The Author’s Corner with Joanna Cohen

luxurious-citizenJoanna Cohen is a lecturer in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London. This interview is based on her new book, Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Luxurious Citizens?

JC: I found my way into this book in three stages! The first step was reading Godey’s Ladies Book in my first year of graduate school. I was fascinated by the elaborate fashion plates and the juxtaposition of those images with numerous stories that praised the virtues of American women’s thrift and economy. These contradictions got me interested in the ways in which consumption habits were framed in overlapping ways in American cultural life, as signifiers of cultural sophistication and national virtue, not to mention the gender norms they promoted. The second step was two graduate courses I took: one on Gender, Nationalism and Citizenship, the other on the History of Consumer Culture in America. Both piqued my interest in different ways. When it came to citizenship I became increasingly dissatisfied with the idea that citizenship was simply a legal relationship. I wanted to explore the ways in which citizens imagined their relationship to the nation-state, especially when it came to obligations. Turning to consumer culture, I read avidly about the politics of consumption in the eighteenth century and picked up the story again in the twentieth century, but found little that explained how one connected to the other. Finally, after only a month in the archives at the American Philosophical Society, I found the phrase “Luxurious Citizens” in a speech given by “Pig Iron Kelley” in front of the Franklin Institute. That phrase summed up my conviction that the histories of citizenship and consumption were intertwined in crucial ways. I set out to trace those connections, wanting to understand the ways in which consumer capitalism shaped the meaning of citizenship in nineteenth-century America.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Luxurious Citizens?

JC: At the close of the Revolution, the newly-formed government expected citizens to serve their nation through self-sacrifice, by limiting their consumption of imported luxuries. But time and again, through war and peace, ordinary Americans demonstrated that they would not accept such limitations on their desires. Instead, they transformed themselves into citizen-consumers, claiming that the freedom to consume could be of service to the nation. In 1861, at the outbreak of war, the Union government not only acknowledged the power of the citizen-consumer, they harnessed that power to the service of the war effort. Using a tariff to harvest much-needed revenue from their citizens’ desires, the Union confirmed that the citizen-consumer was an important member of the body-politic – whose freedom to indulge themselves could save the republic or send it to its destruction.

JF: Why do we need to read Luxurious Citizens?

JC: For readers interested in nineteenth century capitalism, the origins of consumer culture in America, the gendered meanings of citizenship and the political economy that shaped the road to the Civil War, Luxurious Citizens has much to offer. But the book is also timely reflection on the far-reaching consequences of the apotheosis of the citizen-consumer. The idea that a citizen can serve the state through their consumption has a flip side: it also suggests that citizens’ consumer choices can be blamed when the state encounters economic failure.

In 2008, when the United States faced the great crash, the first round of blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of ordinary citizens who had overspent and over extended their credit. Such a story hid the deep-rooted structural failures of the US economy. Luxurious Citizens reveals the ways in which these narratives of individual accountability took root in the United States, often cloaked in the language of civic rights and personal freedoms. It is an exploration of the ways in which Americans imagine the way in which their economy works, and how the state can use and even exploit those understandings. So, at a moment when neo-liberalism as an ideology stands on the brink of collapse, Luxurious Citizens will hopefully remind people that they can re-imagine the nation’s political economy and redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state.

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

JC: Well officially I decided I wanted to become an American historian when I was doing my final year Honors thesis at Cambridge. I looked at the work of four great female authors and wrote a paper on the way in which those writers constructed (and deconstructed) what it meant to be a woman in nineteenth century America. But unofficially, I have to confess, it goes back to reading Little House on the Prairie and Little Women as a girl. Those stories still fascinate me. I recently re-read them when I got all my childhood books down from the attic for my daughter, and I still find the narratives of survival, ambition, compromise and resilience utterly compelling.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: Right now, I am working on a project that focuses on the ways in which Americans experienced loss in the nineteenth century. I explore how new capitalist, bureaucratic and commercial technologies shaped people’s emotional understanding of losing their homes, possessions and environments.

I am also working on a collaborative project with Zara Anishanslin, that explores how people “came to terms” with the ends of conflicts in the Atlantic World. Privileging visual and material culture as a source, this project asks how people made their peace with violence and war through the things and images they had in their lives.

JF: Thanks, Joanna!

The Author’s Corner with Kyle Roberts

evangelical-gothamKyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. This interview is based on his new book, Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860 (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Evangelical Gotham?

KR: The scholarship I found most exciting in graduate school was about the history of evangelicalism. So many great books came out in the 1990s and early 2000s – Heyrman’s Southern Cross, Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival, Lambert’s Inventing the Great Awakening, Noll’s America’s God – but so few focused on evangelicals in cities. For a while I thought evangelicals only existed in the rural hinterland.

As for Gotham, I was regularly crossing through New York as I took the Amtrak back and forth between my home in Boston and graduate school in Philadelphia. I felt like historians had sort of figured out Boston (Puritan) and Philadelphia (pluralistic), but the story of New York was still waiting to be told. When scholars did write about religion in nineteenth-century New York, they often focused on eccentrics, such as Johnson and Wilentz’s Kingdom of Matthias, or religious communities who settled themselves in urban spaces built by others, such as in Orsi’s glorious Madonna of 115th Street. I wanted to know more about the religious beliefs, practices, and worldviews of the mainstream folk who built the city in the first place.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Evangelical Gotham?

KR: In Evangelical Gotham, I argue that the astonishing rise of the nation’s leading city and its dominant Protestant religious movement were intricately intertwined between the end of the American Revolution and the outbreak of the Civil War. Inherently pluralistic and syncretistic, evangelicalism provided a broad range of New Yorkers with a meaningful and adaptable, if at times contradictory, urban religion that helped them respond to, locate themselves within, and significantly contribute to the growth of the city and the nation over a crucial eighty-year period.

JF: Why do we need to read Evangelical Gotham?

KR: I think we miss a key part of the American experience if we ignore the place of religion in the development of the nation’s cities. There are two important things that surprised me in writing this book:

First, evangelicals were really innovative. Earlier scholars of nineteenth-century urban religion have discounted evangelicals as failures who could not think beyond transplanting rural models in urban spaces. What I found couldn’t be more different. Evangelical New Yorkers were remarkably creative people, eager to put the secular resources of the city to sacred ends. Take, for example, their rethinking of sacred space. They had some of, if not the, earliest storefront churches in the country, dating back to the 1760s; they perfected a vernacular style for meetinghouses that well suited the realities of urban real estate; they threw out centuries-old modes of funding churches and created a series of Free Churches on a radically new plan; and they adapted everything from theaters to ship decks into places for preaching the gospel. Even the briefest glance at the extent, plan, and scale of their publishing ventures confirms how forward-thinking they were.

