The Economy Over Public Health: It’s an Old Story

Cultivation_of_tobacco_at_Jamestown_1615

KJZZ Radio’s Lauren Gilger recently interviewed historian Peter Mancall.

Here is a taste:

PETER MANCALL: So the first case happens when the English colonized what we now think was Virginia. It started at Jamestown in 1607. The English arrived there. They’re looking for a way to survive. A lot of people are dying very quickly. They begin to figure out why that is. And yet, they’re still going there and going there, and they’re looking for an economic rationale. And by the early 16-teens, they realized that tobacco was a perfect crop — that is, it’s really why they demanded it. In Europe, it has all these alleged benefits and it has an insatiable market. And so all the English, who are the planters who were running this society, want is to find people to work the crop. And so they go to this mass army of unemployed and underemployed young people in England, most of them men, and they encourage them to go over across the ocean to sign away four to seven years of their life as what was called being an indentured servant where they would produce tobacco. The system kept feeding new people into the tobacco fields, even though living near the James and living near some of these other rivers was very dangerous. So they’re quite aware of the high mortality. But the economic demand for tobacco, nonetheless, allows people to say, “well, you know, human health is essentially less important.” I mean, they didn’t debate it in our modern sense. They didn’t think, “Are these essential workers?” But the overall effect is very similar. Economics drove it. Then a series of catastrophes happen in Britain itself. Plague strikes London, and it’s followed very quickly by what’s called the Great Fire. And so from 1665 to 1666, London loses perhaps about 20% of its population. So people who might otherwise have thought, “I’m going to go to North America because that’s where the jobs are,” instead stayed home. But on the American side of the equation, the planters still want tobacco to be produced, and they’re still looking for laborers. And so they decide to sort of go all in or make much more serious investment in purchasing enslaved Africans.

LAUREN GILGER: So you’re looking at, in history here, essentially, you’re talking about the legalized slave trade, the emergence of that in America and early America and indentured servitude. I mean, those are, they don’t exist today, but you do say that this economic exploitation, the same idea still exists today. How?

MANCALL: So, well, it’s true that legalized indentured servitude, as was practiced in the 17th century, doesn’t exist anymore and legalized slavery doesn’t work. I mean, here instead, what we see are people driven by extreme economic need to go into various fields. And the sort of classic example of this in our modern, our modern age are people who are our farm workers, oftentimes migrant farm workers for whom there are very few protections, who are exposed to all sorts of chemicals in the field — I mean, these are all well-documented. I’m a historian. These are all well-documented — who are crowded together, who seem to have inadequate access to health care. And, you know, it seems another situation where economic need — in this case, for our society, for certain products, no longer tobacco, perhaps, but now strawberries or fill in whatever crop you want — is still sort of putting people into very precarious situations. And so one of the similarities between the 17th century and now is the 17th century, most people would not have willingly said, “I’m going to go and leave my life behind, crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing ship, which could take six or seven weeks, suffer whatever the journey had, and then go work for someone who I’ve never met before and go out in the fields, where I’ve already heard rumors of terrible things happening there, not enough food and all these diseases and even rumors that people were eating each other” or stories about cannibalism that came out of the early Chesapeake. They’re doing it because the economic need, extreme need sort of pushes people in. And so the larger question, the sort of larger moral or ethical question is we can recognize that people need work. What, then, is our responsibility as a society to take care of people’s health?

GILGER: So often as an historian, I’m sure you think about things this way, right? But the trope is in your head that history repeats itself. Have we learned any lessons from history or how would you hope that the lessons of our own country’s history — these really hard ones, right? of slavery, indentured servitude — would inform the way that we look at this issue today?

Read the entire interview here.

What Can We Learn From the Great Depression?

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Here is Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen at The Atlantic:

Americans are out of work. More than 20 million lost their jobs in April alone. Lines at food banks stretch for miles. Businesses across the country are foundering. Headlines scream that the coronavirus has brought about the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The economic collapse of the 1930s, one of the defining traumas of the 20th century, is still the benchmark against which recessions are measured. And, for many Americans, the New Deal, launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, remains the standard for how the federal government should respond to a major national emergency. By the late 1940s, the United States had exited economic calamity and entered into an unparalleled period of national prosperity—with measurably greater income equality. America did not merely endure the Great Depression; its response transformed it into a richer and more equitable society.

Many hope to replicate that achievement today. But the success of the New Deal was built on more than all the agencies it spawned, or the specific programs it established—it rested on the spirit of those who brought it into being. The New Dealers learned to embrace experimentation, accepting failures along the path to success. They turned aside the ferocious opposition their bold proposals provoked. They organized supporters, and learned not just to lead, but to listen. And, perhaps above all, they pushed for unity and cultivated empathy.

The New Deal offers us more than a simple guide for returning to some semblance of normalcy. The larger lesson it offers is that recovery is a complex and painful process that requires the participation of many, not directives from a few. And that, ultimately, we’re all in this together.

Read the rest here.

 

The Anti-Populists

 

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Thomas Frank‘s recent piece at Harper’s, an excerpt from his forthcoming book, argues that we do not understand the meaning of populism in the age of Trump. The president is not a populist–at least in the historic sense of the word. As has been the case with much of Frank’s work, he wants to reclaim the 1890’s understanding of populism as a movement of economic reform.

I am reminded here of my recent conversation with Eric Miller in Episode 65 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Here is a taste of Frank’s piece.

…The English language provides a great many solid choices for someone wishing to describe a leader who plays on mob psychology or racial intolerance. “Demagogue” is an obvious one, but there are others—“nationalist,” “nativist,” “racist,” or “fascist,” to name a few. They are serviceable words, all of them. In the feverish climate of the Democracy Scare, however, none of those will work: “populist” is the word we are instructed to use. “Populists” are the ones we must suppress.

Let’s find out why.

Drive the highway between Kansas City and Topeka and you will pass through a landscape of peaceful, rolling hills (and occasional scenes of violent tornado damage). In the fertile valley of the Kansas River, the farms are raising corn and soybeans; through the fields run the tracks of the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

It was somewhere in this bucolic setting that the controversial word “populist” was invented. There are no historical markers to indicate exactly where the blessed event took place, but nevertheless it happened—in this stretch of green countryside, on a train traveling from K.C. to Topeka—one day in May 1891.

Could they have peeked into the future, that group of Topeka-bound passengers would have been astonished by the international reach and malign interpretations of their deed. That they were inventing a noun signifying “mob-minded hater of all things decent” would have come as a complete surprise to them. By coining the word “populist,” they intended to christen a movement that was brave and noble and fair—that would stand up to the narrow-minded and the intolerant.

