Review of Gideon Mailer’s *John Witherspoon’s American Revolution*

MailerMy review of this important book is in the Summer 2017 issue of New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Here is a taste:

Prior to John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, the received wisdom from historians of Witherspoon’s thought was that the Presbyterian divine was the perfect representation of how evangelical Protestantism had either merged with, or was co opted by, the enlightened moral thinking emanating from the great Scottish universities. Historians Ned Landsman and Mark Noll argued that Witherspoon’s ethical sensibilities drew heavily from moralist Francis Hutcheson and the moderate wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Landsman coined the phrase “The Witherspoon Problem” to describe how Witherspoon strongly opposed Hutcheson’s human-centered system of morality prior to arriving in the colonies in 1768, but then seemed to incorporate these same ideas in the moral philosophy lectures he delivered to his students at Nassau Hall. Noll forged his understanding of Witherspoon amidst the intramural squabbles in late twentieth-century evangelicalism over whether or not the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Since Witherspoon was a minister with deep evangelical convictions, many modern evangelicals claimed him as one of their own and used his life and career to buttress the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right. In a series of scholarly books, Noll challenged his fellow evangelicals to understand Witherspoon less as an evangelical in the mold of First Great Awakening revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, and more as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment who drew heavily from secular ideas to sustain his understanding of virtue.

Mailer’s revisionist work challenges much of what we have learned from Landsman and Noll. 

Read the entire review here.

The Author’s Corner With Tom Cutterham

CutterhamTom Cutterham is a lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. This interview is based on his new book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic  (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: When I started out as a graduate student in 2010 I wanted to write a book that showed just how very wrong Sarah Palin and the Tea Party were about the founders’ conception of the state. Then I realised Max Edling had already written that book. But while I’d been reading through what Congressmen and pamphleteers were writing in the 1780s I became more and more interested not just in their explicitly political ideas, but in the ways they expressed anxieties about status and stability. The founding really was a revolution in favour of government, but what they wanted government to do, and what they wanted government to protect, were really not the things that I’d expected — so that’s what I wrote my thesis on, and that’s what became the book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: It argues that a hodge-podge of revolutionary elites formed themselves into something resembling a national ruling class over the course of the 1780s, largely as a result of their collective need to respond to what they saw as dangerously levelling and “licentious” democratic movements. On a slightly more meta level, it also tries to show how important political and moral concepts like “justice” itself are shaped by forms of (and struggles for) institutional and discursive power — so you can’t really understand ideas without social relations, or vice versa.

JF: Why do we need to read Gentlemen Revolutionaries?

TC: So, so often I see accounts of the American Revolution skip merrily from Yorktown to Philadelphia, 1781 to 1787, with narry a glance at the years in between. Hamilton the musical does it in a few verses of one song. I hope people will read Gentlemen Revolutionaries and at the very least, get a sense of just how crucial the 1780s were. I also hope it will change the way they think about the process of revolution and the founding, both as a social and cultural epoch and as a series of political events. For one thing, Gentlemen Revolutionaries aims to force people to stop taking debates about the Constitution as the be-all and end-all of political struggle in that period. Of course, you also need to read the book for Noah Webster being a whiny brat, Joel Barlow helping to write a surreal anti-democratic poem, and a mini-revolution in Rhode Island that pretty much no-one ever talks about.

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

TC: I wanted to be a historian before I wanted to be an American historian. The latter part came towards the end of my undergraduate degree when I was studying the “Age of Jefferson” with Peter Thompson, who became my graduate advisor. Apart from my lamentable inability to learn ancient Greek, which meant I couldn’t be the historian of Alexander’s conquests that I kind of had my eye on being, I think the political context of both the War on Terror, and the global financial crisis (which peaked right in the middle of my undergraduate course) had the effect of always keeping my eyes on the United States as basically the epicentre of world events. That’s how it seemed to me at the time, so trying to understand the United States and its global impact was what I wanted to do as a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

TC: I’m writing a book about the age of bourgeois revolutions in the Atlantic world, which also happens to centre on the remarkable, transatlantic lives of Angelica Schuyler and her husband John Church. Since I began the research in the summer of 2014, Angelica has achieved a much bigger profile! But her life is so much more than her relationship with Alexander Hamilton: it took her to a Paris on the threshold of its own revolution, into the circles of radical reformist politics in London, and back to New York in time to see the age of Federalist dominance come crashing down. In Gentlemen Revolutionaries, I tried to give a sense of character and spirit in the people I wrote about, but this new project is an opportunity to do that in a much more sustained way. It’s about using individual lives to uncover massive structures and processes. Ultimately, the historical is always personal.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

Is There Time for Candida Moss and Joel Baden to Add a Postscript to Their New Book on Hobby Lobby?

