Rebecca Onion Interviews Sam Wineburg on Teaching History

WineburgI love this interview at Slate.  It is not only a subject–historical thinking in schools–that I interests me, but both participants in the interview are former guests on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Sam Wineburg was a guest on Episode 3.  Rebecca Onion was our guest on Episode 12.  (We hope to have Wineburg back this season–stay tuned).

Onion talks to Wineburg about his new book, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).  Here is a taste:

I loved the note you made about the difference between “sounding critical” and thinking critically. President Trump recently said that Google is biased against conservatives. There have been a number of instances of this, where Trump or someone Trump-ish will say something that sounds critical or wise but isn’t. It’s hard because it almost feels like there is an appropriation of the language of critical thinking on the right that makes it hard to explain what the difference might be between that and what we are talking about.

It’s not “almost an appropriation,” it is an appropriation. And in this respect, the work that has influenced me the most is the work by Kate Starbird, an absolutely brilliant internet researcher who studies crisis communication at the University of Washington’s College of Engineering.* And she has a paper that shows that the alt-right has, right there with Alex Jones, has appropriated the language of “Do you have an open mind? Are you an independent thinker? Are you willing to trust your own intelligence to make up your own mind when you review the evidence?”

And so absolutely, this is the language that has been appropriated by the alt-right in particular, these neo-Nazi sites and conspiracy sites that basically say, “The wool is being pulled over your eyes! But you have the power to [pose] thoughtful questions through your own powers of discernment if you have an open mind.” This is the stock-in-trade of propagandists—you can go back and see the same kind of thing in work by Lenin and Goebbels: “You should trust yourself. We’re not going to tell you what to believe, you evaluate the evidence—here is the evidence.”

Read the entire interview here.

Sam Wineburg’s Scathing Critique of the Teaching American History Grants

WineburgIn Episode 3 (February 2016) of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, Stanford education professor Sam Wineburg told us that the Teaching American History grant program was “conceived in sin.”  Listen here.

At the time, Wineburg was working on his book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).  The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast listeners got an early test of the book, released yesterday by the University of Chicago Press.  My producer tells me that Wineburg will back on the podcast to talk about it in the Fall.

Wineburg is promoting the book in a piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Obituary for a Billion-Dollar Boondoggle.”  It continues Wineburg’s scathing critique of this federal grant program.  Here is a taste:

Catholics enumerate seven cardinal sins, including TAH’s greatest: the sin of gluttony. The program consumed much and left little. While stacks of reports were sent to Washington that boasted of stupendous successes (thus committing another mortal sin: pride), almost all failed the sniff test when examined by independent evaluators.

If timidity were a mortal sin, the Department of Education would certainly have to serve penance. Rather than earmarking funds to develop assessments that could be used for cross-project comparisons, the department treated each project on its own, wasting untold resources in fruitless attempts to reinvent the wheel. Worse still, department officials ignored advice given to them back in 2002 at a meeting that included the executive directors of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for the Social Studies. This gathering (and another, held two months later) called on the Department of Education to abandon bubble tests in favor of assessments that examine “student understanding of historical thinking and important, in-depth, contextualized subject matter rather than discrete historical ‘facts.’” While leaders of individual projects may have heeded this advice, it never influenced the program as a whole. When evaluators in 2011 submitted their recommendations at the end of their report, the department was, yet again, urged to create tools that “could contribute both to stronger local evaluations and to potential comparisons between projects.” This suggestion came too late for TAH.

By 2015, with TAH a distant memory, Stacia Kuceyeski, a historian with the Ohio History Connection, a statewide organization, wistfully recalled a time when her organization partnered in 22 TAH grants, and money flowed like water over Brandywine Falls. “Many of us at history museums and departments of history,” she blogged, “were like Scrooge McDuck, sliding around giant piles of sweet [federal] money that was especially designated for American history. How Amazing!” But with the party over, she and fellow historians were left with a “massive hangover, the likes of which can’t be helped with three Advil and a bunch of Gatorade.”

The history profession sure got plastered on TAH dollars. The billion-dollar bash lasted for a decade. But with sobriety comes a reckoning — in the words of the Twelve Steps, “a searching and fearless moral inventory.” We’re still waiting.

Read the entire piece here.

Full disclosure:  I defended the TAH grants here.

 

Michael Kazin Reviews Jill Lepore’s New History of the United States

These TruthsI love seeing two prolific historians engage one another.  Over at The New Republic, Michael Kazin (Georgetown) reviews Jill Lepore’s (Harvard) new book These Truths: A History of the United States.