And this:

From the very beginning, then, “populism” had two meanings. There was Populism as its proponents understood it: a movement in which ordinary working people demanded democratic economic reforms. And there was Populism as its enemies characterized it: a dangerous movement of groundless resentment in which demagogues led the disreputable.

The specific reforms for which the People’s Party campaigned are largely forgotten today, but the insults and accusations with which Populism was received in 1891 are alive and well. You can read them in best-selling books, watch them flashed on PowerPoints at prestigious foundation conferences, hear the long-ago denunciations of the Kansas City Star and the Topeka Daily Capital echoed by people who have never heard of Topeka: Populist movements, they will tell you, are mob actions; reformers are bigots; their leaders are blatherskites; their followers are mentally ill, or ignorant, or uncouth at the very least. They are cranks; they are troublemakers; they are deplorables. And, yes, they still have hayseed in their hair.

The name I give to this disdainful reaction is “anti-populism,” and when you investigate its history, you find its adherents using the same rhetoric over and over again. Whether defending the gold standard in 1896 or NAFTA in 2016, anti-populism mobilizes the same sentiments and draws on the same stereotypes; it sometimes even speaks to us from the same prestigious institutions. Its most toxic ingredient—a highbrow contempt for ordinary Americans—is as virulent today as it was in the Victorian era.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Brian Luskey

men is cheapBrian Luskey is Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University. This interview is based on his new book, Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Men is Cheap?

BL: My book illuminates three interests of mine–the importance of middlemen in the nineteenth-century American economy, the cultural conversation about bad businessmen in this era, and the economic history of ordinary people in the Civil War–and constitutes my attempt to show that these themes intersect with each other.

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

BL: Fought to uphold the ideal of “free labor,” the war for Union encouraged Northern entrepreneurs, employers, and soldiers to envision their impending success through the accumulation of capital, and Yankees often sought the independence that capital purchased by employing laborers whom the war had made vulnerable. The war seemed to offer some Northerners opportunities to get rich because it clarified that other Americans were poor.

JF: Why do we need to read Men is Cheap?

BL: My book shows how the Civil War and the wage labor economy shaped each other. It is about labor brokers–failed businessmen, recruiters, officers, soldiers, and bounty men–who facilitated the movement of workers–Irish immigrants, former slaves, Confederate deserters, and Union soldiers and veterans–to work in the army and in northern households during the Civil War. The economic activities of these brokers and the cultural conflict about them reveal the nature and limits of free labor ideology as northern employers sought to benefit from the destruction of slavery and slavery’s capital during the war.

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

BL: I’ve been interested in American History since a family trip to the Gettysburg battlefield when I was eight years old. My parents bought me Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War and I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I was a student at Davidson College when mentors such as Vivien Dietz, John Wertheimer, and Sally McMillen taught me not only how to be a good historian but also that being an academic historian was a career option. I fell in love with historical research and writing under their tutelage, and the rest is history.

JF: What is your next project?

BL: Honestly, I don’t know what my next book will be about, but I’m preparing to write an article about the relationships Abraham and Mary Lincoln forged with laboring people and the ways the Lincolns served as labor brokers in the Civil War Era.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

Frederick Douglass on Economic Inequality

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Historian Matt Karp introduces us to Douglass’s papers “The Accumulation of Wealth” (1856) and “The Land Reformer” (1856).

Here is a taste of his introduction at Jacobin:

No single document, of course, can solve the riddle of Douglass’s complex political ideas. But while doing research at Yale’s Beinecke Library, I came across two articles in the 1856 Frederick Douglass’ Papers that have not, to my knowledge, been reprinted or digitized since. (Most of Douglass’s journalistic writing remains unpublished, though a forthcoming volume in the Frederick Douglass Papers should help address that problem.) Nor have they been excerpted, quoted, or discussed at length in the extensive scholarship on Douglass.

Both articles, “The Accumulation of Wealth” and “The Land Reformer,” help shed new light on how Douglass saw the relationship between economic inequality and political democracy in the 1850s. They also demonstrate that in the age of Trump and Michael Bloomberg, Frederick Douglass has much to teach us today — not only about racism and civil rights, but the acute dangers posed by “the unlimited hoarding of wealth,” and the hard truth, still sidestepped by many liberals today, that true political freedom is only possible under conditions of material equality.

In both pieces Douglass embraces the position, held by many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans (though remarkably few establishment Democrats today), that “wealth has ever been the tool of the tyrant, the readiest means by which liberty is overthrown.” He anticipates arguments that “unbridled accumulation” is simply a part of human nature: in fact, the “mighty machine” of capitalist society is an innovation, which compels, rather than reflects, acquisitive behavior. And he rejects the idea that poverty is an unchangeable fact of social life: it is, rather, the “consequence of wealth unduly accumulated.”

What is perhaps most striking here, however, is the underlying assumption that it is the duty of democratic politics to “minister” to the problem of economic inequality. Individual philanthropy, however noble, can never address the root of the problem. In fact, the highest aim of “the true statesman” is to devise measures that eradicate poverty, prevent “the undue accumulation of wealth,” and create an egalitarian economy where “no one” is either rich or poor.

Read the entire introduction and the primary documents here.

The Author’s Corner with Bruce Stewart

Redemption from TyrannyBruce Stewart is Associate Professor of History at Appalachian State University. This interview is based on his new book, Redemption from Tyranny: Herman Husband’s American Revolution (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Redemption from Tyranny?

BS: I first heard of Herman Husband’s role in the North Carolina Regulation movement as a young history buff growing up in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. I encountered him again as a Ph.D. student researching my dissertation (which became my first book, Moonshiners and Prohibitionists), when I learned that Husband also participated in the Whiskey Rebellion in southwestern Pennsylvania. Many years later, as I was going down a series of rabbit holes trying to find my next project, I searched for a biography of Husband and discovered that the only full-scale account of his life was published in 1940. While I later discovered an excellent unpublished Ph.D. dissertation on Husband written in 1982, I knew that the revolutionary American deserved more attention. And just like that, my next project was born.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Redemption from Tyranny?

BS: Influenced by personal experience, Western political thought, and radical Protestantism, Herman Husband viewed the Revolution as an opportunity to forge a new republic that promoted economic equality among white men. Only by preventing the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, he argued, could ordinary white Americans achieve economic independence, retain their political rights, and redeem the young nation from tyranny.

JF: Why do we need to read Redemption from Tyranny?