Hobby LobbyBible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby is scheduled for release in the early fall. (I will be part of a panel on the book in November at the annual meeting of American Academy of Religion in Boston).  I’ll bet Moss and Baden want to add a postscript after recent news that Hobby Lobby, the family-owned company behind the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., will pay $3 million as part of a settlement after they illegally purchased ancient artifacts stolen from Iraq.

This does not bode well for the reputation of the Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in November.  I hope the Green family, the evangelical Christians behind the museum, have some good public relations people.  They are going to need them in the next few months.

Here is Emma Green at The Atlantic:

Hobby Lobby purchased thousands of ancient artifacts smuggled out of modern-day Iraq via the United Arab Emirates and Israel in 2010 and 2011, attorneys for the Eastern District of New York announced on Wednesday. As part of a settlement, the American craft-supply mega-chain will pay $3 million and the U.S. government will seize the illicit artifacts. Technically, the defendants in the civil-forfeiture action are the objects themselves, yielding an incredible case name: The United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty (450) Ancient Cuneiform Tablets; and Approximately Three Thousand (3,000) Ancient-Clay Bullae.

Under any circumstances, this case would be wild: It involves thousands of ancient artifacts that seem to have been stolen from Iraq, where the pillaging of antiquities has been rampant. The longstanding trade in antiquities of dubious provenance has become an especially sensitive topic in recent years, and a target of increased law-enforcement scrutiny: ISIS has made some untold millions—or billions—by selling ancient goods. While nothing in the case indicates that these objects were associated with any terrorist group, the very nature of smuggled goods means their provenance is muddy.

But the case really matters because of who’s involved. The members of the Green family, which owns the Hobby Lobby chain, are committed evangelical Christians who are probably most famous for their participation in a 2014 Supreme Court case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which helped dismantle certain birth-control-coverage requirements of the Affordable Care Act. The Greens are big collectors of ancient antiquities; they’re also the primary visionaries and contributors behind the Museum of the Bible opening in Washington, D.C., this fall. Steve Green is the chairman of the board. The family’s famous name, now tied to a story of dealer intrigue and black markets, is likely to bring even further scrutiny and attention as they prepare to open their museum.

Read the rest here.

Author’s Corner with Joseph Locke

joseph lockeJoseph Locke is Associate Professor of American History at the University of Houston-Victoria. This interview is based on his new book, Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion (Oxford University Press, 2017). 

JF: What led you to write Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: While reading up on economic radicalism in Progressive Era Texas—I’d become enamored with Lawrence Goodwyn’s old book on the Texas Populists as an undergrad and had wanted to follow up on that story—I was struck by the utter dominance of prohibition as a political issue. For well over a decade, it seemed as if Texans and many others across the South could talk about little more than alcohol and drunkenness and saloons. My interest was already piqued—I grew up around teetotaling Baptists—but the more I read the more I realized something bigger was at stake. Prohibition wasn’t just about liquor; I was seeing a revolution in the way that white southern evangelicals conceived of their faith. And I was also, simultaneously, witnessing the death of an older tradition, a veritable culture of anticlericalism that I hadn’t expected to find in the South. Nothing I had read in the historiography of southern religion, for instance, prepared me for the over-the-top, anticlerical rhetoric of so many prominent anti-prohibitionists. And so I went to work trying to make sense of it all. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: That we’ve taken the marriage of religion and public life in the South for granted. The politicization of southern religion was a historical process—religious activists built up new institutional and cultural resources, redefined the bounds of their faith, waged war against a culture of anticlericalism, and churned notions of history, race, gender, and religion into a political movement that created much of the Bible Belt we know today. 