Here is a taste:

Lepore…in her new book, These Truths, declines the temptation either to condemn the national project or to celebrate it. For her, the United States has always been a nation wrestling with a paradox, caught between its sunny ideals and its darker realities. “Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other,” she writes, “lies an uneasy path.” The American Revolution was far more than a mere change of power from one group of well-to-do white men to another. “The United States,” writes Lepore, “rests on a dedication to equality.” Yet throughout her deftly crafted survey, she also makes clear how often citizens and their leaders failed to implement this ideal or actively betrayed it. She borrows her title from the Declaration of Independence, to signal both the standard of reason and equality that Americans profess and how their deeds have fallen short of it.

Read the entire review here.

Did Missionaries Contribute to the Growth of Secularism?

Protestants AbroadOver at The Christian Century, Robert Westbrook of the University of Rochester reviews David Hollinger‘s latest book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America.

Here is a taste:

Protestants Abroad fits snugly within Hollinger’s long-standing narrative of the price that ecumenical Protestants paid as a religious community for their thinning of the particularism of Christianity. Clearly missionaries were prominent among the church leaders who got out ahead of the rank and file on controversial social and political matters and lost the loyalty of many of them. And the weight of Hollinger’s extensive biographical evidence is that they also pioneered the art of raising post-Protestant children who may well have admired their moral strength and shared their humanitarian values but found little need for their religious beliefs.

Hollinger himself remains impatient with those who persisted in “God-talk” long after he thinks it lost its plausibility, favoring post-Protestant “mish kids” over their still devout parents in this regard. But arguably, on his own evidence, there is something to be said, even if one does not speak it oneself, for God-talk or even Christ-talk. It may very well be that the tension between the universal and the particular was crushing for missionary theory, but was it so for missionary practice? There is little evidence in Hollinger’s book that this was the case.

Many of the numerous life stories in Hollinger’s books are tales of courage, courage that was for many of those who mustered it sustained by Christian belief, however thin it may have been. Civil rights activist and former missionary Ruth Harris was described by one of the students she inspired as “acting up for Christ”—not for humanity but for Christ. And the same might be said of many of those who gave us a more cosmopolitan republic. Could they have found the strength to act up elsewhere, outside the confines of Christian belief? Maybe, but in their Christianity was where they found it.

Thin God-talk is not necessarily weak God-talk; it can be wiry God-talk. God-talk lean, supple, and articulated alongside humility and doubt. Might one not cop to the considerable uncertainty that remains in even such wiry God-talk and despite doing so be moved by religious faith to do far more good than one might otherwise have done? The more cosmopolitan American republic that liberal Protestant missionaries did so much to create is of late under siege. If we are to protect it, perhaps a few courageous, die-hard ecumenical Christian survivalists will come in handy.

Read the entire review here.

“Crazytown”

Trump Woodward

Don’t mess with Bob Woodward, one of my childhood heroes.

Over at The Atlantic, Olivia Paschal has published some choice quotes from Woodward’s new book Fear: Trump in the White House.  Here is a taste:

Defense Secretary James Mattis

Following a contentious National Security Council meeting, Mattis told people close to him that the president had the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.”

Chief of Staff John Kelly

“He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”

Former Top Economic Adviser Gary Cohn

“A professional liar.”

Read more here.  I am eager to see if there is anything in the book about the court evangelicals.

The Author’s Corner with Joan Cashin

CashinJoan Cashin is Professor of History at The Ohio State University.  This interview is based on her new book War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write War Stuff?

JC: I wrote War Stuff because I kept coming across references in the archives to the intense struggle over resources between armies and white civilians, regardless of their politics. 

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

JC: A terrific struggle broke out between armies and white civilians over food, timber, and housing, as well as the skills and knowledge that civilians had to offer.  In this struggle, the civilian population lost.

JF: Why do we need to read War Stuff?

JC: This is the first full environmental history of the War, discussing both armies. 

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

JC: I fell in love with the subject matter of American history years ago when I was an undergraduate at American University.  To quote a sage, history is an adventure story that happens to be true. 

JF: What is your next project?

JC: My next project is a material culture history of the Shelby family of Kentucky and Virginia, covering the Revolution through the Civil War.   

JF: Thanks, Joan!  

New Book: *Interpreting Religion at Museums and Historic Sites*

InterpretingIf you are interested in the relationship between American religious history, museums, historical sites, and public history, I highly recommend that you get a copy (or ask your library to order a copy) of Gretchen Buggeln’s and Barbara Franco’s new book Interpreting Religion and Museums and Historic Sites.

The book includes essays on interpreting religion at religious sites, historic sties, and museums.  These sites include Arch Street Meeting House (Philadelphia), California Missions Trail,  Ephrata Cloister, Joseph Smith Family Farm. U.S. Capitol, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Yorktown, Arab American National Museum, Jewish Museum of Maryland, Minnesota History Center, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Museum of American History, and Winterthur Museum.