Second, evangelicalism was not all about social control. It’s easy to caricature antebellum evangelicals as pious, middle-class do-gooders. Many of them were. But reducing their faith to some form of class control isn’t fair to my historic subjects and misses the point. I wrote each chapter around the story of one or more New Yorkers so that readers could get a sense of what their faith meant to them and how it inspired them to act upon it. Some, like Lewis Tappan and Phoebe Worrall Palmer, are still remembered today; others, like Charles Lahatt or Michael Floy, have been forgotten – but have much to tell us.

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

I think it was the summer after my junior year in high school that I made peace with the fact that I was destined to be an Americanist. I had spent that summer at MASP – the Massachusetts Advanced Studies Program – sort of a nerd camp for public school kids held at Milton Academy. There I discovered that I hated economics and loved writing. So, I gave up my thoughts of becoming an insurance agent like my father. I jumped feet first into American Studies when I got to Williams College and haven’t looked back. Along the way I also embraced my calling as a public historian and digital humanist.

JF: What is your next project?

KR: I’m trading evangelical New Yorkers for Midwestern Catholics. When I arrived at Loyola six years ago, I knew I wanted a locally-based research project through which I could teach the digital humanities, public history, and the history of religion. My first week there I made an appointment with University Special Collections to see what they had for materials related to the history of the library. (It wasn’t a completely random question, I had just spent two years in London creating Dissenting Academies Online (, a recreation of the holdings and borrowing records of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dissenting academies.) The archivist brought out a detailed manuscript library catalog from the school’s first decade. I knew at that moment that I had found my next project.

Over the past few years I’ve worked with dozens of bright undergraduate and graduate student interns on the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project ( It has provided some on my most rewarding teaching and confirmed the value of collaborative research. We’ve recreated Loyola’s first library catalog in a virtual library system, tracked down and documented most of the nearly 1500 titles still surviving from the original library, identified library catalogs and collections at other Jesuit colleges and universities, and even started to reconstruct the Catholic book trade in the 1840s Mississippi Valley from a massive ledger kept by Jesuits in St. Louis. The goal is now to bring this all together in a monograph that asks readers to rethink Catholicism, print, and nationalism from the perspective of the nineteenth-century Midwest. Let’s just say Lyman Beecher actually had something to fear when he published his Plea for the West in 1835!

JF: Thanks, Kyle!

The Author’s Corner with Spencer McBride

pulpitandnationSpencer W. McBride is a historian and documentary editor at the Joseph Smith Papers. This interview is based on his new book, Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Pulpit and Nation?

SM: Pulpit and Nation grew out of my doctoral dissertation. In graduate school, I set out to discover the actual role of religion in the American Revolution and the process of state and national formation that followed. Through my research—which included reading numerous diaries of early American clergymen and the lay men and women who sat in their congregations—I became fascinated with the curious interrelationship that I encountered: the political utility of religion and the religious utility of politics. I wrote this book that enabled readers to understand the power, limitations, and lasting implications of early national leaders using religion as a tool for political mobilization.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Pulpit and Nation?

SM: In the founding of the United States of America, early national political leaders deliberately created an alliance with the country’s religious leaders, an alliance designed to forge a collective national identity among Americans. Accordingly, while religious expression was common in the political culture of the founding era, it was as much the calculated design of ambitious men seeking power as it was the natural outgrowth of a devoutly religious people.

JF: Why do we need to read Pulpit and Nation?

SM: Religion mattered in the founding of the United States, but not in the way many Americans think that it did. There is certainly no shortage of controversy surrounding the role of religion in politics, particularly where the founding era is concerned. Talk of America’s founding as either a “Christian” or “secular” nation remains a common theme among politicians, pundits, and certain segments of the general public despite scholars’ warnings against such overly-simplistic constructs (warnings that include your own timely Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?). I present Pulpit and Nation as an example of how the history of religion in early American politics appears when viewed in all of its complexity, an elucidation of how its relationship to power structures looks when we delve into the motives behind the religious utterances of men seeking to mobilize the public to one cause or another. My book demonstrates that by eschewing the “Christian Nation” question altogether and engaging broader themes and narrower questions, religion’s significant in the politics of the Revolutionary era is more apparent, albeit more complex.

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

SM: I actually decided that I wanted to be a historian at age 13. My father majored in history in college and, as a result, our house was filled with history books and historical discussion for as long as I can remember. This means that I was exposed to the study of the past from a young age. Then, in 8th grade, I had a phenomenal United States history teacher named Ron Benovitz who taught the subject in such an engaging way that I was absolutely hooked from that point on. I knew that I wanted to be a historian, although I had no clue what such a career would actually look like. As I progressed in my education and the details and options of working as a historian became increasingly clear, my passion for the discipline continued to grow. I consider myself quite fortunate to be doing as an adult what I dreamed of doing as a teenager.

JF: What is your next project?

SM: I am currently working on two projects that I am particularly excited about. The first is a documentary history of New York’s Burned-over District. The book will feature primary source documents that illuminate the cultural and social transformation of western New York amid the waves of religious revivals that swept through the region during the Second Great Awakening. The second project is a book about Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign, and how the controversial Mormon leader’s little-known run for the White House illustrates the political obstacles to universal religious liberty in nineteenth-century America.

JF: Thanks, Spencer!

The Author’s Corner with Gergely Baics

feedinggothamGergely Baics is Assistant Professor of History and Urban Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Feeding Gotham?

GB: Working on a research paper as a graduate student, I came across a vernacular sketch of African American dancing contests at Catharine Market in 1820 in Shane White’s wonderful article, “The Death of James Johnson.” The drawing captivated me for its intimate depiction of the vibrant and cosmopolitan public spaces of Early New York City. Catharine Market—its economy, social organization, and everyday life—became the subject of that paper. Over time, I realized that that small sketch of Catharine Market opened up a much larger subject: the vast and complex landscape of food provisioning in America’s first metropolis.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Feeding Gotham?

GB: Feeding Gotham brings the critical question of food access to the center of our understanding of nineteenth-century urban life and living standards. It argues that the antebellum deregulation of food markets created a new structural inequality, similar to health and housing conditions, that defined and shaped the development of the American city.

JF: Why do we need to read Feeding Gotham?

