The Historic Link Between Gun Violence and White Supremacy

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Mark Tseng-Putterman, a graduate student in history at Brown University, makes the case in this Boston Review piece.  Here is a taste:

Just as frontier violence marked a decisive period of American nation-building, so white supremacist shootings attempt to return the nation to its glorified colonial past. They are not instances of destructive “terrorism,” attempting to tear down society, but rather affirmative acts of white supremacist nation-building, whose aim is to restore it—as Trump’s “MAGA” promise makes clear. After all, it is the founding fathers themselves, the El Paso shooter wrote, who “have endowed me with the rights needed to save our country from the brink destruction [sic].” The gunman understands the symbolic and material power of the Second Amendment better than most: it provides the last sure line of defense of white society against its demise.

We do ourselves no favors, then, in calling white supremacy a new or resurgent form of extremism in the United States. The history of gun violence as a tool of white settlement and domination makes this willful conflation all the clearer. The scholar and abolitionist Angela Davis reminds us that “radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” If we are to truly confront the roots of white supremacist mass shootings, we will have to dig much deeper.

Read the entire piece here.

Saul Cornell on the “Mythic Second Amendment”

CornellFordham University’s Saul Cornell, the author of A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control, explains the myth that the Second Amendment relates to the history of the American frontier.  Here is a taste of his piece, “Bearing Arms vs. Hunting Bears: The Persistence of a Mythic Second Amendment in Contemporary Constitutional Culture“:

The myth of the frontier is one of the most enduring in American history; it has been commodified and used to market everything from cigarettes to cars, and has been central to firearms sales for more than a century. It is a little shocking that the same myths used to sell cigarettes played a pivotal role in two federal appeals court decisions: Moore v. Madigan and Peruta v. San Diego. Both cases evoked “the familiar image” of an armed “eighteenth-century frontiersman . . . ‘obtain[ing] supplies from the nearest trading post.” Contrary to this mythic view of the American past, the bulk of the nation’s population in the eighteenth century was clustered along the coast, not the frontier. Nor is there any evidence that members of the Founding era such as George Mason or James Madison were thinking about the plight of the tiny percentage of the American people who lived on the frontier when they discussed the right to keep and bear arms in the Virginia Ratification Convention. The debates in the First Congress certainly do not afford much evidence that this was a major concern. Given the realities of American society at this point in the nation’s history, such concerns would have been odd. In 1790, the mean population center of the United States, a standard measure of population distribution, was situated somewhere between Baltimore and Philadelphia, not western Kentucky, northern Maine, or the Ohio valley.

Frontier mythology has shaped another aspect of the current debate over firearms policy and the law. In response to the horrorific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre warned that the “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”Setting aside the policy debates and statistics about the utility of armed self-defense, particularly in active-shooter scenarios such as schools, the suggestion that giving a guy a gun turns him into an effective agent of law enforcment, it itself part of a set of myths about regenerative violence dating back to colonial America. The leading historian of this mythology, Richard Slotkin, has charted how this motif has been constantly re-invented in American popular culture over the long arc of American history. David Crockett has morphed into Jason Bourne, and most recently the iconic image of a gun-toting hero is more likely to fight off alien invaders or the hordes of the zombie apocolypse than the marginalized others of earlier mythic tales of violence and redemption.

Read the entire piece at The Panorama.

The Author’s Corner with Harry Stout

51RRD1lazEL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHarry Stout is the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, American Aristocrats: A Family, a Fortune, and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2017).

JF:  What led you to write American Aristocrats?

HS:  In 2012 I was awarded a year-long fellowship to the Huntington Library. I was free to pursue any subject that I wanted that was included in their archives. On my first day there I discovered a frontier family named Anderson whose patriarch, Richard Clough Anderson was a Revolutionary War hero and subsequently the Surveyor-General for the Virginia Military District, a vast body of land in present-day Kentucky and Ohio reserved for Virginia military veterans. There are nearly 2,000 letters and papers in collections at the Huntington and elsewhere. I began reading the day of my arrival on Labor Day and did not stop until I left for home Memorial Day. In many ways they were very different from my world but I sensed a strong connection that drew me to them in very powerful ways.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Aristocrats?

