Trump has nothing do with real-estate or casinos. And when we forget about slavery, we overlook the terrible effects it had not just on black Americans but also on the overall development of our democracy.

Second, Trump’s version of history only allows men like him to make a difference. Only strongmen matter. Only they can make America great again.

That was not true in the mid-1800s, and it is not true now. Slavery was finally destroyed in our country because of the combined efforts of white abolitionists, black rebels, devout Christians, Yankee trouble-makers, and the Union Army. Abraham Lincoln was pushed to action by people less powerful and more radical than he was.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Accept Jesus as Your Savior! Vote for Me!

Today in my United States history survey course we talked about democracy in early 19th-century America. When I lecture on this topic I try to show my students how the process of democratization influenced virtually every dimension of American life in this period.

After I talk about the Second Great Awakening and its free-will approach to salvation (drawing heavily from Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity), I show the students this image from the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801:

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Then we talk about democratic political reforms such as the caucus system, universal manhood suffrage, and the rise of popular political campaigning.

I then show them George Bingham 1854 painting “Stump Speaking”

Bingham

When we look at these pictures together sometimes it is hard to tell which speaker is trying to win souls and which speaker is trying to win votes.  Whatever the case, both men are appealing to the democratic sensibilities of the American people.  The people have the choice to accept or reject the Gospel and/or accept or reject a particular candidate.  This is democracy.

The Author’s Corner with Adam Jortner

Blood From the Sky.jpgAdam Jortner is Associate Professor of History at Auburn University. This interview is based on his new book, Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Blood from the Sky?

AJ: I was trying to write about conversion, and I kept running into miracles. Reports of supernatural occurrences pop up all over the early republic, but historians usually write about these things as color commentary, not as a subject.

So I wondered what would happen if I gathered all these reports together and took them seriously—does the presence of an emergent supernaturalism tell us something about life in the early U.S.? And it turns out it does.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Blood from the Sky?

Miracles mattered: as the meaning of the supernatural changed in the early republic, religious thought and practice adapted to a revitalized world of wonders and prodigies. At the same time, there was a political response that denied the validity of miracles and sought to expunge them from the body politic, so that the rise of miracles prompted the growth of American sects and a forgotten age of political invective against supernatural belief that sought to destroy those sects.

JF: Why do we need to read Blood from the Sky?

AJ: Blood from the Sky asks questions about religion and citizenship, and America is once again at a crossroads regarding religion and citizenship. What did the founding generation think about religious beliefs? What kinds of beliefs were beyond the pale? What kind of beliefs percolated and organized under conditions of religious freedom? And under what conditions does dislike of a religion translate into violence against that religion? I think it’s a very timely book, although I wish it wasn’t.

But Blood from the Sky is not just a book about politics. It’s also an effort to demonstrate that a vast corpus of historiography on miracles and the supernatural is applicable to American history. I think American historians have largely pushed the supernatural out of our post-revolutionary narrative, but while interpretations of the supernatural changed, they remained a critical part of American religious and cultural life. Blood from the Sky is therefore also an effort at historical reclamation, trying to demonstrate that healings, angelic visitations, visions, and mystical turnips are not just humorous anecdotes, but important sites of historical analysis.

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

AJ: I was an actor for several years before I became a historian, so I can say I went into academia for the money.

JF: What is your next project?

AJ: I’m continuing my work on religion and citizenship, trying to understand how states and localities defined religious liberty and how they enacted ideas of the United States as a “Christian nation.” To do that, you really need to look at how non-Christian whites in the U.S. practiced their religion and sought to establish their freedom—which essentially means you need to look at the story of the Jews in early America. My next project examines Judaism and citizenship in the early republic, with particular emphasis on the famed Jew Bill of Maryland, which sought in 1818 to give Jews the right to hold public office. It didn’t pass.  

JF: Thanks, Adam!

Show Your Support for the Papers of Martin Van Buren

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A little over a year ago, Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee launched the Papers of Martin Van Buren.