BS: Redemption from Tyranny uses the life of Herman Husband as a lens through which to explore how ordinary people shaped–and were shaped by–the American Revolution. Such a bottom-up approach complements recent scholarship that focuses on the experiences of common folk in the Revolutionary Era, allowing scholars to raise questions that broaden our understanding of the origins and nature of democracy in the United States. What did the Revolution mean to those who experienced it? How radical was the American Revolution? What role did evangelical religion play in politicizing ordinary people? In what ways did common folk demand not only political, but also economic equality, and which was most important to them? This final question remains relevant today, as Americans continue to debate the role that government should play in maintaining its citizens’ political and economic rights. Ultimately, because Husband’s vision of the young republic–one that stressed a more equitable economic system–represented an ideology shared by other common folk, his story enables us to gain fresh insight on the sources of agrarian radicalism, the obstacles that confronted reformers, and the mixed results of the American Revolution.

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

BS: I can’t recall the exact moment when I decided to become an American historian. Looking back, I have always been interested in history. As a child, I often accompanied my father to Civil War battlefields, so I credit him for instilling a love of history in me. My high school history teacher, Keith Walker, further sparked my fascination with history. I was by no means a stellar high-school student, but I enjoyed his class. When I got to college, I became a history major and by the end of my freshman year, I knew I wanted to be a professor of history (I credit those trips with my father to Gettysburg and other battlefields for leading me to focus on American history).

JF: What is your next project?

BS: My next project is co-writing a comprehensive study of Reconstruction in North Carolina. The last such history was written in the early twentieth century and contains–to put it nicely–major interpretation errors. My co-author and I are currently completing the research phase (I recently wrapped up most of my research at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection before the birth of my son at the end of 2019, and I plan on visiting Duke University’s Special Collections and the State Archives of North Carolina this year). Because of the enormous scope of the project, we don’t have a projected completion date yet.

JF: Thanks, Bruce!

Study: U.S. Billionaires Paid a Lower Tax Rate than the Working Class

Triumph of InjusticeIn 2018, American billionaires paid a lower tax rate than than the working class.  This is the first time in this has ever happened.

Here is Chris Ingraham’s piece at The Washington Post:

A new book-length study on the tax burden of the ultrarich begins with a startling finding: In 2018, for the first time in history, America’s richest billionaires paid a lower effective tax rate than the working class.

The Triumph of Injustice,” by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California at Berkeley, presents a first-of-its kind analysis of Americans’ effective tax rates since the 1960s. It finds that in 2018 the average effective tax rate paid by the richest 400 families in the country was 23 percent, a full percentage point lower than the 24.2 percent rate paid by the bottom half of American households.

In 1980, by contrast, the 400 richest had an effective tax rate of 47 percent. In 1960, their tax rate was as high as 56 percent. The effective tax rate paid by the bottom 50 percent, by contrast, has changed little over time.

The analysis differs from many other published estimates of tax burdens by encompassing the totality of taxes Americans pay: not just federal income taxes but also corporate taxes, as well as taxes paid at the state and local levels. It also includes the burden of about $250 billion of what Saez and Zucman call “indirect taxes,” such as licenses for motor vehicles and businesses.

Read the rest here.

Slavery Was America’s First Big Business

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Cornell University history professor Ed Baptist talks with Vox‘s P.R. Lockhart about his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismHere is a taste:

P.R. Lockhart

When you talk about the sort of myth-making that has been used to create specific narratives about slavery, one of the things you focus on most is the relationship between slavery and the American economy. What are some of the myths that get told when it comes to understanding how slavery is tied to American capitalism?

Edward E. Baptist

One of the myths is that slavery was not fuel for the growth of the American economy, that it actually the brakes put on US growth. There’s a story that claims slavery was less efficient, that wage labor and industrial production wasn’t significant for the massive transformation of the US economy that you see between the time of Independence and the time of the Civil War.

And yet that period is when you see the US go from being a colonial, primarily agricultural economy to being the second biggest industrial power in the world — and well on its way to becoming the largest industrial power in the world.

Another myth is that slavery, in and of itself as an economic system, was unchanging. We fetishize machine and machine production and see it as quintessentially modern — the kinds of improvements in production and efficiency that you see from hooking up a cotton spindle to a set of pulleys, which are in turn pulled by a water wheel or steam engine. That’s seen as more efficient than the old way of someone sitting there and doing it by hand.

But you can also get changes in efficiency if you change the pattern of production and you change the incentives of the labor and the labor process itself. And we still make these sorts of changes today in businesses — the kind of transformations that speed up work to a point where we say that it is modern and dynamic. And we see these types of changes in slavery as well, particularly during cotton slavery in the 19th-century US.

The difference, of course, is that this is not the work of wage workers or professional workers. It is the work of enslaved people. And the incentive is not “do this or you’ll get fired” or “you won’t get a raise.” The incentive is that if you don’t do this you’ll get whipped — or worse.

The third myth about this is that there was not a tight relationship between slavery in the South and what was happening in the North and other parts of the modern Western world in the 19th century. It was a very close relationship: Cotton was the No. 1 export from the US, which was largely an export-driven economy as it was modernizing and shifting into industrialization. And the slavery economy of the US South was deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves and were certainly extracting money from the labor of enslaved people.

So those are the three myths: that slavery did not cause in any significant way the development and transformation of the US economy, that slavery was not a modern or dynamic labor system, and that what was happening in the South was a separate thing from the rest of the US.

Read the entire piece here.

Moral Capitalism

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Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin points us toward a better way:

What kind of economy do Democrats believe in? Joe Biden calls for “stronger labor laws and a tax code that rewards [the] middle class.” Bernie Sanders wants to raise taxes on the rich and guarantee every adult a job. Elizabeth Warren has a slew of plans that include giving employees seats on corporate boards and breaking up giant firms like Facebook and Amazon. Kamala Harris urges a big tax cut for ordinary families and “stricter penalties for companies that cheat their workers.”

Recent polls show that the public is increasingly supportive of proposals like these. Yet no one who hopes to become the nominee has yet come up with a larger vision that would animate such worthy ideas. And without an inspiring way to tie them together, they may come across to voters like items on a mediocre takeout menu: tasty enough but forgettable.

So let one loyal, if anxious, Democrat offer a solution: “moral capitalism,” a system that, in the words of Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, would be “judged not by how much it produces, but how broadly it empowers, backed by a government unafraid to set the conditions for fair and just markets.”

It is a goal that, by different names, national Democratic leaders have articulated since the party first emerged almost two centuries ago. They understood that most voters liked the general idea of a market economy in which they would have a fair chance to rise, but also resented an economy that failed to live up to the rosy promises of its defenders in business and government.

The tradition began in the 1830s when Andrew Jackson vetoed a renewed charter for the Second Bank of the United States, declaring, “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” Grover Cleveland renewed the offensive in his attack on the protective tariff in the 1880s, as did William Jennings Bryan in his crusade against the “money power” at the end of the 19th century, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in his assault on “economic royalists” in the 1930s.

