The Author’s Corner with Cameron Strang

StrangCameron B. Strang is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nevada-Reno.  This interview is based on his recently released book Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850 (Omohundro Institute/University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Frontiers of Science?

CS: Serendipity? Or, more precisely, I set out to write a dissertation on how Spanish precedents affected the ways science and expansion overlapped in the early United States. What I found in the archives, though, were a bunch of fascinating stories about how diverse Native, Spanish, French, African, Creole, and Anglo intellectuals throughout the Gulf South produced and shared knowledge. The book developed out of my growing conviction that such stories were neither aberrant nor insignificant but, in fact, were typical of the pursuit of natural knowledge in early America on the whole.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Frontiers of Science?

CS: Frontiers of Science argues that encounters inspired by imperialism shaped the production, circulation, and application of natural knowledge among the diverse peoples of America from the 1500s through the 1800s. U.S. expansion ensured that imperialism remained central to American intellectual life well after U.S. independence.

JF: Why do we need to read Frontiers of Science?

CS: Because I believe it ought to change how we think about intellectual and cultural life in the early United States. For a long time now, we have studied intellectual history and the history of science in the early republic with the idea that a post-independence context of liberty and democracy fully recalibrated how American men and women studied nature. But this perspective depends on a very narrow view of America and Americans, one that looks only at the eastern seaboard and free citizens. When we turn instead to the nation’s borderlands and the continental interior—vast and incredibly diverse parts of the nation—it becomes apparent that the pursuit of knowledge in the United States did not cohere around democratic politics or the influence of liberty. It was, as in other empires, divided by multiple loyalties and identities, organized through contested hierarchies of ethnicity and place, and reliant on violence. It is this thoroughly imperial context that, I suggest, ought to frame how we think about the intellectual and cultural history of the early United States.

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

CSI was a history major in college, but I didn’t take a single U.S. history course as an undergrad (I was much more interested in imperial China). I went to graduate school at the University of New Hampshire with the idea of doing an MA in museum studies, but I took an early America seminar with W. Jeffrey Bolster during my first semester and I was hooked. I was particularly taken with the history of borderlands and the Atlantic because, well, these fields seemed to have the most surprising stories. After finishing at UNH, I moved to the University of Texas to get a PhD. In short, I have never been all that interested in the big traditional narrative of U.S. history, but what excites me about the field is that there always seem to be unexpected and fascinating stories just waiting to be discovered that have the potential to change how we think about the big picture. Finding and telling those stories is what I love about this job.

JF: What is your next project?

CSI’m writing a history of Native American explorers, particularly Indians from the eastern United States who explored the West in the 1700s and 1800s.

JF: Thanks, Cameron!

Alfred Crosby, RIP

CrosbyI just learned about this today.  Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 was one of the first books I read in graduate school.  Later I read The Columbian ExchangeCrosby‘s work continues to inform many of my lectures, both in my U.S. Survey Course and my Colonial America course.  He was such an innovative thinker.

Here is a taste of the New York Times obituary:

In the eyes of many of his peers, Alfred W. Crosby was the father of environmental history, and he owed that distinction in large part to his childhood infatuation with Christopher Columbus. He revered him as much as he did his comic strip hero Superman.

That fascination led him, as a scholar, to delve into the biological and cultural impact of Columbus’s voyages to the Americas. And to purse that investigation he expanded the historian’s toolkit.

In groundbreaking feats of interdisciplinary research, he incorporated studies of biology, ecology, geography and other sciences in his efforts to chronicle and understand human events — work that introduced sweeping explanatory concepts like “the Columbian Exchange” and “ecological imperialism.”

“For historians, Crosby framed a new subject,” the historian J. R. McNeil, author of several books on environmental history, wrote.

Read the rest here.  Crosby was 87.

Some Historical Context for the U.S. Response to Puerto Rico

Puerto

As historian Marc-William Palen reminds us, Puerto Rico has always been in a “precarious position within the U.S. body politic.”  The history of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico is indispensable to understanding the U.S. response to Hurricane Maria.

Here is a taste of Palen’s Washington Post piece: “Decisions more than a century ago explain why the U.S. has failed Puerto Rico in its time of need.”

