“Ideological Origins at 50” Recap

2cfad-bailynLast month Yale University hosed a conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bernard Bailyn‘s landmark The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

Over at “American Revolutions” blog, Harvard graduate student E.G. Gallwey has provided a nice synopsis of the proceedings.

Here is a taste:

Several distinct themes emerged over the course of the two-day event that aimed to examine the signature contribution Bailyn made to our understanding of the Revolution. First, Eric Slauter placed Bailyn in his historiographical milieu. The influence of Caroline Robbins and J.G.A. Pocock on Bailyn’s interpretation of radical whig thought are well-known. But it was his reading of the work of lesser known American literary scholars, which provided the impetus for Bailyn’s study of words and their changing meaning as a symptom of shifts in political culture and understanding. By adopting this strategy, drawn from the work of Moses Coit Tyler, Elizabeth C. Cook, and Perry Miller, Bailyn was able to provide an interior view of the revolutionary generation and an intimate excavation of its mentalite.

Originally published as an introduction to an edition of revolutionary pamphlets, entitled The Transforming Radicalism of the American Revolution, Bailyn’s work, together with the companion volume The Origins of American Politics, provided a periodization or intellectual chronology of the rise of revolutionary consciousness. In this way, Jack Rakove’s paper recalled his experience of teaching Bailyn’s text and how its pedagogical function served to underline key questions of causation, an analytic at odds with the dominant trend of histories of the last decade which have focused on the lived experience of the Revolution. Rakove described Bailyn’s text as providing two distinct modes of explanation for the Revolution. The first provided an account of the causes of the Revolution under the influence of a worldview, or ideology, which pushed Americans from fear and suspicion at the loss of liberties, to outright resistance, and finally revolution against the threat posed to liberty by Britain’s expanding imperial state. The other, faced only after Independence had been declared, involved the eclipse of ideology in place of debate over key political and social questions, including slavery, religious freedom, and democratic rights. The specific role played by Whig ideology could not provide the answers for constituting a new and powerful national government, especially since—as Bailyn made clear—the suspicion of governmental power was the cornerstone of radical Whig thought.

The transition therefore from colonies to separate states, was a mere preamble to a much larger transformation in the structure of politics, where the nation-state produced out of the ashes of revolutionary separation required some new conception of sovereignty capable of holding a union of states, each highly jealous of their liberty. Danielle Allen provided a compelling account of the thought of James Wilson, who was shown to have nurtured an account of unitary sovereignty based on the new American nation as far back as the Declaration. Equally, Daniel Hulsebosch’s paper made clear that the constitution of 1787 was also a product of the international legal dimensions of governance, in which commercial and financial obligations structured the process of constitution making despite contradicting imperatives of domestic politics. Across the Atlantic, debates over sovereignty were being fought out in the France in a similarly ideological vein. As Patrice Higgonet discussed, the work of Francois Furet a decade later, and the guiding emphasis his work placed on ideas and their expression in public life, led to the convergence of historiographical concerns in French and American history. But for Higgonet, Bailyn’s account of the ‘pragmatic idealism’ of the American style of national governance was fundamentally at odds with the radicalism of the French. Indeed, such a contrast recalls Hannah Arednt’s famous distinction between the political and social bases of revolutionary thought.

Read the entire post here.

The Mind of George Washington

HayesHistorian Kevin Hayes has a new book out on the reading habits of George Washington. (Kevin, if you are out there I would love to interview for the Author’s Corner.  I can’t seem to find an e-mail address.  Thanks).

He gives us a preview of George Washington: A Life in Books at the blog of Oxford University Press.

Here is a taste:

A hundred years ago Ezra Pound criticized American history textbooks for ignoring George Washington’s intellect. More often than not Washington has been seen as a shelf-filler, someone who decorated his home with books, but seldom read them fully or deeply. Here’s an alternate theory: though George Washington never assembled a great library in the manner of, say, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, he did amass an impressive and diverse collection of books that he read closely and carefully and that significantly influenced his thought and action.

No one has ever written an intellectual biography of George Washington. Though Washington’s surviving comments about books and reading are not nearly as extensive as those of other Founding Fathers, he did leave many different types of evidence that, in the aggregate, can help to reconstruct his life of the mind. The evidence takes many different forms:

Surviving books

Though Washington’s library was widely dispersed during the nineteenth century, many of his books do survive. The Boston Athenaeum holds the single largest collection of books formerly in his possession. Additional books survive at Mount Vernon. Other libraries—the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, the Lilly Library at Indiana University, the Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, the Virginia Historical Society—all hold books from Washington’s library in their collections, most of which I have examined.


With the notable exception of his copy of James Monroe’s View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States, Washington’s surviving books contain little marginalia, but he did write in his books occasionally. Most of the time he did so to correct typographical errors, but sometimes his marginal notes reveal how he read. Occasionally his notes in one book indicate other books he read. The fact that Washington wrote in his books has gone largely unnoticed, because uncovering these notes requires work that some find tedious. One must examine the surviving books meticulously, turning over one page after another in search of the slightest pencil marks showing that Washington did read the volumes that bear his bookplate.