JF: Why do we need to read Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: The “Bible Belt” was not the inevitable consequence of white evangelicals’ numerical strength in the South. Instead, religious activists waged a purposeful, conspicuous, and controversial decades-long campaign to redefine their faith and inject themselves into public life. However much white religious leaders exerted themselves to defend slavery, secession, the Confederacy, and “Redemption,” tangible cultural and institutional limits still constricted the scope of religious thought and practice in the South at the turn of the twentieth century. Understanding the shattering of those limits complicates the narrative of southern religious history, offers insights into the historical relationship between religion and politics, and puts today’s melding of region and religion into historical context. 

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

JL: I grew up enamored with history and, as an undergrad, I took the advice to “major in what you love” without really knowing where it would lead. Luckily, inertia took care of the rest. 

JF: What is your next project?

JL: I’m juggling a few things: I’m wrapping up a long-gestating, comprehensive history of religion in Texas; I’m working to get The American Yawp, a massively collaborative, open-source American History textbook, ready for its forthcoming (spring 2018) publication with a major university press; and, in the meantime, I’m spending the remainder of the summer in Chicago researching the follow-up to a forthcoming article that explores Americans’ moral imaginings of Mexican immigrants and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands at the turn of the twentieth century. 

JF: Thanks, Joseph!

                                     

Author’s Corner with Mark Goldberg

MarkGoldenberg

Mark Goldberg is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston. This interview is based on his new book, Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands (University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Conquering Sickness?

MG: In graduate school, I became interested in how people in multiracial spaces negotiated power. I am also from Texas, and a particular exclusive set of stories about the 18th and 19th century tend to dominate here, flatting the texture and nuance of Texas history and silencing many narratives.  During research for my master’s thesis, which analyzed Caddo Indian trade in east Texas, I came across many interesting discussions about disease and healing practices that people employed, including peyote and amulets. I also had the opportunity to take a graduate course that traveled around the U.S. West, studying the history of race in the region. We visited the Levi Jordan Plantation in Brazoria, Texas, where archaeologist Ken Brown has led a team that uncovered a curer’s cabin, highlighting the healer’s use of syncretic African and African American healing practices in postemancipation Texas. These experiences pushed me towards the study of health and healing in Texas. 

Health is one of the most basic elements of life, so it offered me a window into popular culture in the 18th and 19th century.  The history of health and healing in Texas addressed my intellectual curiosities and my desire to write against mythic, popular representations of the Lone Star State.  The era that I cover, roughly 1780 to 1880, saw multiple waves of colonization in moments when Native peoples dominated much of the region.  It was ripe for the study of race, popular culture, and power, as different nation-states tried to assert control over Texas, while Comanches and Karankawas held the upper hand in many instances.  Power was fluid in this borderland, so what did cross-cultural interactions and exchanges mean in this place undergoing conquest? 

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

MG: The desire to build healthy settlements drove Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo conquests of Texas. Spaniards, Mexicans, and Anglo Americans defined healthiness environmentally and culturally, based around perceptions of how people lived, and they differentiated their own “healthy” behaviors racially, against Native and (during Anglo migrations) Mexican “unhealthy” ways of living.

JF: Why do we need to read Conquering Sickness? 

MG: First, I would say, for the stories.  I uncovered many fascinating examples of how individuals treated disease and how they thought about sickness and health.  The first story that caught my eye, which I still find captivating, concerns how the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas (one state at the time) confronted the 1833 cholera epidemic.  After a series of public health initiatives regulating when people were out and about, how they prepared food, town cleanliness, and leisure activities, failed to stem the tide of disease, the government came to employ a peyote remedy as its official prescription.  How could a nation-state, which was in the process of being built, promote a practice associated with so-called Indian superstition, when to be Mexican at the time meant culturally not Indian?  These types of healing exchanges occurred throughout the century under study, as did state governments’ efforts to legitimize their use of medicine that they simultaneously scorned.  Colonialism was largely about instituting particular ways of living beyond methods of healing, which colonizers in Texas often defined against nonwhite residents. Spanish missionaries, for example, justified conquest by trying to mold Indians into proper, civilized, healthy Catholics. Conversion, and by extension conquest, was not only about spirituality, but also about how one carried oneself. 

I also think it is important to see how a common idea—healthiness—was (and is) defined culturally and how science, which appears objective, has been shaped by local cultures and desires. For example, to live a healthy life in post-1848 Texas meant to embrace white, middle class values—temperance, sedentary agriculture, sexual restraint—showing the close relationship Anglo newcomers drew between morality and health. They often saw Mexicans and Indians as immoral and therefore unhealthy. Ultimately, then, this raises a question relevant today:  in what ways might we define something like healthiness in a culturally, religiously, racially, and sexually loaded manner?     