Mark Cheathem, one of the directors of the project, informs us that the Tennessee legislature is considering funding this effort and you can help make it happen.

Cheathem explains it all in a post at his blog Jacksonian America:

As regular readers know, Cumberland University launched the Papers of Martin Van Buren project last February. We have spent the last 13 months working hard to organize the project and begin transcribing Series 1 documents.

In an effort to move the project forward, our state representative has introduced Amendment #59 to the Tennessee Higher Education funding bill (House Bill #0511; Senate Bill #0483), which seeks to provide $250,000 in non-recurring funding for the project. Among other things, these funds will allow us to hire full-time editors and pay students to work on the project.

If you are a Tennessee resident and you think this project is worth supporting with taxpayer money, you can help by calling or emailing your state representative and senator and expressing your support for Amendment #59 to the Tennessee Higher Education funding bill (House Bill #0511; Senate Bill #0483). You can easily find both state representatives and senators at this link.

If you are out of state, your voice likely will not count as much, but the project could still use your support. You can contact Rep. Mark Pody’s office (Rep.Mark.Pody@capitol.tn.gov or 615-741-7086) or Sen. Mae Beavers’ office (Sen.Mae.Beavers@capitol.tn.gov or 615-741-2421), and express your support for Amendment #59 to the Tennessee Higher Education funding bill (House Bill #0511; Senate Bill #0483).

Projects such as the Van Buren Papers usually cannot survive solely on university funding, so federal or state money is crucial to helping them exist. For a new project such as ours, it’s imperative that we receive some kind of external funding. Your support would be very beneficial, and I would be grateful if you would take a few minutes out of your day to make a phone call or send an email.

The Author’s Corner with Richard Brown

Self Evident TruthsRichard Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on his new book, Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Self-Evident Truths?

RB: I wrote Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War because I wanted to understand how men who declared “all men are created equal” could launch a nation that maintained slavery and other forms of privilege: religious, gender, and class especially.  Was the Declaration simply a fraud, or was the founders’ statement of equality intended seriously–and if it was serious, to what extent was that goal realized?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Self-Evident Truths?

RB: SelfEvident Truths argues that providing equal rights was a goal for some in the founding generation; but existing customs and institutions blocked realization of equal rights. Moreover the commitment to individual rights included a commitment to heritable private property, which was and remains a barrier to the actual possession of equal rights.

JF: Why do we need to read Self-Evident Truths?

RB: People need to read Self-Evident Truths so as to understand the founding of the United States, its history, and our own times. People need to comprehend how the ideal of equal rights was created and the extent to which Americans have, or have not, made equal rights a reality.

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

RB: I became committed to the study of American history as a college sophomore because I believed it would help me understand American society, its trajectory, and my place in it.

JF: What is your next project?

RB: During my career I have moved back and forth between close, microhistorical studies and broad interpretive works, sometimes–as in Self-Evident Truths–combining the two.  In my next work I plan to narrate and analyze the great fire that in 1811 destroyed most of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and the separate trials ten years apart wherein two teen-aged brothers were convicted and sentenced for arson, one to five years in prison, the other to death.

JF: Thanks, Richard!

The Author’s Corner with Craig Thompson Friend

AlongtheMaysvilleRoad.jpgCraig Thompson Friend is CHASS Distinguished Graduate Professor of History and Director of Public History at NC State University. This interview is based on his new book, Along the Maysville Road: The Early American Republic in the Trans-Appalachian West (University of Tennessee Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Along the Maysville Road?

CTF: I came across a map exhibited at the Kentucky Historical Society. Drawn by Victor Collot, a French traveler, “Road from Limestone to Frankfort in the State of Kentucky” (1795) is upside down—north is down and south is up. I wanted to know why, and that initial and rather simple inquiry gave rise to a dissertation about American settlement along an old buffalo trace during the “frontier” stage of Kentucky’s history, roughly the 1770s through 1812. The road provided me a stage on which to examine how themes of the Early American republic—republicanism, democracy, urban development, evangelical Christianity, and nationalism—shaped the construction and evolution of American communities and cultures. It also allowed me to imagine these themes as more fluid and mobile, traveling up and down the road with politicians, preachers, merchants, common people, slaves, church-goers, and thousands of migrants.