For all these Democratic leaders, moral capitalism was an aspiration for a system that would balance protection for the rights of Americans to accumulate property and start businesses with an abiding concern for the welfare of men and women of little or modest means who increasingly worked for somebody else.

Read the rest at The New York Times.

The Author’s Corner with Strother Roberts

StrotherStrother Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. This interview is based on his book Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)

JF: What led you to write Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: As an undergrad I double-majored in economics along with history. The melding of these two disciplines has influenced my research over the years and, in particular, helped spark my interest in environmental history as a sub-field. Economics, at its heart, considers how societies allocate scarce resources. Environmental history similarly studies how past human societies have grappled with the challenges of scarce natural resources, but within the social, cultural, and historical context that is all too often absent from purely economic models. Economics also has a very explicit focus on the power of trade. A number of excellent scholars before me have written about the environmental history of New England, but I often found their work too insular. In the United States today we are used to thinking of ourselves as living in a globalized world. We are less likely to appreciate the fact that the indigenous and European inhabitants of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America were also experiencing the influences of relatively rapid globalization. I wrote Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy to tie the ecological changes that settler societies introduced into New England to the transatlantic commercial and political forces that drove them.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: Colonial New England was an integral part of England/Britain’s imperial commercial empire and everyone from imperial planners to its earliest settlers fully expected colonization to contribute exports to the imperial economy and the larger Atlantic World of which it was a part. Colonists and indigenous communities responded to the incentives offered by transatlantic markets to selectively extract resources from the region’s environment and in the process transformed New England’s physical and political landscape to the point that, by 1790, both would have been unrecognizable to an observer living two centuries earlier.

JF: Why do we need to read Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: The book takes a number of disparate threads from the contemporary historiography of early America and weaves them together into a coherent pattern – while also introducing significant new insights along the way. As I mentioned in my response to your first question, other scholars have done excellent research on the environmental history of New England, but the most influential studies are from the 1980s (and are becoming a bit dated) while even more recent works have tended to be rather insular in their focus. By contrast, most of the rest of the field of early American history stresses the interconnectedness of “the Atlantic World” or self-consciously situates the individual colonies or regions within a #VastEarlyAmerica. One manifestation of this trend has been the proliferation of so-called commodity histories, histories that trace the life of individual commodities from their site of production – usually in the colonies of America – through their processing and marketing, and eventually into the hands of their final owners – usually in Europe or colonial urban centers. Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy combines this new interest in commodity exchange networks and weds it to older discussions of environmental change, to show how the colonial ecology of New England was inextricably tied to the broader transatlantic economy beyond its shores.

The book also cuts through the decades-old argument over whether New England’s economic development was driven by domestic production and demand or by trade with Europe and other colonial regions. A similar argument over whether the consumer revolution and industrial revolution were the result of domestic economic forces or whether they were driven by overseas colonialism has long plagued British history. The best histories, in my opinion, recognize that these are false dichotomies. For instance, the New England farmer who felled an oak to make barrel staves and then sold them to a local merchant likely did not know or care whether those staves were ultimately fated to hold locally-milled flour that would never leave his township, or whether they would be traded to the West Indies to hold slave-grown sugar on a sea-voyage to London. Settlers, from the very first colonists up to the citizens of the early Republic, fully expected to participate in an interconnected system of local, regional, and transatlantic markets. The indigenous inhabitants of New England, too, contributed commodities to these markets, either as the eager consumers of novel European goods and weapons or, increasingly in later decades, as a result of the violent and/or legal coercion exercised by the region’s increasingly hegemonic Anglo-American society. Much of this participation in colonial and Atlantic markets, at whatever level, necessarily rested on the extraction of resources from the regional environment, and each act of extraction had a physical impact on that environment.

Previous environmental histories of New England have failed to appreciate just how profound these physical changes were, or how early they began. In fact, I even surprised myself with some of what I discovered. Take the fur trade, for instance. Gripped by the “Little Ice Age” and facing the depletion of furbearer populations in Europe and eastern Asia, European consumers purchased a tremendous number of furs – most notably beaver pelts – from North America over the course of the early modern period. Native American hunters in New England gladly embraced the trade as a source of European tools, weapons, and cloth, sacrificing tens-of-thousands of beaver for use in European cold-weather fashion. The result was the extirpation of beaver from much of New England by the 1670s and the drainage of hundreds-of-thousands of ponds and wetlands – formerly maintained by beaver dams – by the turn of the seventeenth century. While other scholars have argued that significant ecological change did not come to New England until the supposed advent of commercial farming at the turn of the nineteenth century, my work shows that New Englanders were always commercially-oriented and that profound change began much earlier. In fact, my work on the fur trade suggests large swathes of the New England landscape had been profoundly altered by transatlantic trade before any European ever laid eyes on  its “natural” (or, at least, pre-European encounter) state.

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

SR: That depends on what you mean by “American” historian – my Master’s thesis and my early work in my PhD program focused on First Nations history in Canada. But as I began to consider possible dissertation topics, my PhD advisor pragmatically suggested that a more southerly focus would serve me better with publishers and on the U.S. job market. Since I was most interested in the processes of North American history – the meeting and clashing of indigenous and settler societies and the subsequent formation of new systems and economies that came out of those transatlantic encounters – I shifted my attention to the source-rich and historiographically-storied archives of New England. Both Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Ecology and my next project are defined, at least partially, by the geography of New England (and specifically by the Connecticut River Valley in the case of Colonial Ecology). At the same time, though, I have never wanted to be limited by this geography, which is why the book focuses so much attention on how connections to different parts of North America (and Europe) influenced New England’s environmental history.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: My next book project is an environmental and social history of dogs in the indigenous and Euro-American societies of early New England and New France – which means I get a chance to return to Canadian history. The Cliff’s Notes version so far  is that dogs were essential to indigenous economies as hunting partners and sources of meat, that English settlers intentionally persecuted indigenous dogs as a way to weaken Native American societies to the degree that they were extirpated and replaced by dogs of European descent, that European settlers also relied on dogs for economic purposes and as weapons of war, and that the ecological success of introduced dogs eventually led Euro-American societies to implement policies to control their populations. Today, dogs are the most populous large, non-human, omnivorous predator in the world. Now, that last sentence contains a lot of qualifiers, but it essentially means that once you start looking at things bigger that bugs, rats, and chickens – it’s just dogs and us as the most numerous meat-eaters out there. This was certainly true of the indigenous dogs that inhabited the northeast prior to 1600.  A conservative estimate would suggest that the region was home to at least twice as many dogs as it was wild wolves, while some sources suggest that this ratio would have been far higher. Early English records suggest that introduced colonial dogs were just as numerous as their indigenous cousins were. And yet, I can’t think of a single environmental history that seriously considers the effect that dogs had on the natural environment prior to the nineteenth century. And even those tend to focus on urban environments. Dogs were humanity’s first domesticated partners and the only form of livestock kept by New England’s Indians. They played important roles in the economies and societies on both sides of the European conquest of New England, and, in an important cultural sense, helped define how all of the cultures involved understood what it meant to be human. It is, in my opinion, high time that someone wrote a dogs’ history of early America.