Buggeln, the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University,  offers essays on “Scholarly Approaches for Religion in History Museums” and “Religion in Museum Spaces and Places.”  Franco, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the founding director of the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum, offers two essays: “Issues in Historical Interpretation: Why Interpreting Religion is So Difficult” and “Strategies and Techniques for Interpreting Religion.”  Buggeln and Franco team-up for another essay: “Interpreting Religion at Museums and Historic Sites: The Work Ahead.”

This is a wonderful collection and I was honored that Buggeln and Franco asked me to write a blurb:

I have been waiting for a book like this for a long time. Gretchen Buggeln and Barbara Franco have gathered an impressive collection of essays by museum professionals and public historians who have thought deeply about the place of religion in some of our most important cultural institutions. This is a landmark volume. (John Fea, Chair and Professor of History, Messiah College, author of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).

This book should be in the library of every public historian, museum and historical site educator, and American religious historian.

The Author’s Corner With Melani McAlister

McAlisterMelani McAlister is Professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University.  This interview is based on her new book The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Kingdom of God Has No Borders?

MM:  I was raised a Southern Baptist in North Carolina, and so the assumption many people make is that I wrote about evangelicals to understand my own past. But, in all honesty, I had no interest in writing about that, and I still don’t experience this book as being about my own history in any significant way – other than the fact that I get some of the jokes evangelicals make about Bible drills or summer camp.

Instead, I got interested in writing this book because I wanted to show the complexity of a history that I thought had been told as too entirely domestic, and too relentlessly white. I also realized that the international politics among evangelicals was more complex and interesting than I had acknowledged in my first book. That book, Epic Encounters, was a study of American images of the Middle East, focusing on popular culture and media. One chapter was on US views of Israel, and it included a discussion of the “prophecy talk” of white evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s, which was something I did know about from personal experience. When Epic Encounters came out in 2001, white evangelicals were in the news – with Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell both making aggressive comments about Islam in the wake of 9/11. So, at that point, I thought I would write a quick book about prophecy and politics among evangelicals after the Cold War. When I started that research, however, I realized that many more interesting things were going on in terms of evangelical engagement with international affairs – so much so that the discussion of prophecy became very minor—it was ultimately relegated to just a few pages inThe Kingdom of God.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Kingdom of God Has No Borders?

MM: The fundamental premise of the book is that, when international issues are taken into account, the history of modern evangelicalism looks different from the dominant stories we have about it. This book aims to both expand and challenge key components of the domestic story by showing how some theologically conservative Protestants in the United States came to understand themselves to be part of a truly global community, and to trace the impact of those transnational ties on thinking about race, gender, and the role of the US in the world.

JF: Why do we need to read The Kingdom of God Has No Borders?

MMIn the book, I tell a complex history of US evangelicals as part of a global community. Starting with controversies over racism and missionary work in the aftermath of WWII—including the role of missionaries in the Congo crisis of the early 1960s—and closing with debates over homosexual rights in Uganda in the 2000s, I show that evangelicals in the last seventy years were consistently engaged in politics, both domestic and international. I also highlight the fact that evangelicals have consistently disagreed about what their faith required of them politically and morally.

The focus of the book is on white and black theologically conservative Protestants in the US, but the story includes the Latin American leaders of the “social concern” faction at the Lausanne Congress in 1974, South African evangelical anti-apartheid activists (black and white), Arab Christians who challenge US policy in Iraq, and the theologically conservative Protestants in Uganda who supported the anti-homosexuality law in the 2000s. Global South evangelicals did not have one political view, and this is not a celebration of either their liberal views or their conservative impact. Instead, the book is an argument that American evangelicals were changed by their transnational encounters, becoming more liberal on race, sometimes more conservative on gender, and often more aware of themselves as just one part of a larger international network of believers. As Americans, they had wealth and power, but the story of the last few decades is a story of the rise of global South evangelicals into positions of cultural and moral authority.

So: read the book to learn a more complex story about evangelical history, to understand more about the debates that have shaped the community, and to see how one important subset of Americans came to understand their own role, and their country’s role, on the international stage.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Of if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

MMI was always interested in US foreign policy. Back in the 1980s, I majored in international studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I was involved in an array of causes, including anti-apartheid work. Before I went to graduate school, I worked for several years as a staffer for a peace group in Boston. It was in the role of activist that I actually became interested in culture. After trying to go out and convince people of our views on policy issues, I came to see that none of us come to our political opinions with pure rationality–on foreign policy or much of anything else. Our values matter, and our values are often shaped by forces we aren’t fully aware of or don’t recognize, including popular culture. So I went to graduate school in American Studies at Brown, and I studied the role of culture—including religious cultures—in shaping our views of the larger world.

