The Author’s Corner with Mark Peterson

The City-State of BostonMark Peterson is Edmund S. Morgan Professor of History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power (Princeton University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The City-State of Boston?

MP: I began work on this book by pursuing an observation that emerged while researching and writing my first book, The Price of Redemption—that early Boston and New England’s residents were deeply interested in and engaged with continental Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, the Caribbean, even the Indian Ocean, much more so than the extant historiography would lead you to believe. And I was also bothered by the way that the history of the United States casts its enormous shadow backward on the pre-independence world, encouraging historians to pay attention to those events, people, trends that contributed to the making of the United States, and obscuring those elements that did not. The sharp break that many historians make between pre- and post-independence North American history also troubled me, as I saw many continuities in the history of Boston and New England across that divide. In the end, I wanted to write what I thought of as a more honest and thorough account of the formation and development of a highly significant American colonial endeavor in its own right, taking the advent of the United States as neither telos nor chronological endpoint, but another shift in the city and region’s long history of negotiating imperial relationships.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The City-State of Boston?

MP: The City-State of Boston argues that the founders of Boston aimed to create an autonomous self-governing republic in church and state, and over the course of its first century, managed to do just that by expanding its political and cultural authority over the New England region, and developing an integrated economy that linked city and region to the slave plantation colonies of the West Indies. Through the eighteenth century, the region sustained much of its autonomy in the face of growing pressure from the British Empire, even to the point of open rebellion, but the compact it joined with the other newly independent states in 1788 gradually eroded the political, economic, and cultural bases for this autonomy, as Boston became economically intertwined with and under the governmental authority of an expansionist American slavocracy.

JF: Why do we need to read The City-State of Boston?

MP:  All over the world today, there are signs of crisis in various forms of self-government, regardless of what we call this tradition – liberal democracy might be the most convenient shorthand. From the persistence of various forms of secession movements (Scotland, Catalonia, Brexit) to the rise of authoritarianism in formerly democratic countries (Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, the list goes on) and the rise of far right parties in many more places, dissatisfaction with the current state of many forms of national government is evident. The City-State of Boston was written in part to offer an examination of one form of popular self-government, the small autonomous republic with strong ties to other (often larger) polities, a model that was extremely prevalent before the nineteenth century, but was largely swept away by that century’s various forms of national and imperial consolidations, including the United States. So in addition to simply the intrinsically interesting history of Boston, I would also suggest that its story is good to think with as we contemplate the prospects for a way forward from our current predicament.

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

MP: I think of myself as an early modern historian whose work focuses on North America (and until now, mostly on New England), rather than simply an American historian. As an undergraduate, I majored in the history and science of early modern Europe, and as a graduate student, working with Bernard Bailyn was a great opportunity to explore the relationship between European colonial projects in America and the wider Atlantic world.

JF: What is your next project?

MP: I am currently working on a small book with a big title, The Long Crisis of the Constitution, which will argue that the purposes for which the US Constitution was created in the 1780s, rooted in eighteenth century assumptions about power, economics, and population, had largely been carried out by the end of the nineteenth century, when the crisis began. It traces how subsequent efforts to shore up the relationship between the evolving nation and the Constitution have come undone and generated the governance problem we face today.

JF: Thanks, Mark!

Was America Born Capitalist?

City UponWe are working hard to get Princeton University historian Daniel Rodgers on the podcast.  He is the author of  As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.  (He will be featured on the Author’s Corner very soon).  In the meantime, here is a taste of an excerpt from the book published at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

WAS AMERICA BORN capitalist? it is often asked. Ever since Max Weber proposed a causal relationship between early Protestants’ longing for order and rational control and the spirit of modern capitalism, the question has consumed the attention of generations of sociologists and historians. Weber’s ideal types were too abstract, it is now clear. The careful accounting and control of the self that the Puritans so conspicuously valued was only one of the cultural traits on which capitalist economies have thrived. Others, like the risk-taking and labor exploitation on which the tobacco and slave economy of early Virginia was founded, could be successfully capital-generative as well. Capitalism’s identifying features lie as much in its institutions of trade, property law, and labor as in the inner ethos that captured Weber’s imagination.

Measured in these ways, there can be no doubt that Puritan New England was a by-product of capitalism in its expansive, early modern phase. John Winthrop’s settlement arose within one of the great commercial empires of the early modern world. Unlike the Spanish conquest a century earlier, in which arms, expropriation of easily obtained wealth, and missionary zeal took the vanguard roles, the English colonization of the Americas was a merchants’ endeavor. Trading corporations — the Virginia Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Providence Island Company, the Plymouth Company — undertook the work of settlement throughout British America, capitalized by investors’ purchase of their joint stock.