JF: Thanks Strother!

The Author’s Corner with Lindsay Schakenbach Regele

Manufacturing AdvantageLindsay Shakenbach Regele is Assistant Professor of History at Miami University. This interview is based on her new book, Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry, 1776-1848 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Manufacturing Advantage?

LSR: When I started writing this book, it had nothing to do with manufacturing. It actually started as a study of piracy and US-Spanish relations during the Latin American independence wars. I had started researching US shipping claims against the Spanish government, while at the same time becoming more interested in the relationship between business and state power. I discovered that one particular group of Boston merchants received a big chunk of federal funds as a result of the settlement of these claims. These same merchants were simultaneously developing the nation’s first fully integrated textile mills in eastern Massachusetts and were able to funnel the capital from the claims settlements into factory development. This caused me to wonder how else they might have benefited from state support, whether direct or indirect. I also was interested in US-South American trade. I had seen references to dye stuffs and hides being imported from South America, and finished goods being exported there as early as the 1820s.

Ultimately, I came to study manufacturing—specifically the arms and textile industries– through diplomatic papers. The richest source was the consular dispatches, which are all these letters, pamphlets and trade statistics that US consular agents sent back to the state department from their various posts in Latin American ports. In these documents, I began to see consuls negotiating favorable trade policies, and doing so increasingly for manufactured goods, such as Massachusetts-made coarse fabrics. I also saw several references to arms imports into South America from the US, which piqued my interest. The United States was supposedly neutral while Latin America fought its independence wars against Spain and Portugal. I did not immediately pursue the arms connection, but after another historian mentioned that a lot of industrial innovation was happening in the arms industry in Springfield, Massachusetts, I decided to check out the records at the New England Branch of the National archive. In a rare stroke of research luck, on my first day saw several mentions of arms sales to Buenos Aires. These letters were incredibly exciting to find, because the United States could not for diplomatic reasons openly supply weapons to colonies in rebellion. Federal officials had to arrange these sales in oblique ways through third parties, keeping it as clandestine as possible. Probably for that reason, those were the only references to South American arms sales in federal armory records that I ended up seeing. The more I read, though, the more I became interested in all these letters written from private gun contractors to the federal armory. They were totally dependent on government patronage. Basically, despite the “right to bear arms” in the United States, there was not enough civilian demand to create a robust arms industry. Textile manufacturers had a different relationship to the federal government; there was a civilian market for textiles in a way there was not for firearms. Government policies, however, shaped the way the industry developed. Diplomatic support, wartime initiative, and trade legislation engendered the growth of certain industries and factory locations. When I began to think in terms of national security it all made sense. Diplomacy with Spain, or any other nation, meant little without military and economic security. By the time I got to that realization, I had my reason for writing the book.

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

LSR: In the period from the Revolutionary War to the Mexican American War, the United States industrialized as the result of national security concerns. Government agents and private producers responded to the opportunities and challenges posed by European and Native American warfare and treaty-making by investing in industrial capitalism, which generated revenue and martial prowess for early national development.

JF: Why do we need to read Manufacturing Advantage?

LSR: Because it provides a new interpretation of early national United States political economy by connecting war, trade, and state power to industrial development. It is the first work to study the development of two hallmark American industries–arms and textiles–side by side, and to place the rise of industry in the United States in the context of broader geopolitics. Manufacturing Advantage brings a wider cast of characters to the narrative of the American Industrial Revolution, as it closely investigates the relationship between private producers and War and State department officials, departments that I argue are stronger in these early years than other scholars have assumed. The individuals responsible for this system of manufacturing ranged from inventive mechanics in small New England towns and wealthy merchants in Boston to ordnance officials in Washington and consular agents in Lima, Peru. The sum total of their actions and relationships shed new light on how and why industry developed the way it did in the United States.

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

LSR: My decision to become a historian started when I switched majors during college. I remember writing “history” on my new major form, and feeling a sense of purpose and contentment (I think partly because as a child I had loved historical fiction and my father was always reading history books and waxing poetic about various historical sites and events). At that point, though, I had no idea that I would end up teaching, writing, and researching for a living. After graduating, I spent a year working as a long-term substitute teacher and track coach, while taking secondary education classes. My plan was to pursue teaching certification, but I also wanted to continue research, so I applied for an M.A. in history. I started working on my M.A. the following fall, and fell in love with the research process. During my first semester, I wrote a seminar paper on U.S. involvement in Francisco de Miranda’s failed Venezuelan revolution in 1806 and became obsessed with researching this event as it played out in the U.S. newspapers and political rumors. I decided to turn this project into my thesis and to apply for PhD programs. I was fortunate to have wonderful professors and advisers in both college and graduate school who inspired and facilitated my transition to the historical profession.

JF: What is your next project?

LSR: My next project is a dual biography of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) and the early national political economy. While Americans see the poinsettia every December without realizing its namesake, Poinsett’s career as a secret agent in South America, America’s first minister plenipotentiary to Mexico, U.S. congressman, and secretary of war helped shape the nation in which we live today. The last biographies of Poinsett were published in the 1930s and I think the time is ripe to revisit his various activities on behalf of the U.S. government. Over the past several decades, scholars have brought renewed attention to “capitalism” and “the state,” but there’s still a lot of ambiguity about what exactly each of these terms mean, when and where capitalism actually began, and how “strong” or “weak” the early U.S. state was. I’m hoping to use Poinsett to bring precision to these two nebulous concepts by connecting their theoretical underpinnings with on-the-ground practices. What, for example, did Poinsett’s secret code-writing in Chile reveal about early U.S.-Latin American relations? How did his intertwined business and political activities in Mexico shape continental politics? How did his experiences in Latin America in the 1810s and 1820s influence his administration of Indian removal and the Seminole Wars in the 1830s? And how did the sum total of all these activities reflect and influence the intersection of violence and economic development in the early republic? I’ve gone through many of Poinsett’s personal papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and will be spending the better part of this summer at the Library of Congress conducting more research.

JF: Thanks, Lindsay!

Was America Born Capitalist?