JF: What is your next project?

MMI am beginning work on a study of the popular culture of humanitarianism, focusing on the “long 1970s” (the late 1960s to the early 1980s). Tentatively titled “We Were the World,” the book will begin with the global response to the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-1970—where images of starving babies with distended bellies became the icon of a kind of activist humanitarian agenda on behalf of the Biafrans. It will end with the early 1980s concerts for Ethiopia. The basic argument of the book is that humanitarianism, like so many things, is a double-edged sword. Sometimes Americans became involved in humanitarian causes in problematic ways that were condescending and racialized; and yet sometimes they connected with those who were suffering in ways that reached toward genuine solidarity. Culture played a role in shaping our understandings, and thus our politics.

JF: Thanks, Melani!

The Author’s Corner with Cameron Strang

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

JF: What led you to write Frontiers of Science?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Cameron!

Author’s Corner with Elisabeth Ceppi

CeppiElisabeth Ceppi is Associate Professor of English at Portland State University.  This interview is based on her new book Invisible Masters: Gender, Race, and the Economy of Service in Early New England (Dartmouth University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Invisible Masters?

EC: The project began as an essay I wrote in my first year of graduate school (so long ago: 1992-3!) about the 1672 case of the demonic possession of Elizabeth Knapp, a sixteen-year old residing as a servant in her minister’s household. Over the years I revised that essay multiple times; it eventually became my MA thesis, a chapter of my dissertation, and a journal article. But even so, I knew I had only begun to figure out what Knapp had to teach about the meaning of service in early New England. After finishing a term as English department chair in 2009, I began new research on the theology of service in sermons by the leading ministers of the first generation of Puritan migration, which led me to reconceive the project and convinced me that it needed to be a book, not a series of essays.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Invisible Masters?

EC: Perhaps because it is such a commonplace of Christian labor, the metaphor of Puritans as “servants of the Lord” has generated almost no scholarly attention; the book argues that it was the foundation of a complex discourse of obedience and authority that powerfully shaped the lived experience of covenant theology in New England households, churches, public governance, and economic relations. As they developed a moral language for a racializing culture of service, Puritans transformed the traditional lived metaphors of faithful service and its opposite, hypocrisy, into an ethic of mastery.

JF: Why do we need to read Invisible Masters?

ECAs I suggest above, it is the only study that historicizes and interprets service—and the figure of God as Master—as an essential concept in Puritan theology and social life. In doing so, it revises familiar accounts of early New England’s relationship to modernity, including the emergence of the “Protestant work ethic” and of the affectionate family model from the patriarchal “little commonwealth.” It contributes to the growing body of scholarship on racial slavery in early New England by emphasizing its embeddedness in religious culture, and by showing how “the public” emerged as a space of white mastery over racial others. It offers new readings of canonical works of early American literature, including Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and the works of Mohegan minister Samson Occom. Finally, I also hope the example of the Puritans invites us to question how and why we privilege mastery over service as values in our contemporary culture and provides some insight into how ideals of public service and self-mastery came to be bound to distinctions of gender, race, and class.

JF: When and why did you get interested in the study of the past?

ECI teach and study literature, but my decision to specialize in early American literature was a swerve. I went to grad school with the intention of studying modernism, but in my second term I took a class to fill a pre-1800 requirement, “Typologies of Gender in Puritan America,” taught by Janice Knight (this is where I first encountered Elizabeth Knapp). The class was a fascinating introduction to a world of ideas and language and genres that seemed alien and strange and not at all like my idea of literature, and yet at the same time felt so vital in its power to pose urgent questions to the present. I loved the challenge of using my skills at interpreting language and literary form to think historically, to try to understand what these texts meant to those who wrote them and those they wrote about, and also to explain why they still matter today.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I have started working on an essay about Theodore Winthrop’s 1863 novel, The Canoe and the Saddle, a fictionalized account of his travels to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in 1853. The novel became a best-seller after Winthrop died in the Civil War but has been neglected by scholars. His depictions of his indigenous guides and the incursions of English culture on the romantic landscape both conform to and defy expectations in interesting ways, but I was particularly intrigued by a passage in which Winthrop’s narrator satirically refers to a troubled Englishman he encounters as a “drapetomaniac,” a notorious concept from scientific race management (devised by a Mississippi doctor, Samuel Cartwright) that pathologized the enslaved who sought to run away from their masters. The essay will examine what Winthrop’s extension of this term to the Pacific Northwest reveals about the role of travel literature in New England’s culture of management.

JF: Thanks, Liz!