Read the rest here.

Elizabeth Craft’s Diary, 1770-1771

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White diary can be read at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston

Over at The Beehive, the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Erin Weinman introduces us to the diary of Elizabeth Craft White.  From December 27, 1770 to January 23, 1771 White wrote about her spiritual life in the wake of her husband’s death.  This looks like a wonderful source for those working in 18th-century lived religion.

Here is a taste of Weinman’s piece:

The diary is heartbreaking, but Elizabeth White’s thoughts were not uncommon during a period in which mourning became intertwined with religious culture. In early Massachusetts, it wasn’t uncommon for people to use the death of a loved one as a time to reflect upon their own souls and ask God to forgive their sins, faced with the reality that their own end could be near. Ministers often encouraged their parishioners to keep diaries to embellish their faith in Heaven, viewing this as another way to become closer to God and to understand what death meant. Sermons often revolved around the topic of dying, such as Timothy Edwards’ All the living must surely die, and go to judgement.

Man is born to trouble as the Sparks fly upward tears sorrow & Death is the Portion of every person that is Born into the world. I have been born, most certainly & it is as certain that I must die & I know not how soon. Die I must! & die I shall! (Elizabeth White, January 18, 1771).

Read the entire piece here.

Princeton Seminar 2017: Day 3

Burr

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Colonial Era” teachers seminar (aka the “Princeton Seminar“) is rolling along.

This morning in the lecture hall we finished our discussion of colonial Virginia. I made the connection between mercantilism and tobacco culture and challenged the teachers to consider the social and cultural influence of tobacco on race, social structure, gender, and labor in the seventeenth century colony. We ended this lecture with an examination of Bacon’s Rebellion.

Midway through the morning session we turned to colonial New England.  We did a lot of background work today.   My lecture developed along these lines:

  • The settlers of New England were Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Calvinist Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were English Calvinist Protestant Christians

We then discussed Winthrop’s idea of a “City Upon a Hill” and how Puritan theology influenced politics and regional identity in Massachusetts Bay.  On Thursday, when we return to New England, I am hoping to say a few words about social life in the region, drawing heavily from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives.

The teachers spent the afternoon with master teacher Nate McAlister.  He continues to work with the teachers on their lesson plans and the use of primary documents.

After dinner we all headed over to the Princeton Cemetery.  I gave a very brief lecture at the graves of the early Princeton presidents–Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon.  For some reason the grave of Aaron Burr Jr. got more attention than it has in years past. 🙂

We will be in Philadelphia tomorrow with George Boudreau!

Weed

The Author’s Corner With Doug Winiarski

WinarskiDouglas Winiarski is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Richmond.  This interview is based on his new book Darkness Falls of the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DWAn earthquake, actually, and a stunning discovery at a public library in Massachusetts. I was a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School looking for some interesting texts to study for a paper I had planned to write about popular religious responses to the famed Great Earthquake of 1727. On a broiling hot summer day in 1995, I drove up to the public library in Haverhill, Massachusetts—which was located near the epicenter of the earthquake—hoping to examine the town’s earliest Congregational church record book. The archivist gruffly informed me that the original volume was too delicate to be retrieved from their vault. But after a little prodding he wandered into the back room pulled out a small bundle of manuscripts: hundreds of neatly trimmed slips of paper bearing short religious narratives written by nearly everyone in the community, from wealthy merchants and Harvard graduates to obscure single women and African Americans.  Half of them had been composed during the surge of church admissions that followed the earthquake. The Haverhill relations turned out to be one of the richest—and certainly one of the largest—collections of religious autobiographical writings composed in British North America prior to 1750. And only a handful of scholars had ever seen them. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. I knew instantly that I had a story to tell about the religious experiences of ordinary people in eighteenth-century New England. Figuring out what that story was, however, required more than two decades of archival work in New England and abroad.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DWThe rise of trans-Atlantic evangelicalism during New England’s era of great awakenings sundered an inclusive and flourishing Congregational establishment. The key agents inciting this dynamic and divisive change were not prominent ministers and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, but ordinary people who learned to experience religion in extraordinary new ways over the course of the eighteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DW: Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is the first book to examine both the thriving Congregational system in provincial New England and the shattering of that system entirely through the religious experiences of lay men and women. The book features an eclectic cast of fascinating characters and unusual events. And it’s built on a vast array of remarkable manuscripts. Although Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is primarily a study of the transformation of New England Congregationalism, readers will come away with a greater appreciation for the diversity of denominations in the region by the time of the American Revolution: Anglicans, Baptists of varying stripes, sectarian groups, and “nothingarians,” or people who held all religious institutions at arm’s length. Above all, I devote considerable attention to examining the costs of the so-called Great Awakening revivals of eighteenth century, something that scholars have been slow to acknowledge. The “people called New Lights”—progenitors of today’s evangelicals—were religious insurgents, troublemakers, radicals; and many of them were bent on breaking apart the Congregational establishment. New Englanders struggled to come to terms with the marketplace of fractious and competitive religious groups that emerged from the revivals. It’s as important a story today as it was during the eighteenth century.