City UponWe are working hard to get Princeton University historian Daniel Rodgers on the podcast.  He is the author of  As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.  (He will be featured on the Author’s Corner very soon).  In the meantime, here is a taste of an excerpt from the book published at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

WAS AMERICA BORN capitalist? it is often asked. Ever since Max Weber proposed a causal relationship between early Protestants’ longing for order and rational control and the spirit of modern capitalism, the question has consumed the attention of generations of sociologists and historians. Weber’s ideal types were too abstract, it is now clear. The careful accounting and control of the self that the Puritans so conspicuously valued was only one of the cultural traits on which capitalist economies have thrived. Others, like the risk-taking and labor exploitation on which the tobacco and slave economy of early Virginia was founded, could be successfully capital-generative as well. Capitalism’s identifying features lie as much in its institutions of trade, property law, and labor as in the inner ethos that captured Weber’s imagination.

Measured in these ways, there can be no doubt that Puritan New England was a by-product of capitalism in its expansive, early modern phase. John Winthrop’s settlement arose within one of the great commercial empires of the early modern world. Unlike the Spanish conquest a century earlier, in which arms, expropriation of easily obtained wealth, and missionary zeal took the vanguard roles, the English colonization of the Americas was a merchants’ endeavor. Trading corporations — the Virginia Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Providence Island Company, the Plymouth Company — undertook the work of settlement throughout British America, capitalized by investors’ purchase of their joint stock.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Caitlin Rosenthal

RosenthalCaitlin Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.  This interview is based on her new book Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Accounting for Slavery?

CR: Right out of college I worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. As one of the most junior people on my teams, I was often tasked with running the spreadsheets that we analyzed to help make our decisions. Some of these companies had tens of thousands of employees. As a result, I became interested in the history of scale: What happens when a manager or owner knows workers as cells in a spreadsheet, and not as individuals? This question sparked my interest in American business history and, more specifically, the history of quantitative management. As I began studying archival account books, I was surprised to discover that some of the most complex records I found were from slave plantations. So I decided to write a book that grappled with the business history of plantation slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Accounting for Slavery?

CR: Slaveholders used many advanced, quantitative business practices, ranging from calculating depreciation to measuring output per slave. In some cases, they developed these practices not despite, but because of the circumstances of slavery. 

JF: Why do we need to read Accounting for Slavery?

CR: Coming face to face with the precise ways that slaveholders extracted wealth from people can help us to understand the intersections of violence and innovation. During my few years working in the business world, I was often struck by how many business leaders were interested in economic history. But the stories that reached them tended to feature railroads, steam engines, and computers–not slave plantations. Confronting more uncomfortable stories can be a cautionary tale for what profit-seeking can look like when everything, including human lives, is up for sale.  

I think that studying plantation business practices is also absolutely essential for understanding what enslaved people were up against. In antebellum America, they faced a brutal, centuries-old institution that was increasingly infused with highly modern technologies of control.

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

CR: As an undergraduate, I was a political science major who incorrectly believed that history was mostly about memorizing dates. During my junior year I took an amazing U.S. Intellectual History class with Thomas Haskell at Rice University. The class helped me to see how powerful history could be for understanding not just modern institutions but also patterns of thought and, especially, how we see ourselves. In a sense, “Accounting for Slavery” is an intellectual history of slaveholders’ management practices and what they can tell us about management more generally.

JF: What is your next project?

CR: I’m currently researching the “business of business education.” The project starts with the relatively unknown history of nineteenth-century commercial colleges, the hundreds of for-profit schools that taught business skills like bookkeeping for a fee. I am interested in what this history can tell us about the scope of business education: who can access it, and what kind of practical and ethical questions are (and are not) included in the curriculum. 

JF: Thanks, Caitlin!

The Author’s Corner with William Bolt

boltWilliam Bolt is Assistant Professor of History at Francis Marion University. This interview is based on his new book, Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America (Vanderbilt University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: I wrote Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America because the tariff had been neglected for over 100 years. Since the tariff provided the national government with ninety percent of its annual revenue, I deemed it to be an important subject that historians had ignored for too long.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: Tariff Wars argues that the tariff needs to be a part of the narrative on antebellum politics, but it also argues that the tariff helped to spread democracy. Whenever Congress debated a tariff, scores of petitions and memorials arrived in Washington and public meetings were held regarding the tariff. Many Americans followed these debates and the tariff, in my opinion, helped to draw more Americans into the political process.

JF: Why do we need to read Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: People should read Tariff Wars because this issue was important to the people of the era. The people understood it and closely followed all efforts either to lower or raise the tariff. 

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

WB: I decided to become an American historian about twenty years ago, I took a course on Jacksonian Democracy and the instructor, the late Richard E. Ellis, was having the time of his life relating studies about Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren. Sitting in that classroom and watching him reenact duels and congressional debates I found my calling.

JF: What is your next project?

WB: I am currently working on two follow up projects. A long-term project and a short terms one. My labor of love is a study of the rivalry between Millard Fillmore and William H. Seward. It is tentatively titled, “Empire State Rivalry.” It examines how two men with so much in common came to be bitter enemies. Their rivalry, I argue, hastened the demise of the Whig Party and contributed to the coming of the Civil War. My short-term project is a study of the year 1841. It is tentatively titled, “Year of here Presidents.” It looks at the presidencies of Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler. This work also is relevant to today because there is an intriguing Supreme Court confirmation battle in the final days of Van Buren’s presidency, and also a replace and replace battle over the Independent Treasury and National Bank. The year 1841 also sees the fate of the Amistad captives resolved. So there is a lot going on. These projects will helpfully keep me out of trouble.

JF: Thanks, Will!

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

The Author’s Corner with Kristalyn Shefveland

anglonativevirginiaKristalyn Shefveland is Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. This interview is based on her new book, Anglo-Native Virginia: Trade, Conversion, and Indian Slavery in the Old Dominion, 1646-1722 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: During my PhD program at the University of Mississippi, I took two seminars on the American colonies, with emphasis on the Southeast. One was a history seminar in which we discussed at length the Chesapeake school and the evolving issues of race, particularly as it related to the work of Edmund Morgan and Winthrop Jordan, and the seminal work of Powhatan’s Mantle. The other was an anthropology seminar in which we were introduced to the body of scholarship on the Eastern Woodlands and the emergence of the trade in skins and slaves. Out of these two courses I came away with many questions about the Stegg/Byrd family and the role of Virginia in the Indian slave trade. I was inspired by the work of Alan Gallay, Robbie Ethridge, and Charles Hudson and wanted to know more.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: Anglo-Native Virginia argues that attempts to regulate and control trade and indigenous peoples via a tributary system was at the foreground of Virginia’s native concerns from Governor Sir William Berkeley to Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. This tributary system and its accompanying categories and rules represent an era of deep upheaval in the indigenous communities of the coastal plain and piedmont, resulting in the enslavement of native peoples as the colonies used the frontier exchange economy to finance their emerging plantation complex.