When I transformed the dissertation into a book, however, I recognized that its story needed to extend into the 1830s with the buffalo trace’s evolution into the Maysville Road which, in 1830, became the focus of President Andrew Jackson’s internal improvements veto. So, I researched an entire other book, taking the story from 1812 to 1836. This allowed me to incorporate themes that had not fully evolved in the earlier story—racial slavery, refinement, the rise of a middle class. I came to realize later, with the completion of my second monograph Frontier Kentucke, that intellectually I had been constructing a narrative bridge from the “frontier” to the “Old South” in Kentucky’s history. By stopping in the 1830s, however, I failed to grasp that thematic possibility at the time.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Along the Maysville Road?

CTF: Along the Maysville Road, American settlers competed to shape communities and cultural landscapes through “large interwoven patterns of cultural transformation” (those themes of Early American Republic which I previously listed). Those contests framed the values, beliefs, and aspirations of the Americans who settled along the road, manifesting in the evolution of the road itself and culminating in the political battles over its internal improvements.

JF: Why do we need to read Along the Maysville Road?

CTF: So often, “frontier” histories are formulated as stories on the margins, on the borderlands of the American nation. I imagined the old buffalo trace and its settlement as reflective of the new nation’s cultural evolution as Philadelphia.

Maybe a better reason to read it, however, is to see how a historian evolves in his thinking. I think our profession expects us to hatch from graduate school fully advanced in our understanding of the past and how to apply that knowledge to anything that we study. A discerning eye will uncover in my book, however, a clear evolution in historical thinking between the pre-1812 chapters (first conceived for the dissertation) and the latter chapters (added for the book). Not all of us bloom fully with the first monograph, or even the second. Now, twenty years into the profession, I am more excited than ever about what I want to say about the past.

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

CTF: As I note in the acknowledgements to Along the Maysville Road, I decided I’d be a historian in eighth and ninth grade. I had yet to imagine how I would be a historian, but there was no doubt that I would somehow practice history as a career. It’s a testament to the power of inspiring teachers who can excite students about history and make it relevant to their lives. When I graduated college, however, I was unprepared to move on to graduate school. Instead, I began teaching in public schools, which required continuing education credits for renewal of my teaching certificate. At one of the continuing education programs, when I heard another inspiring educator, Theda Perdue, speak on the Cherokees and racialized enslavement, I had my “conversion experience” and realized that I wanted to become an American historian, researcher, writer, and teacher at the collegiate level.   

JF: What is your next project?

CTF: I have three projects underway—a monograph, a textbook, and an edited collection.

The monograph is a biography of Lunsford Lane, an African American born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1803. He purchased his freedom in 1835, worked to purchase the freedom of his wife and six children, was tarred and feathered by a working-class mob, and run out of the state. In 1842, he wrote a narrative that was widely read among northern audiences, and that is as much as most people knew about Lane. There is so much more, but I will save those revelations for the book.

The textbook is a collaboration with Jim Klotter on a revision of The New History of Kentucky. I am finding it quite a challenge to sustain the spirit of Lowell Harrison, who originally collaborated with Jim on the original edition and who passed away in 2011, and reshape the narrative to reflect the most recent scholarship and my own interpretation of early Kentucky.

The edited collection is another collaborative project with Lorri Glover, with whom I have produced two previous collections. This time we are creating Rewriting Southern History, a worthy successor to John Boles and Evelyn Nolen’s masterwork Interpreting Southern History (LSU, 1987) and the equally pivotal predecessor Writing Southern History, edited by Arthur Link and Rembrandt Patrick (LSU 1967).

JF: Thanks, Craig!