Eager Beavers

GoldfarbOver at Pacific Standard, Kate Wheeling interviews Ben Goldfarb, the author of Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter.  

Here is Wheeling’s introduction to the interview:

Since I first picked up Ben Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, I haven’t been able to stop talking about these semi-aquatic rodents.

If you’ve interacted with me at all in the last several weeks, I might have mentioned that beavers have transparent eyelids so they can see underwater! That they secrete a musky oil that contains the active ingredient in aspirin! That a half-mile-long structure built by beavers is visible from space! That an ancient member of the beaver family the size of a small black bear once roamed much of the modern-day United States! (To find out just how seriously the U.S. considered using beavers as a defensive weapon of sorts during the Cold War, you’ll have to read the book.)

But none of those facts are what converted me into a “Beaver Believer,” as the group of scientists, land-managers, and environmentally minded folks who are working tirelessly to bolster beaver populations around the U.S. are known. It’s not that beavers need our help—the animals are not even remotely endangered, though their numbers are also nowhere near what they were before Europeans arrived in North America—but we certainly need them.

Beavers are not content simply to survive in the environment that nature provides them. Instead, the animals engineer it to ensure access to things like food and shelter, reshaping entire landscapes in the process. Sound familiar? Humans, for better or for worse, may be the most planet-altering species—but beavers did it first. To quote Goldfarb, “We are living in the world that beavers created.”

Before their numbers were devastated by the fur trade, North America looked much different. For one thing, it was a much soggier landscape. Beavers don’t just build lodges and dams, but entire wetlands. Thanks to the beavers’ efforts, streams back up behind their dams, forming ponds, marshes, and swamps, filled with stumps and dead or dying trees and bustling with frogs, fish, and otters, to name just a few of the countless creatures that rely on beavers to make their habitat possible. Beaver ponds help store water, recharge aquifers, filter out pollutants, mitigate floods, and stop wildfires in their tracks.

Read the interview here.

The Author’s Corner With L.H. Roper

RoperL.H. Roper is Professor of History at the State University of New York at New Paltz.  This interview is based on his recently edited book The Torrid Zone: Caribbean Colonization and Cultural Interaction in the Long Seventeenth Century Caribbean (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Torrid Zone?

LHR: In 2012, I began a correspondence with Laurie Wood (now at Florida State) in which we lamented both the perennially secondary position the Caribbean occupies in our understanding of ‘colonial America’ and the particular lack of a comparative treatment of the history of the region’s colonization by Europeans.  We decided to do something about this state of affairs and we began recruiting ‘partners in crime’.  Happily, there are a number of young and talented historians who are working on the Caribbean whom we were able to recruit along with several ‘seasoned veterans’.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Torrid Zone?

LHR: The agendas and behavior of Native people had a significant effect on Caribbean history well into the eighteenth century. The Torrid Zone, particularly by virtue of the global extension of the personalities involved in its colonization and their conceptions of society and politics, constituted a fully representative, but not especially distinctive, manifestation of the sensibilities at work in European overseas colonization.

JF: Why do we need to read The Torrid Zone?

LHR: The contributions are filled with insights on the history of the seventeenth-century Caribbean generally and of places such as Jamaica and Suriname particularly.  Since this region constituted the primary target of European interest in the Western Hemisphere at this time, it is impossible to have helpful understanding of the expansion of European interests, including the colonization of North America, or the cultural interactions that this expansion generated—and the effects of these phenomena—without some knowledge of what went on in the Torrid Zone.  The essays also shed helpful light on the networks of merchants and political figures—operating both in the Caribbean and outside of it—who managed European operations in the region and who extended their social and political influence elsewhere.  Readers will learn a good deal about the Native agendas and responses to European activity in the Torrid Zone as well.

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

LHR: Although I was trained nominally as an American historian, I regard myself primarily as a historian of the expansion of overseas European (particularly English) interests and of the cultural interactions this generated.  While I was in graduate school during the ‘Pleistocene Era’, it dawned on me that the best way to comprehend ‘early American history’ was through a better understanding of the social and political worlds in which overseas traders and colonizers operated, from which colonists (and colonizers) derived their worldviews, and with which colonists (perhaps to a surprising degree) maintained close social, political, and economic associations.  This view has only strengthened over the course of my career.

JF: What is your next project?

LHR: I hope to begin work on two (having just finished two books in the past year).  The first is a further investigation of English involvement in the ‘Guinea trade’ and the other is an examination of the European colonization of the region bounded by the Connecticut and Susquehanna Rivers and Chesapeake Bay between 1636 (the founding of the Connecticut colony) and 1741 (the Treaty of Lancaster).

JF: Thanks, Louis!