JF: Why do we need to read Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: As an interdisciplinary work of ethnohistory, I hope this book finds an audience in a number of venues, including but not limited to scholars of Atlantic trade, colonial settlement, Southern Studies, slavery studies, and Indigenous peoples. The book asks us to consider the central role that indigenous and colonial interaction played in the larger narrative of the plantation South. It asks us to look more closely at how trade with Native peoples shaped Virginia history as it transitioned from a fledgling colonial outpost to a settler society dependent upon slave labor. I argue that the Southeast cannot be understood without understanding Virginia and one cannot understand Virginia without understanding the tributary system. The framework of this project came from my interest in demonstrating the importance of Native history for broader narratives. Until fairly recently, Native peoples of Virginia have been in the background of important studies that have focused on the Atlantic slave trade, mercantilism, and the plantation economy. A full understanding of the important role that Virginia tributary and foreign Natives played in the trade in skins and slaves as it relates to the Atlantic economy and mercantilism has been the subject of important recent scholarship and I think my work complements this emerging field.

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

KS: I started writing stories at an early age and they always had a historical element. I split my childhood between the small Mississippi river town of Wabasha, Minnesota and a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I was always drawn to the historic sites of the two very different communities, one barely 2,500 people and the other a sprawling rustbelt town where suburbs converged into one another. In Minnesota, I was raised on the history of Euro-Native interaction, trade and settlement, and the folklore of the river valley. Across the river in Wisconsin was the Big Woods that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about and the town of Maiden Rock. In sum, I always loved a folktale and a yarn, a lifelong love affair that my parents greatly encouraged by going through historic towns and stopping at roadside markers, even when it added an hour or three to our regular road trips to Minnesota or Florida. In Ohio, I had the opportunity to work with an incredible high school teacher, Steven Abbey, who allowed me to take independent studies on a wide variety of historical topics and then I had the pleasure to attend Bowling Green State University where I studied under the Great Lakes historian, Edmund Danziger. He fostered my love of stories and helped to guide my scholarship towards the field of ethnohistory. In his seminar courses as well as the eye-opening classes I got to take with the Latin American historian, Rob Buffington, I knew that I wanted to pursue the field of history beyond undergrad. I was lucky to land at the University of Mississippi to work in interdisciplinary collaboration on indigenous peoples with Sheila Skemp and Robbie Ethridge. In a bit of kismet, I moved south to study peoples who came originally from Lake Erie.

JF: What is your next project?

KS: I am currently at work on a book on historical memory of indigenous peoples in Florida, particularly the town of Vero Beach, on the Indian River. This is a project of personal importance to me as it is a place I have known all my life and yet its deeply manicured history of settler pioneers and adventurous rogues reveals an incomplete narrative. I came to this study because of a large Spanish-mission style building that overlooks the town center with a relief carving of Pocahontas. Indian River produce advertisements from the 1880s-1970s depict idyllic jungle scenes, complete with friendly and noble Indians of vaguely Plains motifs—a vision at odds with the region’s indigenous past. Yankees, calling themselves pioneers and colonizers, moved to the region in waves throughout the early 20th century, viewing Southerners with scorn as the wealthy Northern investors built empires of citrus and sugar.

The Indian River Farms Company of Davenport, Iowa made the greatest strides toward conquering Florida. While settling the region, the company created a romantic narrative to sell land to potential Yankee colonizers. Street names included Seminole, Osceola, Cherokee, Mohawk, Kickapoo, and Ute. Buildings included the Chief Sleepy Eye Lodge and the Pocahontas Arcade. All names considered “picturesque” by would be settlers. Situating these endeavors within the broader context of Yankee imperialism in the Caribbean, particularly Cuba, I am reconsidering the legacy of a colonial southern past alongside the emergence of the vacation south to explore its potential impact on studies of the Indigenous south.

JF: Thanks, Kristalyn!

Quote of the Day

From the editorial board of The New York Times:

The Carrier deal stands as an interesting argument against longstanding Republican economic orthodoxy.  In making the deal, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence have embraced the idea that government does indeed have a role to play in the free market.  They intervened, and as a result, 800 people will keep their jobs.  If they applied the same interventionist approach to other labor issues–raising the minimum wage and expanding overtime pay come to mind–millions of working people might actually stand a chance.

The Author’s Corner with Zara Anishanslin

portraitofawomaninsilkZara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. This interview is based on her new book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Portrait of a Woman in Silk?

ZA: The moral to my author’s story? We historians should visit museums.

Initial inspiration came because—like many of the people, ideas, and things discussed in the book—I crossed the Atlantic. One day in London, flipping through eighteenth-century silk samples at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Study Room, I had the nagging feeling I’d seen these fabrics before. In particular, I thought I’d seen some of the large floral patterns in a portrait at the Winterthur Museum. A quick bit of digging in the V & A’s research library confirmed my hunch. There was indeed a portrait of a woman wearing London made silk at Winterthur. Digging deeper, I soon found that not only was this woman wearing London—or more specifically, Spitalfields—silk, but that we knew who designed the silk, who wove it, who painted the portrait, and who the woman in the portrait was. As I continued to dig into what was known about each of these four people—two women and two men—an intriguing pattern emerged. Each was not only identifiable, but notable in their own time, financially solvent, literate, and almost certainly educated. And yet, each left the smallest of paper trails. Using traditional archival sources only, they all but disappear from history. How, then, to tell their stories? I decided to use the evidence they did leave behind—material and visual things—to resuscitate their lives as part of an unwitting (but no less real) network around the making, buying, and using of this single object. Tracing the full biographies not just of this network of four, but of the object itself across space and time, I ultimately uncovered a whole world of hidden histories of thousands of other people, things, ideas, and events connected to this portrait of a woman in a silk dress. My nagging feeling in a London museum became this book.   

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Portrait of a Woman in Silk?

ZA: Portrait of a Woman in Silk argues that the production, consumption, and use of commodities in the eighteenth-century British Empire created object-based communities that tied its inhabitants together, while allowing for different views of the Empire. The many histories hidden in this single object lay bare a mental and material world created as much by women’s labor as by men’s, and a transatlantic economy driven by colonial Americans as much as metropolitan producers—Americans who were not just avid consumers but also sophisticated producers, motivated to make and buy things by political, cultural, and personal concerns far more complex than emulative refinement alone.

JF: Why do we need to read Portrait of a Woman in Silk?

ZA: Because it’s filled with really intriguing stories about the long eighteenth-century you haven’t read before! Although its primary focus is the 1720s-1770s, its chronology is the collective lifespan of the network of four who created the portrait of a woman in silk. Conveniently, this ranges roughly from the Glorious Revolution to George Washington’s first presidency (c. 1686/8 to 1791). This timespan allows for discussion of a lot of fascinating people and events, from South Carolinian Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Queen Caroline of England, and from England’s Calico Crisis of 1719 to the American Revolution. In part because I wanted to show how many histories are hidden within things—even things whose function we think we understand, like a portrait—my book deliberately encompasses a wide range of historical fields and topics. In addition to cultural history, it touches upon fields including economic, labor, political, scientific, social, fashion, intellectual, religious, and women’s history. And it discusses subjects as varied as how much silkworms defecate to the politics behind 1760s labor protest.