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

DWI guess you could say I’m a child of the American Bicentennial. I was caught up with the celebrations and pageantry of my home town in 1976. Four years later, my mother took me on a trip to visit Revolutionary War sites in Boston. I can still remember walking the Freedom Trail and visiting the Old South Church for the first time. I had no idea that these places would play such a prominent role in my professional life. It wasn’t until the final week of college that one of my mentors encouraged me to connect my interest in early American history with my recent undergraduate training in religious studies by applying to graduate school. Suddenly, everything seemed to fall into place.

JF: What is your next project?

DWI am currently working on a new book that explores the fascinating but troubled relationship between the earliest western Shaker converts and the followers of Tenskwatawa, the controversial Shawnee Prophet and brother of the famed war captain Tecumseh, during the years leading up to the War of 1812. The story of the Shakers and the Shawnee Prophet—at least as I envision it at this early stage—is about a religious culture that might have been, one that could have taken shape in the crucible of the early American frontier. It’s a tragic tale in which two notorious groups of dangerous religious outsiders briefly discovered common ground and mutual respect within a racially charged and violent backcountry world. Perhaps when it’s finished, the book may offer a cautionary message for our own times about how we, as a society, should think about religious difference and the relationship between religion and violence. We’ll see.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

Anti-Suffrage Records Digitized

anti-suffrage

As the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment approaches (2020) more and more students of history are going to want to learn about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

“The Beehive,” the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, reports on the Society’s online collection of documents from the The Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women (1894-1920).  Yes, there were organizations opposed to women’s suffrage.

Here is a taste of Nancy Heywood’s post:

The records of this organization are now fully digitized and available on the web, thanks to a grant provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act grant as administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

All pages of this manuscript collection have been digitized and they are presented as sequences of pages linked to the folders listed on the collection guide.  Website users may explore any or all administrative records, committee meeting minutes, typescripts of lectures and reports, and various printed items including by-laws,  and printed lists of standing committee members from all over the state.

The records date from 1894 to1920.  The Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women was formally founded in 1895, but stemmed from a committee formed in 1882.  The Association actively recruited members, opposed legislation that would have granted voting rights to women in Massachusetts, and also held events and lectures promoting their cause. 

Women working so actively against voting rights for women seems curious and perhaps even incongruous.  Some of the reasoning and context for their motivation is found within the organization’s own records. Within the Loose papers, Legislative history section, there is a typescript document of a speech given at a hearing before committee on constitutional amendments in Feb. 1905 which states four reasons for opposing woman suffrage:  many women in Massachusetts don’t petition for it, Massachusetts wouldn’t benefit from it; it is a “most inopportune” time to change the Constitution, and suffrage hasn’t proven to be beneficial elsewhere.

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It: Part 6

MetaxasWe are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

This post, our final one in the series, examines Metaxas’s understanding of American exceptionalism, an idea that drives much of his thesis in If You Can Keep It.

Metaxas roots his understanding of American exceptionalism in the famous words of John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In his lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity (1630), Winthrop used the phrase “city upon a hill” to describe the colony.  The phrase comes from Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Here is how Winthrop used the phrase in A Model of Christian Charity:  “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world…”

It is worth noting that Metaxas has made the common mistake of taking Winthrop’s words, which were addressed to the inhabitants of one British-American colony, and applying them to the United States writ-large.  Winthrop, of course, was not applying his “city upon a hill” metaphor to the already-existing colonies of Virginia, Plymouth, and the Dutch colony of New Netherland (which became New York thirty-four years later).  Yet these colonies and several others–colonies in which the “city upon a hill” metaphor was not part of their founding ideal–would also be part of the United States of America in 1776.  Metaxas is in good company here.  John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both fans of the “city upon a hill” metaphor, also made this mistake. (More on Reagan below).

At the heart of Metaxas’s argument in If You Can Keep It is the idea that America remains a “city upon a hill” today.  It is, and always has been, a nation chosen by God to do His will in the world.