GB: Feeding Gotham examines the vital problem of food access in a city experiencing unprecedented growth, with its population rising from thirty thousand to nearly a million. It presents a comprehensive account based in political economy and the social and geographic history of the complex interplay of urban governance, market forces, and the built environment in provisioning New Yorkers. The book’s narrative traces how access to food, once a public good, became a private matter left to free and unregulated markets. In situating the deregulation of food markets within a broader matrix of public and private goods, it underlines the highly contested and open-ended outcomes of antebellum political economy debates. Moving beyond the debates, the bulk of the book studies the stakes involved. Most critical, Feeding Gotham brings the subject of food access to the center of our understanding of nineteenth-century urban living standards, a conversation thus far dominated by concerns over housing and sanitary provisions. The book documents how unequal access to food, much like shelter and sanitation, became a structural condition of inequality, part of the modern city’s increasingly stratified built and social environment. Importantly, the analysis extends to the understudied subject of food quality. It documents that the city’s surrender of all regulatory oversight of its food supplies contributed to deteriorating quality, which disadvantaged especially the rising rank of working-class immigrant populations. Central to the book’s approach is the systematic application of geographic information system (GIS) analysis. Feeding Gotham is the first book that maps the food system of a major nineteenth-century city, and one of few that deploys GIS systematically to study a specific problem in urban history. GIS mapping—from data creation to interpretation—provides a theoretical framework, methodological approach, and empirical base for the book’s main arguments. The extensive cartographic material was carefully created and designed to present a systematic and layered spatial analysis of food access in the nineteenth-century American city.

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

GB: First, I became an urban historian, and second an Americanist. I cannot recall when my fascination with cities began—probably, growing up in Budapest has a lot to do with it. It was during my undergraduate years that I discovered that I could become an urban historian, and this felt like an obvious intellectual path for me. My attraction to America also began with cities. I watched films like The French Connection or Serpico as a kid, and I was thrilled by the images of gritty New York City. Over the years, I found myself again and again seeking to study in the U.S., and becoming intellectually fascinated by the extraordinary complexity of this country. American cities, their history of immigration, booms and declines, deep inequalities, layered geographies, perplexed and fascinated me. Focusing on transnational urban economic and social history for my Ph.D., I found my topic in the food system of nineteenth-century New York City. What began as a project in urban history, over the years also became a project in U.S. economic and social history. Today, I consider myself both an urbanist and Americanist. I am most fortunate to have a joint-appointment in History and Urban Studies.

JF: What is your next project?

GB: I am currently at work on a new monograph, tentatively titled, The Transitional City: Economic and Social Geography of New York in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. My ambition is to study empirically (with the systematic application of GIS mapping) and then to theorize the spatial processes that propelled the transition from what historians describe as the walking city of the early nineteenth century to the segregated metropolis of the late nineteenth century. In addition, with a coauthor we have been writing a series of articles linking back to this larger work, and making use of advanced GIS methods, focusing on land use, the street grid, and the experiential geography of nineteenth-century Manhattan. Finally, with two colleagues we are developing a new project on the spatial history of late nineteenth to early twentieth-century Copenhagen, making use of new crowdsourced GIS data. In all of these projects, besides the specific urban historical questions at stake, I am also interested in advancing methods of spatial history.

JF: Thanks, Gergely! Sounds like some great stuff.

At Lincoln Memorial University


Next week  (Sept. 22) I am making my first visit to Harrogate, TN. I will be delivering the Kincaid Lecture at Lincoln Memorial University.  My lecture is titled: “The Bible in the Age of Lincoln: The American Bible Society and the Origins of Christian America.”

Here is the press release from LMU:

Harrogate, Tennessee, August 18, 2016—Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) and the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum will present the 2016 Kincaid Lecture Series at 10 a.m. on Thursday, September 22, 2016. Dr. John Fea will present The Bible in the Age of Lincoln: The American Bible Society and the Origin of Christian America based on his book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, $29.95).

 “While his book gives us a seminal history of an organization that has influenced American and world cultures, Dr. Fea’s presentation will closely examine the bible of Lincoln’s time and how it shaped policy and society during the Civil War,” Museum Director Thomas Mackie said. “I am sure his insights will inspire each of us to examine how the Bible is impacting the current election.”

In The Bible Cause, Fea examines the American Bible Society (ABS), whose primary mission at its founding in 1816 was to distribute the Bible to as many people as possible. In the book, Fea demonstrates how the organization’s mission has caused it to intersect at nearly every point with the history of the United States. Today, ABS is a Christian ministry based in Philadelphia with a $300 million endowment and a mission to engage 100 million Americans with the Bible by 2025.

“The Bible Cause is far more than a definitive history of the American Bible Society, though it succeeds admirably in that respect,” said Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives. “John Fea also tells a broader story about American culture, how religion came to play such a central role in shaping national identity and how, in turn, secular ideals have shaped American belief and behavior. It is an important story, told with affection, care and thoughtful critique.”

Fea serves as professor and chair of the department of history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and is the author of a blog entitled The Way of Improvement Leads Home. He teaches courses including United States History to 1865, Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Civil War America, Teaching History and Social Studies, History of American Evangelicalism and Pennsylvania History.

Fea is the author or editor of four other books including Why Study History?:Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic); Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox Press); Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press) and The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Supported by the Dr. Robert L. Kincaid Endowed Research Center, the lecture is free and open to the public. A book signing and dessert reception will take place at 6 p.m. in the museum. For more information or to register, contact Program and Tourism Director Carol Campbell at 423.869.6439.

The Dr. Robert L. Kincaid Endowed Research Center promotes the scholarly study and public understanding of the influence created by the Judeo-Christian Ethic upon the era and the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum is located on the historic campus of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Housing one of the top five Lincoln and Civil War private collections in the world, the Museum is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.  For more information about this and other programs at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, call 423-869-6235.

Lincoln Memorial University is a values-based learning community dedicated to providing educational experiences in the liberal arts and professional studies. The main campus is located in Harrogate, Tennessee.

The Author’s Corner With Laurel Shire

ShireLaurel Clark Shire teaches history at Western University in London, Ontario.  This interview is based on her new book, The Threshold of Manifest Destiny: Gender and National Expansion in Florida  ( University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)

JF: What led you to write The Threshold of Manifest Destiny?

LS: I knew that I wanted to write about women and US imperialism in the 19th century. I was deeply influenced by scholars such as Amy Kaplan, Kristin Hoganson, and Laura Wexler, and I wanted to test some of the ideas about gender and U.S. expansion coming out of literary and visual studies using the tools of social and political history. I began to look at different contexts in which I might do that. I discovered Florida, an early 19th century frontier, had been remarkably underexplored by historians of Manifest Destiny and of women and gender. I also had friends and family I could stay with in Florida, and their generosity made the research possible on a grad student budget.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Threshold of Manifest Destiny?

LS: American political leaders leveraged gender norms – not only masculinity but also femininityin order to Americanize Florida, setting a precedent for U.S. policy in many subsequent frontier zones further West. They used white women’s presence in Florida to justify violence against Seminole peoples and to rationalize generous social policies for white settler families, many of them slaveholders. At the same time, they relied on white women’s material, domestic and reproductive labor to create homes and families there; the building blocks of permanent colonial settlement. In short, white women were indispensable to the process of settling Florida for the U.S., a process that displaced both Indigenous people and enslaved people of African descent.

JF: Why do we need to read The Threshold of Manifest Destiny?