Read the entire piece here.

Plenary Sessions Announced for the 2017 Conference of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History in Dallas

Kloppenberg-Toward-Democracy-200x300The folks at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History have been putting together some great annual conferences of late.  The 2017 meeting in Dallas is shaping up to be a real intellectual history-fest.

I was recently asked to participate in a panel proposal for this conference, but I decided to decline in order to avoid the embarrassment of this happening again.  For the next several years my travel to conferences in late October and early November is going to be limited.

It was recently announced that Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed will be one of the plenary speakers.  And just the other day L.D. Burnett announced this:

…we’re pleased to announce our Friday plenary session, “Toward Democracy as Faith or Doubt.”  We have assembled a panel of outstanding scholars who will be interrogating and at times no doubt challenging James Kloppenberg’s argument in his most recent, remarkable book:  Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (OUP, 2016).

Christopher Cameron of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte will chair the discussion.  Joining him will be W. Caleb McDaniel of Rice University, Amanda Porterfield of Florida State University, Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut, and Daniel Wickberg of the University of Texas at Dallas.  James Kloppenberg will also join the conversation, responding to his readers’ comments and questions and perhaps posing some questions of his own.

Obama the Historian

obama-and-historyCheck out Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on Barack Obama’s use of history during his presidency.   Here is a taste:

True, Mr. Obama may be unlikely to emulate Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and follow his years in the Oval Office with a stint as president of the American Historical Association. But some scholars see in him a man who used the presidency not just as a bully pulpit but also as something of a historian’s lectern.

And he wielded it, they say, to tell a story more strikingly in sync with the bottom-up view of history that dominates academic scholarship than with the biographies of great leaders that rule the best-seller list.

“Obama had these confabs with the presidential historians, but I don’t think he thinks like a presidential historian,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said, referring to the regular dinners Mr. Obama held with leading historians in the early years of his presidency. “I think he thinks like a social historian.”

Obama should be praised for his use of history in his speeches.  His usable past is a complicated one.  Grossman is correct.  Obama thinks like a social historian.  He gave a lot of attention to what happened at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.  But Obama also thinks like an American intellectual historian.  He is a historian of ideas and ideals.  When he talks about the common good he sounds a lot like Gordon Wood and the civic humanist tradition.  He calls for sacrifice and what the founders called virtue.

In the end, Obama used the past a lot.  But let’s remember that he was a politician and a POTUS who used the past to serve his progressive agenda. The fact that most of the historical profession believes that Obama’s progressive approach to history is correct does not make this point any less irrelevant.

Finally, I think we need to acknowledge the great irony of the Obama presidency as it relates to history and history education.  For all his magnificent invocations of the American past, Obama did virtually nothing practical to promote the teaching and learning of history.  Let’s face it, Barack Obama was a STEM president and the history community and the American democracy that he loves so much is weaker because of this.

The Intellectual Life–Part 6

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.119: It is very important to work in joy, therefore with relative ease, therefore in the direction of one’s aptitudes. By going forward at first on different paths each one must discover himself [or herself], and when he [or she] has found his [or her] special vocation, pursue it.

p.119: When the whole field of study has been surveyed and its connections and unity estimated in the light of fundamental principles, it is urgently necessary, if one does not want merely to mark time, to turn to some task which is precise, defined in its limits, proportioned to one’s strength; and then to throw oneself into it with all one’s heart.

p.121: It is a painful thing to say to oneself: by choosing one road I am turning my back on a thousand others. Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands.

p.121: Therefore, do not imagine you can do everything. Measure yourself, measure your task; after some experiments, make up your mind, though without rigidity, to accept your limits; persevere, by reading and if necessary by a certain amount of writing, the advantage of your early studies, your contact with wide fields of knowledge–but for the main part of your time and strength, concentrate. 

Are You an Intellectual?

kendiIbram X. Kendi‘s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America recently won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.  Last week he delivered the doctoral commencement address at the University of Florida where he teaches in the history department.  His address, titled “Are You Intellectual,” is worth reading in full.  He has posted it to the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

Here is a taste:

The point of my address is to ask you a simple question: are you an intellectual?

I am asking this question because you need to know that having a doctorate does not make you an intellectual. It is so embarrassing, but there are doctorates who are not intellectuals. Just like there are MDs who are not healers. Just like there are JDs who are not about justice. Just like there are Reverends who are not about God. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a Reverend who is not about God? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a JD who is not about justice. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a MD who is not a healer? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a doctorate holder who is not an intellectual?

Today you are joining the illustrious academy of doctoral recipients. But I want to talk to you today about joining the even more illustrious academy of intellectuals. No doctorate degree is required to join the intellectual academy. This is an inclusive academy with all types of people with all types of backgrounds. There are people with only a GED in this intellectual academy. There are incarcerated people in this intellectual academy. There are homeless people in this intellectual academy. There are poor people in this intellectual academy.