HS: While this is a family history, it differs from my family histories in that its focus—and my argument—features land as the central protagonist and anxiety as the interpretive theme that drives the narrative. Anderson family members participated in the greatest middle class land grab in world history and private property surfaced as the magnet that would draw Andersons and countless other millions to American shores in pursuit of an unprecedented American dream.

JF:  Why do we need to read American Aristocrats?

HS: Many Americans correctly see political republicanism as the primary driver of independence and nation-building in American history. But for republicanism to work it also required material abundance and capital leverage to “reward” republican self-government. Many countries today are unable to establish successful republics because they lack the underlying wealth necessary to make the “dream” come true. America’s unrivaled abundance in land, sea, and minerals meant that striving American citizens would be rewarded for their experiment in democracy in unprecedented ways that made the nation compelling attractive and, at the same time, incredibly anxious over gaining and preserving their abundance.

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

HS: I had always enjoyed history and in my sophomore year in college determined on a career in history. Like many historians, I was drawn to the profession by the example of compelling professors who modeled a way of life and work that I found compelling.

JF: What is your next project?

HS:  In addition to this book, I also served as General Editor of a Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia that was published within a week of American Aristocrats. Between the two of them I’m quite busy and the “next project” is still in process. One possibility is a work on World War II that features a diary of my late father that I just discovered for the first time last year. It outlines his experiences in the Battle of Okinawa and offers a compelling example of the sacrifices and sufferings that ordinary sailors experienced in that horrific war.

JF: Thanks, Harry!

 

The Author’s Corner with Craig Thompson Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

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

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

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

JF: Thanks, Craig!

The Author’s Corner with Honor Sachs

Honor Sachs is Assistant Professor of History at Western Carolina University. This interview is based on her new book, Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier (Yale University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Home Rule?

HS: I went to grad school planning to study women and migration into the Deep South during the nineteenth century. But when I got to Wisconsin, everybody was talking about The Middle Ground and my interest in the West began to shift to an earlier time period. As I started poking around, it seemed like all roads led to Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley. The eighteenth-century backcountry was having a historiographic “moment” but, for the most part, it was a scholarship of men – of land speculators, lawyers, hunters, soldiers, and statesmen. The experiences of women in early national expansion were largely invisible. One of the most important things that my advisor, the late Jeanne Boydston, taught me was to look critically at these places of invisibility. She taught me to question things that seemed natural or organic and to understand how they got that way. I wrote Home Rule as a way to figure out how manhood became naturalized into the early western landscape.

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

HS: I can even do that in two words: Families matter. Or, perhaps: Patriarchy matters. In the eighteenth century, it is hard to differentiate between the two.
In two sentences? Home Rule argues that myths of western bounty, prosperity, and self-sufficiency emerged against a backdrop of political instability, social unrest, and economic hardship. In the volatile context of early national expansion, political leaders achieved regional stability by incorporating ordinary men into a political culture that celebrated household order, patriarchal authority, and white supremacy.

JF: Why do we need to read Home Rule?

HS: Historiographically, Home Rule sheds new light on the experiences of ordinary women, slaves, children, and other marginalized populations in the early West and shows how gender and manhood became central to the project of national expansion. In a larger sense, I also think this book can help us better understand the present. Throughout my lifetime, I have watched the ways that ideas and myths about families and households have infused American politics. From the “family values” politics of the 1980s to current debates about same-sex marriage, our nation has placed debates about family structure and legitimacy at the heart of an ongoing conversation about national identity. Home Rule explains how such debates have been part of the American experience since the very beginning.

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

HS: Arguably, I have been a historian since I was ten. In fifth grade, my class took a trip to Washington D.C. (which was quite a feat coming from California!) and one of our stops was at the National Archives. I distinctly remember being mesmerized by the Declaration of Independence. It was this sacred text that we learned about in school, but when I saw it in person, I realized it was really just piece of paper. Real people wrote on that paper with real ink. Something about seeing an actual document gave me such a strong sense of connection with the past; it collapsed time. Real people before me did normal things like write stuff down on paper, just like I did in school. Something about seeing an actual document changed me. I appreciated the past on an emotional level, and when I thought about all the people who lived before me, I never felt alone. That was comforting. By the time I got to college, I had decided to go into journalism and study politics, but I always felt like something was lacking and wanted to understand the deeper roots of modern issues. I turned to history and began studying personal narratives. Again, I felt that same experience of emotional connection that I had when I was a kid. At that point, it became very clear that I had found my calling.