LS: Gender history continues to be treated as a separate and ancillary subfield in a lot of American history, especially in political, military, and diplomatic history, even though very good historians have been making what was once a “hidden” history available to us for more than 40 years. My hope is that readers outside of women’s and gender history will read this book and will understand it as a model for how we might begin to integrate intersectional social history (history that accounts for how social categories of gender, race, class, and sexuality work together in significant, historically contingent ways) into general historical accounts of the American past. This book tries to marry cultural history to policy history, and I hope it’s successful and occasionally even entertaining.

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

LS: I never decided to become an American historian! I decided to get a Ph.D. in American Studies because I wanted the freedom to do interdisciplinary work in American cultural studies. Frankly, I was concerned that a History department would be too conservative for the kind of history I wanted to write. As a pragmatist and a materialist, though, I’ve never had much patience for theory that doesn’t prove itself useful “on the ground,” so my work ends up being deeply historically grounded. I fell in love with the 1830s and 1840s in a 19th-century American Studies seminar with Terry Murphy at GWU and wanted to write about that period. I assumed that when I hit the job market I would be a candidate for a job in American Studies or Women’s Studies, but then the market sorted me into history – in my first year on the job market, I only got interview invitations from History departments, and I ended up accepting a position in one. No one was more surprised than me. And then I learned that I really loved teaching U.S. history using American Studies tools.

JF: What is your next project?

LS: The next book is about women and migration in the 19th century. The work in Florida brought me into contact with many different kinds of migrants in the 19th century, but did not allow me to follow those who exited Florida, about whom I remain curious. I am broadly interested in how imperial and national borders shaped the lives of women in North America and the Caribbean, and also in how women’s experiences of race (privilege, enslavement, and displacement) or gender (subordination, widowhood, motherhood) may have transcended territorial limits, or served to expand or penetrate borders. In many ways, their diversity challenges and even explodes the very category of “woman” and reveals how the intersections of gender, race, nation, and borders continually remade social categories and opportunities. This project is shaping up to be a combination of microhistorical biography and macrohistorical context using digital methods in mapping and text analysis.

JF: Thanks, Laurel!

The Author’s Corner with Robert Elder

thesacredmirrorRobert Elder is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University. This interview is based on his new book, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Sacred Mirror?

RE: I noticed that most historians writing about religion in the pre-Civil War American South described conflict between evangelicalism and the South’s honor culture, at least in the period before 1830, but that they often used a relatively thin and gendered (male) definition of honor that didn’t really do justice to the complexity and depth of honor as an ethical system. If Bertram Wyatt-Brown was right, and I think he was, about the pervasiveness of this ethic in the South, then you would expect to find it influencing every aspect of evangelicalism, and that’s exactly what I found. I found that early evangelicals didn’t reject honor, but instead tried to subtly redefine it as coming “from God alone.” I found that when you take into account gendered versions of honor, especially female honor, the tension between honor and evangelicalism evaporates, which helps to explain why women joined evangelical churches in greater numbers than men during this period. I found that church discipline, which was a very public process, was a powerful site for determining honor and shame in a culture that gave great weight to communal authority and opinion. Since honor cultures place such a heavy emphasis on communal authority, and since churches throughout this period were so willing to exercise that authority, this also has important implications for our view of evangelicalism as a the religious expression of modern individualism.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Sacred Mirror?

RE: I argue that evangelicalism in the pre-Civil War South drew a significant part of its strength from the same cultural wellspring that fed honor, a deep assumption of the legitimacy of communal authority. I also argue that because evangelicalism combined a belief in communal authority with an emphasis on individual experience, it served as a kind of cultural bridge between two ways of defining individual identity, and so represented a uniquely southern version of modernity.

JF: Why do we need to read The Sacred Mirror?

RE: I think the standard way of teaching southern evangelicalism is to describe a period of early radicalism followed, post-1830, with a nearly complete capitulation to southern mores, especially honor and slavery (with important exceptions, such as the emergence of black Christianity). What I hope to do with this book is to smooth out that trajectory at both ends, and to describe southern evangelicalism from an angle that escapes the opposition/accommodation binary that has often characterized the field. I’d like to think that anyone interested in American or southern religious history, particularly the history of evangelicalism, needs to read this book. I’d also like to think that anyone interested in the transition to modernity (a much bigger topic!), the historical alternatives to modern individualism, and, of course, honor, should also read the book. 

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

RE: I think I can only answer the question if I change it to “a historian of the American South”. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, but my father is from Chattanooga, Tennessee, so I was very conscious of the cultural differences between the midwest and the South from a pretty early age. When I got to college in South Carolina, I figured that history was probably one of the best ways to explore that difference and I ended up in an “Old South” course that cemented the deal. I was also fascinated by the sense in South Carolina that history mattered: people argued about it all the time, and you could literally see it around you. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to be a historian (I don’t even remember weighing whether or not to go to graduate school), I just became fascinated with it and kept following that fascination. That’s probably not a good model to follow in every case, but I’ve been very lucky.

JF: What is your next project?

RE: I’m just starting to work on a new cultural and intellectual biography of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina senator who the historian David Potter once called “the most majestic champion of error since Milton’s Satan.” I’m hoping to reinterpret Calhoun in the context of the flood of recent scholarship on slavery and capitalism, southern intellectual history, and new international histories of secession and the modern nation state (not to mention recent events). The last biography of him is almost twenty-five years old, and these new histories have completely redrawn the landscape, so it seems like we need to come to terms with him again. Plus, there just aren’t enough biographies of dead white guys, so I thought I’d do my part. 

JF: Thanks, Robert!

The Author’s Corner with Brian Gabrial

thepressandslaveryinamericaBrian Gabrial is Associate Professor and Chair of Journalism at Concordia University. This interview is based on his new book, The Press and Slavery in America 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement (University of South Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Press and Slavery in America 1791-1859?

BG: I am a journalism historian who has long been interested in how we come to think about people or groups and how the press influences those perceptions. In particular, I was concerned with how the “mainstream” press marginalizes or silences people. My earlier research focused on the American Indian and their mistreatment in the 19th-century press. Following that, I turned my attention to the African American slave.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Press and Slavery in America 1791-1859? 

BG: The book demonstrates that slavery was the critical political issue in the three decades before the Civil War and that political intransigence over it caused the war. It importantly illustrates how white Americans’ ideas about race and racial problems had their roots in the past and have sad, contemporary resonance. 

JF: Why do we need to read The Press and Slavery in America 1791-1859?

BG: The book shows how the press was complicit partner with powerful political structures that maintained a horrific labor system. It reveals how many Americans were informed about slaves who were never a happy, docile group content with their lot. Instead these black Americans faced enormous obstacles that kept them in figurative and literal chains and yet fought for freedom when facing certain death as a result.