The decision made in the late 19th century to make Puerto Rico a colony without the full political equality of statehood is now crippling the island’s ability to recover from Maria. The Trump administration’s initial enforcement of the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from entering Puerto Rican ports, and the indifference of many Americans toward the plight of Puerto Ricans were born out of this nearly forgotten turn-of-the-century imperial decision. Americans must reconcile and rectify their imperial legacy, or Puerto Rico will continue to suffer.

 

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Emily Conroy-Krutz

The Author's Corner with Emily Conroy-Krutz

Emily Conroy-Krutz is Assistant Professor, Department of History, Michigan State University.  This interview is based on her new book Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Cornell University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Christian Imperialism?

ECK: 
It started with a story about Americans in the British Empire. In 1812, when the first American foreign missionaries reached India, the War of 1812 had just begun and eight American men and women now found themselves in British territory, ordered to return to the United States, and placed in police custody. They did not leave, but spent the war years divided into smaller groups, some fleeing the police and trying to find alternate mission locations and others trying to convince the local governments in India that they were not an American threat, but Christian allies in the task of converting India to Christianity and “civilization.” I came across that story when I was working on a seminar paper in graduate school and was fascinated by the boldness of the missionaries who asserted their right to be in India and played with the questions of their identity as Americans and as Christians. For some of their British missionary allies, the Americans were maddening in their lack of a plan and unwillingness to follow the rules of the East India Company in determining where they would go and what they would do.

These early American missionaries felt that they were following Providence and fulfilling their duty to take part in the conversion of the world, even as the power of their country to help them do that work was severely limited. I wanted to know much more about them and to try and figure out what inspired this movement that they were part of and what it could tell us about national identity in the early United States. I wanted to know what they thought they were doing in India in 1812, and how they found their way to open mission stations around the world by the mid-1840s.

The project grew out of these linked questions of why the foreign mission movement began when it did and where Americans wanted to go as missionaries. In 1810, when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was founded, the ambitious global scale of the ABCFM’s plans are quite surprising, and so I wanted to think about what their decisions about where to go and what to do when they got there can tell us about how early 19thcentury American Protestants thought about the role of their country in the world. The result is a book that traces American missionaries in Asia, Africa, North America, the Pacific, and the Middle East in the years before 1848 as a way of thinking about ideas about race, religion, civilization, and empire in the early republic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Imperialism?

ECK: In the early 19th century, the American foreign mission movement was motivated by an idea that I have termed Christian imperialism, a claim that America and other supposedly Christian nations such as Britain should spread Anglo-American civilization and Protestantism to the peoples of what they called the “heathen world” as a way of fulfilling their duty to spread the gospel. As they went about four decades of missionary work, they asserted the centrality of this role even as the political realities of the world around them ultimately did not conform to this vision of an American international role.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Imperialism?

ECK: Christian Imperialism takes a broad-scale view of the foreign mission movement as a way of thinking about the US in the world during the first decades of the nineteenth century. If you are interested in how Americans have thought about the role of their country in the world, this is an important part of that story. Missionaries were some of the earliest Americans to live abroad, and their writings about their experiences were influential to how Americans at home understood the peoples of the world. They worked alongside imperial and colonial projects around the world—including the British East India Company, the Colonization Society, and the U.S. government—and had an important perspective on how religion and politics ought to relate to each other. By looking at missionaries in Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, North America, and the Middle East within the same study, I try to reconstruct the foreign mission movement as it would have been thought about at the time: a project with truly global ambitions that emerged at a moment of American political weakness on a global scale.  Thinking about how those two things fit together can reveal a lot about the place of America in the world. In light of these difficulties, missionaries had to prioritize where they went and what they did, and their decisions are revealing of their thinking about race and “civilization,” and of how that thinking shaped and was shaped by their religious beliefs and political and economic structures. The book should be of interest to readers who want to know more about not only the history of missions, but of the role of the US in the world, of American imperialism, and of religion and race.

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


ECK: 
I was lucky to have some really great history teachers in high school and college that helped me to see how exciting it could be to become a historian and try to answer big questions through a careful reading of primary source documents. In my first semester as an undergraduate at Columbia, Alice Kessler-Harris introduced us to E.H. Carr and to the idea that how we frame our questions matters, and where we go looking for our answers matters. It was that training in women’s history that really inspired me to think about history as a career. Once I started exploring archives and discovering the fun ways that research can take you in new directions you weren’t expecting, I was hooked.