Here are some pertinent passages from the book:

p.25: “Therefore, if in any sense we care about the rest of the world, we must first ‘keep’ this republic.  We are to shine not so that we can admire our own brightness but so that we hold out a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  Our exceptionalism is not for us but for others.”

p.188-189: In speaking about the United States as a “chosen” nation akin to Israel in the Old Testament, Metaxas writes: “So far from being a selfish idea, it is the idea of living for others–of showing them a new way of thinking–that was at the heart of America.  To miss that is to miss everything.  This idea of being as a ‘city upon a hill’ that can be seen from afar–and that will be seen from afar–has been with us from the beginning.  It is the idea that what we have is indeed something extraordinary, but because of this we have been given the tremendous burden of stewarding and sharing what we have with the rest of the world. So if we are exceptional, we are not exceptional for our own sakes.  We are exceptional for the world beyond our shores, for all who are interested in seeing what we are doing and in joining our project.”

p.194: “Reading Reagan, we see that this most conservative of modern presidents, even in underscoring this idea of American exceptionalism, pointedly expressed the idea that America existed for others, for those not yet here among us.  So if this is an idea that has been at the very core of our identity from before the beginning, can we truly continue to be America if we forget it?

p.211-212: “…Lincoln did not think America’s exceptionalism a mere accident of history.  Indeed…he makes clear that he sees our special role in history much as John Winthrop saw it and as many men in the two centuries connecting them saw it: as nothing less than a holy calling.”

p.212-213: “We are not here talking about the contested and controversial idea of ‘Manifest Destiny,’ nor merely of noblesse oblige, but of something far more serious, of something that is even sacred.  Lincoln felt that America had been called by God to fulfill a role and to perform a duty for the rest of the world.  It was not something to be giddy about.  Far from it.  He understood that to be chosen by God–as the Jews had been chosen by God, and as the prophets had been chosen by God, and as the Messiah had been chosen by God–was something that was a profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.”

p.214-215: “[The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay] would care for one another.  The rich would lift up the poor.  This is something that resonates with us today in large part because Winthrop and his fellow shipmates were successful.  What they did shone so brightly that their distinctly biblical model carried on beyond the Massachusetts Bay Colony and into the United States of America.”

So what is wrong with these passage from If You Can Keep It?

A lot.

Before we examine the historical and theological problems here, let’s remember that the United States has, at times, been a force for good in the world.  It has provided a home to millions of immigrants fleeing persecution and economic hardship.  It has offered aid to oppressed and sick people groups around the world.  It has used its power to stop tyrants and advance freedom across the globe.  And in some circumstances American leaders–Woodrow Wilson comes to mind immediately–believed that they were extending American relief and support as leaders of a Christian nation.  (The previous sentence is a historical observation, not an ethical or theological one.  In other words, I am not saying that Wilson and others were right in believing this).

With that said, we must begin our critique with Metaxas’s use of Winthrop’s famous phrase.  Metaxas believes that Winthrop was correct when he called Massachusetts Bay a “city upon a hill.” I don’t know how he knows this, since there is nothing in the Bible about the United States of America, but he nevertheless thinks that Winthrop was on to something.  And then he argues that somehow the special mission assigned to Massachusetts Bay got transferred, presumably at some point during the American Revolution, to the United States.

As historian Tracy McKenzie has pointed out in his own critique of If You Can Keep It, Metaxas does not understand the way Winthrop was using the phrase “city upon a hill” when he uttered it in 1630.  I will let Tracy take it from here:

So what did Governor Winthrop mean when he told the Massachusetts Bay colonists that they would be “as a city on a hill”?  The most common reading—Eric Metaxas’ reading—is that Winthrop was telling the colonists that God had given them a special mission.  The colony they were establishing (and by extension, the future United States) was divinely destined to serve as an example to the world.  God’s plan was for the new nation to model the values (religious, political, and economic) that He desired the rest of the world to emulate.  Metaxas strengthens this interpretation by adding the adjective “shining” to the metaphor—“a shining city on a hill”—although we have Ronald Reagan to thank for that phrase, not John Winthrop.

Admirers of this reading have been deeply convicted by the sense of America’s high calling that it embodies.  In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas exhorts readers to rediscover this noble mission and rededicate themselves to it.  Critics, on the other hand, have scorned the arrogance that Winthrop was supposedly reflecting and promoting.  Both evaluations miss the mark, because both are based on a misreading of Winthrop’s original statement….

Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a glorious example to the world, Winthrop was instead reminding them that it would be impossible to hide the outcome if they failed.  Their massive departure had unavoidably attracted the attention of the countrymen they left behind.  They would be watching, many of them hoping that the Puritans would stumble. If Winthrop had been writing today, he could have conveyed his point by telling his audience that everything they did would be under a microscope.  The point was not that they had been divinely selected to serve as an exemplary beacon, but rather that they could not possibly escape the scrutiny of their enemies.

So it is that in the very next sentence after noting that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop warned that “if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”  In so many words, he was telling the migrating Puritans that they would become a laughingstock, objects of scorn and derision.  What was worse, their failure would “open the mouths of enemies to speak evils of the ways of God.”  Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission, Winthrop intended his allusion to “a city upon a hill” to send a chill down their spines.

If McKenzie is correct, and I think he is, then one of the central arguments of Metaxas’s book completely falls apart.  McKenzie shows that there was little continuity between the way John Winthrop used the phrase “city on a hill” and Ronald Reagan (and Metaxas) used it in the 1980s. When Winthrop used the phrase it had nothing to do with Massachusetts Bay (or the United States of America) sharing its ideals with other nations.

But the problems with Metaxas’s argument go deeper.  I hope that his Christian readers will be bothered by the fact that Metaxas equates the United States of America with God’s chosen people.  By equating the United States with the chosen people of God he is propagating one of the worst forms of American exceptionalism.  Most versions of Christian theology teach that God no longer works through the nation of Israel but has instead established a “new covenant” with the church.  The church is a community made up of those who have embraced the redemptive message of the Gospel and, as a result, live their lives devoted to building the Kingdom of God, a kingdom defined by loving God and loving neighbor.  In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas conflates the calling of the church with the United States of America.  I am not sure whether to call this blasphemy or idolatry. Perhaps both.

For a more thoughtful Christian assessment of American exceptionalism I highly recommend John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

Found: The Actual Site of the Salem Witch Hangings

proctor

Proctor’s Ledge, Salem, MA

A team of researchers which included Emerson Baker, author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience, have confirmed the site where nineteen people were hung for witchcraft in 1692.

Here is a taste of the story from the CBS affiliate in Boston:

After nearly three centuries of conflicting beliefs, the city of Salem confirms a team of scholars verified the site where 19 innocent people were hanged during the 1692 witch trials as Proctor’s Ledge. The historic site is an area located in between Proctor and Pope Streets in Salem, Massachusetts.

“We are happy to be able to bring years of debate to an end,” Salem State University Professor Emerson Baker told the city of Salem. “Our analysis draws upon multiple lines of research to confirm the location of the executions.”

City reps confirm to WBZ that a team of researchers used sonar technology combined with eyewitness testimonies from centuries-old documents dating back to the Salem Witch Trials.

The city of Salem acquired the strip of land near the base of Gallows Hill in 1936 “to be held forever as a public park” and called it “Witch Memorial Land.” As it was never marked, most people erroneously assumed the executions took place on the hill’s summit.

A group of researchers on the Salem witch trials called The Gallows Hill Project team, now identifies the site as a rocky ledge much closer to Boston Street, at the base of the hill, basing its conclusions on the early 20th century research of historian Sidney Perley, an eye-witness reference to an execution from the trial papers, maps from different periods, and newer technology not available previously.

Read the rest of the article here.

 

The Stamp Act and Marriage

Check out J.L. Bell’s fascinating post at Boston 1775 about how colonists in Massachusetts married earlier than originally intended in order to avoid paying for a ten shilling stamp on their marriage certificates.  Another consequence of the Stamp Act.


Here is a taste:

…That meant that, once the law went into effect on 1 Nov 1765, every couple in Massachusetts who wanted to be legally married was supposed to pay an extra ten shillings.

By autumn, however, people were opposed to paying the Stamp Tax not just to save money but also to avoid cooperating with what they saw as an unconstitutional imposition on the province’s self-government.

The Boston Gazette of 14 Oct 1765 reported that one result was couples hurrying to marry before the law took effect the next month:


We hear that Numbers of young Persons in the Country are joining in Wedlock, earlier than they intended, supposing that after the 1st of next Month, it would be difficult to have the Ceremony performed without paying dearly for stamping:—

No less than 22 Couple were published on Sunday last Week atMarblehead, intending Marriage on the same Account.

Today is the 250th Anniversary of the Convening of the Stamp Act Congress

Federal Hall, New York, circa 1790

On October 7, 1765 the Stamp Act Congress convened in the New York City building now known as Federal Hall.  You can read more about the Congress here or pick up a copy of Edmund and Helen Morgan’s The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell discusses the decision of Massachusetts to send delegates to the Congress.  Here is a taste of his post:


Royal governors had done their best to stymie legislatures’ plans to participate in the congress, mostly by declining to convene those legislatures in time to choose delegates.