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

BG: I have always a strong interest in history, but I didn’t want to become a historian until graduate school and had an incredible mentor and advisor who gave me the intellectual freedom explore ideas about cultural history and the press’s place and role in that history.

JF: What is your next project?

BG: I am currently working on another long-term media discourse study that I call “Manifest Destiny north.” It concerns the 19th-century relationship between the United States and Canada (British North America) before Canada’s 1867 confederation. The focus is how the American press reflected an idea that Canada rightfully belonged to the United States. To counter this, the Canadian press reflected its own ideas about Canadian nationality and identity. Like the Press and Slavery book, it may show how these ideas retain contemporary resonance.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

The Author’s Corner with Edward Gray

TomPaineIronBridgeEdward Gray is Professor of History at Florida State University. This interview is based on his new book, Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge: Building a United States (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?

EG: There are really two answers to that question. The first is that I wanted to write a book about a familiar figure. My previous book was about the Connecticut traveler John Ledyard, somebody few had ever heard of. I got tired of trying to justify a book-length project on such an obscure person. The second is that I had been teaching Paine’s famous 1776 call-to-arms, Common Sense for years. When I finished the Ledyard book, I decided to re-read the rest of Paine’s oeuvre. That process led to my discovery of Paine’s interest in iron bridges. It seemed weird that at the height of his powers as revolutionary propagandist, Paine turned to architecture. A little further reading made it clear that for Paine, this interest was not just a typical enlightenment-era gentlemanly divergence. I began to wonder what this iron bridge business was all about? I didn’t find a satisfactory answer in any of the many Paine biographies or other studies of his life and thought. After a few summers fishing for clues in British archives, I concluded that there was a book to be written. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?

EG: Thomas Paine is not generally thought of as a state builder. But his iron bridge demonstrates that that is exactly what he was. 

JF: Why do we need to read Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?

EG: I think the book has a great deal of contemporary resonance. Politicians are constantly trumpeting the need for improved infrastructure. In general, they defend that need as an economic one: without adequate transportation infrastructure, America’s commercial primacy will suffer. What they don’t talk about, but what seems very much the case, and what obsessed Paine and most of his revolutionary contemporaries, is the fact that infrastructure has a political function as well. Insofar as the fractious United States constitutes a political community, it does so as a function of its capacity to draw together its distant and diverse parts. Whether Paine’s iron bridges or modern high-speed rail, functional and efficient infrastructure makes this possible.  

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

EG: It happened in college. I tried out a bunch of different majors, but history appealed to me. Its best practitioners achieved a combination of literary ambition and empirical rigor that I found captivating. Initially, I was interested in French history. I wrote a few papers about Jews and Judaism in nineteenth-century France and then I got interested in the French Revolution. When I raised the possibility of going to grad school, one of my professors urged me to avoid all things French. This was in 1986 or 1987; the eve of the French Revolution’s bicentennial. Everybody, it seemed, was doing something on the French Revolution. Over the course of the next few years, I started reading books about the American Revolution. I discovered, in particular, Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic and that was that. 

JF: What is your next project?

 EG: I’m working on a history of the Mason-Dixon Line, from the seventeenth century through the Civil War Era. I’ve also been working on a smaller project about Henry Laurens’s 1780 imprisonment in the Tower of London. 

JF: Thanks, Edward!


Lin-Manuel Miranda Will Give Plenary Address at SHEAR’s 2016 Annual Meeting


Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton,” will give the plenary address at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic in New Haven.

Here is the announcement from the SHEAR website:

We are thrilled to announce that this year’s SHEAR plenary will feature an interview with Hamilton playwright and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. His schedule unfortunately will not permit him to join us in New Haven, but he has graciously agreed to a filmed interview, which will be shown during the conference plenary, and followed by a panel discussion. This unusual format affords us an opportunity: We invite you to send us questions for the interview. Of course, it is likely that there will be time to pose only a small selection of questions, but we’d like the interview to reflect the interests and thoughts of SHEAR members.

Please send your questions to by March 25th.

See you in New Haven this July!

Joanne B. Freeman and Brian Murphy

SHEAR Has a Blog!

SHEAR logo

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic has started a blog.  Mark Cheathem, a veteran of the history blogosphere who has been quite busy lately, is involved with the project.  He explains:

We are excited to launch SHEAR’s new blog, The Republic! This blog will serve as the place to go for news about the organization and scholarship on the period.

Planning for this blog began in 2011, when the late Drew Cayton, then serving as SHEAR president, asked Caleb McDaniel and me to put together a working group to look into expanding the organization’s social media footprint. Rachel Herrmann and Beth Salerno joined us in crafting a proposal that addressed not only social media but also other ways in which the organization could incorporate twenty-first-century technology.

A number of SHEAR presidents—Harry Watson, Drew Cayton, Pat Cohen, John Larson, Ann Fabian, and Jan Lewis—and the members of the advisory council have been supportive in recognizing the need for SHEAR to make this move. Last year, Ann Fabian, with the approval of the advisory council, appointed me as SHEAR’s first social media coordinator. I asked Caleb and Liz Covart, whom many of you know from Ben Franklin’s World, to brainstorm our path forward. After the conference, we invited Vanessa Holden and Lyra Monteiro to join the committee. Late last year, the committee members and JER editor Cathy Kelly held a virtual meeting and discussed a number of possible approaches to take.

The committee members came away with several conclusions. First, we wanted SHEAR to have a viable and vibrant connection to the world of social media. We established Facebook and Twitter accounts several years ago, and they have proven successful in attracting the attention of both SHEAR members and non-members. In addition to taking a more active approach to social media during the year, we hope to have a more visible presence at the annual meeting. Second, we believed that our charge included more than just social media, so we altered the vision to include new media, which is a more encompassing description of what we intend. Lastly, we wanted to expand SHEAR’s reach in the digital world by establishing a blog. Most major historical organizations have taken this step, and it seemed appropriate for SHEAR to do so as well.

What can you expect from The Republic? On a weekly or biweekly basis, depending on the time of year, we expect to publish posts as diverse as author interviews, JER-related pieces, and pedagogical essays. We also hope that you will send us your relevant CFPs or perhaps even research queries that you have for other SHEARites. If you have an interest in contributing to the blog in some way, don’t be shy! Reach out to us at

The Author’s Corner with Paul Gilje

GIljePaul Gilje is the George Lynn Cross Research Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. This interview is based on his new book, To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write To Swear Like a Sailor?

PG: When I finished Liberty on the Waterfront (2004) there were a series of issues that I wanted to explore further connected to my research on American maritime culture.  I set out to write To Swear Like a Sailor as a series of essays on a wide variety of topics like swearing, language, logbooks, story telling, songs, reading, images and material culture.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of To Swear Like a Sailor?