JF: 
What is your next project?

ECK: 
I’m starting work now on a project looking at women and transatlantic reform before 1840. In part, this is emerging out of some research on women in the foreign mission movement that I did for this project but I’m planning on moving beyond missions to think about the ways that men and women in the US and Great Britain were talking about women’s participation in reform movements—particularly religiously motivated movements—in the decades between the Revolution and the 1840 World’s Antislavery Conference in London. It’s very early stages, but I’m having a lot of fun with it so far.

JF:
Thanks Emily!  Sounds like a great new project!

The Author’s Corner with Matthew McCullough

Matthew McCullough is Pastor at Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee. This interview is based on his book The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (Studies in American Thought and Culture) (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write The Cross of War?

MM:The short answer is frustration!  My first love as a student of American religious history is the pre-Civil War period.  And I’ve always been especially drawn to studying how American Christians have understood the role and significance of civil society from the perspective of their Christian commitments.  The problem is I never could land on something meaningful I wanted to contribute to these conversations on early America.  I just really enjoyed reading and thinking through what so many others have said on the subject.  So after a few dead end attempts to find an angle on early America in grad school, I took the easy road and asked my questions of the late 19th century sources.

More substantially, my primary interest is in studying American Christianity, and within American Christianity the meaning and significance of the American nation has remained a central preoccupation for much of the past 200 years.  I want to understand the power and the development and the implications of this Christian nationalism.  Times of war offer some of the most useful windows into this subject because it’s then that Christian leaders have been most prone to reflect on and celebrate the significance of America.  I found that where the colonial wars, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War I had received substantial attention from scholars interested in Christian nationalism, the Spanish-American War wasn’t nearly so worked over.  There were some excellent studies for sure, but all of them remained limited in scope and most were not explicitly focused on Christian nationalism.  It didn’t take much spade work to discover the importance of this war for the development of Christian nationalism.  The religious periodicals so popular during this period were full of detailed reflections on the significance of this war and this nation.  Many saw the war for the foreign policy departure that it was and justified it with a full-orbed articulation of what it means to be a Christian nation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Cross of War?

MM: The Spanish-American War marked the emergence of an understanding of America’s responsibility in the world that I call “messianic interventionism”—the belief that America can and should intervene in the affairs of other nations for the good of those nations.  I argue that the distinctive features of this war—the cause, the combatants, the results, etc.—converged perfectly to frame messianic interventionism as not only plausible but nearly inevitable.

JF: Why do we need to read The Cross of War?

MM:I hope that my study confirms what Harry Stout and others have argued—that times of war are more important to the structure of American religious history and the shape of American Christianity than we have recognized to this point.  The Spanish-American War remains largely unknown, but its significance related to what had happened in the Civil War and what would happen in World War I is huge.

From another angle, those interested in American history and/or in American Christianity should be interested in Christian nationalism because it’s occupied such an important place in public discourse.  And those interested in Christian nationalism should be interested the Spanish-American War context because—I’m convinced—it offers a window into Christian nationalism in its most overt and unbridled form.  Expressions of Christian nationalism were at least somewhat chastened after World War I, and were limited by pervasive localism through the Civil War era.  But the rhetoric surrounding the Spanish-American War features a nationalism so confident and hopeful it’s difficult to imagine in our time.

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

MM:I’ve been fascinated by American history since I was a kid.  My interests were refined in college towards American religious history specifically.  At that time I had a strong desire to continue my development within and to contribute to the academy.  But I also had a strong desire for local church ministry.  I believed studying American religious history in grad school would be really useful whether I decided to pursue an academic career or service to a local church.  Now, as a local church pastor, I’m convinced that calculation was on the mark.  Besides the refinement in critical thinking and communication, my work as a historian has given me helpful insight into the specific time and place in which I pastor and how my context became what it is.

JF: What is your next project?

MM:I’m kicking around a couple small scale ideas related to Christian nationalism, but working full time as a pastor I’m not working on another historical monograph at the moment.  I am however working through the early stages of a project that would bridge my interests as a historian and a churchman.  The project would focus on the memento mori tradition among early American Puritans, why this focus on death has largely disappeared in American Christianity, and why we’d be better off if we brought it back

JF: Thanks, Matthew!!


And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author’s Corner.