As a result, in Delaware, New York, and New Jersey legislative leaders chose delegates through committees or in meetings held without the governors’ approval. Other colonies, including the oldest and most populous, Virginia, couldn’t finagle a way to send anyone. Out of fourteen colonial legislatures invited (including Nova Scotia), only nine had representatives at the congress.

Massachusetts was one of those nine, but royal governor Francis Bernardwas confident that he had things under control, as he reported to the Board of Trade in London on 8 July 1765:

It was impossible to oppose this Measure [for the congress] to any good purpose: and therefore the friends of Government took the lead in it, & have kept it in their hands; in pursuance of which, of the Committee appointed by this house to meet the other Committees at New York on the first of Octr. next, Two of the three are fast friends to Government & prudent & discreet men, such as I am assured will never consent to any undutiful or improper applications to the Government of great Britain. It is the general Opinion that nothing will be done in consequence of this intended Congress: but I hope I may promise myself that this province will act no indecent part therein.

The three Massachusetts delegates were all members of the committee that had recommended proposing the congress:

The Author’s Corner with Emily Blanck

Emily Blanck is Associate Professor of History at Rowan University. This interview is based on her new book, Tyrannicide: Forging an American Law of Slavery in Revolutionary South Carolina and Massachusetts (University of Georgia Press, November 2014). 
JF: What led you to write Tyrannicide?

EB: It is a long history. When I first entered Graduate School at William and Mary, I became very interested in the history of slavery in New England and the law because I encountered Lucy Terry Prince, a former slave who had defended herself in court and fought for her son to go to a white college soon after the Revolutionary War. So many aspects of this fascinated me… But especially two issues: The presence and absence of slavery in Massachusetts and the way a black woman had access and felt empowered to use the courts.

So, I began to explore slavery and the law in Massachusetts as a PhD student at Emory University. When researching Massachusetts slavery and the law I discovered something else that entranced me, a letter from the Chief Justice in Massachusetts, William Cushing, in 1783 to South Carolina’s Governor, Benjamin Guerard explaining the status of ten South Carolina fugitive slaves released from Massachusetts’ jails. The letter surprised me, again, for many reasons, but especially because it reverberated with antebellum antagonism over slavery.

This began my journey to uncover the story of these slaves, a story I call the “Tyrannicide affair” after one of the vessels that escorted the slaves to Massachusetts, and to compare the law of slavery in both South Carolina and Massachusetts. For my book, I chose to dig deep into the tumultuous world of the black experience during the Revolution to explain the social, political, and legal context in which this story lived. It led me to the Constitutional Convention and the writing of the Fugitive Slave Clause.

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

EB: Tyrannicide argues that slave law (and the law that ended slavery) in Massachusetts and South Carolina had very different local contexts, drawing each state to regard their enslaved black populations in very different ways, writing divergent slave law, and eventually ending slavery in Massachusetts. This case elucidates the nature of that difference as these two states are drawing together in a Union, culminating in the writing of a Constitution that silently affirms the United States as a nation of slavery. 


JF: Why do we need to read Tyrannicide?

EB: This book provides a new and exciting story for us to understand the complex nature of slave law in Revolutionary America. Slavery and slave law was not developing in a vacuum in each state but was a dynamic interchange between local and national interests. This negotiation allowed the United States to form into a strong union, but the local dissonance provided the foundation for the deep cracks that slavery caused in the Constitution that other historians have already noted. 

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

EB: I began college at University of Texas at Austin as a classics major, but was poor in languages. I began to look for other interests when I took US History from a popular professor, Dr George C. Wright. He taught us that US History was not a litany of Presidents but was an examination by historians of ordinary people. I loved learning about it, I loved the empowerment that came with historical interpretation, and I became passionate about understanding the roots of inequality in our country. I changed my majors to History and African American Studies and researched US History as much as I could at a huge university like Texas. I took a couple of years off to decide what to do after graduating, but quickly got drawn back into researching history and applied to Graduate School.

JF: What is your next project?

EB:  I am coordinator of American Studies at Rowan and wanted to continue my study of slavery with an American Studies angle. I have decided to write my next project on the holiday, Juneteenth. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in Texas on June 19th, 1865, over two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. This celebration quickly spread throughout Texas, then as Black Texans left the state during and after the Great Migration, it moved to cities throughout the US. In the past twenty years, a grassroots movement has successfully pressed for it to be recognized as a state holiday in 44 states! 