When I say intellectual, I am not referring to someone who knows a wealth of information. How much you know has no bearing on how much you are in intellectual.

I define—and many others define an intellectual as someone with a tremendous desire to know. Intellectuals are open-minded. Intellectuals have a tremendous capacity to change their mind on matters, to self-reflect, to self-critique. Intellectuals are governed by only one special interest that is rarely self-serving—the special interest of finding and revealing the truth.

Read the entire address here.

An Intellectual Historians Reflects on the Chicago Cubs


Tim Lacy is one of several scholars responsible for the resurgence of the field of intellectual history and the establishment of the Society for United States Intellectual History.  Lacy is also a Chicago Cubs fan.

I was not cheering for the Cubs in the World Series.  I have a hard time rooting for National League teams other than the New York Mets (unless those teams are playing the Yankees). But as a baseball fan who has written more than a few posts about the Mets at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I have great respect for the kind of fan loyalty Lacy shows in this post at the blog of SUIH.

Here is a taste of Tim’s post:

What Would Christopher Lasch Think?


If you are a fan of cultural critic and historian Christopher Lasch you may want to check out this interview at the University of Rochester website with a 2015 Rochester Ph.D named Jeff Ludwig.

According to the article, Ludwig is working on a two-volume biography of Lasch.  Sounds like a great project, but Ludwig is going to have to work hard to top Eric Miller’s award- winning Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch.

Here is a taste of Ludwig’s interview:

Q: Do you wonder what Lasch would think of the current state of politics?

Ludwig: I met with Mrs. Nell Lasch, his widow, a couple of years ago and she said that she is often asked, “what do you think your husband would say about the X, Y, and Z that’s going on right now?” She always gives a version of this answer: “Kit [Lasch’s nickname] isn’t here to tell us and it’s tricky and dangerous to try to make assumptions based on what he wrote 20 or more years ago and fit it into modern debates.”

Lasch gets cited a lot during election cycles because much of what he had to say is still relevant—especially given the debate about the place of the privileged and of elites in American life. But, I always thought it striking that Nell said to me, “he’s not with us,” cautioning us against trying to find his voice in events that are well beyond his time by force-fitting him into modern debates. Even in his lifetime, people of all political persuasions—from radicals to far-right conservatives—could read into something from Lasch’s corpus of works that appealed to them. He’s been claimed by the left, right, and center, though in the end I think Lasch was advocating for a total paradigm shift away from these labels and the social order they buttressed.

Q: Lasch was a social critic over a span of forty years. Did his interests shift overtime?

Ludwig: That’s the thing that is tricky about Lasch. He never stayed on one topic for very long. His historiography shows that he was as interested in writing about race as he was about popular culture, and entertainment as much as sports. He was a celebrated writer for the New York Review of Books because they could hand him a subject and he would form an articulate, and often scathing and well thought out opinion of it. But that’s also why it took me 800 pages to just do volume one of his biography for my dissertation.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with Caroline Winterer

americanenlightenmentsCaroline Winterer is Professor of History at Stanford University. This interview is based on her new book, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write American Enlightenments?

CW: It’s been 40 years—40 years!— since a major book on the American Enlightenment was published. That was Henry May’s The Enlightenment in America (1976), which arrived with the United States bicentennial. While May’s book has many virtues, it was becoming clear to me—and to my students—that we need a wholly new reassessment of the American Enlightenment, one that assesses it from our vantage point of 2016.

My book shows that the concept of a unitary, patriotic “American Enlightenment” was invented during the Cold War era as an ideological shield against the totalitarian threat. The myth-makers came from a broad swath of American society: they were journalists, historians, artists, and politicians. Among the most influential was the historian Adrienne Koch, who published the first book ever to be titled The American Enlightenment (1965). Koch singled out what she called the “Big Five” founders—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison—for embodying what she called the “vision” and “spirit” that still undergirded the “free society” and “democratic civilization” of twentieth-century America. For Koch, the political drama of the American Revolution formed the center of this new, mythical era she was calling the American Enlightenment. She argued publicly that Enlightenment ideals remained of the utmost relevance in the mid-twentieth century. We should appreciate our American Enlightenment, she seemed to say, the way we appreciate vaccines and other modern wonders that protect us from very bad things like viruses and communists.

By the era of the American bicentennial, theory had congealed into fact. In 1976 and 1977, no fewer than three books appeared that confidently assured readers that there had been an American Enlightenment, and, moreover, that it was most clearly embodied—in fact it was realized—during the political struggles of the American Revolution.

These bicentennial books also popularized a second feature of the myth of the “American Enlightenment”: diffusionism. The diffusionist theory of the American Enlightenment held that its major ideas were hatched in Europe, especially in France, in the minds of airy philosophers like Voltaire. These abstract ideas had then traveled like immigrants to America, where they were forged into real, hard facts by pragmatic American revolutionaries. As the historian Henry Steele Commager put it in his book The Empire of Reason (1977), the Old World “imagined, invented, and formulated” the Enlightenment; the New World “realized it and fulfilled it.”