But history aside, I’ve got a methodological reason to hope you read it. My favorite part of how Yale Press summed up my book was that it contributes to “our ongoing conversation about how to write history.” I hope that’s true. I care deeply about how we historians craft the stories we tell. In part this is because I appreciate good writing. And I think we’ll reach a wider audience outside academia if we write things people want to read. So I hope Yale is right, and that my book adds to our conversation about the historian’s craft. More specifically, I hope it makes other scholars think about how they might use objects to craft history. It’s heartening—and I’m delighted—that so many historians increasingly now embrace material culture as a valid type of evidence. But material culture is not just a type of evidence. It’s also a field of study, with its own theoretical and historiographical foundations. Sometimes it seems as though these underpinnings get lost. So my hope of how I might contribute to our collective conversation of how to write history has two parts to it. First, of course, I wanted to show the many fascinating and otherwise untold histories hidden in things. In addition, I wanted to show the theoretical benefits of material culture as a field of study. What types of histories come to light when—instead of using material culture to answer questions, we make the object itself the question?    

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

ZA: When I was a little girl in Pennsylvania, my grandmother (one of the people to whom this book’s dedicated) told me tales of our eighteenth-century ancestors, of Moravian missionaries (women and men) and soldiers in the American Revolution. I would visit their graves with her and wonder about their long ago lives. As a teenager, I often went to World War II reunions with her and my granddad, who was a pilot stationed in the Pacific. Hearing the men reminisce fascinated me. But at some point, there always came a time when “women and children” were asked to leave the room. The veterans were about to discuss POWs, and death marches, and bombs, and other things too terrible, in their view, for our ears. I found this frustrating. I wanted to hear all the stories. In college at UNC-Chapel Hill, I indulged my love of the past by majoring in History. I realized that if I studied history, I could dig up the stories buried in those eighteenth-century graveyards, and listen to those veterans’ conversations behind closed doors. American history first sparked my childhood interest in the past. But my college Honors thesis was on the French Revolution, and I’ve always felt it’s important to look beyond our own borders when thinking about American history. Honestly, I’m not sure I would be an Americanist if Atlantic World history weren’t such a vibrant field when I went to grad school. But it was. And lucky me! Since I work on colonial and revolutionary era America, it’s easy to be an Atlanticist and an Americanist both.

JF: What is your next project?

ZA: I’m at work on a few projects on the American revolutionary era, mostly focused on material and visual culture. I’m pretty much done with two articles that I hope find a home soon. These are part of a long-ranging synthetic material history of the period (1763-83) I’m planning. If I do it properly, this is a huge project that will take a fair amount of time even by scholarly standards. So in the meantime, I’m also at work on a new, smaller, overlapping book project I’m very excited about.

It’s the history of an enslaved man who painted portraits in Massachusetts and the London artist (possibly also of partial African descent) he studied with in Britain. It follows their intertwined lives back and forth across the Atlantic. During the Revolution, the enslaved man—enslaved to loyalists who fled to London—enlisted to fight for the patriots, while the London artist moved to Philadelphia to paint the luminaries of the early republic. It’s a history of what it meant to be African and an artist in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic, and a history of slavery and freedom in the revolutionary era told through art and war. I admit I’m writing it from a political as well as a historical imperative. I feel it’s especially critical right now that we pay careful attention to the origin stories we tell about America, and that we’re vocal about including black American contributions in the narratives we tell about the past.

JF: Thanks, Zara!

The Author’s Corner with Willem Klooster

thedutchmomentWillem Klooster is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Clark University. This interview is based on his new book, The Dutch Moment: War, Trade, and Settlement in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Dutch Moment?

WK: As a Dutchman working on the Atlantic world, it has always been obvious to me that a book focused on the Dutch Atlantic in the seventeenth century – the period in which the Dutch were so active worldwide both militarily and commercially – was missing. Dutch historians dealing with the wider world have traditionally privileged Asia, the domain of the Dutch East India Company, while North Americans have been mostly interested in New Netherland, which was actually fairly marginal to the main developments in the Dutch Atlantic. I felt that it was my task to right this wrong by writing a work that encompassed all aspects of the Dutch Atlantic in that century without making it a textbook.

JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Dutch Moment?

WK: In 3 sentences, if you don’t mind: The mid-seventeenth century formed a specific stage in Atlantic history that was marked by activities that connected the Dutch to other colonial realms, especially the infant English and French colonies that remained afloat in no small part due to Dutch commercial assistance. On the other hand the Dutch Atlantic had a distinctly violent side, as expressed in the endless battles with their Iberian enemies and Dutch relations with indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans. What helped undo the short-lived Dutch empire was not only Iberian fighting power or nonwhite revolts, but eventually the refusal of unpaid and poorly fed white soldiers and sailors in Dutch service to defend the imperial outposts.

JF: Why do we need to read The Dutch Moment?

WK: By following the Dutch around in the Atlantic basin, we get a new perspective on the Atlantic world at large, and not a peripheral one, since the Dutch were so entangled with other empires, either as warriors or merchants. More particularly, the book reveals the pivotal role of Brazil, where the Dutch elites were willing to wage a seemingly endless war in order to control the production of the world’s foremost sugar colony. This war was the largest conflict between European powers in the seventeenth-century Atlantic, which historians have underappreciated.

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

WK: Although my Leiden dissertation dealt with Dutch trade in the Caribbean, it was not a traditional treatment of the flow of goods between colonies and metropole. Both the Dutch and Spanish archives suggested the existence of close, albeit usually illegal, commercial ties between inhabitants of the Dutch colonies and residents of other empires. I had therefore come to see my subject matter through an Atlantic lens by the time I finished my doctorate in 1995. That same year, I came to the United States as a Fulbright student, and soon found myself in the orbit of Bernard Bailyn, precisely when he started to organize his Atlantic History Seminars. I still think of myself primarily as an Atlanticist rather than an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

WK: The next project is already finished: I just submitted the manuscript of The Second Dutch Atlantic, 1680-1815, a book that I coauthored with Dutch historian Gert Oostindie. It picks up where The Dutch Moment leaves off, taking the story of the Dutch Atlantic through the early nineteenth century. During my sabbatical next semester, I will embark on the following project, a biography of a well-traveled French marquis whose life intersects with the Age of Revolutions in surprising ways.

JF: Thanks, Willem!