Russell Shorto on “Revolution Song”

Shorto bookWriter and historian Russell Shorto‘s new book is Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom.  Here is a description:

In his epic new book, Russell Shorto takes us back to the founding of the American nation, drawing on diaries, letters and autobiographies to flesh out six lives that cast the era in a fresh new light. They include an African man who freed himself and his family from slavery, a rebellious young woman who abandoned her abusive husband to chart her own course and a certain Mr. Washington, who was admired for his social graces but harshly criticized for his often-disastrous military strategy.

Through these lives we understand that the revolution was fought over the meaning of individual freedom, a philosophical idea that became a force for violent change. A powerful narrative and a brilliant defense of American values, Revolution Song makes the compelling case that the American Revolution is still being fought today and that its ideals are worth defending.

Over at the DesMoines Register, Shorto answers a few questions about the book.  Here is a taste of the interview:

You are known for your Dutch histories. How did you come up with the idea for “Revolution Song”?

 

Yes, my intellectual heart is in the Netherlands in the 1600s and what fascinates me about that time is that’s when you have people beginning to look into microscopes and telescopes and see that the world is not necessarily the way it was told to them by the church or by the state.

So they begin to come up with a new formulation of knowledge based on reason, and reason is something that applies to all. We all have this curious thing in our veins, and I was fascinated by how that led people, as this nation spread out, to come up with new demands based on the primacy of the individual. You see leaders in America take this great wave of interest in individual freedom and begin to focus it on their political separation.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Victoria Johnson

AmericanEden+Final+Cover+DesignVictoria Johnson is Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York.  This interview is based on her new book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (Liveright, a division of W.W Norton, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Eden?

VJEight years ago, in the course of research for a journal article on contemporary American botanical gardens, I came across David Hosack (1769-1835) for the first time (in Peter Mickulas’s Britton’s Botanical Empire). I love New York City, and I was floored to learn that Rockefeller Center had once been a botanical garden—the first founded in and for the young United States. I knew immediately that I wanted to write a book about Hosack. He was a polymath and involved in several dozen organizations (quite a few of which he helped found) and he was not famous enough to have had a critical edition of his papers published. Following his trail as I reconstructed his life eventually took me to about thirty archives in the US and Europe.

JFIn 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Eden?

VJ: There is a botanical garden two centuries old buried under one of the most iconic urban spaces in the world. The man who created it, David Hosack, is a forgotten architect of New York’s rise to civic primacy in the nineteenth-century United States, and his life story thrusts us into the post-Revolutionary generation’s battles over what kinds of institutions make cities and nations truly great and stable.

JF: Why do we need to read American Eden?

VJMany, many historians have written eloquently and rigorously on politics and natural history in the early Republic, and I’m deeply indebted to them for their scholarship. Because American Eden is a biography, we get to see through David Hosack’s eyes the very fraught political relationships all around him and to feel the excitement and heartbreak of institution-building and scientific inquiry. In the process, certain figures from the Founding era take on new complexity: not only the shadowy Hosack, long known simply as the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel, but also Hamilton and Burr themselves, both of whom loved botany and horticulture. New York City likewise comes into clearer focus in American Eden. We don’t usually think of nature, agriculture, and natural history when we think of New York in the early Republic, but Hosack botanized right in the city as well as on Manhattan’s beaches and farms and in its meadows and woodlands. Finally, I’d add that while history is a field of intellectual inquiry that matters regardless of any explicit links we make to our present circumstances, I’ve found Hosack’s struggles enlightening as I try to make sense of contemporary American political culture and our divided views on science and nature.

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

VJ:  I’ll answer the “historian” part first and then the “American” part. My PhD is in sociology, with a specialty in organizational sociology, but I was drawn to historical research early. One of my dissertation advisors in Columbia’s sociology department was Charles Tilly, who had a huge influence on my choice of dissertation topic: political relations between the French government and the Paris Opera from Louis XIV to Napoleon. That became Backstage at the Revolution (Chicago, 2008). For my second book, American Eden, I crossed the Atlantic and began studying American history because of my fascination with David Hosack and his enormous, unacknowledged contributions to New York, his young country, and translantic scientific networks.

JF: What is your next project?

VJ: Book tour! I will be sharing Hosack’s story of intense civic engagement and devotion to science with as broad an audience as wants to listen, in both the US and the UK; I have talks lined up running through 2020. In the meantime, I’m slowly starting to think about what comes next (to quote a certain king).

JF:  Thanks, Victoria!

Rob Schenck Tells His Story

SchenkReverend Rob Schenck was a Christian Right leader who parted ways with his fellow cultural warriors after studying the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He tells his story in a new memoir: Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love.  