JF: Looking forward to it, thanks Emily!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Emerson Baker

Emerson Baker is Professor of History at Salem State University. This interview is based on his new book, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (Oxford University Press, October 2014).

JF: What led you to write A Storm of Witchcraft?

EB: It has been a long and sometimes indirect path to write this book. For more than 20 years my research has focused primarily on understanding New England in the late seventeenth century, a time that gets little attention aside from the witch trials. For example, I believe that King William’s War was as important to the course of American history as King Philip’s War, yet there is not a single good history of it and its impact. In 1998 I co-authored a biography on Sir William Phips with John Reid. This provided me with a solid grounding in Massachusetts politics, frontier warfare and imperial policy in this era. As Phips was governor during the witch trials, I did my first research on witchcraft and I looked forward to more.

By this time I had been teaching at Salem State for a few years and I realized that there was more that needed to be said about the Salem witchcraft crisis. I became particularly interested in what happened after 1692, and why Salem became the “Witch City” when some European cities had witch hunts that dwarfed it in size. I knew I first needed to study more typical outbreaks, so I could put the larger and unusual Salem crisis in its proper context. So I examined a series of earlier cases of New England witchcraft, focusing upon the lithobolia (or stone-throwing devil) attack on a debauched Quaker tavern in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1682. The result was The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England (2007). Meanwhile I spent summers directing excavations on a series of archaeological sites that were destroyed at the outbreak of King Williams’s War in 1689-1690, where I gained knowledge of the lifeways, material culture and architecture of the era. Thus armed, I was finally ready to take on Salem.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Storm of Witchcraft?

EB: The “perfect storm” of forces that came together in the Salem witchcraft crisis produced a critical moment for the fading Puritan government of Massachusetts Bay whose attempts to suppress the story of the trials and erase them from memory only fueled the popular imagination. The trials marked a turning point in colonial history from Puritan communalism to Yankee independence, from faith in collective conscience to skepticism toward moral governance.

JF: Why do we need to read A Storm of Witchcraft?

EB: We owe it to the many victims who refused to compromise their beliefs to learn their story for it provides valuable lessons and an important legacy for us. The deaths of 25 innocent people led to what may be the first large government cover-up in American history. This effort helped to discredit Cotton Mather, the last great Puritan, and his cause. It also began an American tradition of fear and opposition to the government, and serves as a sobering example used repeatedly ever since of the dangers of extremism and rushing to judgment. Yet at the same time, that effort to suppress the story of the trials would help lead to the establishment of the legal precedent of freedom of religion and freedom of the press.


I think the biggest contribution my book makes to understanding what happened in 1692 is to look at the largely unexplored politics of the trials. Why was it that the Court of Oyer and Terminer turned precedent upside down in 1692, quickly convicting everyone it tried? In answering that I look closely at the actions and motivations of the judges, as well as Governor Phips, who appointed them. Social and cultural historians (myself included) tend to forget that witchcraft was ultimately a religious crime that was judged by a secular and very political court.

Today we find ourselves with similar problems to those in 1692. Malevolent witches were real then, and terrorists are all too real now. The goal for both is the complete destruction our society – of everything we hold dear. How does society protect itself from a near-invisible threat? Especially when the efforts to defeat that threat endanger the very beliefs and freedoms we hope to protect?

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

EB: My parents passed on their great love of history to me as I grew up in central Massachusetts in a home surrounded by objects and documents from generations of ancestors. My interest in the past was also fueled by a series of really good History and Latin teachers. I learned to love old records though my summer job at the court house, where I researched property titles for my lawyer father.

I headed off to Bates College to major in History and then go on to law school, so I could be the fourth generation in the family firm. Once I started taking courses in colonial history with Jim Leamon, my thoughts began to change. The tipping point was when I worked on his archaeology dig on the Clarke & Lake Company headquarters on Arrowsic Island, Maine, a site that was destroyed during King Philip’s War. To discover that you could learn new things about early New England through non-tradition sources like material culture and archaeology blew me away and opened my mind to the amazing and limitless possibilities. That course changed my life. Jim has remained a mentor and good friend ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

EB: The past two books have gotten in the way of my longstanding efforts to write a history of New England in the seventeenth century based on its material culture (including the built environment and landscape). This project draws heavily on my archaeological work. Moving into the realm of experimental archaeology, I am also thinking of writing a book on colonial beer and ale recipes, and my ongoing efforts to recreate them with my microbrewer friends. And if no one writes a history of King William’s War, I may have to do that, because it is a story that really needs telling by someone other than Cotton Mather.

JF: Sounds very exciting Emerson, thanks!

