*Believe Me* Interview with Jana Riess of Religion News Service

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I can’t thank Jana Riess enough for her encouragement, friendship, and support of my work.

As some of you know, she was the editor of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  We had a nice little run with that book, including a day at Mount Vernon in June 2011 where we were honored as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.   We had lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn, climbed to the cupola of Washington’s house, and hobnobbed on the lawn with the D.C. elite, including Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when she agreed to blurb Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

“It would be enough for John Fea to marshal his considerable prowess as a historian in proving how evangelicals have been propelled by fear, nostalgia, and the pursuit of power, as he does so compellingly in this book. But he also speaks here as a theologian and an evangelical himself, eloquently pointing toward a better gospel way. This is a call to action for evangelicals to move beyond the politics of fear to become a ‘faithful presence’ in a changing world.”

Today, Religion News Service published Jana’s interview with me.  Here is a taste:

RNS: Your second point is that white evangelicals have bought into the idea that the only way to have an impact on the culture is to seize upon worldly power. What were the roads not taken? What else could they have done instead?

Fea: The history of American evangelicals appealing to political power is a relatively new history, maybe going back to the late 1970s and 1980s with the rise of the Christian right. I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? that evangelicals had been in power in America up until the 1960s in terms of determining what would be America’s cultural symbols, understanding of marriage, and position on other social issues. It’s not until those traditional values become challenged in the 1960s that evangelicals begin this new strategy of pursuing political power as a way to reclaim the culture.

Since the 1960s, there have also been some evangelical approaches to politics that are unrelated, or do not call for the pursuit of political power, like James Davidson Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” or Michael Gerson’s call for evangelicals to learn more from Catholic social theory. Or there are Dutch Reformed people who are followers of Abraham Kuyper, who did not advocate seizing political power in the way the Christian Right wants to do. And since the early 1970s, people on the evangelical Left, like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, have called for a different kind of evangelical power. But the Right refuses to adopt any of these models, and has instead built their entire political philosophy on changing the culture by trying to elect leaders who will follow their agenda.

Read the entire interview here.

“10 Questions” on *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

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Kurt Manwaring is a freelance writer who runs a wonderful author-interview series at this website titled “Ten Questions.”  I encourage you to follow him and bookmark his site.

I recently participated in Ten Questions as the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Kurt Manwaring: What was the process of bringing this book to life? How did you come up with the idea, how did conversations get started with the publisher, what was your original word count (and final tally), how long did it take from outline to final submission, etc.?

John Fea: I had been writing about Trump and evangelicals at my blog(www.thewayofimprovement.com) and other venues from the moment he declared his candidacy and my fellow Christians began flocking to him. Believe Me draws heavily on this early writing.

After I concluded that I wanted to write a book for evangelical Christians, I cut-off conversations with literary agents and trade presses and turned to Eerdmans, a publisher of thoughtful Christian books who I was confident would get the piece into the right hands.

I think I made a great decision.  I approached Eerdmans with a book proposal in August 2017 and handed in the final draft of the book on January 1, 2018.   If I remember correctly, the book is roughly 60,000 words long.

Kurt Manwaring: Have any schisms developed between prominent Evangelicals because of the current political environment? Have you experienced any strained friendships as a result of differing feelings about the president?

John Fea: Great questions.  Support for Trump among average white evangelicals remains very high.  Those who did not vote for him and continue to oppose him make-up a significant minority.

So-called evangelical leaders are also divided.  The most significant split is between the leaders who regularly visit the White House and advise the president (Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Johnnie Moore, Paula White, Franklin Graham) and those who organized the April 2018 gathering of leaders at Wheaton College to address the ways the Trump presidency has corrupted evangelical Christianity.  This group includes Richard Mouw, Mark Labberton, Mark Noll, Harold Smith, Jenny Yang, Tim Keller, Doug Birdsall, Jim Wallis, and Gabriel Salguero.  I would also put evangelical pundits such as Michael Gerson, David French, and Peter Wehner in this latter group.

I have not experienced any strained friendships.  In January 2018, I taught a Sunday-morning class on Christianity and politics at my evangelical church and got some push-back, but not too much.  I come from a boisterous Italian-American family who likes to yell at each other and debate politics over long dinners.  Most of my extended family voted for Trump and many of them continue to support him, so that has made for some very intense “conversations.”

Read the entire interview here.

How to Interview for a Job in a History Department at a Teaching College

Messiah ImageA few years ago I wrote this piece at Inside Higher Ed. Perhaps some of my thoughts here might prove useful to graduate students and others preparing for interviews at the upcoming American Historical Association meeting in Atlanta.

Here is a taste:

This piece is about interviewing at colleges and universities that stress teaching over research. This, I might add, is the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities. It is important to remember that the phrase “teaching college” can be applied to a host of different kinds of institutions. Elite and not-so-elite liberal arts colleges, private comprehensive colleges, and non-flagship state universities, for example, would all find a comfortable home in the “teaching college” tent.

This may be stating the obvious, but it is still worth mentioning that committees from these colleges are looking for an excellent teacher. Some may want to hire a “teacher-scholar,” or a person who sees their vocation in terms of blending traditional scholarship and teaching. Others may want someone who is a teacher first and a researcher/writer second. Still others may not give a lick about your research or how many books and articles you hope to churn out over the course of your career. Whatever the case, all of the colleges in this category want a person who not only works well with students, but actually has a desire to do so.

As you might imagine, your “research” is not going to be as important to the search committee at a teaching college as it might be if you were interviewing with a research university. This does not mean that the search committee will not care about your dissertation or book manuscript. In most cases committee members will ask you about your research and, in some cases, may find it quite interesting. You may even find that many of these colleges have incentives in place, such as summer research stipends or course reductions, to help you achieve your research and publication goals. But always remember that teaching comes first.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Brian Phillips Murphy

Brian Murphy is Associate Professor of Early American History at Baruch College. This interview is based on his new book, Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic?

BM: The very first question that started this book was me wondering how and why Aaron Burr turned an incorporated water company in New York City into a partisan bank. The answer, I learned, had a lot to do with the nature of corporations in early America and the power that state lawmakers gave to corporate shareholders and directors every time they created a new bank, bridge, ferry, or turnpike. We know that corporations were and still are controversial in the United States, and of course it’s because they’re powerful. A corporate charter isn’t only a useful tool for raising money, after all; it’s also a way to throw around political clout and influence public policy. These are institutions with formal legal standing and structure that comes from the public, but they’re run by people who have private interests and motives of their own. So I’m interested in political entrepreneurship and how an ambitious set of New Yorkers – including Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Robert Livingston, Robert Fulton, DeWitt Clinton – pursued politics and organized political parties from within the businesses at the heart of the era’s financial and transportation revolutions. 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Building the Empire State?
BM: Corporations and similar state privileges were suspect tools in early America, nevertheless a cadre of elite political entrepreneurs pushed hard for their inclusion in the new republic’s political economy. Capitalism and profit motives therefore weren’t an unwelcome guest at the American founding; they were at the heart of how post-Revolutionary politics and civic life were structured.

JF: Why do we need to read Building the Empire State?
BM: I think if you’re paying attention to American – or even global – politics in 2015 you probably already know that laws and policies aren’t usually made during floor debates in legislative chambers. Instead, they’re made off-stage, and the people in the room cutting the deals might not be folks you’ve heard of or whose names have appeared on ballots. The same was true in the early republic. So in spite of the debates our profession has had about whether liberalism or republicanism were the controlling ideological frameworks for how people thought about politics, when you look at what people were actually doing in crafting the applied political economy for the period you see that they’re pretty comfortable with blending private and public interests and motives. They’re comfortable with the idea that you might parlay your influence and connections to get into the banking or ferryboat business to get rich and acquire even more political influence.

I think we have this expectation – maybe a hope – that early American politics was handled by people worried about having clean hands. It wasn’t. In creating a financial and transportation infrastructure, New Yorkers understood that there were risks involved in chartering incorporated banks and granting ferryboat monopolies. That’s why they eventually insulated the Erie Canal from elite influence by funding it with public bonds – the first project of its kind to use to raise money that way. They had a very clear understanding that people used public-private institutions to advance their private interests using public power, and they did their best to contain that dynamic. I tried to lay this out for scholars and their students in pretty vivid detail so they can see how this process played out in New York over the course of the six decades that followed the Revolution.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
 
BM: I was the first person in my family to go to college out of high school, and I started out in college as a pre-med. I even considered being a math major for about five minutes before hitting a wall in partial differential equations. I didn’t know any historians and didn’t really know that ‘historian’ was a job one could have. But I had always loved history and was at a small liberal arts college, Haverford, with a fantastic department. I wrote a senior thesis about the Pearl slave escape of 1848 and started giving thought to graduate school. Roger Lane warned me that it would be tough to find a job, but I was willing to accept that risk since I knew that there were other questions I needed to ask. I also knew I’d be a terrible grad student straight out of college! So I decided to try to find work in journalism first. I was a fact-checker at Teen People of all places, but it got me in the door at Time Inc. I landed a reporter job at Money magazine, then a staff writer job at George. I worked briefly in New Jersey politics and then had an interesting job covering state politics for a website called PoliticsNJ.com. All this time I was reading, reading, reading. Then something clicked. I had interviewed the head of big state agency and was thinking about how it came to be that state authorities operate below the radar while wielding a fantastic amount of power. Usually Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” is the go-to on this topic, but I happened to be reading Gore Vidal’s “Burr” that night and came to a little part about Aaron Burr converting a water utility into a bank. I applied to work with Peter Onuf at the University of Virginia and started in the fall of 2002. That story about Aaron Burr became my MA thesis, an article in the William and Mary Quarterly, and chapter 3 of this book. And now I’ve gotten to write about that agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, all over again with the reporting I’ve done on Chris Christie at Talking Points Memo and on television at MSNBC. I’ve had an interesting career so far! 
JF: What is your next project?
BM: I’ve got two things cooking. The first is a book on corruption. I’m interested in how colonial ideas about British imperial corruption change during and after the Revolution once the colonies become self-governing and have to define for themselves what kinds of misbehavior they will no longer tolerate. I’m also interested in how people think about corruption once an office is something that you ‘hold’ rather than ‘have’ and how creating a national capital in the wilderness of the District of Columbia was intended to insulate national politics from the temptations of metropolitan vice.

The second project has less to do with early America but comes directly out of the teaching that I do at Baruch College, where I was hired to teach economic history. I’m running a seminar this fall that looks at what happened to American manufacturing in the latter half of the 20th century, and our case studies are the small and mid-size factories that Fred Rogers visited on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I’m thinking about how I can tell this story in print and in a documentary.
JF: Looking forward to both! Thanks Brian.
 
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Michael J. McVicar

Michael McVicar is Assistant Professor of American Religious History at Florida State University. This interview is based on his new book, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (The University of North Carolina Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism?

MM: I started preliminary research for Christian Reconstruction in graduate school at the Ohio State University under the guidance of Hugh B. Urban. I entered the Department of Comparative Studies, a cultural studies program with a religious studies concentration, in 2002. Because of the proximity to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many of the seminars I participated in during the first few years of graduate study focused on the themes of religiously motivated violence, cultural exclusion, political extremism, and the problem of secularism/secularization. As I gravitated toward studying twentieth century U.S. religious history, I kept running across an obscure theological movement called “Christian Reconstruction” in many of the studies I read during this period. The brainchild of Calvinist theologian and Presbyterian churchman Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001), Reconstructionism emphasizes postmillennial eschatology, the literal application of Biblical law on Christians and non-Christians alike, and calls for Christians to exercise “dominion” in all aspects of life.

Many of the histories of politically active evangelicals and fundamentalists produced in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first few of years of the twenty-first century mentioned the importance of R. J. Rushdoony and his theological project. Works as varied as Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God, the second edition of Mark Juergensmeyer’s, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, William C. Martin’s With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, and the second edition of George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture pointed to the influence of Reconstructionism and acknowledged Rushdoony as an influential thinker with a contested reputation among theologically and socially conservative Protestants in the United States. In spite of this widespread recognition of Reconstructionism, I could find very little substantive historical research on the movement or on Rushdoony.
By the mid 2000s, a wave of journalistic material appeared that associated Rushdoony and his movement with stealth political activism and far-right social, theological, and political positions—ranging from Rushdoony’s controversial statements regarding the execution of homosexuals to his support for a specific form of Christian theocratic rule. This reporting convinced me that a study of Reconstructionism might be valuable. Much of this reporting—especially in the hyperbolic accounts of Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Mark Crispin Miller, Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order, and Max Blumenthal, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party—treated the movement as a sui generis, singularly dangerous threat to American democracy. As I researched, I realized that the absence of historical nuance in the journalistic exposés of Reconstruction was directly related to deficiencies in the academic scholarship on the movement that lacked access to the typical archival sources utilized by professional historians. After several years of sleuthing and building trust with Rushdoony’s California-based think tank, the Chalcedon Foundation, I tracked down several overlooked public archival sources and eventually visited Rushdoony’s private library. Rushdoony’s personal archive allowed me to move beyond a project focused solely on Rushdoony’s published writings to examine the previously unexplored organizational history of Reconstructionism. As a result, I was able to situate the movement in the much richer historical context of the development of the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement and the coalescence of the neo-evangelical coalition of the 1960s.
As my research came together, the popular reporting on Reconstructionism’s relationship to conservative politicians peaked in the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles. As the frequent and ever-shriller nature of journalistic reporting on the movement increased, I began to see Reconstructionism as an interesting test case for thinking through the ways in which ostensibly “extremist” positions are constituted through political, theological, legal, and journalistic discourses. Reconstructionism provided the opportunity to reflect on the broader themes of my graduate training by working through the complex relationship between religious institutions, political activism, and the construction of “dangerous,” “marginal,” or “fringe” religious movements.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Christian Reconstruction?
MM: Christian Reconstruction is an intellectual and organizational history of the rise and fall of the Christian Reconstruction movement and its pioneering leader, R. J. Rushdoony. The book argues that Rushdoony’s vision of Christian Reconstruction played a subtle but misunderstood role in three interconnected areas of the American conservative movement: the synthesis of libertarian economic theories and conservative Protestant theology; the development of the legal and theoretical impetus behind the Christian homeschooling movement; and, the politicization of a very specific strain of sectarian Calvinism.
JF: Why do we need to read Christian Reconstruction?
MM: Like a lot of recent work on the development of religious conservatism in the late twentieth century, Christian Reconstruction narrates the development of socially and theologically conservative Protestantism from the onset of the Great Depression to the emergence of the so-called Religious Right in the 1980s. Unlike a lot of the recent scholarship, however, the book uses the ministry of a man largely dismissed as a fringe or marginal figure to explore the organizational and intellectual networks of conservative Protestantism. With this broad point in mind, I’d say there are two contributions that make the book worth reading:
First, few figures are more polarizing than Rushdoony. Over the course of a ministry spanning nearly sixty years, Rushdoony interacted with a range of important religious figures and institutions. During the 1960s, he helped shape—and then destroy—the William Volker Charities Fund, one of the most important libertarian charitable organizations of the twentieth century. He attempted to strong-arm his way into the editorial process at Christianity Today through his connections with powerful oilman J. Howard Pew. By the 1970s, he was a well-known and divisive figure in organizations ranging from the John Birch Society to Westminster Theological Seminary. And, in the 1980s, most major Christian advocacy lawyers knew of Rushdoony as a vicious expert witness who could destroy prosecuting attorneys from the stand. Everyone from Pat Robertson to Francis A. Schaeffer cited his writings, but no one wanted to directly associate with his theological vision. As a result of these complex connections, Christian Reconstruction offers something of an alternative history of the rise of conservative evangelical activism. It focuses on the “extremes” to explore how a movement now widely regarded as marginal and extremist simultaneously shaped and was shaped by its interaction with mainstream elements of the American conservative intellectual movement and traditional strains of evangelical and fundamentalist theology.
Second, my narrative is based on exclusive access to Rushdoony’s private library and archive at the Chalcedon Foundation located in Vallecito, California. Rushdoony’s library is an utterly unique resource that captured correspondence and publications unavailable anywhere else. It is singularly important because it archives material related not only to the history of Reconstructionism, but it also houses more-or-less exclusive resources documenting the emergence of popular conservatism in California from the 1950s through the early 2000s. Likewise, it is an important repository documenting the development of the activist movement that made homeschooling legal in the United States. Christian Reconstruction uses these non-public resources in conjunction with a number of public archives and the publications of Reconstructionists to narrate the history of a movement that has either escaped the attention of scholars or that has been misunderstood because of the lack of publicly available archival materials.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MM: I’m not sure that I ever quite decided to become an American historian. I started this project as a researcher in religious studies with an interest in critical cultural theory. I brought the questions and themes from these fields to twentieth century American religious history. It was only after I began serious archival research and started digging into the historiography of the emergence of the post-World War II American conservative movement and the Religious Right that I began to see the project as a historical narrative with all of the trappings of a conventional biography, clear periodization, and some of the conventions of microhistories. I now teach American religious history at Florida State University, partly as a consequence of this book. So, you might say that the research and the needs of the project pushed me toward American history in ways I couldn’t have anticipated when I started researching Christian Reconstruction.
JF: What is your next project?
MM: My next book-length project will consider the complex interaction between religion, domestic intelligence gathering, and the emergence of political conservatism in twentieth century U.S. culture. The project will specifically focus on the under-explored history of intelligence gathering operations organized by religiously affiliated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during the course of the twentieth century. Although I have not fully narrowed the scope of the project, I plan to consider a network of organizations including the American Intelligence Agency, the Anti-Defamation League, the Christian Crusade Against Communism, the Church League of America, Group Research Associates, and the John Birch Society. By concentrating on the development of NGO intelligence gathering specifically motivated by religious convictions (or developed to resist certain religious groups), the project will explore the contested systems of bureaucracy, archiving, and the materiality of memory-making that developed in state, corporate, church, and private organizations during the Cold War. I hope to synthesize recent insights from material history and media history with religious studies to investigate key issues related to race, political ideology, gender, and the contestation of social boundary formation.
JF: Can’t wait to see what you come up with! Thanks Michael.
 
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Timothy E.W. Gloege

Timothy Gloege is a historian and independent scholar based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This interview is based on his new book, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (University of North Carolina Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism?

TG: It began, ironically enough, when I was taking a break from religious history. I had done a lot of research on conservative evangelicalism and, for a change, had taken up a more systematic reading in the history of The Gilded Age and Progressive Era, especially business and consumer culture. I was immediately struck with how this literature assumed a conservative evangelicalism that was at odds with the rise of modern capitalism, when I had seen the opposite at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and elsewhere. But even more striking to me were the many parallels that I saw between new ideas and techniques in business and conservative evangelical (or “fundamentalist”) belief and practice. I had been taught that fundamentalism was a reaction against modernity; now I wondered whether it might, in fact, be a product of modernity–modern business to be exact. 


I’ve always been drawn to work that brings disparate historiographies into conversation with each other (like Lisabeth Cohen’s combination of labor and consumer culture in
Making a New Deal). I thought that combining the histories of capitalism and religion held similar promise.

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

TG: Guaranteed Pure explains how two generations of evangelicals at the Moody Bible Institute created a modern form of “old-time religion” using new business ideas and techniques. This smoothed the advent of consumer capitalism in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and transformed the dynamics of Protestantism in modern America.

JF: Why do we need to read Guaranteed Pure?

TG: I think my book offers a new way for us to understand conservative evangelicalism that better explains not only why it has survived in twentieth century America but also thrived. In so doing, it also lets us interrogate some of the categories that structure our histories of Protestantism: terms like “evangelical,” “fundamentalism,” “conservative,” “liberal,” and “modern.” And then finally, I think it demonstrates how entwined religious systems are in their social and cultural milieux. If fundamentalists–the supposed culture rejecters–cannot escape being profoundly influenced by this environment, it seems difficult to suggest any other group could do better. So then it’s also a call for religious historians (perhaps especially, historians of evangelicalism) to take these broader contexts into consideration. 
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TG: I decided I wanted to become a historian when I was an undergraduate–and at time when my study habits suggested I had no business pursuing it. Still, I was attracted by two core tenets of the profession. First was empathy: the requirement (for me, it was the permission) to refrain from passing judgment on anything that I could not first explain on its own terms. Second was the idea that everything is capable of changing over time–from our most mundane habits to our loftiest ideals–and most likely has. 

Having grown up in a largely ahistorical context, I found history to be liberating and slightly dangerous. Empathy allowed me to enter into the worlds and lives of people far different from myself. It gave me a safe space to try on new modes of thinking. Change over time simply gave me a framework that made better sense of the world we live in. The world became less Manichean–a starkly divided world of good and evil–and something more subtle and wonder-filled. It was like the introduction of color to a black and white world: both breathtaking and disorienting. 


I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be in a situation where I can continue these pursuits, both in my writing and in teaching when opportunities arise.

JF: What is your next project?

TG: There are two projects I’m pursuing at the moment. One, speaking of historical empathy, is a “life and times” biographical treatment of Reuben A. Torrey, an immensely important, but misunderstood, figure in the history of fundamentalism, pentecostalism, and (I’ll argue) the early social gospel movement in the late 19th century. His life demonstrates the fluidity of Protestantism during that time. The second project is also empathy centered: a reappraisal of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies (and its lead-up) through the perspective of the modernists, critically assessed.
JF: Both sound like great projects, can’t wait to see what you come up with. Thanks Tim!
 
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with David Sehat

David Sehat is Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University. This interview is based on his new book, The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible (Simon & Schuster, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible?

DS: I was dismayed at the way that the Founding Fathers were referenced in contemporary political debate. It wasn’t just the Tea Party conservatives but also liberal Democrats. Politicians of all stripes invoked the Founders in support of nearly everything under the sun—limited government, multicultural egalitarianism, abortion rights, restricting abortion, and so on. The only thing that all these references had in common, it seemed to me, was that the Founders always (supposedly) agreed with the person who was invoking them. I began to wonder how we got here. This book is the result.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Jefferson Rule?
DS: I argue that it is an unspoken rule of American politics that we must agree with the Founding Fathers in all things. And that that rule has long distorted American political debate in predictable and recurring ways.

JF: Why do we need to read The Jefferson Rule?
DS: If you want to know why our politics are so messed up, why they have been messed up for a long time, how people in the past invoked the Founders, and how Founders rhetoric has a long history of sending political debate off the deep end, then this is the book for you. I also try to show why the sentence “The Founding Fathers believed [fill in the blank with your preferred political position]” is almost always meaningless as best and dishonest at worst. And I’ve got some killer stories in the book that make it a fun read.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DS: I went to grad school first at Rice and then at UNC-Chapel Hill shortly after George W. Bush was elected president. I had studied various other things—philosophy, theology and biblical studies, some literature—but I realized that what I cared about tended to resolve itself into history of one kind or another. I also began dating a woman (who later became my wife) that knew a lot more about the past than I did. Having her around made me realize how many times I made completely spurious references to history in order to support my position in a discussion. So I decided to become an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

DS: I’m kicking around various ideas. I’ve begun working on a book about the politics of climate change but I’ve put that research on pause to make sure that is the direction that I want to go. For me the issue is always, what do I want to think about for the next several years? Climate change might be too depressing.
JF: Thanks David!

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

The Author’s Corner with Calvin Schermerhorn

Calvin Schermerhorn is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University. This interview is based on his new book The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 (Yale University Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860?

CS: The book starts with the premise that some of the most creative people in American history were among the most destructive as well. I was struck by the savvy creativity and intense entrepreneurialism of slavery’s businessmen. And at the same time I was shocked and disturbed by the effects on subjects whose lives were shattered, ended, or turned upside down by the slave trade. That massive forced migration was vital to the production of American cotton and sugar — and to the U.S. and global economy. And that same process of human trafficking was absolutely reliant on chains of credit linking New Orleans and Richmond with New York and London. To tell that story, I looked for a bridge between big-picture history of processes and small-focus history of people and particular events. The Business of Slavery bridges macro-history and micro-history by looking at American capitalism at the level of the firm. Many of the subjects of the book were “Masters of the Universe” to borrow from Tom Wolfe. Several were New Yorkers. But I really wanted to tell the story of those who were trafficked and sold, including kidnap victim Solomon Northup, who published Twelve Years a Slave, and also several obscure subjects like Sam Watts who was bought, sold, and mortgaged with money that traveled oceans.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Business of Slavery?

CS: The slavery business shows the creative destruction of a vital sector of the American economy from the War of 1812 to disunion in 1861. Rather than a localized or marginal process, the process of commoditizing people was deeply enmeshed in a national economy and international finance and shows the process of modern capitalism more strikingly than any other enterprise.

JF: Why do we need to read The Business of Slavery?

CS: It’s a good read about a troubled and troubling history. The Business of Slavery follows the money. In a narrative of seven firms or partnerships, along with the stories of the captives themselves, the book goes beyond traditional questions of slave-labor and production, looking instead at strategies of firms. It’s a business history rather than merely an economic or cultural history. It reassembles chains of supply, chains of credit, and maps international networks responsible for slavery’s growth. It turns out that the hopeful modernity of capitalism, including individual liberty, advancing technology, and the immense social trust and optimism required for the system to work were also components of turning people into products and flinging them across a vast geographic space, from the head of the Chesapeake Bay to the bottomlands of the Brazos River in Texas.

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

CS: I was pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree at the Harvard Divinity School when I came across some truly inspirational historians doing work in American intellectual and religious history. I wasn’t very good at theology. And I wrestled (and still do) with the divide between personal faith and what is suitable for classroom instruction and scholarly debate. But I always had an interest in history. I’d gone to historic sites as a kid, collected coins, and even served as a costumed interpreter in a living history museum (I played an English colonist in Maryland among Yaocomico Indians). And the kinds of questions historians asked inspired me to delve more deeply into the past of the Chesapeake region where I grew up, particularly its deep yet scarcely mentioned African American history. It’s been a tremendously fulfilling journey from there.

JF: What is your next project?

CS: I’m finishing United States Slavery: A Family History for Cambridge University Press. It delves into American slavery’s history from the Revolution to Reconstruction through the lives of enslaved people, contextualizing family ordeals with the big processes of westward expansion, financial integration, and the upheaval of war and its legacy. In my spare time I’m writing a historical novel on the unintended consequences of human intention and action. The main drama is American slavery and the coming of civil war, particularly around Richmond, Virginia, and Boston, Massachusetts. The novel follows a handful of characters, free and enslaved, telling their personal stories, revealing the secrets and emotions the archives can’t or won’t, all textured with the stuff of history.

JF: Sounds like promising work, thanks Calvin!

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

The Author’s Corner with James L. Huston

James Huston is Associate Professor of History at Oklahoma State University. This interview is based on his new book, The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agricultural and Sectional Antagonism in North America (LSU Press, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agricultural and Sectional Antagonism in North America?

JH: My motivation was twofold: first, a belief that the agricultural North had been underappreciated in the works investigating sectional conflict for the last sixty years, and, secondly, a conviction that for decades now the “free labor ideology” had been weighted more and more to industrial wage labor instead of agricultural labor. It was the attempt to understand northern agricultural labor that led me into British agricultural history, to reevaluate northern free labor ideals, to come to grips with the pervasiveness of the northern family farmer, and to confront the obvious polarity between the plantation economy and the northern family farm economy.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer?

JH: By using British agricultural history as a standard for evaluating farm dimensions, treatment of labor, and the ideology of superiority (i.e., Burkean conservatism), I came to find the plantation of the South a fledgling duplicate of the British estate agricultural system, while the northern family farm came to be its opposite in nearly every aspect. Because the northern family farm dominated northern life–far more vital than industrialization–the sectional collision came over whose system of land use, small family farms or gigantic plantations, would extend into the West, and this question was the economic joint of conflict so obvious in northern congressional party victories after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, culminating in the creation of the Republican party.

JF: Why do we need to read The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer?

JH: The book attempts a sharp correction of much that has been written about the antebellum economy and its influence on politics. To be specific: first, the plantation was squeezing out the southern yeoman farmer, and northerners realized the plantation had this effect. Second, the plantation, not an agrarian ideology, resulted in the lack of southern urban life; in the North, the small family farm made town life indispensable. Third, northern life centered about the farm and its attendant villages and small towns; nearly three-fourths of the northern states were distinctly rural. Fourth, the demands of the family farm created the free labor ideology, and social mobility was a reality for farm hands in the rural North (otherwise known as climbing the agricultural ladder). Moreover, the belief that laborers should have high wages, be able to save, and accumulate property can be seen with remarkable clarity when northern farm laborers are compared to British farm laborers. Sixth, the prevalence of the small family farm was the backbone of egalitarianism and democracy in the North; the plantation and slavery gave rise to the ideals of inequality, aristocracy, and mastery. Seventh, congressional districts can be divided into categories of farming, industrial, and those falling inbetween; when this is done, the reaction of the northern farm community to expansion of slavery outside of its settled borders due to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, becomes unmistakable and awe-inspiring. Thus, the sectional confrontation in the late 1850s had as its basis a stark and dramatic division of the nation into small northern farmers and great southern planters; industrialization was irrelevant.

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

JH: History has always been one of my stronger subjects in high school and college. At Denison University, I had superior teachers who sparked my interest further and brought alive the matter of controversy over interpretations. Upon graduation in 1969, I determined to follow my instincts and attend graduate school. Since then, I have evolved my own rationale as to the importance of history: to enable people to understand the trends in which they live and why those trends existed in the first place.

JF: What is your next book project?

JH: I am finishing a work on the British-American argument about inequality and equality as the proper basis for a society. This was an outgrowth of the work I did on British and northern agriculture, partially because of the number of British travelers to the United States who investigated not only democracy, climate, flora and fauna, but who also tried to assess how well a people could live without an aristocracy, an established church, and class customs. The time frame is 1776 to 1930, and the book will continue into today’s current debates over equality and inequality (especially those of conservative economists.) Although the trend among current historians is to stress the obvious inequalities in American life, slavery and relations with Native Americans being among the most obvious, the nineteenth-century argument has distinct relevance for debates today among political philosophers, economists, and historians.

JF: Good stuff, thanks James!

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

The Author’s Corner with Andrew Hartman

Andrew Hartman is Associate Professor of History at Illinois State University. This interview is based on his new book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars?

AH: In 2008, just as my first book Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School had been published, my graduate school advisor and good friend Leo Ribuffo offhandedly suggested that perhaps my second book should be a history of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. He knew then, and I soon discovered, that no historian had ever written a monograph about the culture wars. The topic matched my interests since it allowed me to explore education, politics, religion, and culture—all through the lens of intellectual history, which is my specialty. More to the point, A War for the Soul of America fits with my career-long research project: an historical exploration of American modernity, identity, and nationalism.


JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A War for the Soul of America?

AH: Many have regarded the culture wars as a mere sideshow or as a simple byproduct of deindustrialization, but A War for the Soul of America argues that the culture wars were the very public face of America’s struggle over the unprecedented social changes of the late-twentieth-century United States, as the cluster of social norms that had long governed American life began to give way to a new openness to different ideas, identities, and articulations of what it meant to be an American. The hot-button issues like abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, homosexuality, and multiculturalism that dominated politics in the period were symptoms of the larger struggle, as conservative Americans slowly began to acknowledge—if initially through rejection—some of the fundamental transformations of American life.

JF: Why do we need to read A War for the Soul of America?

AH: For one thing, A War for the Soul of America is the first book-length history of the culture wars, the dramatic struggle which pitted liberal and secular Americans against their conservative and traditionally religious counterparts and captured the attention of the nation during the 1980s and 1990s. This in itself makes the book worth reading for those scholars and citizens interested in American political culture and the things that divide and unite us. But more compellingly, my book is a meditation on the problem of American modernity in relation to historical change, continuity, and periodization.

Many Americans prior to the sixties, particularly middle-class white Americans, were largely sheltered from the “acids of modernity,” the modern ways of thinking that subjected seemingly timeless truths, including truths about America, to a lens of suspicion. The radical political mobilizations of the sixties—civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization—destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the sixties that many Americans, particularly conservatives, recognized what they perceived as multitudinous threats to their once great nation.

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

AH: In the late 1990s I taught high school history and although I loved it I found myself wanting more and more time to read, research, and write history, so I decided to go to graduate school.

JF: What is your next project?

AH: Marx in America, which will also be an analysis of the problem of American modernity. In a recent review essay of Jonathan Sperber’s new biography of Karl Marx, Geoff Eley writes that most intellectual historians accept that “Marx’s thought became basic to the intellectual architecture of the modern world, whether as inspiration or anathema.” Marx in America will take up Eley’s presupposition, with the United States of America as representative of the modern world. More specifically I will ask: How have the ideas of arguably the world’s most important modern thinker, Karl Marx, been received in the country seemingly most hostile to them—the United States? This will be a big book and will take many years to research and write. But I am excited.

JF: Sounds intriguing, thanks Andrew!

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

The Author’s Corner with John Ferling

John Ferling is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of West Georgia. This interview is based on his new book, Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (Bloomsbury Press, May 2015).

JFea: What led you to write Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It?

JFerling: I taught the American Revolution course about thirty times during my career. I always had my students read a history of the Revolution, but was never entirely satisfied with any general history that was available (mostly because all shortchanged the Revolutionary War), so for years I longed to write my own version, and with Whirlwind I have finally done just that.

JFea: In two sentences, what is the argument of Whirlwind?

JFerling: It is difficult to sum up a thesis for a general history of the American Revolution, though I argue that the primary reason the colonists eventually sought independence was due to economic motivation. Unlike many historians (and John Adams), I argue that the War of Independence was part of the American Revolution, as it radicalized people, laying the groundwork for fundamental postwar changes that otherwise might not have occurred.

JFea: Why do we need to read Whirlwind?

JFerling: Whirlwind examines the reasons for the colonial insurgency, the reasons for the eventual break with Great Britain, the reasons for the American victory in the War of Independence, the changes unleashed by the American Revolution, and it asks whether the American Revolution and the American victory were inevitable.

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

JFerling: While in high school, I saw a documentary on the rise and fall of Hitler that turned me on to history, but the first several courses in history that I took in college were so boring that I was ready to jettison history as a major. As a sophomore, however, I took a course from a professor who emphasized reading books and discussing them in class, rather than using a lecture format; I found the experience so exhilarating that for the first time I wanted to teach in college and write the kind of books I was reading in that class.

JFea: What is your next project?

JFerling: I am already deep into a book on Jefferson and Thomas Paine as world revolutionaries.

JFea: I’m excited to see what you come up with! Thanks John.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Colleen A. Vasconcellos

Colleen Vasconcellos is Associate Professor of Atlantic History at University of West Georgia. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788–1838 (University of Georgia Press, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788–1838?
CV: It actually began as my master’s thesis at East Tennessee State, a project that examined the experiences of enslaved children in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I wanted to continue that as part of my doctoral dissertation and I expanded my focus to include the experiences of the children who were bought, sold, and born on Atlantic plantations. Unfortunately enslaved children for the most part have been lost within the traditional treatments of Atlantic World slavery, treatments that categorically depict the enslaved as victims or voiceless statistics. As a result, they largely remain silent players in the annals of history. When you do see them appear in the narrative, you see them largely as statistics or as part of a conversation on infant and child mortality, slave women, or slave families. Their story is lost within another story. However, their story is one that is worth telling, and that’s what I really wanted to do. 
 
What I have found is that enslaved children were anything but silent, and that becomes increasingly obvious when one enters the archives and begins searching for them. I wanted to find enslaved children’s place and voice within that larger narrative on slavery as a whole in an effort to bring their experiences to the forefront and help them step out of the shadows of the periphery. No matter their location, enslaved children performed a myriad of tasks on the estates in which they lived, ranging from fieldwork to domestic servitude. Whether African-born or creole, these children lived in an environment that constantly reinforced their status as chattel, a status defined by the nature of their work itself. What I wanted to do was focus on them as children, and specifically as children who struggled for survival in a world that refused to acknowledge and protect their childhoods. And I wanted to examine the various ways in which enslaved children as a whole coped with the hardships of slavery and the realization that they were slaves by considering how they developed physically and psychologically within the plantation complex.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica?

CV: By focusing specifically on the changing nature of slave childhood in Jamaica, I consider how childhood and slavery influenced and changed each other throughout from 1788 to 1838, with the abolitionist movement standing as the main catalyst for change. I argue that while the value of enslaved children shifted from burden to investment and then back to burden during specific periods of the abolitionist movement, their childhoods were always contested and redefined by the children themselves and the slave community as a whole.

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica?

CV: I think the book is important because it tells the story of an overlooked childhood. They were incredibly important to abolitionists, planters, and especially to the slave community. Yet, not so much to historians. This book rectifies that by exploring children’s experiences as slaves through the lenses of family, resistance, race, status, culture, education, and freedom we can see that. Enslaved children symbolized financial stability to planters, but they also symbolized hope and freedom for enslaved and apprenticed adults during this period in Jamaican and Atlantic history. Furthermore, these children were historical agents in their own right. They performed the same tasks as the adults who worked beside them. They suffered the lash just as severely as adults. And they were just as malnourished, if not more, than enslaved adults. They were fighters. They burned crops, broke tools, ran away, and tried to harm their owners. They resisted their status as slaves just as loudly as adults, and they carved out their own place for themselves in that community. This book focuses on their agency and gives them the voice they deserve.

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

CV: I’m actually not an Americanist. I’m trained as an Atlantic historian and I teach courses on the Atlantic World, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, as well as the African Diaspora. However, as an Atlanticist, I do focus on the connections of the wider Atlantic world, so I see the influences that American history had on Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe and vice versa. 


Fun bit of trivia though…I originally planned on pursuing the American track in my doctoral program at Florida International University. However, I took a Florida and the Caribbean class during my first semester at FIU and absolutely fell in love with Caribbean history. After that, there was no going back. I majored in Latin American and Caribbean History, and minored in African History.
JF: What is your next project?

CV: For my next project, I’m interested in examining the last voyage of the slave ship Wanderer. This ship brought a cargo of about 300-400 boys to Georgia in 1858, and it is the last documented slave ship to do so in American history. Most histories of the Wanderer have focused on the court case that debated the legality of the voyage, but I want to examine the nature of the voyage itself. Where did the boys come from? How does this voyage differ from other voyages that carried mostly boys or African youths, and how does this enhance our knowledge of the illegal trade and the experiences of children in the trade as a whole. It’s not going to be an easy history, and I’m not really sure if I can do what I hope to do, but I’m going to give it a shot.

JF: Can’t wait to hear about it. Thanks Colleen!

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

The Author’s Corner with Carol Berkin

Carol Berkin is residential Professor of History at Baruch College and a member of the history faculty of the Graduate Center of CUNY, Emerita. This interview is based on her new book, The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties (Simon & Schuster, May 2015).


JF: What lead you to write The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties?

CB: I wanted to challenge many of the myths that surround the first ten amendments. I knew that many Americans thought they were written at the constitutional convention, or that they were unanimously advocated by all the ‘founding fathers’ or that, from the moment they were ratified, they became the American credo. None of this was true — and the true story was far more fascinating. I knew I had to carefully read the debates in Congress over these amendments and to understand them in the context of 18th century America. Only then, could I share the story of these amendments with the reading public.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties?
CB: The Bill of Rights was Madison’s brilliant tactic to crush the strong opposition that continued even after the Constitution was ratified. In modern parlance, he hoped to separate the opposition’s base [the many Americans who honestly worried about a strong central government and its potential for tyranny] from its leadership [men who wanted to eviscerate the power of the new government, taking away its right to tax and regulate commerce]. Madison believed a bold statement of the rights of the people would calm popular fears even though the federal government actually had no power to enforce those rights in 1789. Most of Madison’s fellow Federalists thought a bill of rights was unnecessary, even useless but Madison persisted and eventually won.

JF: Why do we need to read The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties?
CB: I think readers will find the book tells a fascinating story. As the men in Congress debated Madison’s proposals, they drew on their memories of British abuses and expressed their anxiety over the future of the new republic. They argued over the proper balance of power between the federal government and the state governments, an argument that still resonates today. Tempers flared; egos were exposed; foolish comments abounded. Following these debates, we can see that these men understood what a great gamble the creation of a republic was, how fragile the peoples’ liberties actually were, and how heavily the burden of preserving the new nation lay on their shoulders.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CB: I decided to become an American historian while I was a student at Barnard College. I loved the idea that History was a form of time travel and I wanted to visit the past and try to understand people whose views and perspectives were so different from mine. I chose the history of my own country so that I could better understand the origins of issues that matter to us today.

JF: What is your next project?
CB: My next project, The Republic in Peril, is a reevaluation of the first decade of the nation under the Constitution. It looks at how fragile this experiment in representative government was and how worried its leaders were that the experiment might, despite their best efforts, fail. I am going to look closely at four crises the Federalist in power faced, two domestic challenges to the federal government’s authority and two foreign challenges to its sovereignty and independence. As in my two previous books— A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, which looks at debates at the constitutional convention, and The Bill of Rights: the Fight to Secure America’s Liberties— I want to show the men who founded the nation as ordinary human beings, aware of their great undertaking, concerned that they might fail but determined to persevere.

JF: Thanks Carol.

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

The Author’s Corner with Gregory P. Downs

Greg Downs is Associate Professor of History and Doctoral Faculty at The City College of New York. This interview is based on his new book, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard University Press, April 2015).


JF: 
What led you to write After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War ?

GD: In my previous book, Declarations of Dependence, I had explored North Carolinians’ responses to a wartime and post-war government that seemed at once to be newly present and frustratingly out of reach. I argued there that popular encounters with expansive yet also limited wartime and postwar governments prompted a lost moment of popular hopes for government assistance. But the limited reach of government meant that people generally did not make claims systematically or bureaucratically but instead personally and eccentrically, asking for favors in return for love or prayers. 

As I finished that book I wanted to know more about the actual reach of government into the Southern countryside after the end of battlefield fighting. And I was interested in the burgeoning literature on the difficulty of running occupations. An essay I wrote on Albion Tourgee led me to think through his idea that the federal government had failed to provide the necessary tools for an effective occupation of the South.

So I began with the notion that I would write a history of the failed occupation of the South. I supposed I would quickly find the concrete information about where the Army was located and in what numbers and then would leap from that to an examination of the ideological, financial, and logistical limits on the occupation.

Instead, however, I discovered that the data on the Army’s presence after the Confederate surrenders was very thin, often based on scattered Secretary of War reports. I could not use it to answer the concrete question I began with: How many people lived in proximity to federal soldiers? For how long? And with what effect?

So I began to try to find out that information. At first I ran into many dead ends . Then, with the help of gracious archivists at the National Archives, I was able to narrow my primary search down to runs of about 100 boxes each in two different series in the National Archives.

Most of these boxes were full of monthly and trimonthly reports that had not been opened in decades. Many had notations from an effort to refile them and were still tied with decaying red string.

As I began to untie those strings, my assumptions unraveled. For as I began to make notes about the presence of outposts, I realized that the Army occupied far more places than we had thought in a much more geographically ambitious occupation than I had imagined. Eventually I found that the Army had occupied for at least a month more than 750 outposts in the ex-Confederacy. That data, as well as interactive maps built upon it and the list of boxes I drew information from, are all available at www.mappingoccupation.org, a digital site constructed by Scott Nesbit and the University of Georgia Digital Humanities Lab, with support from the ACLS.

After Appomattox followed from my need to make sense of this data that did not fit scholarly assumptions about the Army’s role in Reconstruction or about the geographical reach of Reconstruction. I soon discovered that the Army was a much more significant and often transformative force than the much better studied Freedmen’s Bureau. And this was well known at the time. The extension of wartime to conduct an occupation of the rebel states was a crucial and bitterly divisive political question, one that fractured Republican coalitions and created unusual alliances of seeming Radicals like Thaddeus Stevens and seeming moderates like William Fessenden.

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

GD: Instead of ending with Confederate capitulation in 1865, the Civil War entered a second phase then which lasted until 1871—not the project euphemistically called Reconstruction but a state of genuine belligerency whose mission was to shape the terms of peace. Using its war powers, the U.S. Army oversaw an ambitious occupation, stationing tens of thousands of troops in hundreds of outposts across the defeated South in order to suppress further rebellions, end slavery, and, eventually, create meaningful civil and political rights for freed people in the face of rebels’ bold resistance.

JF: Why do we need to read After Appomattox?

GD: After Appomattox aims to change the debate about Reconstruction, from one focused on ideological limitations to one that takes seriously the question of government power and efficacy. If we assume the federal government could accomplish whatever it willed, then it makes sense to read backwards from the failures and disappointments of government to find the ideological or personal limitations that caused those outcomes.

But that skips over a crucial question in 19th century governance, not just in the United States but around the world, as scholars like Charles Maier and Jurgen Osterhammel and C.A. Bayly have explored. States during this era faced severe crises of authority as they at once were expected to exercise new forms of sovereignty over their peripheries but also lacked reliable technological advantages over their subjects and citizens. By placing U.S. Reconstruction within this ongoing global struggle over the reach and efficacy of central governments, I aimed to ask new questions about the practical sovereignty of the United States. Treating outposts as pockets of sovereignty–in what Kate Masur and I call a Stockade State–I study the geography of power, in which army zones of control ended in contested zones and then in regions almost entirely out of government control. This spatial view of government builds upon the imaginative work on zones of sovereignty by scholars like Lauren Benton.

This viewpoint also allows me to explore the troubled and troubling relationship between force and freedom. For Reconstruction was not just a test of beliefs; it was also a test of brute strength. Freedom, in 1865, and rights, after 1865, had particular geographic meaning based upon the subjects’ proximity to federal officials willing and able to force white Southerners to acquiesce to their recognition. In turn this micro-interdependence between force and freedom fueled a similar story at Washington D.C. There, Congress increasingly had to rely upon the tools of war, including martial law and military supervision over governments, to change the Constitution. In ways we don’t always acknowledge, our basic rights are themselves products of martial law.

If we lose track of the interdependence of force and freedom, we can make a series of mistakes about Reconstruction and about governance generally. If we make freedom or rights of free people a piece of portable property that individuals carry or consume, we misunderstand the bleak fact that freedpeople taught to soldiers who in turn taught it to politicians: Freedom depended upon access to force. Freedom was only possible–for all people not just for freedpeople–within the arms of a functional and forceful state. If we do not keep this in mind, it is easy to turn a liberation story into a libertarian story. Instead, I trace the ways that freedpeople sought access to a government powerful enough to call upon for the assistance all people–even we contemporaries–need to make our rights felt. More broadly, if we lose track of this connection between force and freedom, we underestimate the ongoing requirements of defending rights. By their nature rights have to be defended with the threat of force; they cannot be defended solely by autonomous legal processes that lack that access to force nor can they be defended by rhetoric. To their credit many 1860s Republicans came to understand this bleak fact and sought desperately to construct usable governmental systems to protect rights against forceful infringements. In some crucial ways they did not succeed, but their efforts are useful reminders to us as we confront the rollback of certain civil and political rights today.

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

GD: My family is from central Kentucky, quite near Lincoln’s birthplace. One version of a family story suggests that the Lincolns moved away, in fact, because they couldn’t stand some of my ancestors, which wouldn’t surprise many people who know us! More seriously the past felt very present in my life as a young person, in the form of public monuments like the Lincoln birthplace and like the Civil War cannonball “preserved” (actually reinserted) in a building across Elizabethtown town square, and in the stories of my grandparents, lifelong Kentuckians.

In seventh or eighth grade, an English teacher named Alys Venable gave me Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and T. Harry Williams’ biography of Huey Long, and from that moment I knew I would write about the past in one form or another. For a while I thought I would do so through both fiction and history. I attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and published a Flannery O’Connor Award-winning book of short stories, Spit Baths, in 2006. These days I only write history, in part because I have become so excited about what is possible in history writing that I have no mental space left over for fiction.

JF: What is your next project?

GD: I have a couple of projects that I am working on. One puts the U.S. Civil War in a sequence of revolutions that emerge out of a mid-century crisis in Spain and Spanish America. I want to follow up on the ideas raised in my AHR article “The Mexicanization of American Politics” and to follow the interconnections between mid-century stability crises in the U.S., Mexico, Spain, and Cuba. I am also trying to historicize the occupation of the ex-Confederacy by placing it within a 19th century world of occupations, and to shake the shadow of 20th century occupations that have in key ways over-influenced our understanding of Reconstruction’s boldness.
JF: Can’t wait to hear about your findings! Thanks Greg.
 
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Gary Scott Smith

Gary Smith is Chair and Professor of History at Grove City College. This interview is based on his new book, Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents (Oxford University Press, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents?

GS: My book is a sequel to Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford, 2006). Both volumes, which analyze the religious convictions of eleven different presidents, were written because biographers and other scholars have paid scant attention to this important subject.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Religion in the Oval Office?

GS: My book explains how John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all exhibited a deep and meaningful faith that shaped their world views and characters. It analyzes how their religious convictions strongly influenced their political philosophy, analysis of issues, decision-making, and performance in office.

JF: Why do we need to read Religion in the Oval Office?

GS: A complete understanding of their lives, actions, and administrations of these eleven interesting and influential chief executives is impossible without considering their personal religious convictions. For example, their religious commitments strongly affected John Quincy Adams’s efforts to fund roads, canals, and educational institutions and promote diplomacy; William McKinley’s decisions to declare war against Spain and take control of the Philippines; Herbert Hoover’s quests to reform prisons and defend civil liberties; Harry Truman’s approach to the Cold War and decision to recognize Israel; Bill Clinton’s promotion of religious liberty; Barack Obama’s policies on poverty and gay civil rights; and the crusades of several presidents to advance world peace. Moreover, their presidencies cannot be fully comprehended without analyzing the role religious factors and issues played in their elections to office or the relationship these chief executives had with religious leaders and constituencies. Many presidents have asserted that their faith in God helped them cope with immense challenges and gave them courage and equanimity in the midst of the storms that swirled around them. Several insisted that their faith grew stronger during their years in office. No other books explore these matters in depth.

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

GS: Although I became very interested in American history in junior high school, I did not decide to become an American historian until I was working on a M. Div. degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in my mid-twenties. At that point, I felt a call from God to pursue a Ph.D. in American religious history. That call was confirmed by an offer to work with Timothy L. Smith, one of the most respected scholars in this field, at Johns Hopkins University.

JF: What is your next project? 

GS: My wife and I are writing a book on children and poverty. It will be a popular rather than an academic book and will focuses on how Christians can help impoverished children around the world. We will discuss the problems of hunger, water, disease, violence, and human trafficking as well as child sponsorship, adoption, microfinance, parenting, and education. The book will focus on best practices and include interviews with practitioners and inspirational stories of people, businesses, churches, and aid organizations that are making a difference.
JF: Good stuff, thanks Gary!

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

The Author’s Corner with William A. Mirola

William Mirola is Professor of Sociology and Presiding Officer of the faculty at Marian University. This interview is based on his new book, Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement (University of Illinois Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement?

WM: When I was in graduate school in the late 1980’s, I was very much engaged in a variety of social movement protest activities. I had grown up very active in my faith community. I was very interested in the intersections between the two areas of my life. As I read more in the sociology of religion and of social movement activism, I discovered that there was a broad literature debating the role of religion as both a facilitator and obstacle to social change movements, especially the American labor movement. Perhaps because, as a person of faith, I wanted to save religion from Marx’s “opiate of the masses” thesis, I was encouraged to examine the role of religion in the labor movement. The chair of my dissertation committee liked this idea and recommended looking at the post-civil war era because not as much attention was paid to this question in that time frame. So I did…and in reading the histories, the eight-hour day kept returning again and again as the central issue of the period and more interesting still was that the reduction of the hours of labor was being argued over as a moral and religious issue. And so the study began. After my dissertation was complete, it was clear that this historical analysis was unlike many of the others in the field and gave a critical perspective to understanding the role of religion in the labor movement and in social change generally. It was this last point that kept me motivated to see it to publication in its current form.

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

WM: Redeeming Time examines the role of religion in the fight for the eight-hour workday in 19th Century Chicago. I highlight the challenges faced by factions of the labor movement in attempting to use religion as an ideological and practical weapon in its fights with employers and as a way to build coalitions with Protestant clergy to achieve shorter hours.

JF:Why do we need to read Protestantism and Redeeming Time?

WM: Redeeming Time challenges much of what we know about the role of religion in labor history by focusing its role as a strategic weapon in labor’s arsenal during the battles over shorter hours in the second half of the 19th century. By focusing on the rhetoric used by different factions of the labor movement, by Protestant clergy, and by employers, one can see the evolution in the thinking of these different sets of social actors regarding the religious nature of work and the workday over a fifty-year time span. It also sheds light on how the labor movement viewed the strategic utility of building coalitions with clergy to achieve industrial reform. For labor, religious rhetoric played a prominent role in framing the eight-hour day but eventually it is replaced by economic rhetoric which resonated more with employers. Clergy generally opposed shorter hours for workers, fearing an increase in vice, but overtime, responding the in intensification of class conflict, began to embrace shorter hours as a morally desirable industrial reform but unfortunately not before labor shifts its strategy away from the religious realm. So the story is one of two ships passing in the night. Redeeming Time takes a more critical approach than many other past studies or religion and labor by questioning the instrumental utility of religion in achieving practical industrial reform.

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

WM: In point of fact, I am sociologist. However, there is a part of me that has always loved history. I didn’t set out to craft an historical study in graduate school but in the late 1980s, the study of history enjoyed resurgence in sociological analysis and I was fortunate to work with faculty who embraced it. I always tell my students that there is no way to understand contemporary life without understanding the past and so history and sociology are both entwined. I believe that you can’t be a good historian without thinking sociologically and visa-versa.

JF: What is your next project?

WM: I continue to be interested in the role of religion in social movements, past and present although my research now is more contemporary and examines the intersection of religion and social class differences in the United States. I may return to the 19th Century at some point however since there is so much that I left uncovered regarding the intersection of religion and the American labor movement.

JF: Can’t wait to hear more about it. Thanks Bill!

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

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Carter

Tom Carter is Professor of Architectural History at the University of Utah. This interview is based on his new book, Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement (University of Minnesota Press, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement?

TC: It began back in the 1970s. I was finishing up at Indiana University’s Folklore Institute and needed a dissertation topic. Mormon folk housing seemed a likely target—no serious study existed and it seemed like a wide open field even for a Presbyterian. At first, especially since I was living in Indiana, I thought to work on Nauvoo. The more I looked into it, however, it became apparent that nothing had been done in Utah either. I chose the Sanpete Valley to study because of its abundant number of old houses, and luckily was to get a survey job with the Utah State Historical Society as a way of funding much of the early fieldwork. After the dissertation, I realized that what I needed to do was to include the whole of the Sanpete built environment in the study, since leaving the temple out of any kind of Mormon architecture study was preposterous. It took a long time to figure it all out, but the book is both handsome and provocation; it should make folks rethink the way they have view early Mormon history and culture. At least, that is my intention, and hope.

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

TC: The book’s central thesis is that during the years before 1890 the Saints slowly and probably unselfconsciously retooled their material world from a radical apocalyptic to a more normative republican one. Two dates are pivotal in this transformation, 1841, when the Law of Consecration and Stewardship was abandoned in favor of the “lesser” law of tithing, and 1871, when the site for the St.George Temple was shifted from the central square to a location outside town, a move followed in all subsequent temples and one which effectively created both sacred (temple) and secular (town) zones.

JF: Why do we need to read Building Zion​​​​?

TC: Because it’s funny? Well no, not really, though I do think it’s very readable. Everyone should read it because it’s the first systematic study of the Mormon City of Zion, and it argues for a fundamental rethinking of the whole history of the church in the years before 1890.

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

TC: I probably became a historian back in 1960. I was 11 and asthmatic and it was the centennial of the Civil War. There were all these histories coming out, many very accessible to youngsters like me, and my mother got me into reading them. I was hooked on history, and also became a devoted pacifist. Who could read these stuff and not be horrified. Such stupidity.

JF: What is your next project?

TC: I am finishing a detail history of the architecture of early cattle ranching in northeastern Elko County, Nevada. This area is home to the region’s oldest ranches, and also where my family is from. It’s called Sagebrush Cities: The Cultural Landscape of …. I hope to have it done by this time next year. Now that I’m retired, it’s easier to find time to write.

JF: Sounds exciting, thanks Tom!

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

The Author’s Corner with Adam Wesley Dean

Adam Dean is Assistant Professor of history at Lynchburg College. This interview is based on his new book, An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era (University of North Carolina Press, December 2014).

JF: What led you to write An Agrarian Republic?

AD: The project began in a legal history class I took during graduate school at the University of Virginia. Like many graduate students, I was trying to figure out a dissertation project during my third year in the Ph.D. program. Professor Charles McCurdy, now retired, suggested I examine an 1872 court case entitled Hutchings v. Low for a seminar paper. The case, which involved the very survival of Yosemite as a nature park, opened up a whole new world that I needed to explore.


The main opponent of Yosemite, George W. Julian, was a Radical Republican from Indiana. Julian was concerned that state and national parks threatened land rights for small farmers in the West. I discovered that many northerners during the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s believed that small farms provided for the best land use practices and helped create the ideal society. Their vision of the future for both the South and the West was fundamentally agrarian. This story differed from the tired cliché repeated ad nauseam about the Civil War–that it was a conflict between an “industrial” North and an “agrarian” South. After all, farmers comprised roughly sixty percent of the population in the free states in 1860. 

I wrote the book to not only show that the North was agrarian, but also to demonstrate how northerners’ backgrounds as farmers shaped their views towards politics, land-use, and slavery. 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of An Agrarian Republic?

AD: The Republican Party of the Civil War era believed that small farm ownership for multiple generations led to material prosperity, national loyalty, and physical beauty. Understanding 19th-century Republicans as small farmers helps explain their opposition to slavery in the West, wartime Union policy, the opposition to nature parks, and the land redistribution schemes of Reconstruction. 


JF: Why do we need to read An Agrarian Republic?

AD: Historians cannot hope to understand the debate over slavery in the West, soldier’s reactions to plantation agriculture, and the early opposition to Yosemite and Yellowstone without understanding the agrarian world that the Republican Party grew out of.
I believe that the Republican Party also had new ideas about land use in American history. When I started An Agrarian Republic, I was tempted to label the Republican promotion of small farms as an extension of Thomas Jefferson’s agrarianism. Unlike Jefferson, however, Republicans believed that slavery destroyed the land. This misuse of nature, they believed, created an autocratic and aristocratic society. 


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

AD: Wow, what a difficult question! I became interested in U.S. History in high school thanks to some particularly engaging teachers. Growing up in Utah, however, the Civil War was never really on the radar. When I attended college at UCLA, I planned on becoming a lawyer. Dr. Joan Waugh, who is the Civil War and 19th-century expert in the UCLA history department, convinced me it was possible to become a history professor. I decided to apply to Ph.D. programs during my final year of study at UCLA. I was admitted to the University of Virginia and had the honor to serve as Dr. Gary W. Gallagher’s advisee and to work with Drs. Michael F. Holt, Edward L. Ayers, Brian Balogh, Peter Onuf, and Edmund P. Russell. 


JF: What is your next project?

AD: My next book will focus on the role of non-elite southern whites during Reconstruction. The working title is “White Trash and Oppressed Yeomen: How Impressions of Non-Slaveholding Whites Shaped Republican Policy.” While many historians, including Heather Cox Richardson, Eric Foner, William Gienapp, Michael Les Benedict, Eugene Berwanger, Jonathan Earle, William Freehling, Mark Lause, and myself have examined the origins of the Republican Party and its policies, few have explored the party’s attitudes towards non-slaveholding southern whites. 

By contrast, I intend to study Republican perceptions of non-slaveholding southern whites from the party’s inception in 1854 through the end of Reconstruction. From the early days of the party through the end of Reconstruction, Republicans viewed non-slaveholding whites as decrepit and ignorant because slaveholders prevented the poorer classes in southern society from achieving material progress. Republican views on non-slaveholding whites were key to the construction of the party’s most powerful message in the 1850s–the existence and malevolence of the “slave power.” These impressions also informed Republican behavior during the secession crisis and opening years of the Civil War. Fordham University Press awarded this book project a contract in July 2014. It should be out in late 2016.


JF: Looking forward to reading it! Thanks Adam.

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