PG:  Although I began the book as a series of discrete essays related to maritime culture, as I wrote the book the individual chapter began to speak to the same issue: that there was a close overlap between mainstream and maritime culture.  In other words, America in the early republic was a maritime culture in ways that scholars have not sufficiently appreciated.

JF: Why do we need to read To Swear Like a Sailor?

PG: Do you want to know how to swear like a sailor? Then read the book.  Of course, the book is about more than swearing.  It explains why sailors swore using words we might not find that exceptional.  The book also traces how and where the generic name of “Jack Tar” emerged.  You can read some really bawdy sailor songs.  More importantly, the book follows the development of sailor lyrics from the seventeenth to the mid nineteenth century.  In the chapter on logbooks you will see how these journals began as a straight forward record of a ship’s daily progress, became a means for sailors to remember the past, and contributed to the development of great literature like James Fenimore Cooper’s sea tales and the works of Herman Melville.  There is more, but ultimately the reader will come to see the importance of all things maritime to America before the Civil War.

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

PG: I think back to the third grade and how I skipped down a Brooklyn street–not always a safe proposition even in the 1950s–singing “Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, Tail in his hat, no one knows where the Swamp Fox is at.”  I learned this song watching a Disney story about Francis Marion during the American Revolution.  Watch it sometime.  It is a hoot.  The Swamp Fox was played by Leslie Nielson in his youth, delivering lines seriously in a style that later became camp and made him a fortune.  In short, I always loved history, even Disney history (no comment here).  But as a working class Brooklyn kid I never thought I could get a PhD.  Then in college I took a leave of absence (I had a good draft number) and went to Europe to travel for a semester.  There I decided that even if it was unlikely, I should roll the dice and try to become a historian.  I returned to Brooklyn College, did well enough to get into Brown.  I survived graduate school, where I learned what it meant to become a historian.  Thirty-six years later I am still loving and learning history (but seldom skip down the street).

JF: What is your next project?

PG: I am beginning to work on a book called Eighteen Hundred. It will be an exploration of the interaction between politics and society in which I will narrate the election of 1800 as a background to a series of personal stories about the experience of people who lived through that year.  Right now I have sixteen such stories outlined ranging from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor, and from Gabriel (leaders of a slave rebellion) to Handsome Lake.

JF;  Sounds really interesting.  Thanks, Paul.

Spotted in Oxford: Cassandra Good’s *Founding Friendships*

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

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

Here is Cassandra Good’s Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic.   Read her Author’s Corner interview here.

Good Oxford

Karin Wulf on *Hamilton* and the Burden of Founding Histories

Karin Wulf of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture offers some reflections on Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton. If you want to get caught up on what historians are saying about this musical read Wulf’s link-loaded second paragraph.  

But the real heart of Wulf’s piece, and the part worth thinking about, is what she has to say about founding histories.

Here is a taste:

Unlike many academic disciplines, history often seems a bit obvious to the interested public. History is what happened in the past, right? Perhaps we go a bit deeper and reflect on which past is narrated (is history always written by the victors?), and by whom. Job one for history teachers is to explain that primary sources, whether texts or images or objects, require an analysis of how, where, who and for what purpose they were created before they become useful evidence about the past. I think that elemental point, often overlooked outside of the academy, is at the heart of Hamilton’s success.

I tell my graduate students that one of the primary tasks for early American historians is recovering from the nineteenth century. They always laugh, but there’s a deep truth in this. Like so many scholarly fields of inquiry, history as an academic discipline was shaped in the nineteenth century. The archives we have long depended upon for evidence of the past were largely assembled and catalogued (and some of them, particularly in the south, were destroyed) in the nineteenth century. The early America of the nineteenth century was oriented to the American Revolution and the founding of the nation; it was east coast, and northern; it was white, and it was male.

That’s not the way historians read, research, write or teach the capacious category of early American history anymore. But still too often this is the story of national origins. Recently I wrote a somewhat discouraging review of Ric Burns’s The Pilgrims (it will post in January). Mostly I lamented that the Pilgrims, a tiny group of migrants with a questionable influence over the course of American history had been given yet another marquee treatment at Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong, I like documentaries and like many Burns productions, by Ken Burns or Ric Burns, this one has many fine qualities. It offers some careful historical reconstruction of this tiny group (not even a majority on the Mayflower). But to make a claim as a national origins story, which is how the Pilgrims was framed, a history has to account for itself. It must be self-reflective about why and how it came to be; in the case of the Pilgrim story, it was the emphasis of nineteenth-century New England historians that moved the tale of a small band of religious radicals into the forefront of American history, edging out, for example, the larger (demographically, geographically, culturally, economically, and by so many other measures) histories of slavery and Native American dispossession.

Not every history has to be meta-history, but there is a burden to founding histories that Hamilton not only shoulders but embraces. The first and last questions of the musical aim straight at how history is made. Miranda begins Hamilton’s biography asking “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore…Grow up to be a hero and a scholar? The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father.” And he ends with a reflection on Eliza Schuyler Hamilton’s role as the curator of her husband’s legacy; she collected his papers, interviewed his colleagues, and worked tirelessly to make sure he was not forgotten. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” though, isn’t just a song about a widow’s sense of responsibility to her spouse’s legacy. It recalls the whole of the founding era. Whose story was told, how and why it was told, is the meta-history here. Hamilton argues that women’s voices are often absent both because they were rarely valued in their own time and the archival remnants marginalize them, that politics is a story that triumphs over other themes, and that the nation’s history has been the story of all stories.

Read the entire piece at Scholarly Kitchen.

The New *Journal of the Early Republic* is Here

Winter 2015:

Reassessing Responses to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions:
New Evidence from the Tennessee and Georgia Resolutions and from Other States

A ‘‘Voice of Benevolence from the Western Wilderness’’: The Politics of Native Philanthropy in the Trans-Mississippi West

Trick or Constitutional Treaty?: The Jay Treaty and the Quarrel over the Diplomatic Separation of Powers

‘‘The Music of a well tun’d State’’: ‘‘The Star Spangled Banner’’ and the Development of a Federalist Musical Tradition\


Digitizing Dolley, and Eliza and Harriott Pinckney

Saunt, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776

Miller, Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence

Nelson, The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding

Glover, Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries

Smith, Robert Morris’s Folly: The Architectural and Financial Failures of an American Founder

Connors, Ingenious Machinists: Two Inventive Lives from the American Industrial Revolution

Peart, Era of Experimentation: American Political Practices in the Early Republic

Criblez, Parading Patriotism: Independence Day Celebrations in the Urban Midwest, 1826–1876

Roth, Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture

Chambers, The Weston Sisters: An American Abolitionist Family

Demos, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic

Scott and He´brard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation

The Author’s Corner with Joseph Moore

Joseph Moore is Assistant Professor of History at Gardner-Webb University. This interview is based on his new book, Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution (Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Founding Sins

JM: Founding Sins was supposed to focus on the antebellum South, but somehow became about the Atlantic World and America’s long religious history.  I originally tried to write a dissertation about anti-slavery South Carolinians.  The problem was obvious- there weren’t many!  In the archives at Duke I discovered sermons from these odd backcountry Presbyterians called ARPs.  I found a speech given publicly in 1840 condemning slavery and suggesting colonization as a moderate form of abolition.  I figured these Presbyterians didn’t fit into mainstream narratives, so I started tracing their story backward to Revolutionary Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont.  Before I knew it I was tracing their backstory in Northern Ireland and Scotland.   