As a result of the books, magazines, and images created by these mid-twentieth-century opinion makers, we all assume today that there was a discrete golden era in the American national past called the “American Enlightenment,” and that its most brilliant flower was the American Revolution. The American Revolution-centered American Enlightenment gives a satisfying, triumphal narrative trajectory to the history of ideas in the United States. It soothes our fears that compared to Europe we’re a little weak in the Big Idea department. Europeans may have Newton, Voltaire, Kant, and Spinoza, but Americans have an American Enlightenment that realized the inspiring but ultimately abstract promises of the European Enlightenment.

We should care about this modern myth because this triumphal, nationalistic, and politicized narrative of an American Enlightenment obscures the reality of the eighteenth century by holding people in the eighteenth century to our own modern standards of what counts as enlightenment. If we listen to the voices of eighteenth-century Americans themselves, we discover that never talked about something so grand and triumphal as the “American Enlightenment,” a shining bauble of national greatness whose truths shine forth undimmed today. Instead, they talked about their elusive, never-completed quest to become “enlightened” (small e).

What did it mean to be “enlightened” in eighteenth-century America? Two things mainly. First, people who hoped to become enlightened believed that human reason rather than superstition and biblical revelation would help them to understand the world around them. Second, they believed that instead of getting worse, as the Bible narrative of the fall from Eden announced, human societies were in fact constantly getting better. These eighteenth-century people were the first people in the history of the world to believe that human reason would lead to what they called progress.

But here’s they takeaway. None of these Americans thought that enlightenment had ever been achieved: it was a constant process, ongoing, upward, never ending. Where we see an era, an admirable thing that is already done, the people who lived in the eighteenth century saw a process, never completed because human reason was always fallible. They were never sure exactly whether enlightenment had been achieved; there was always room for improvement. They were the most hopeful and optimistic people in the history of the world, but also highly uncertain and questioning about their own abilities to achieve perfection.

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

CW: Overturning out cherished assumptions about the “American Enlightenment”—in particular its links to modern American nationalism and its alleged diffusion from European salons—this book shows that enlightenment was instead an international conversation that emerged in part because of the new questions, context, and problems generated by the New World. Stripping away our modern mystifications of the national past, American Enlightenments explores the many and fascinating pathways—through science, politics, art, religion, and economics—by which eighteenth-century Americans strove for an elusive state they called “enlightenment.”

JF: Why do we need to read American Enlightenments?

CW: To better understand our national legacy. The legacy of enlightenment for Americans is not so much of providing definitive answers and being sure about the rightness of our political ideals, as the narrative of a grand “American Enlightenment” proposes. Instead the legacy of enlightenment in America is of asking important questions about our world–about nature, society, and government—and of being modest about our abilities to agree on what is true and good for Americans and for others. It seems to me that this is a more useful version of enlightenment for Americans today than a dusty mausoleum of self-evident truths. I’ve written a recent article in Aeon magazine about how the founders were actually much more uncertain (in a good way) than we give them credit for.

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

CW: I first had to give up my dream of being a paleontologist, which is what I’d wanted to be since I was about 5. I took a bunch of terrific medieval history courses at Pomona College (thanks Professor Kenneth Wolf!) and my eyes were opened to the wonders of distant times (even if not quite so distant as the Jurassic). I think of myself as a late medieval or early modern European historian who happens to work in the New World context. I’m very interested in how people in the period roughly 1400-1800 made sense of their world. How did they think about rocks, trees, plants, society, politics, literature, art—basically everything? I like re-creating the mental worlds of people who lived a long time ago. It’s like traveling to another planet.

JF: What is your next project?

CW: While the little grey cells recharge, I’m focusing on directing the Stanford Humanities Center.

JF: Thanks, Caroline!

John Calvin at Berkeley

calvinCheck out Jonathan Sheehan‘s recent New York Times piece about teaching John Calvin’s theology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Here is a taste:

In my history of Christianity course, we read a number of challenging writers. Each one I ask students to read with as much sympathy, charity and critical perspective as they can muster. But nothing outrages them — not the writings of Augustine or Erasmus or Luther — more than two or three pages of John Calvin.

Calvin was the most influential religious reformer of the 16th century. His theological imagination and organizational genius prepared the way for almost all forms of American Protestantism, from the Presbyterians to the Methodists to the Baptists. He was also a severe and uncompromising thinker. The Ayatollah of Geneva, some have called him.

Late in the third book of his 1559 “Institutes of the Christian Religion” — when he seeks to describe the utter power of God over man, and our utter dependence on Him — is usually where my students revolt. These young people come from all walks of life. They are atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims and more besides. They are the face of California diversity, young people with wildly different social, religious, ethnic and racial experiences.