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

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #53

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I am back in the American Bible Society archives this week.  Today I was once again working in materials related to the Civil War, specifically letters written to the ABS by Civil War chaplains.  Here is part of a letter I read today.  It is from the chaplain of the 16th Massachusetts from Middlesex County, Mass.  The New England exceptionalism evident in the connection he makes between Lexington and Concord and the Civil War  is priceless.

“My own regiment is not indebted directly to the American Bible Soc.—Massachusetts sends her regiments thoroughly equipped into the field and she would not deem them so, did not every soldier have offered him ‘the sword of the spirit which is the word of God….


The American Bible Society have donated about five hundred Bibles and Testaments in addition all of which bear the imprint of the American Bible Society.  They have all been called for and with those given as parting gifts by wives and mothers, there can be but few in this regiment not now supplied and I know many, very many would on a march part with every other book or even much clothing sooner than leave behind their Bible.  If the knapsack be too full to hold it, why then the owner would wear it in his bosom to shield in the day of battle the heart its divine truths had first purified…

This regiment is from Middlesex County, Massachusetts, the Co. which contains Concord and Lexington and Bunker Hill, the early Battlefields of our first revolutionary era.  Its soldiers like their fathers believe in praying as well as fighting, nor deem the one inconsistent with the other, providing the cause be as holy as is ours today (Indeed we identify the struggle of this eventual hour with that inaugurated April 19th 1775 and call it, not a curious coincidence but a special Providence. That is was Massachusetts blood, of men from the same Middlesex County, which flowed as the first blood, on the anniversary of the same day, in Baltimore 18th April 1861….   

“We have just had our Forefathers Day, December 22d, a dedication of a chapel tent given by the citizens of Massachusetts for the religious services of the regiment, a fit method of keeping the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth rock.  In that dedication nearly every Protestant sect and the Roman Catholic priest took part, a significant and beautiful fact.  While writing this last sentence an official order from our Colonel has been put into my hand notifying me that tomorrow, being Christmas, all unnecessary military duty will be suspended and the regiment will observe the day religiously, attending divine service in the morning….

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Cameron

Christopher Cameron is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. This interview is based on his forthcoming book To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent State University Press, June 2014)
JF: What led you to write To Plead Our Own Cause?
CC: I began working on this book as a junior in college, when I wrote a short research paper on religion in the British and American abolitionist movements, using the narrative of Olaudah Equiano as my primary text. Equiano, a former slave in the West Indies who bought his own freedom and became a prominent abolitionist speaker, fascinated me to no end so I decided to continue researching black abolitionists in graduate school.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of To Plead Our Own Cause?
CC: I argue that Puritan law and theology profoundly shaped both the course of abolitionism in Massachusetts, providing African Americans with the opportunity and the ideas to build an antislavery movement during the late-colonial and revolutionary periods. Through petitioning, publishing essays, letters, and poetry, as well as forming the first antislavery society, blacks in Massachusetts helped to initiate the organized antislavery movement in America.
JF: Why do we need to read To Plead Our Own Cause?
CC: This book is one of the few to explore the early antislavery movement as well as eighteenth century African American intellectual history. In addition, the book helps us better understand the roots of radical abolitionism. It is written in a very accessible style, making it useful for both scholars and students.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?  
CC: I decided to become an American historian after participating in the McNair Undergraduate Opportunity Program. This program introduces first-generation and minority college students to research and life in academia. When I realized that being a historian meant I could spend most of my time reading, writing, and talking about subjects I found interesting, I was hooked.
JF: What is your next project?
CC: My new project is entitled “Liberal Religion and Slavery in America, 1775-1880.” Here I explore the role that liberal theology and liberal religious figures such as William Ellery Channing, Adin Ballou, and James Freeman Clarke played in debates over slavery.

Thanks, Chris!

Women at Work in Massachusetts

Marla Miller of the University of Massachusetts has storified the tweets from the recent Massachusetts History Conference at Holy Cross College.  This year the theme was: “Never Done: Interpreting the History of Women at Work in Massachusetts” with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich as the keynote speaker.  In addition to presentations on women’s history, there were also sessions on archival resources, oral history, Wikipedia and activism.

My favorite tweet from the conference comes from Veronica Golden: “I’m convinced that Laurel Ulrich’s historical thinking is magical.”

Here are a few more:

Rachel Guadagni: “You need to know your past if you’re going to change your future.  Particularly if you’re going to change it for the better!”

Lauren: “87% of Wikipedia editors are men; only 13% are women”

Sarah Franke: “Women are more than 50% of history workforce.”

Brece Honeycutt: “Without humanities nothing can survive” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich”

Looks like it was a great conference.