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Founding Sins?

JM: The United States was not founded as a Christian nation because Jesus was not in the Constitution but slavery was- that was the Covenanters very long argument with America.  My argument in the book is that by remembering their story we learn that America’s first religious right disagreed with Christian nationalists today and showed the modern religious right just how far it could push Christian America rhetoric, and what other Americans would not tolerate. 

JF: Why do we need to read Founding Sins?

JM: John Fea rightly said that the Christian America debate is so complex because there isn’t agreement on what we mean by “Christian,” “founding” and “nation.” I think historians and commentators have explored the first two, but Covenanters were fervently concerned with the third.  What does it mean to be a nation?  According to the Covenanters, a nation was its documents.  It was, in essence, what it said it was.  In the Constitution, the nation became the first major western political state not to base law on God’s authority.  Law was based in “We the People.”  The Covenanters’ argument was well known in early America, but in the 20th century it got forgotten and left behind.  We need to hear it again to understand what people were saying about a Christian America in the founding era.

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

JM: Probably when my grandparents took me to a Revolutionary War reenactment in Camden, SC but that was only because they let me hold the musket.

JF: What is your next project?

JM: I am currently working on two projects at once.  The first explores the history of anti-slavery southerners more broadly and in a broad Atlantic World framework. The second explores religion and financial literacy in Early America. 

JF: Thanks, Joseph! 

John Wilsey Reflects on Day 1 of the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

John Wilsey of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary offers another dispatch from the American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta.  Check out his first report here.

It was a busy day—after lunch on Saturday, I went back to the book display to walk the second level, and still didn’t see everything. Although, I was excited to see Phillip Luke Sinitiere’s new book on Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen, Salvation With a Smile, published by NYU Press. If you haven’t seen Sinitiere’s book yet, it is a must read. I was privileged to read the manuscript, and the book offers groundbreaking insight, not only into Osteen’s ministry, but also into the character of American Free Church evangelicalism in the 21st century as a whole.
On Saturday afternoon, I attended the Religion and US Empire Seminar. The topic was “Conceptualizing American Empire: Theoretical and Methodological Approaches.” All five of the presentations were fascinating, but the question and answer session toward the end was one of the most productive, helpful, and engaging Q & A sessions I have ever witnessed. Often at the end of a long session with four or more papers read, participants are tired—and when a session ends right before supper, people are not only tired, but also hungry.
But not this time. I can’t even remember all the questions that were asked, but they were all penetrating. One person asked about how Americans view categories such as “empire,” “imperial,” and “colonial” in comparison with how the British, or even the Russians might view those categories. She followed this question up with one on how religion influences empire, and also how empire influences religion. Someone else brought up the differences between frontier and border when it comes to demarking empires, which resulted in an interesting conversation about empires being defined in terms of space or power. Sylvester Johnson of Northwestern University addressed this issue in his presentation, and he stressed that empires are defined not in terms of geography, but in terms of power. It occurred to me that in the early American republic, both forms of empire evolved: in the Old Northwest, the Northwest Ordinance set the pattern for settlement and governance, and this pattern was geographically based. But in the South, the plantation system spread west, laying the foundations for American economic power and expanding the institution of slavery. Space and power seem both to provide a basis for the concept of empire in America, and adding the development of American civil religion to this concept makes the subject so much more interesting to consider.
I’m looking forward to what tomorrow holds. AAR/SBL is pretty overwhelming, and not a little intimidating. I’m relatively new to the society, so I don’t know very many people. And I’m an introvert, so the thought of walking up to someone and introducing myself in an effort to strike up a conversation is about as appealing as putting my hand into a cage full of tarantulas.
So, I enjoy being alone in a crowd. I like to take it all in, roam the book displays, sit on a sofa with a cup of coffee and people-watch. (There aren’t very many places to sit. There are over 10,000 people here, and painfully few chairs in the common areas of the Hyatt Regency). I like to see what books people are buying, and what books people look at but then put back on the shelf. It was the first full day of the conference today, so it is also fun for me to watch old friends seeing each other for the first time in a long time. You can always tell who these are, because they are the ones that greet one another the most loudly, and usually with lots of hugging and hearty hand shaking.
I teach at a conservative Baptist seminary, so my own contact with people who think differently about faith than I do is quite limited on a day-to-day basis. I’m fairly confident that not as many people who attend AAR get that excited about the debates going on in my circles—supralapsarianism vs. infralapsarianism, covenant theology vs. dispensationalism, Radical vs. Magisterial Reformation, General vs. Particular Baptism, inerrancy vs. authority, etc., etc. There are Muslims, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, and Pagans here. There are feminists, LBGTIQs, and secularists. There is a Pentecostal/Charismatic Movements Group meeting at the same time as the Qu’ran Group, the Religions, Social Conflict, and Peace Group, and the Schleiermacher Group meets. There are dozens of other groups as well. It is a seriously diverse crowd, and it is definitely an education for me to listen in on the conversations as they take place in both formal and informal settings. Of course, I don’t share many of the faith commitments that other communities represented here hold, but it is a lot of fun to be exposed to new, and sometimes challenging, ideas.

I ended the day watching the Baylor vs. Oklahoma State game.  Which reminds me—my friend Arthur Remillard is presiding over the Religion, Sport, and Play Group this Monday morning. Stay tuned.

Joanne Freeman on *Hamilton: The Musical*

Yale’s Joanne Freeman is one of the best scholars of Alexander Hamilton in the business.  Anyone interested in the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel at Weehawkin, New Jersey on July 11, 1804 must read her Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic.  She also edited the writings of Hamilton in the Library of America series.

Freeman recently saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway show Hamilton.  Here is a taste of her review at Slate:

…Miranda has taken some liberties for clarity and flow. Time is condensed and historical events are shifted in time; for example, the presidential election of 1800 didn’t lead to the Burr-Hamilton duel, nor did Hamilton’s son Philip fight a duel before that election. Big-name characters take the place of lesser-knowns: Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison didn’t solicit Hamilton’s 1798 adultery confession. Representatives Frederick Muhlenberg, James Monroe, and Abraham Venable did. Some events are invented: John Adams didn’t fire Treasury Secretary Hamilton, who resigned under Washington in 1795, but this invention handily explains Hamilton’s opposition to fellow Federalist Adams’ bid for re-election as president in the election of 1800, highlighted later in the play.