Diverse as they may be, their reaction is the same when they read a sentence like this: “Some are born destined for certain death from the womb, who glorify God’s name by their own destruction.” This is the heart of Calvin’s teaching of predestination, his insistence that God determined each human destiny before the creation of the world. The elect are bound for heaven, the reprobate to hell, and there is absolutely nothing to be done about it, ever. “Jacob is chosen and distinguished from the rejected Esau, by God’s predestination, while not differing from him in merits,” is how Calvin put it. Your merits, your good will, your moral action: None of these make a difference. The chosen Jacob is no better than the rejected Esau. The damned glorify God’s name. And God is pleased by the whole business.

The classroom erupts in protest. Nothing has prepared my students for an idea like this. Secular students object: How can so much arrogant misanthropy pass itself off as piety? Non-Christian students are agitated, too. What kind of God is this, they ask, that took pleasure in creating man so that he might be condemned to everlasting damnation? And the various types of Christian students are no less outraged. “Follow me,” Christ said, and doesn’t that mean that we are asked to choose, that the choice between death and salvation is a free one? All different concerns, but the outcome is the same: rejection, usually disgust.

I ask the students to read on. After all, Calvin anticipated these objections, since they were raised in his day, too. He dedicated a whole chapter to dismissing the “insolence” of the human understanding when it “hears these things.” He knew that our first reactions would be anger and denial, that we would be baffled by predestination. So he demanded that his readers, then and now, think alongside him. His argument goes like this: If God alone created all things, doesn’t that mean that he did so freely? If he is free in his choices, how can it be otherwise than that God himself determines our fates, right to the edges of hell? Once you grant the first premise — that there is no God besides God and that he made the universe — reason itself apparently requires we assent to this terrible thought.

None of the students are persuaded by Calvin’s logic. But again, Calvin probably knew that they wouldn’t be, since many of his own readers weren’t either. For this saying “no,” the rejection of this terrible idea, is a natural, even reasonable reaction. “Monstrous indeed is the madness of men, who desire to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason,” Calvin exclaimed.

Read the rest here.

This is a wonderful example of the humanities at work in the classroom.  I am assuming that Sheehan is not a Calvinist, but he wants his students to understand Calvin’s profoundly influential set of ideas.  The historical empathy on display here is inspiring.

I wonder, is Sheehan doing “theology” or intellectual history?  I would suggest he is doing the latter (and doing it quite well).  I have always thought of theology as something done in a community of believers.  It seems to me that the primary goal of teaching Calvin in a theology course would be to decide whether or not Calvin’s ideas are correct and thus provide a useful way of understanding the human relationship to God and vice-versa.   Just a thought.

Vernon L. Parrington and Oklahoma Football

Parrington in Office 1905

Parrington in his University of Oklahoma office, 1905

If you’re like me, you know the name Vernon L. Parrington from your graduate-level course in American historiography.  Parrington won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1928 for his book Main Currents of American Thought.  Post-war students of intellectual history got to know Parrington through Richard Hofstadter’s 1968 work The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington.

But did you know that Parrington was also responsible for bringing college football to Oklahoma?

Here is a taste of Andrew McGregor’s post at Sport in American History:

Football morphed into a formalized campus institution following the arrival of Vernon Louis Parringtonat the University of Oklahoma in 1897. Hired to develop a department of English for the young university, he took on the added unpaid roles of football coach and athletic director. The extra duties were no bother to Parrington, who, like many of the leading Progressive thinkers of the day, viewed sport as an important part of training complete men. Football also played an important role in establishing a university culture. Parrington was intimately tied to both at Oklahoma.

Parrington, who is perhaps best remembered as one of the founders of American Studies, winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for History, and one of Richard Hofstadter’s “Progressive Historians,” embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life.” He modeled a form of robust yet genteel masculinity, representing the ideal well-rounded man at the heart of intercollegiate athletics. Oklahoma could choose no better symbol to found their athletic programs.

Like Harts, Parrington came to Oklahoma from Kansas, where he was a professor of English at the College of Emporia. Parrington also coached the “Fighting Presbies” football and baseball teams. His interest in athletics first developed, however, while a youth playing baseball in rural Kansas. Parrington excelled at baseball and nurtured this interest while a prep student at the College of Emporia, likely helping to organize its first baseball team.

In the College of Emporia’s student newspaper, according to historian James T. Colwell, Parrington “urged western colleges to concentrate more on ‘the laurels of the arena’ and less on those of the forum; on athletics rather than oratory.” He focused on both while a student in Emporia, and continued to pursue athletics when he transferred east to Harvard University. Parrington played some baseball while at Harvard, but football caught his eye. “The first [organized] football [game] I ever saw was in Cambridge,” he later remembered. The Crimson were routinely one of the nation’s best teams, providing Parrington the chance to learn the game from the best. While sources disagree on whether Parrington actually played football at Harvard, he certainly studied their methods, bringing them with him back to Emporia.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner With Sara Paretsky

Sara PAretskySara Paretsky is a best-selling mystery writer and creator of the female private eye V I Warshawski.  This interview is based on her new book Words, Works, and Ways of Knowing: The Breakdown of Moral Philosophy in New England Before Civil War (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Words, Works and Ways of Knowing?