JF: What is your next project?

HS: I am currently writing a collective biography of a Virginia slave family. This family, named the Colemans, descended from an Apalachee Indian woman who was captured during the English raids on Spanish Florida in 1704. In 1772, some members of the Coleman family sued for freedom in Virginia claiming Indian ancestry and won. It was the first case to link maternal Indian ancestry with freedom and it ushered in a new wave of slave litigation in revolutionary and early national Virginia. For several generations, the Colemans sued for freedom in multiple Virginia jurisdictions, and they continued to do so even as they were bought, sold, and transported across state lines into Kentucky and Tennessee. Over the course of fifty years, Coleman plaintiffs became savvy about the law and worked with some of the new nation’s top lawyers, including Thomson Mason, Henry Clay, and John Marshall. Many of the Coleman suits are well known to historians of race and slavery, but until now, nobody has ever uncovered the family connections between them. Through careful genealogical research, I have been able to link Coleman plaintiffs to some of the most significant litigation on slavery and race in the early republic. Ultimately, the book will examine issues of race, slavery, family, ancestry, and law, throughout the eighteenth century and antebellum America.

JF: Thanks, Honor!

 

The Author’s Corner with Katherine Grandjean

Katherine Grandjean is Assistant Professor of History at Wellesley College. This interview is based on her new book, American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England (Harvard University Press, January 2015).

JF: What led you to write American Passage?

KG: It was somewhat accidental. I’d been looking through colonial letters, while working on some other project, and I noticed something: Indians were carrying letters. For Englishmen. Then I started to think: How did letters travel in early America? There was no postal service. There weren’t even many horses. And early New England was not a fixed block of territory. It was a scattered archipelago of English colonies, flung out over space. So colonists, very early on, had to confront that problem: the problem of sending news. One way that they did it, it turns out, was by hiring Indian messengers. In some ways that was a risky choice, and it interested me. So that discovery pulled me into a lot of new directions, which led to the stories that are in American Passage.

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

KG: The book argues that communication was critical to colonization. Gaining control of New England was not solely a matter of consuming territory, of transforming woods into farms; it also meant mastering the lines of communication.

JF: Why do we need to read American Passage?

KG: It tells an unknown story about American origins. Even in its earliest moments, English settlement in the New World hinged on information exchange. For those hoping to understand how Europeans planted themselves in North America, this is an important part of that story.
But some of the book’s material is also resonant with what’s happening now, in America. The final chapter of
American Passage, for instance, raises questions about terror: Isn’t communication, after all, a critical element of terror? In order for terror to be effective as a political strategy, people need to hear about it. People need to learn about the violence, and experience the visceral fear that it causes, even if they don’t witness it first-hand. That happened in the English colonies, just as it happens now. People heard about violence, in newspapers and in letters, much as we now see it on television. So the book is about the beginnings of America’s culture of fear, as much as it is about communication.

It’s also, I hope, an entertaining read. Even people who know quite a bit about colonial New England are likely to encounter stories, in this book, that they have not heard. I’m inviting readers into a different colonial New England, less orderly and more precarious than the quiet Puritan villages of popular imagination—a darker place entirely.

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

KG: I always wanted to be a writer. But I think I was in college when I first considered writing history. I had the good fortune of studying with several historians—like John Demos and Joanne Freeman—who were also fantastic storytellers. They got me hooked on the subject matter, as well as the craft.

JF: What is your next project?

KG: I’m working on a new book about a series of murders in Appalachia, in the 1790s. Its main characters are two brothers, chased out of North Carolina after the Revolution—perhaps for being loyalists. Their killing spree, in the early Republic, terrorized hundreds. Although now mostly forgotten, it’s a story that offers great opportunities to explore the origins of American violence, the legacies of the American Revolution, and the character of the early West. So that’s where my attention is headed, next.