Here is a taste of his interview with Mother Jones magazine:

MJ: So, when you look at the future, what do you think the result of the evangelical embrace of Trump will be?

RS: I say in the book that the Trump phenomenon may portend the total collapse of American evangelicalism, which for me would be sad, but not the saddest thing. We have an old phrase in evangelical parlance built on some biblical texts: “What the devil means for destruction, God means for good.” So, could God use this terrible thing in the end to bring about a better form of evangelicalism in America? We may reach a toxicity level where the patient must succumb, but we believe in resurrection, so out of death can come life…So, maybe this is the demise of what we now know as American evangelicalism, and largely, the Trump phenomenon is a symptom, rather than a cause. We made this terrible deal with Donald Trump because we were already demoralized. He didn’t demoralize us—he is the evidence of our demoralization.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with Stephen Brumwell

TurncoatStephen Brumwell is a freelance writer and independent historian based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  This interview is based on his new book Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Turncoat?

SB: I wrote Turncoat after becoming fascinated by the central enigma of Benedict Arnold’s remarkable life. Why would an officer famed for his bravery in the American Revolutionary cause, who was clearly obsessed with his reputation as a man of honor, behave in a way that would be widely interpreted as utterly dishonourable? I was sceptical about the usual explanations – greed, or resentment at his shabby treatment by Congress – and wanted to re-examine all the available evidence to see if I could find a more convincing explanation for his behaviour.

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

SB: By reassessing Arnold’s military career, Turncoat seeks to explain how he gradually came to believe that his country’s interests would be best served by ending the damaging civil war between Britain and her American colonies. Faced with a dysfunctional, ineffective Congress that seemed uncaring about the men who were actually fighting for American liberty, and hounded by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, Arnold concluded that the cause in which he’d made his illustrious name had lost its way, and that he could better devote his talents to restoring Crown rule, and peace to the fractured British Empire.

JF: Why do we need to read Turncoat?

SB: With its dramatic twists and turns, the treason of Benedict Arnold is deservedly one of the best known stories of the American Revolutionary War. By uncovering archival sources not previously used by scholars, Turncoat offers a fresh and challenging interpretation of a tale that still resonates today. For example, this new evidence not only supports the contention that Arnold’s primary motivation in changing sides was ideological, but also removes any lingering doubt that his wife, Peggy Shippen, was actively involved in his treasonable correspondence with the British.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian (or how did you get an interest in the study of the past)?

SB: Growing up in an area of southern England full of castles, which I explored at weekends with my parents and brothers, I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. When I finally went to university, and was given an opportunity to undertake postgraduate research, I decided to focus on the French and Indian War (a conflict in which I’d long been interested), seeking to contest existing stereotypes of the British redcoats who fought it.

JF: What is your next project?

I’m still finalising my next book project, although I have several ideas, involving both non-fiction and fiction. In either case, I’m keen to draw upon my interest in the past, although it’s possible that I’ll stray outside my specialist field of British-American military affairs in the second half of the eighteenth century, and tackle something different. Whatever the subject and approach, my objective will be to present a compelling narrative with an authentic backdrop.

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Clark

ClarkJonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. This interview is based on his new book, Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Thomas Paine?

JC: Chance, the most important agent in human affairs. I was invited to write a brief essay to accompany the recent Yale UP edition of Paine’s selected works. I thought this would be easy, since I had read, and taught, Paine for many years. But as a preparation, I decided to read through Paine’s entire printed output. As I read, I reluctantly concluded that I had not understood Paine at all … and that nobody else had. I finished the essay, but I wrote a book as well.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Thomas Paine?

JC: Paine is one of those famous figures who have been heavily mythologized, turned into ‘usable’ versions of themselves to answer the needs of later movements. The book argues that the ‘historic’ Paine was, to use a metaphor, more the inheritor of an old house than the architect of a new one; a man of his age, not the inspired prophet of a future modernity; and that this argument, if justified, calls in question the construction of ‘modernity’ itself.

JF: Why do we need to read Thomas Paine?

JC: Reinterpreting Paine allows us better to understand a wide variety of causes and issues of which recent historiography treats him as a privileged interpreter, including the American and French Revolutions, the nature of the societies they launched, reforming and revolutionary movements, and the current hegemony of natural rights discourse.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Of if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

JC: I am not an American historian; I am an historian of Anglo-America, a shared transatlantic culture in the eighteenth century. I contend that there was little, and perhaps nothing, that was specifically American about the causes of the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: A history of the Enlightenment. It will show how this famous movement was devised as a series of genealogies, projected back onto the past to provide justification for a series of twentieth-century crusades.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan.

Thomas Frank on the Other Populism

MounckWhat is populism?  Cultural critic Thomas Frank does not think Yascha Mounk, the author of The People vs. Democracy, really understands the roots of populism in American life.  Here is a taste of his review at The Guardian:

 

As for populism, historians typically trace the populist rhetorical tradition in America back to the time of Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. A radical leftwing political party that called itself “Populist” swept much of the country in the 1890s, and protest movements described as populist have come and gone. Populism’s evil rightwing doppelganger is usually dated to 1968, when George Wallace and Richard Nixon figured out how to turn the language of working-class majoritarianism against liberalism. Rightwing populists have been building movements and winning elections in the US ever since.

Mounk barely acknowledges any of this. Instead, he asserts a frightening new vision of populism without discussing the old one. “There can no longer be any doubt that we are going through a populist moment,” he writes at one point. “The question now is whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age – and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt.”

Sounds bad, all right. Demonic, even. But the phrase “populist moment” rang a bell. I went to my bookshelf and pulled down my copy of – yes – The Populist Moment by the historian Lawrence Goodwyn, a celebrated study of Populism published in 1978. Here is how it starts: “This book is about the flowering of the largest democratic mass movement in American history. It is also necessarily a book about democracy itself.” What Goodwyn meant was that Populism in its 1890s permutation represented a vision of democratic participation that was actually more advanced than what we settle for today. Far from being a threat to democracy, Populism was democracy’s zenith.

To produce a whole book on populism while ignoring this completely opposite interpretation strikes me as a serious oversight. Yes, I think we need to understand why liberal democracy is crumbling around the world. But to describe this process with the unmodified “populism” is a mistake. It is, after all, an American word. And the history of American populism contradicts item after item in Mounk’s devil theory. Populism is simply not what he thinks it is.

Read the entire review here.

“As the boomers have aged, denial of death…has moved to the center of American culture”

EhrenCheck out Yale historian Gabriel Winant‘s review of Barbara Ehrenreich‘s new book: Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Our Illusion of Self Control.  Here is a taste:

Ehrenreich contemplates with some satisfaction not just the approach of her own death but also the passing of her generation. As the boomers have aged, denial of death, she argues, has moved to the center of American culture, and a vast industrial ecosystem has bloomed to capitalize on it. Across twelve chapters, Ehrenreich surveys the health care system, the culture of old age, the world of “mindfulness,” and the interior workings of the body itself, and finds a fixation on controlling the body, encouraged by cynical and self-interested professionals in the name of “wellness.” Without opposing reasonable, routine maintenance, Ehrenreich observes that the care of the self has become a coercive and exploitative obligation: a string of endless medical tests, drugs, wellness practices, and exercise fads that threaten to become the point of life rather than its sustenance. Someone, obviously, is profiting from all this.

While innumerable think pieces have impugned millennials’ culture of “self-care”—and argued that the generation born in the 1980s and ’90s is fragileconsumerist, and distracted—Ehrenreich redirects such criticisms toward an older crowd. Her book sets out to refute the idea that it’s possible to control the course and shape of one’s own biological or emotional life, and dissects the desire to do so. “Agency is not concentrated in humans or their gods or favorite animals,” she writes. “It is dispersed throughout the universe, right down to the smallest imaginable scale.” We are not, that is, in charge of ourselves.

Read the entire review at The New Republic.

Rethinking America with John Murrin

Murrin

Princeton historian John Murrin never wrote a monograph.  But his essays packed a punch.

Princeton Alumni Weekly is recognizing a new book of Murrin’s classic essays titled Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic

I can think of few early American historians who have had more of an influence on the way I think about the colonial and revolutionary America.  I will always be grateful for his endorsement of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

At one point or another, I have taught, or built lectures around, the following Murrin essays:

“The Great Inversion, or Court versus Country”

“No Awakening, No Revolution?: More Counterfactual Speculations”

“A Roof Without Walls: The Dilemma of American National Identity”

“1776: The Countefactual Revolution”

They are all in this book.

Here is a taste of the Princeton Alumni Week piece:

Opening lines: “Americans have always shared one conviction about their Revolution: It was a good thing for the United States and the entire world. The revolutionary generation believed that its principles would benevolently affect social conditions, agriculture, political economy, the fine arts, and even basic demographic trends. Only now are many of these themes being recovered… The early chroniclers of the Revolution began to lose some of the movement’s context even while quoting directly from its fundamental documents. They explained and defended the Revolution in terms essentially constitutional and political, as the triumph of liberty, equality, and limited government against the menace of irresponsible power and aristocratic privilege—rather feeble dangers, they somewhat paradoxically implied, if only by giving these challenges little real chance of success in America’s unique, libertarian environment, which they found at work in the very first settlements.”