SP: This was originally my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago in 1977.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Words, Works and Ways of Knowing?

SP: Scottish Realism provided the underlying framework for intellectual discourse in northern colleges in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Words, Works and Ways of Knowing explores how that philosophy was irrevocably changed by what we, today, would call scientific inquiry. These changes began when Calvinist scholars began exploring new learning in geology and philology in the 1820s. By the time Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 there were already deep fissures in the American Academy over questions of biblical inerrancy brought about by the new learning.

JF: Why do we need to read Words, Works and Ways of Knowing ?

SP: This book explores the underpinnings of what became current day fundamentalism.

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

SP: I worked in the Civil Rights movement in Chicago in the 1960s and I wanted to study American history to understand what lay behind the violence and the hatred that I saw playing out in Chicago and across the nation. However, at the time that I completed my Ph.D. there were no job openings. I worked in business for 15 years and currently am a writer of crime fiction. I believe the history work I did gave me commitment to accurate research and to providing a historic context for the events that take place in my novels.

JF: What is your next project?

SP: I am finishing a novel whose working title is Fall Out. It is set against the backdrop of the Cold War and how that played out in rural America.

JF: Thanks, Sara!

The Author’s Corner with John Dixon

cadwalladercoldenJohn Dixon is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. This interview is based on his new book, The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden?

JD: As a graduate student at UCLA, I became interested in the Enlightenment and, more specifically, in the circulation of scientific knowledge around the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.  I identified and started to analyze a cohort of Scottish-trained physicians in British North America and the Caribbean. Cadwallader Colden was one member of that group, and I quickly discovered that he was by far the most interesting of the bunch. His life, which conveniently spanned the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution, was a fascinating mix of ambition, success, controversy, and failure. It also interwove politics and science to an unusual and intriguing degree. As a learned Scottish immigrant who adeptly used his intellectual interests and activities to advance his social standing, gain influence, and win patrons, Colden shaped colonial and imperial politics. At the same time, he pioneered the use of Linnaean botany and Newtonian natural philosophy in British America, and was instrumental in establishing scientific and print networks that enabled intercolonial and transatlantic cultural exchange in the mid-eighteenth century. What was it like to be an intellectual in British New York? How did Colden’s political and intellectual lives overlap? Was Colden a reformist or a reactionary? These sorts of questions drove my research and ultimately led me to write The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden?

JD: Standard narratives of early New York and early American history have grossly understated Colden’s significance and complexity as a historical figure. By putting him at the center of the story, we more readily see that elitism, conservatism, and imperialism were essential facets of eighteenth-century New York society and culture, and of the Enlightenment.

JF: Why do we need to read The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden?

JD: For a sense of enjoyment, I hope. I tried to write The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden so that it would appeal to a wide array of specialist and non-specialist readers. That said, my book raises significant historiographical issues. It suggests that scholars have construed colonial New York too narrowly as a proto-modern colony defined by its remarkable degree of social diversity and political factionalism. I don’t deny those features, but I do argue that historians need to pay more attention to British New York’s importance as an imperial hub and as a center of transatlantic scientific and philosophical activity. Likewise, my book complicates current notions of the American Enlightenment by highlighting paradoxical intersections of tradition and reform.

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

JD: I became an American historian through a process of gradual evolution. While growing up on a small island in the English Channel, I somehow got hooked on American literature and jazz music. In this sense, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Coltrane must shoulder some of the blame. BA and MA degrees in American Studies followed. I contracted the itch to be a historian along the way, though I cannot now recall exactly when. After a brief spell working in the publishing industry in London, I moved to the U.S. and entered the Ph.D. program in American History at UCLA. The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden is a heavily-reworked version of my doctoral dissertation.

JF: What is your next project?

JD: I currently hold a research scholarship at the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, New York University. I am using this award to write a sweeping history of Jews in the early modern Atlantic World. 

JF: Sounds great. Thanks, John!


Ben Franklin: Revolutionary or London Intellectual?

a647a-benjamin-franklinThe answer is both.

Over at the website of Smithsonian Magazine, George Goodwin, the author of the brand new book Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of an American Founder, argues that Franklin was an intellectual in the British Atlantic world before he became an American revolutionary.

Here is a taste:

…It was only then, at the age of nearly 70, that he discarded his loyalty to the British state and became a fierce advocate of American independence.

Yet even as an American patriot, Franklin once again returned to Philadelphia with British enlightenment values that influenced his fellow Founding Fathers. Having arrived in London with two slaves, Franklin now supported calls for abolition. Though he did not convince Thomas Jefferson on that matter, he did on others. Jefferson’s choice of portraits for his entrance hall at Monticello is instructive. In the most prominent position are three of Franklin’s own British influences: Bacon, Newton and Locke. There is also a fourth. It is of Benjamin Franklin.

As for Franklin himself, he never quite gave up his Atlanticist dream, even after independence was secured. But now it was to be on a different basis. In 1784, he half-jokingly, if in strictest confidence, wrote to his long-time British friend William Strahan with this suggestion: “You still have one resource left and not a bad one since it may re-unite the Empire … if you have not Sense and Virtue enough left to govern yourselves, even dissolve your present old crazy Constitution, and send Members to Congress.”

Read the entire piece here.

New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition

DuBoisThis looks like a great conference.  Here is a taste:

The upcoming year promises to be an exciting one for the African American Intellectual History Society. Not only is the organization undergoing a period of tremendous growth, it is also hosting its first conference, New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition, at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. A two-day event taking place on March 10th and 11th, 2016, the conference will feature sessions on all aspects of the black intellectual tradition. The program includes panels foregrounding new perspectives on slavery, emancipation, and civil rights, as well as new directions for intellectual history in the age of social media.

The conference will kick off on Thursday March 10th with a session on “Performance, Space, and Movement in Africa and the Diaspora” featuring bloggers Greg Childs and Jessica Marie Johnson and another panel on nineteenth century black political and social thought. Those who have been following the latest campus demonstrations and the #Mizzousyllabus will find the session on black youth and campus activism informative. Later that day, participants will hear from AAIHS bloggers, and new and established scholars, on several central themes including racial identity, historical preservation, and black intellectual leadership. Other panels will include papers on transnational blackness, Pan-Africanism, and liberated spaces.

Participants interested in black feminism and black internationalism will enjoy the Thursday afternoon screening of Audre Lorde- The Berlin Years, 1984-1992. Chronicling an untold chapter of Lorde’s life, the film reveals her influence on local culture and politics and highlights her influence on German ideas of racism, homophobia, and classism.

The day will end with a keynote address from Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. The Executive Committee welcomes conference participants to attend a reception immediately following Dr. Neal’s talk.

On Friday March 11th, participants will hear from new and emerging scholars on secularism and black intellectual life and African Americans and print culture in the Civil War era. AAIHS blogger Keisha Blain will join Adam Ewing,Robert Trent Vinson, and Frances Peace Sullivan on a panel about Global Garveyism and the black intellectual tradition. In the afternoon, presenters will speak about the theory and praxis of African American education, black women and internationalism, and race, performance, and cultural production. Conference participants will also have an opportunity to attend a roundtable on #Blktwitterstorians, an online community of historians, students, and fans of African and African American history. This panel will feature the creators of the hashtag–Joshua Crutchfield and Aleia Brown–as well as historians Stephen G. Hall and Robert Greene II–two scholars who have been active in the monthly #Blktwitterstorians’ chat. The panel will also offer the opportunity to speak about the relationship between black intellectual history and social media.

Check out the program here.

History and the Tragic Sense of Our Fallenness

I wish I had more time to engage with Peter Wirzbicki‘s excellent piece on historians and hope.  It is unfortunate that this was posted so close to Christmas because it is worth a full read.  

Andrew Hartman agrees with me:


Wirzbicki is responding to Ta-Nehsi Coates’s Atlantic piece, “Hope and the Historians.”  If you have been following The Way of Improvement Leads Home, you know that we have been discussing this piece as well.  See our comments here and here and here.

Here is a very small taste of Wirzbicki’s essay at the U.S. Intellectual History blog:

I found their arguments about the split between history and hope compelling and thought-provoking. I am especially convinced that there are triumphalist narratives of US history that must be combatted. But I also was concerned about where the logic of these essays seemed to go.  Many of us, after all, study social movements for lessons on how to recreate those successes. Or we study structures of oppression to find their weakness. Where does a history without hope leave us? More pernicious, I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism. There is a pessimism about mankind’s abilities in these narratives, a tragic sense of our fallenness 
found most often on the right. In many ways, I think, the fault lies with us historians, who have claimed that history should be our total guide to present political life.  Counter-intuitively, by seeking in the past a totalizing guide for present politics, we have sucked the air from our contemporary political imagination, leaving us necessarily disillusioned.  An overly-politicized past may inadvertently lead to an under-politicized present. A politics shaped solely by history is one that runs the risk of a pessimism, the denial of the human task of rebellion against the given, a rejection of the power of critical rationality to reshape.

A couple thoughts/questions:

1.  If I read him correctly, Wirzibicki has a hard time accepting a view of the past defined by human fallenness.  He “worries” that Coates’s narrative will inevitably lead to an “approach to politics” that “falls into a realism that borders on conservatism.”  But does such realism about human nature always translate into a conservative political agenda?  I am thinking here of Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been described as a progressive who believed in original sin.  If Jim Kloppeberg is correct, one might also put Barack Obama in this category.

2.  Is it really fair to say that progressives have a corner on the market when it comes to “imagination” and “hope?”  Again, here is Wirzbicki, “I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism.”