JF: Can’t wait to read it! Thanks Kate.


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

The Author’s Corner with David Narrett

David Narrett is Professor of History at University of Texas Arlington. This interview is based on his new book, Adventurism and Empire: The Struggle for Mastery in the Louisiana-Florida Borderlands, 1762-1803 (The University of North Carolina Press, December 2014).
JF: What led you to write Adventurism and Empire?

DN: I wrote Adventurism and Empire because of my fascination with colonial adventurism as a phenomenon involving commerce, settlement schemes, and military freebooting across national boundaries. I also realized that there was a need for a detailed and systematic study tracing the transition from British-Spanish rivalry to U.S.-Spanish competition in Louisiana and “the Floridas” during the late eighteenth century.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Adventurism and Empire?

DN: Louisiana and Florida were borderland regions characterized by a high degree of geopolitical instability, personal adventurism, and intrigue from the denouement of the Seven Years War through the Louisiana Purchase. British-Spanish rivalry, both before and during the American Revolution, had a profound impact on subsequent U.S.-Spanish competition. Diverse nationalities vied over the control of rivers and pathways linking coastal to interior zones. Southern Indians sought trade goods through Pensacola and Mobile no less avidly than U.S. frontier folk clamored for free navigation on the Mississippi and access to the New Orleans market. Power struggles emerged in which commerce and immigration were as important determinants as war and violence.

JF: Why do we need to read Adventurism and Empire?

DN: Adventurism and Empire shows how the United States emerged as a successor empire to Great Britain through rivalry with Spain in the Mississippi Valley and Gulf Coast. Adventurism and Empire charts events in peace and war over four critical decades–from the close of the Seven Years War through the Louisiana Purchase. The story sheds new light on individual colonial adventurers and schemers who shaped history through cross-border trade, settlement projects involving slave and free labor, and military incursions into Spanish and Indian territories.

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

DN: I decided to become an American historian through my undergraduate studies at Columbia University, and through a deeply felt personal connection to our national past. While pursuing my Ph.D. at Cornell University, I was inspired by the late Michael Kammen, one of the foremost American historians of the last half-century.

JF: What is your next project?

DN: My next project is a study of frontier republicanism and settler-Native conflict in the trans-Appalachian West during the late eighteenth century.

JF: Thanks David.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

My Visit to Marietta College

I am writing from Marietta, Ohio where I have been spending some time with the History Department at Marietta College.

On Tuesday night I gave a public lecture on Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  The McDonough Auditorium on campus was mostly filled with students, faculty, and members of the community.  (The college president, provost, and assistant provost were also in attendance).  I was glad to hear that my book is being used in two classes this semester–a course on the American founding era and a sophomore historical methods seminar. 

As is usually the case when I give these talks, the members of the audience were full of questions, both following the lecture and at the book table.  One young man asked me if I thought an atheist would ever be elected President of the United States and, if there was an atheist elected, would he/she swear on the Bible during the inauguration ceremony.  One guy asked a “question” that consisted of him reading aloud a passage from a book called The 5000 Year Leap.  Yet another audience member asked the following question: “Roe v. Wade?”   (Yes, you read that correctly.  He basically uttered the name of the famous Supreme Court case using an interrogative inflection and somehow expected me to answer him).  These things sometimes happen when you are on the road asking people to consider whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. 

I spent the day learning about the Marietta History Department, the rich early American history of the town of Marietta (which was the first settlement in the old Northwest Territory and the site of some amazing native American earthworks), the college’s special collections library (which houses the complete papers of the Ohio Company among other gems), and plans to create an early American center with a strong public history dimension. It looks like some very exciting things are happening on the latter front and I was honored to be able to help the faculty refine their vision for such an initiative.

Thanks to Matt Young and the rest of the History Department (it was good to see Andy Wehrman again) for their gracious hospitality during my visit.  I had some delicious spicy shrimp soup at Austyn’s, experienced the local breakfast flavor at The Busy Bee, and tried some Jeni’s ice cream (Pistachio) at The Buckley House.