Such creative license makes sense, particularly given that Hamilton is not a formal work of history. It’s a play centered on one man’s rise and fall, framed to enhance the qualities that made him notable. Even so, Miranda’s telling of that life contains a remarkable amount of historical fact, even concerning policy debates that hardly seem suited to the Broadway stage, let alone a musical. The creation of a national bank, the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, the “dinner deal” that moved the United States’ capital south: All receive their due in rap battles and ballads. Part of Washington’s Farewell Address is quoted—or rather sung—verbatim. Indeed, quotes from Hamilton’s writings are sprinkled throughout the show. One of the play’s many achievements is its blend of an inclusive present with a historical past that is rooted in fact.
In many ways, Miranda’s Hamilton is also true to life, propelled by the same driving ambitions, rough edges, and loose-cannon character as his historical counterpart. Much like the real Hamilton, he’s a committed nationalist who fears the riotous upset of revolutionary France and strives to give the new nation a market-driven commercial future. Jefferson, in contrast, is depicted as a Virginia-centric slaveholder singing the praises of agrarianism. In Miranda’s telling, Hamilton is forward-looking and Jefferson clings to a pastoral slavery-bound past.
And here is Miranda talking Hamilton on Jimmy Fallon:

Let’s Restore America to Its Christian Past When Everyone Was Getting Drunk

Christian nationalists today make historical arguments about how America used to be a Christian nation.  They long to return to a golden age when Christian morality was at the heart of the republic.

I wonder what folks like David Barton make of the rampant use of alcohol and the problem of drunkenness that defined life in the early American republic.

As Emma Green shows us in her June 2015 piece at The, Benjamin Rush, a colonial doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was so concerned about intemperance in American society that he believed it posed a threat to the republic. As Green notes, colonial and early national Americans drank “roughly three times as much as Americans do now.”

Here is a taste:

Go ahead, have a small beer; it will bring “Serenity of Mind, Reputation, Long Life, & Happiness.” Even a strong beer would be fine, for that brings “Cheerfulness, Strength, and Nourishment,” as long as it’s only sipped at meals. So declared Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the early republic’s most prominent physician. In his loquaciously named pamphlet, An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body, first published in 1784, Rush describes the “usual” downward spiral of drink. What starts as water and wine quickly turns into punches and toddies and cordials, ending with a hopeless vortex of gin, brandy, and rum, “day and night.”* In the pits of intemperance, one can expect such vices as “Idleness, Gaming, peevishness, quarrelling, Fighting, Horse-Racing, Lying and Swearing, Stealing and Swindling, Perjury, Burglary, [and] Murder,” with punishments including “Black eyes and Bags,” “State prison for Life,” or, worst of all, “Gallows.”

Why did this 18th-century doctor care so much about moral consequences of drinking? “It was a pretty common belief among the founders [regarding] America’s experiment with republicanism, that the only way that we were going to keep it was through the virtue of our citizens,” said Bruce Bustard, the curator of a National Archives exhibit on American alcohol consumption. As Rush observed the effects of alcohol consumption, he had the young nation’s future in mind: People experiencing what he saw as the “Melancholy,” “Madness,” and “Despair” of intemperance surely wouldn’t make for very good participants in democracy.

Early America was also a much, much wetter place than it is now, modern frat culture notwithstanding. Instead of binge-drinking in short bursts, Americans often imbibed all day long. “Right after the Constitution is ratified, you could see the alcoholic consumption starting to go up,” said Bustard. Over the next four decades, Americans kept drinking steadily more, hitting a peak of 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person per year in 1830. By comparison, in 2013, Americans older than 14 each drank an average of 2.34 gallons of pure alcohol—an estimate which measures how much ethanol people consumed, regardless of how strong or weak their drinks were. Although some colonial-era beers might have been even weaker than today’s light beers, people drank a lot more of them.

The Author’s Corner with Matthew J. Clavin

Matthew J. Clavin is Associate Professor of History at University of Houston. This interview is based on his new book, Aiming for Pensacola (Harvard University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Aiming for Pensacola?

MC: After receiving my Ph.D. in 2005, my first time full-time teaching job was in Pensacola, Florida, where shortly after arriving I began researching the city’s history. One day, while viewing a handful of antebellum-era newspapers, I was amazed by the number of runaway slave advertisements published in the local press. At times, these papers contained a dozen or more advertisements in a single issue and frequently on the front page, proving just how extensive the problem of runaway slaves was in this unique frontier town.  It wasn’t long before I decided that I had to tell the story of the generations of enslaved people who made the desperate bid for freedom in a part of the United States where the attainment of freedom was for most African Americans nearly impossible.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Aiming for Pensacola?

MC: This study proves that despite the legend of the Underground Railroad, fugitive slaves routinely ran south towards freedom, often with the assistance of their free African American, European American, and Native American allies. Because of its reputation as an enclave of diverse people and cultures, Pensacola was in the colonial, antebellum, and Civil War eras, a popular destination for many of these runaways who sought refuge on the city’s waterfront, which verged on a boundless world of ocean and sea, and the surrounding villages that opened into a vast expanse of forests, swamps, and streams.

JF: Why do we need to read Aiming for Pensacola?

MC: The book demonstrates that resistance to slavery was much more widespread than previously understood. Even in the Deep South, where slavery was deeply embedded in the culture and the cars and conductors of the Underground Railroad stopped only infrequently, African Americans and their allies resisted the white supremacist culture that slaveowners and other white elites imposed on the region. There has long been a tendency to read American history as the story of two oppositional regions: a non-racist North and a racist South. Having lived in southern cities most of my life, and now being a resident of Houston, TX, what many consider the most diverse city in the entire United States, I have always been motivated by my own personal experiences to challenge this interpretation by finding examples of interracial cooperation and collaboration in early Southern history. This book is a case in point.

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

MC: Though I’m sure they wouldn’t even remember me today, two truly extraordinary Jr. high school history teachers convinced me at an early age to become a teacher; however, it was while writing my senior thesis in college that I became enamored with the idea of research and writing history professionally, and I decided that I wanted toor rather needed tobecome a college professor. There is no other job on earth that I would enjoy more, though, truth be told, if any NBA team was interested in a 44-yr. old shooting guard I would definitely consider the opportunity.

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently working on two major projects, though the one much closer to completion is a narrative history of the Battle of Negro Fort, a bloody conflict between hundreds of fugitive slaves, Indians, and American soldiers under the leadership of Andrew Jackson at an abandoned British fort in Spanish Florida in the aftermath of the War of 1812.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

And thanks to Abby Blakeney for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner