Elections in early America: a reading list

Over at the blog of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, Liz Covart offers a nice bibliography of books on early American election and political history. Here is a taste:

Richard R. Beeman, The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America

Christopher M. Bonner, Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship

Robert Dinkin, Voting and Vote-Getting in American History 

Jay K. Dow, Electing the House: The Adoption and Performance of the U.S. Single-Member District Electoral System

Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism

Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic 

Edward B. Foley, Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States

Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America

Martha S. Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

Read the rest here.

A Writing Group of Boston-Area American Historians Gets a Story in *Publishers Weekly*

GeorginiCheck out Alex Green’s piece at Publishers Weekly.  The writers group, known as “The Squad,” includes historians Kevin Levin, Liz Covart, Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.  (Covart and Georgini have been guests on the The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Listen to our conversation with Covart here.  Georgini here).

Here is a taste of Green’s piece:

Kevin Levin got his first taste of having his work reviewed by the historians in the Book Squad as they finished their obligatory postdinner course of mint chip ice cream. “It took me a little bit of time to pick my ego up off the floor,” Levin said. Despite the intensity of the critique, Levin (who is a faculty colleague of the author of this article at Gann Academy) came to depend on the process for writing Searching for the Black Confederates (Univ. of North Carolina, Sept.). “I don’t think I would have finished the book without it,” he said.

The Book Squad first gathered when Liz Covart, host of the history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, wanted to create a writing group to motivate her to write. Levin signed on, as did historians Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.

The group began meeting monthly at each other’s houses in 2015. The host is responsible for dinner and a piece of writing for review. For Georgini, who was completing her dissertation and converting it into a trade title, the group offered an opportunity to share her work with published writers.

“We didn’t do the traditional fetishizing of the person’s work with comments like ‘I really love what you did here,’ ” Georgini said. “We went straight into it.” Her Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family was published by Oxford University Press in February.Black Confeds

In one instance, Heather Cox Richardson told Nelson, “You went the first 18 pages of this chapter before you had a single color.” Nelson, whose The Three-Cornered War will be published by Scribner in February 2020, said the advice has stayed with her, and as a result, she often thinks about ways to bring a more vivid sense of place into all of her writing.

After each session, each member sends written manuscript edits to the author who presented that night, which Silber said was invaluable as she finalized her edits for This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, which was published by UNC Press in 2018.

For Silber, who is an academic, working with the group was challenging at times. “Being in the group, I thought a lot more about how to make my writing lively and engaged and compelling,” she said. “But it was very hard for me to tell this as a story and not add a lot of analysis.”

Silber’s struggle reflects a wider issue. “We’re in this moment where historians are torn between writing for an academic audience or a trade audience,” Georgini said. “What does it mean to write for both? So a lot of these conversations in the Book Squad were about these readers who we were imagining and also the readers we hoped to attract. That was some of the richest dialogue we had.”

Read the entire piece here.

The New *Common-Place* is Here

Common Place

Here is the press release:

In the brand-new issue of Common-place, you’ll find a bounty of fresh and challenging ideas from both leading and rising historians. Carla Pestana’s revelations about maroon communities in colonial Jamaica offers a cautionary tale on the influence of “categorical thinking” on historians. In a rare rediscovery, Eric Gardner provides an analysis and full textual reproduction of the fiery and eloquent reconstruction lecture delivered in 1867 Philadelphia by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Exhibit design maven Richard Rabinowitz offers a ranging and challenging analysis of changing public expectations about history, and their implications for the training of future historians.

In Object Lessons, Paul Erickson probes Isaiah Thomas’s Paper Mill Account Book and inventory records to uncover an industrialist’s understanding of the materiality of texts. Matt White’s account of his important discovery in Charles Wilson Peale’s revolutionary war journal reminds us that no matter how accessible texts are in the digital world, there’s just no substitute for visiting the archive and viewing the original. 

Also in this edition of Common-place, Mary Kuhn tells the story of the extraordinary international popularity of an early 19th century novel about a man who falls deeply and passionately in love . . . with a flowering plant.  And Poet Terrance Hayes gives us the powerful and haunting poem “Taffeta,” which begins with the narrator talking to a t-shirt image of Frederick Douglass.
Turning to digital history, Liz Covart discusses the extraordinary public history potential of podcasting, using her successes creating the podcasts “Ben Franklin’s World” and “Doing History”. Will Fenton explores the potential and the potential confusion inherent in large-scale digital resource databases, offering the carefully-crafted introductory path to his website Digital Paxton as one guide to clarity.
You’ll also find reviews of new books on Cadwallader Colden, the African American festival Pinkster, the symbiotic relationship between American evangelicalism and New York City, and the roles played by regulated and deregulated meat markets in feeding the antebellum inhabitants of Gotham.

Finally, as the editorial term of co-editors Anna Mae Duane and Walter Woodward draws toward a close, there’s an important announcement from the American Antiquarian Society about the future, and possibly changing nature of Common-place itself.

It’s not just food for thought, but a banquet of thought-provoking ideas, all for you in the new edition of Common-place.
Common-place is co-edited by Anna Mae Duane and Walter W. Woodward at the University of Connecticut, and published by a partnership of the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Connecticut. It’s all ready for your computer, tablet, or mobile device right now at www.common-place.org.

Liz Covart Joins the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Liz CovartHistory podcaster Liz Covart has a new full-time job. The creator and host of Ben Franklin’s World just announced that she will be joining the staff of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture as its New Digital Projects Editor.

Here is a taste of her announcement at Uncommon Sense–The Blog:

I’m excited to announce that I’ve joined the staff at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture as its new Digital Projects Editor.

This is a really exciting opportunity because it means long-term support for Ben Franklin’s World and the Doing History series and a chance to continue working and collaborating with the OI’s great staff of talented historians and professionals.

Over the last two years, the team at the Omohundro Institute has helped develop Ben Franklin’s World into a serious and professional media outlet for scholarly history. Their knowledge has played a major role in growing Ben Franklin’s World into a podcast that receives over 160,000 downloads per month and has garnered more than 2 million downloads in less than 3 years. Plus, the Doing History series has evolved into a dynamic series that not only shows the world how historians work and why our work matters, but encourages us to experiment with adapting our traditional modes of historical interpretation and communication to new media. (Thus far these experiments have proven successful as episodes in the Doing History: To the Revolution! series are the most downloaded episodes in the entire BFWorld catalog.)

Read the entire post here. Congratulations, Liz!

The Intended Audience of “Ben Franklin’s World”

6253f-covart2bfranklinCheck out Sadie Bergen’s interview with historian Liz Covart at AHA Today.  As many of you know, Covart is the host and creator of the popular “Ben Franklin’s World” podcast.  I am a fan and regular listener.

During the interview Covart talks about her intended audience.  She has obviously given this a lot of thought.  Here is a taste:

Like many podcasters, I created my show with an ideal listener, or podcast avatar, in mind. Her name is Janet Watkins. She’s a 22-year-old pre-med student at the University at Buffalo. She loves science and dislikes the fact that she has to take a history class. Her dislike for history comes from the fact that as a young, African American woman, she long ago grew tired of hearing her teachers talk of dates and the deeds of dead, white men. Besides, she loves science; what does she need history for? I try to cover topics that will inspire Janet to love and appreciate history; to see that the topic is bigger than dead, white men, and that historical thinking can help her with her scientific thinking. My goal is to produce content that makes it hard for Janet to turn off the podcast. I want Janet’s boss at the student clinic to catch her listening to Ben Franklin’s World in a supply closet when she is supposed to be working. I want to produce content that makes Janet think,, “Boy, I can’t learn enough about early American history.” That’s my goal. 

By the way, Liz Covart and Ben Franklin’s World gets a shout-out in Episode 8 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, scheduled to drop on Sunday.

Providence to Harrisburg Playlist

95Here was the playlist for the ride home from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence:

Outtakes from Springsteen, The Ties That Bind Box Set

Podcast:  In the Past Lane.  Episode on political primaries

Podcast: Ben Franklin’s World.  Episode with Andrew Schocket on memory and the founding.

Podcast: Ben Franklin’s World. Episode with John D. Wilsey on American exceptionalism

Podcast: Ben Franklin’s World. Episode with Kathleen DuVal

Album: The Very Best of the Doobie Brothers 

Album: Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes

Harrisburg to Providence Playlist

bruce-springsteen-160223-660x380v2Here is what I listened to today on my 6 hour drive from Harrisburg, PA to Providence, R.I. for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. (In order):

Bruce Springsteen, “Outtakes” from The Ties That Bind: The River Collection Box Set

Podcast: In the Past Lane with Edward O’Donnell and guest Jonathan Rees. “How America Got Cool.”  Great episode on ice and refrigeration.

Podcast: Ben Franklin’s World with Mark A. Noll on the Bible in early America

Bruce Springsteen, “Outtakes” from The Ties That BInd: The River Collection Box Set (again).

Bruce Springsteen. The River. Original album  (Getting ready for April 18 concert n State College).

Rapidly hitting the “seek” button on my rental car for about thirty minutes, stopping whenever I found a song that I liked.

Bruce Springsteen, “Outtakes” from The Ties That BInd: The River Collection Box Set  (Trying to familiarize myself with these new releases–many of which I have not heard before this boxed set came out.

I have more podcasts in the queue for the ride home on Sunday.

Mark Noll Visits “Ben Franklin’s World”

Noll BibleLiz Covart, the host of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast, talks with Notre Dame University historian Mark Noll about his most recent book  In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life,  1492-1783.

Here is a taste of what you will discover in this episode:

  • The role the Bible played in the lives of American colonists
  • How Americans in different regions interpreted and used the Bible
  • The bibles European immigrants brought to and used in North America
  • Details about the Geneva Bible
  • The separation of church and state and why it happened in the United States
  • Religious pluralism of the thirteen British American colonies
  • How colonists adapted biblical scripture to fit their North American environment
  • The role the Bible played in the public lives of Puritans and Pilgrims
  • How American Protestants’ reliance on the Bible affected American literacy rates
  • How historians measure literacy rates in early America
  • Protestant groups that settled in North America
  • How religious pluralism affected how colonial Americans interpreted scripture
  • The First Great Awakening
  • Participation in the Great Awakening by African Americans and Native Americans
  • African American interpretations of scripture
  • Women and scripture
  • How early American men incorporated the Bible and scripture into their lives
  • How the Bible fit within Americans’ conceptions of the British Empire
  • The American bishop controversy

Should Liz Covart Start a History Podcast Network?

BF WorldI love it when Liz Covart, host of the popular Ben Franklin’s World podcast, thinks in public on her blog.  In her most recent ruminations she writes about the potential of a history podcast network.  I think it’s a great idea, and Liz has the entrepreneurial spirit to pull it off, but I also agree with her when she worries about the time commitment.

Here is a taste of her post “A Podcast Network for Historians?“:

Will I follow the podcasters’ advice and use Ben Franklin’s World to start a historian-driven podcast network?

I don’t know.

I have the knowledge and a well-established first show. I also know I could help historians learn how to podcast and produce great, compelling content.

But, starting a network would require me to place my current research and publication plans largely on hold for an unknown period of time. Sure, I could create opportunities to blend my research agenda with that of the network, but it may take several years before I could really go back into the archives and work on a book-length project.

There is also the fact that starting a network would multiply the business/administrative aspects of producing a podcast that I don’t always enjoy.

Network creators are both the face of the network and its “janitor.” I would be responsible for finding and training new talent, creating or finding new shows, managing network hosts and show edits, show promotion, finding and securing advertising partners, and solving problems that arise.

With that said, I love the idea of building something that would allow historians to expand the reach and impact of their important research. And I think I could find a partner or two to assist with the administrative work.

Now is also the perfect time to start a network.

Historians are embracing the history communications movement and podcast networks and digital content providers are beginning to bring order to the “Wild West” atmosphere of digital media. Starting a network now will be easier than it will be two years from now. And starting now would give historians the opportunity to help shape the order content providers and networks are applying to the digital media landscape.

Over the last six months or so, I have felt like I am standing at a crossroads with my work, but I couldn’t articulate why. The idea of starting a network has forced me to figure out why I have this feeling. It’s because I need to make a choice about the type of scholarship I want to produce over the long term.

Do I want to be a historian who dabbles in digital media and researches and writes books and articles that contribute to the historiography?

Or do I want to be a historian who uses their training to shape the way historians utilize new media to present their scholarship to the world?

I have been podcasting long enough, and I see the landscape well enough, to know that I have to make this choice and I must make it soon. If I wait too long, I will miss this opportune moment.

Read the entire post here.

Liz Covart on Popular History


Covart: People like history books about ordinary lives

Why are popular history books popular?  It’s a great question.  Liz Covart, the host of Ben Franklin’s World, offers an answer.


Covart concludes that ordinary readers flock to popular history for three reasons.  First, because popular books feature people.  Covart suggests that people like books about the American founders, but they like stories about the lives of everyday men and women even more.  Second, popular books use “plain, evocative language.”  Third, popular books “make judgement calls.”

Here is a taste of her post:

Each week, I receive e-mails with requests that I present more episodes about how non-famous, non-elite men and women lived.

You know who tackles this topic best and writes about it the most?

Academic historians.

If readers want to read about everyday men and women, why are popular history books popular?

They are popular because they feature people readers can follow and live through vicariously. I suspect that many history lovers settle for books about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they can’t find books about people like Martha Ballard or George Robert Twelves Hewes.

The feedback my listeners provide strongly suggests that they would love to read books about men or women who lived average lives; books that allowed them to witness the past through the eyes of someone like them.

Read the entire post here.


Liz Covart and the Omohundro Institute Team-Up for “Doing History”

CovartLiz Covart, the prolific podcaster responsible for Benjamin Franklin’s World, is teaming up with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture for a new podcast series.

“Doing History: A Podcast Serious About How Historians Work,” will be a monthly feature on Ben Franklin’s World.

Here is a taste of the announcement on the OIEAHC website:

Over the next twelve months, Liz will interview scholars about how we frame historical problems, research in different kinds of archives, analyze primary materials including text, objects, and images, synthesize and critically engage secondary literature, present our work for collaborative feedback, and work with editors and publishers. She’ll be looking at what it means to present historical work in different contexts, including as teaching material, as published text, and in a public history context. She’ll be asking questions about different approaches to understanding the past, including the literary and the genealogical.

Liz has made Ben Franklin’s World into an important platform for discussing scholarship with historians; past episodes have featured scholars such as Joyce Chaplin, Kathleen DuVal, Eric Foner, and Alan Taylor. Liz will be the 2016 Omohundro Institute-Lapidus Initiative Assistant Editor for New Media, and she will join, on an ongoing basis, the Advisory Group for the Lapidus Initiative.

I am really looking forward to this.

Liz Covart Takes Us Inside *Ben Franklin’s World*

Ben Franklin’s World has taken the history podcast world by storm. In this video Liz Covart, the creator and host of the show, gives us a glimpse of how the podcast is made.  Liz reads every book that is featured on the show.  She also makes sure to keep her Thomas Jefferson bobblehead away from her Alexander Hamilton bobblehead in order to preserve peace and order on the show.  She even has a “Ben Franklin’s World” microphone!

Yesterday I listened to her wonderful conversation with Marla Miller about the history and legend of Betsy Ross.  I highly recommend it.

Introducing the "Benjamin Franklin’s World" Podcast

Are you looking for a good podcast to listen to as you drive, run, or just sit at your desk?  Are you an early American history buff?  If you answered yes to both of these questions then you just might like Liz Covart’s new podcast, “Benjamin Franklin’s World.”   Learn more about it here.

So far Liz has done six podcasts.  Each podcast includes four segments:

1. Modern Day Discovery: An occasional segment where I share information about news or events from our present-day.
2. Guest Interview: This segment stands as the centerpiece of the show. It is where I interview an historian who has conducted (or is conducting) fascinating research about important episodes and people in early American history.
On occasion, I replace this segment with a captivating story from my own historical research.
3. Time Warp: The post-interview segment where I ask my guest a hypothetical history question about what might have been if something had occurred, or someone had acted, differently.
4. Ask the Historian: The segment where I answer your questions about early American history.
So far Liz has interviewed James Green, Cornelia King, and Richard Newman of the Library Company of Philadelphia, and historians Thomas Foster and Jeanne Abrams.

Mormonism at the New York State History Conference

The Way of Improvement Leads Home is everywhere.  If there is a conference devoted to American history going on somewhere, there is also a good chance that we will be there, in one form or another, to cover some of it.  Last weekend Elizabeth Covart was at the Annual Meeting on New York State History in Poughkeepsie and has registered this report from a session on Mormonism.

Liz, a former student of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, has been doing some very innovative work at the intersection of American history, digital history, public history, social media, and platform building.  I highly recommend her website.  She is no stranger to the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You may also recall that she did some writing for us at the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association.  –JF

Here is her post:

On Friday, June 13, 2014, Gerrit Dirkmaat (Joseph Smith Papers Project) and Michael Hubbard MacKay (Brigham Young University) presented “Mormonism and the Empire State,” a panel at the 35th Annual Conference on New York State History. Together these scholars analyzed Joseph Smith’s interaction with the scholarly and print culture of 1830s New York to demonstrate the connection Mormonism has with the state.

Michael Hubbard MacKay argued that Mormonism was “ensconced” in New York culture because Joseph Smith connected the religion with the state’s scholarly community. The Mormon tradition holds that in 1823, an angel visited Smith and directed him to a stone box buried on a hill near his Manchester, New York home. Inside the box, Smith found golden plates. The plates contained many cuneiform-looking characters. As the angel instructed Smith not to show the tablets to anyone, Smith kept the plates hidden and transcribed their symbols on to paper.

The symbols on the golden plates formed the basis of the Book of Mormon. However, neither Smith nor anyone else could understand what the Book of Mormon said until they deciphered the characters. Smith sought translational assistance from scholars around New York State.

A letter from Joseph Knight Sr. shows that Smith wanted a learned man to translate the symbols from the plates. Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, confirms this idea when she wrote that her son transcribed the “characters Alphabetically and sen[t] them to all the learned men that he could find and ask[ed] them for the translation of the same.” Smith worked with his friend and follower Martin Harris of Palmyra, New York to find a scholar who could help them.

As one of the richest men in Palmyra, Martin Harris had connections. Harris made use of his personal network to connect Smith with Luther Bradish, a scholar in Albany who had an interest in the Egyptian language. Smith traveled to Albany via the Erie Canal, but Bradish could not help him with a translation.

Harris and Smith contacted other scholars around the Empire State, but no one could make sense of the cuneiform-looking characters. Eventually the symbols made their way to Charles Anthony at Columbia University who said “I cannot translate it.” Anthony’s response prompted Smith to embrace the task of translating the characters himself.

Over sixty-seven days, Smith dictated the 588 pages of text that comprise the Book of Mormon. Smith translated the characters with seer stones that he had placed in the bottom of his hat. The darkness provided by the hat allowed Smith to see the words the seer stones showed him. MacKay stated that the act of translation imbued Smith with priestly power.

MacKay argued that Joseph Smith’s attempts to have a scholar translate the symbols on the golden tablets demonstrates the importance of education and learnedness to New York culture. Smith wanted a scholar to imbue his text with legitimacy by providing a translation. Smith reasoned that if a scholar could translate the characters then they would also link the Book of Mormon to an ancient culture. Only when the learned community failed to supply a translation did Smith undertake the challenge of deciphering the characters, which ultimately prompted Smith to fulfill his Isaiah-like prophecy.

Gerrit Dirkmaat continued MacKay’s story of the Book of Mormon’s connection with New York State. Dirkmaat connected the Book of Mormon with New York print and political culture by exploring Smith’s quest to find a printer to publish his translation.

Smith wanted to print his translation before someone altered his dictation. Martin Harris agreed to pay for the printing of the first 300 copies of the Book of Mormon. Smith and Harris approached Harris’ friend E.B. Grandin, printer of the Wayne Sentinel. Grandin refused. Dirkmaat believes that Grandin declined for two reasons: First, the cost for the editions stood near $5,000, equivalent to approximately $140,000 today. Grandin did not believe that the book would recoup its printing costs. Second, Grandin and Harris were friends. Grandin did not want to take his friend’s money. Unable to convince Grandin to reconsider, Harris and Smith approached the other Palmyra printer, Jonathan Hadley.

Jonathan Hadley printed the Palmyra Freeman, a newspaper that promulgated his anti-masonic viewpoints. Hadley refused to print the Book of Mormon because he believed the book espoused mysterious, superstitious, and strange rituals and beliefs—rituals and beliefs as strange and mysterious as those practiced by the Masons. Hadley printed a scathing article about Smith, his book, and beliefs. The article appeared in the August 11, 1829 edition of the Palmyra Freeman.

Rebuffed in Palmyra, Smith and Harris traveled to Rochester, New York. Smith and Harris attempted to get Thurlow Weed, printer of the Rochester Telegraph, to print their book. In 1845, Weed recounted his negotiations with them. Weed referred to Mormonism as a “delusion” and as a “mental disease.” He explained that “Harris mortgaged his Farm to raise the money required for the temporal support of the Prophet, and print of the ‘Book of Mormon.’” Weed refused the job, but for whatever reason he sent Smith and Harris across the street to the print shop of Elihu F. Marshall.

Smith and Harris found a willing partner in Marshall. Dirkmaat stated that although we cannot know why Marshall agreed to print their book, he suspects that it has to do with Marshall’s radical views on religion. Raised as a Quaker, Marshall had strong views that everyone should be able to hold whatever religious beliefs they liked.

Delighted that they had found a printer, Smith and Harris returned to Palmyra. For whatever reason, both men wanted the first copies of the Book of Mormon to be published in their hometown. Armed with the knowledge that Marshall would print their book, the two men approached E.B. Grandin a second time. Grandin relented and agreed to print it. Although Grandin had declined their first request because he did not want to take his friend’s money, he agreed on their second appeal because Harris was determined to print the book and someone else had agreed to take his money. Grandin accepted the job and profited between 33 to 55 percent per copy.

Dirkmaat concluded his presentation by situating the Book of Mormon in New York History. He posited that *Smith and Harris had a difficult time finding a printer to print the first copies of the Book of Mormon because they had sought to do it at the height of the anti-masonic movement. Jonathan Hadley and Thurlow Weed had refused to print the text based on their anti-masonic sentiments. E.B. Gradin had refused on the grounds of friendship, but relented when Elihu F. Marshall agreed to take his friend’s money.

One audience member asked Dirkmaat and MacKay how the culture of New York determined anything for Joseph Smith and Mormonism when Smith had lived in New York for just fourteen years. Both scholars replied that Smith had his divine visions while living in New York and that most of his converts and funding came from the state. They also pointed out that Joseph Smith had acknowledged the importance of the state. Smith admitted that the culture of the ‘burned over district’ had prompted him to ask the questions about faith that led to his angelic visitation and his discovery of the golden tablets.

Thanks, Liz!

From "Uncommonplace Book" to "Liz M. Covart: Historian, Writer, and Platform Builder"

One of the blogs I have checked regularly is Liz Covart‘s Uncommonplace Book. It is filled with great writing tips and early American history tidbits.  Some of you may recall that Liz wrote for The Way of Improvement Leads Home during the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington.

Today when I headed over to Uncommonplace Book I was redirected to Elizabethcovart.com, Liz’s brand new website.  It is a phenomenal platform for Liz’s public writing and consulting business.  I encourage you to check it out.