OK–I realize I am nitpicking here.  On the other hand, the rest of Wirzbicki’s provocative argument builds off of the paragraph I pasted above.

October is Conference Month

Hamilton Crowne Plaza, Washington D.C–Home of USIH Conference

I am not attending any conferences this month, but I am following them via Twitter.

Last weekend it was the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and Arts National Network Conference, the University of North Carolina Humanities Conference, and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies “Bustle and Stir” Graduate Conference.

This weekend I am keeping my eye on three more conferences:

1.  The 7th Annual United States Intellectual History Conference in Washington D.C. #usih2015

2.  The Annual Meeting of the Oral History Association in Tampa. #oha2015

3. The Omohundro Institute Early Modern French Atlantic Conference io Williamsburg #oifrenchatl

Follow me at @johnfea1 for retweets.

Studying the Early Life of Great Intellectuals

How does the early life–the childhood or the adolescent years–shape the mature thought of American intellectuals?  Over at U.S. Intellectual History Paul Croce, a historian at Stetson University, thinks it is very important for seven reasons.  Here is a taste of his post:

Historians pay attention to change. Students of the past need no reminding about the evolution of societies, the relationship of ideas to their times, and the contingencies of life. But some unhistorical thought can slip into historical study with exclusive focus on the finished products of a thinker’s work without considering the evolutionary steps toward those creations.
Such a focus can be very tempting; after all, those later productions are generally the most thought out and refined; in the same spirit, who would consider submitting a first draft for publication? But in the course of a life, the equivalents to those early drafts are more than just messy versions of later productions; they can harbor clues to a thinker’s drives and goals, often presented in still more raw form than later texts and creations.
I call this “developmental biography,” the method of attention to an intellectual’s creations over time, in development; the method involves placing an idea not only in contextual history, but also in the thinker’s own history. Consider then these reasons to take a closer look at early life when evaluating the figures of intellectual history:
1-Examining an idea in development, especially through the life path of the idea’s creator in development, brings attention to the choices made during stages of thinking, and to the contexts surrounding those choices. This focus can reveal not only the influences on thought, but also the development of commitment. The culminating theory itself remains important, generally with greater depth and nuances, but the path of development shows how the composer cared enough to create it.

For the other six reasons, read Croce’s entire post.  

This kind of developmental biography is not easy. Primary materials on the early life of intellectuals–or any figure in history for that matter–is difficult to find.  My biography of Philip Vickers Fithian (who was certainly not a famous intellectual) could only gesture toward the kind of culture in which he was raised due to lack of documentary evidence.  If he wrote anything prior to the age of eighteen it does not exist.

What Does African-American Intellectual History Look Like Before the American Revolution?

Phillis Wheatley

Over at the African American Intellectual History Society blog Jared Hardesty, a historian at Western Washington University, tackles this question.  Here is a taste:

As a historian of slavery and colonial America, I have to admit I was a bit taken aback when asked to write for the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog. Perhaps I am a bit naïve or perhaps my definition of “intellectual history” was too narrow, but when Chris Cameron first approached me, I had to stop and think about what exactly “intellectual history” meant for studying African Americans before the American Revolution. After talking to Chris, our conversation raised two interesting, interrelated questions: is it possible to write an intellectual history of African Americans before the Age of Revolutions and if so, what does that history look like?

Since I am currently writing this post, it is safe to assume that I believe the answer to the first question is yes. Yet, the second question poses a much bigger problem considering that most African Americans were illiterate. Granted, there are notable exceptions such as Briton HammonPhillis Wheatley, and the innumerable Islamized Africans who could read and write Arabic. That said, the material these men and women left behind before the late-eighteenth century is quite sparse and heavily analyzed by scholars. But what about the millions of other people of African descent, the vast majority of them slaves laboring on plantations in the Greater Caribbean? Can we understand their intellectual history?

One way I believe we can better answer these questions is to analyze the thousands of court and ecclesiastical records that document the trials and lives of Africans in the Americas. While common in the historiography of Spanish America and Brazil, where the Inquisition and hyper-bureaucratic administrative structures created a large paper trail, these documents are much rarer for the territory that became the United States (indeed, Greg Childs has written an excellent piece on Afro-Latin America for this blog). Part of the problem is one of centralization. Whereas the records of the Spanish and Portuguese are only held in a few large repositories, English-language material is spread across dozens—if not hundreds—of archives. Even more problematic were the often-devolved legal systems of English America where local judicial authorities were in charge of keeping records. And unlike Latin America, there was no Catholic Church with its meticulous, centralized record keeping and attention to detail. The Anglican Church and its missionary wing, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to Foreign Parts, documented black voices, but often sporadically and at a distance, while records are incomplete at best for the many other denominations in British America. Nevertheless, as others and I have found, documents for the Anglophone Atlantic do exist and allow us to better understand the intellectual history of early African Americans.

Read the rest here.