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

MG:  I was always interested in history, but when I was an undergraduate, I was premed with an art history major for most of college. I only decided not to pursue a medical career and to become an academic historian during my senior year. I realized that my passion was trying to understand histories that never fit into a neat, master narrative. My own family history of multigenerational migrations; Eastern European, Jewish, Latin American, Latina/o, and Texas histories; and U.S. immigration does not easily meld into a dominant national narrative, so perhaps that influenced my interests. I started graduate school focusing on 20th-century U.S. history and ties between the civil rights movement and Latin America. I moved back in time and across regions, but my interest in race and U.S.-Latin American connections continued as I came to study of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

JF: What is your next project?

MG: I am bringing together my background in Latina/o history with a new interest in Jewish Studies. Continuing to ask questions about race, ethnicity, national identity, and cultural boundaries, I am examining Jewish Latina/o history and studying the connections among Latina/o, Jewish, and American identities. I am interested in how Jewish Latina/os in the 20th century have used different forms of storytelling—about the colonial past, around food and music—to link those identities. It is also a personal study, allowing me to apply my interests in the American West and borderlands, Latina/o history, and cultural history to my family and community’s story. 

JF: Thanks, Mark!

The Author’s Corner with Tera Hunter

WedlockTera Hunter is Professor of History and African American Studies. This interview is based on her new book Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Marriages in the Nineteenth Century (Harvard University Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Bound in Wedlock?

TH:  I started thinking a lot about marriage during slavery as I was researching my book: To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Harvard Press, 1997).  I was especially drawn to documents that I found during the period of Reconstruction, which demonstrated the depth and feelings and the challenges that former slaves faced in reconstituting their family ties after slavery ended. These records are tremendously rich and I felt like felt like I could not go deep enough to fully capture the complexity and range of intimate relationships that I saw. They raised a lot of interesting questions that could not be easily answered by focusing on the period following emancipation alone. To fully understand post-slavery marriage and family, I needed to trace them over the entire nineteenth century.

I was also very interested in closely examining the internal lives of African Americans. The literature on family was preoccupied with whether or not they conformed to dominant ideas about nuclear structure and gender norms of male-headed households. This led to a very limited view of both the internal values and meaning of marriage to African Americans and also the external constraints that they faced in creating and sustaining these relationships.

More recent debates about the status of black families in the twenty-first century have often invoked the legacy of slavery, often in very ahistorical and problematic ways. I wanted to scrutinize the misinformed assumptions often articulated by both liberal and conservative scholars, commentators, and political pundits. There is a long history of black families being stigmatized.  These perceptions are used as a barometer to discern the capacities of black humanity and fitness for citizenship, with insufficient appreciation of the historical forces they were up against.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bound in Wedlock?

TH: The history of African-American marriage in the nineteenth century teaches us about a pattern that has been continually replicated with each iteration of the seemingly forward movement toward greater freedom and justice. African-American marriage under slavery and quasi-freedom is a story of twists and turns, of intimate bonds being formed, sustained, broken, and repeatedly reconstituted under the duress of oppressive conditions and yet vilified for not conforming to dominant standards.

JF: Why do we need to read TITLE?

TH: To fully understand the history of slavery in the U. S., we need to know the role that the denial of marriage and family rights played in preserving the system. Slaves were not allowed to marry legally, although they were allowed to marry informally, at the discretion of slaveholders. The main reason why those relationships were denied legal standing was to preserve enslavers’ preeminent rights to control their chattel property and to profit from the literal reproduction of slaves as capital. Legal marriages granted couples control over women’s sexuality and labor, and parental rights over their children. All of those privileges were associated with freedom and conflicted with the very definition of slavery as an inheritable, permanent system of exploitation.

To fully grapple with the devastation that slavery caused black families, we need to know how they fought against the degradation, how they managed to create meaningful relationships despite the enormous constraints that they were up against. They established their own standards for conjugal relationships, which involved accepting, revising, and even rejecting conventional ideas about marriage. They were always creative, resourceful, and practical in responding to conditions of cruelty and uncertainty of slavery and post-emancipation life.

We now live in a time in which the U. S. Supreme Court has sanctioned marriage equality for all, making marriage rights available to lesbians, gays, and transsexuals. Many people assume that the history of heterosexual marriage has always been a privilege accessible and enjoyed by all straights, but that has not been the case. It took centuries of struggle for African American heterosexuals to achieve marriage equality in the law.

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

TH: I became fascinated with history my first year of college. I entered thinking I would become a lawyer, but I became increasingly interested in doing historical research and writing. I had very good teachers in college who opened new ways of thinking about the past, and offered an introduction to primary research, which I had not encountered in high school and fell in love with.

I wrote an honors thesis in my senior year, which confirmed that I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. Ultimately. I saw doing historical research as an alternative, and a more compelling way, to achieve some of what I wanted to do as a lawyer. I could address some of the travesties of injustice by unearthing stories of common people to paint a more comprehensive and complex portrait of our collective past.

JF: What is your next project?

TH: My next project grows out the epilogue in the book. I’m interested in exploring twentieth century African-American marriage. By the turn of the century, marriage was nearly universal, with blacks marrying slightly more than whites. But that began to change most dramatically starting in the post-World War II era. A racial gap in marriage has widened every decade since. The marriage rates for African Americans declined significantly over the course of the twentieth century. Scholars in other fields, like Sociology, have researched aspects of this trend. I think we need a longer historical perspective to understand the various economic, social, and political factors that have encouraged this decline including growing permanent unemployment, pre-mature mortality rates, and mass incarceration.

JF: Thanks Tera!

Four Myths About Slavery

BerryOver at The Conversation, Daina Ramey Berry of the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin separates “myth from fact” on the matter of American slavery.

Here are her four myths:

  1.  The majority of African captives came to what became the United States
  2.  Slavery last for 400 years
  3.  All Southerners own slaves
  4.  Slavery was a long time ago.

Read how she debunks these myths here.

Berry’s latest book is The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.

The Author’s Corner with Dawn Peterson

PeterDawn Peterson is Assistant Professor of History at Emory University.  This interview is based on her new book Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DP: I came to the adoption stories covered in Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion thirteen years ago. I had entered graduate school in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the United States’ subsequent “war on terror” and initially wanted to write about how discourses of race and family (particularly those emerging around white 9-11 families) supported imperial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as against immigrant communities and communities of color within this country. Yet after reading Michael Paul Rogin’s work on Andrew Jackson while in my third year of graduate school, I was compelled to go in search of the stories that inspired this book.

New to American Indian studies and early U.S. history, I was struck by one of Rogin’s footnotes, which indicated that, during the United States’ rapid expansion into Indian territories in the first decades of the nineteenth century, several white men, including Andrew Jackson, adopted American Indian children. I couldn’t stop thinking about these white adopters and Indian adoptees in the early U.S. Republic and kept traveling to archives to learn more about them. The research I uncovered showed me that, from the earliest moments of the early Republic’s founding, discourses of family and race played a central role in U.S. nation-making and imperial warfare, in this case against Native communities and enslaved people of African descent. I wanted to understand why this was the case and, just as centrally, how people shaped their lives and their communities in the face of U.S. imperial violence.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DP: Indians in the Family argues that pan-Indian unity movements solidifying in response to British-American and U.S. territorial expansion during the latter half of the eighteenth century collided with U.S. citizens’ ideas about race, family, slavery, and freedom to give rise to the imperial idea that Indian people and their homelands could—and should—be adopted into the free white populace of the early U.S. Republic. As the United States expanded its territories west, including those of slaveholding Southerners, this imperial idea subsequently informed a series of intimate struggles between U.S. whites, adopted Indian people, and enslaved people of African descent up through the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

JF: Why do we need to read Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DPAs the current president seeks to revive and celebrate the memory of early U.S. elites such as Andrew Jackson, Indians in the Family reveals the profound violence that propelled these figures to prominence. While many have argued that white impulses such as Jackson’s to adopt Native children are a sign of benevolence, the adoption stories that unfold in the book indicate that both ruling white men and everyday citizens within the United States saw themselves as entitled to own the material resources—and the very lives—of those deemed racially “inferior,” including Native children, not to mention people of African descent. Indeed, the fascinating, compelling, and even horrifying interactions between U.S. whites, Native people, and African Americans indicate that the law and culture of the United States was never oriented around freedom, democracy, or social justice, but was there to prop up white supremacy in general, and white nuclear families in particular. Just as importantly, just as the book illuminates the forms of violence historically supporting and emboldening “white” families in the United States, it shows the complex negotiations people of American Indian and African descent made to claim their bodies, their communities, and their lands as their own.

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

DPI decided to become an American historian because I needed to learn the deep roots of U.S. imperial and white supremacist policies as well as the various resistance strategies that have challenged them. I felt that in order to live ethically in the world that surrounded me, I had to both understand the mechanisms informing European-descended peoples’ vision of themselves as more worthy of material resources and physical safety than anyone else and, as a white women who materially benefits from this history of violence, engage with and support the life-affirming practices that seek to dismantle colonialism.

JF: What is your next project?

DP: My next project continues to explore Native history and its intersections with early U.S. imperialism. In it, I examine how Southeast Indian women navigated extractive U.S. economic policies that aimed to strip Native communities of their economic independence and, in turn, expand Southern slavery into their territories. Focusing on women’s roles in agricultural production, as well as their savvy in local and international trade, I seek to better understand Native women’s efforts in maintaining the economic vibrancy of their communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Southeast.

JF: Thanks, Dawn!

The United States of Hobby Lobby

Hobby LobbyIn October 2017, Joel Baden and Candida Moss will publish Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press).  Here is the publisher’s description:

Like many evangelical Christians, the Green family of Oklahoma City believes that America was founded as a Christian nation, based on a “biblical worldview.” But the Greens are far from typical evangelicals in other ways. The billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby, a huge nationwide chain of craft stores, the Greens came to national attention in 2014 after successfully suing the federal government over their religious objections to provisions of the Affordable Care Act. What is less widely known is that the Greens are now America’s biggest financial supporters of Christian causes–and they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an ambitious effort to increase the Bible’s influence on American society. In Bible Nation, Candida Moss and Joel Baden provide the first in-depth investigative account of the Greens’ sweeping Bible projects and the many questions they raise.

Bible Nation tells the story of the Greens’ rapid acquisition of an unparalleled collection of biblical antiquities; their creation of a closely controlled group of scholars to study and promote their collection; their efforts to place a Bible curriculum in public schools; and their construction of a $500 million Museum of the Bible near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Bible Nation reveals how these seemingly disparate initiatives promote a very particular set of beliefs about the Bible–and raise serious ethical questions about the trade in biblical antiquities, the integrity of academic research, and more.

Bible Nation is an important and timely account of how a vast private fortune is being used to promote personal faith in the public sphere–and why it should matter to everyone.

In November I will be part of a review panel on the book at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.  Here is the session:

S20-246 Use, Influence, and Impact of the Bible
11/20/2017

1:00 PM to 3:00 PM
Theme: The United States of Hobby Lobby

In this session, invited discussants will respond to Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden’s Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton UP, 2017).

Mark Chancey, Southern Methodist University, Panelist
Malcolm Choat, Macquarie University, Panelist
Peter Manseau, Smithsonian Institution, Panelist
John Fea, Messiah College, Panelist

Looking forward to it.  Of course I wrote a bit about the relationship between Hobby Lobby and the American Bible Society in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

The Museum of the Bible opens this Fall.

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, single women have the right to do and use anything they feel like to, and take care of them with the right cosmetics, to see what’s ingredients they have in orogold’s skin care, to feel nice and beautiful. 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!

“The Coalition That Made American Independence Possible”

Brothers in ArmsEducation and Culture: A Critical Review is running my review of Larrie Ferreiro’s Brothers in Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.

Education and Culture is John Wilson’s new venture.  For over two decades Wilson edited Books and Culture.

Here is a taste of my review:

The recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was the impetus for an interesting Twitter exchange between Joyce Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Chair of Early American History at Harvard University, and Ted Cruz, the junior US Senator from Texas. Chaplin was not happy about Trump’s decision to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement and used the 140 characters allotted to her on Twitter to express her dissatisfaction. On June 1, 2017, she wrote, “The USA, created by int’l community in Treaty of Paris in 1783, betrays int’l community by withdrawing from #parisclimateagreement today.” Cruz, appalled by the suggestion that the “international community” created the United States, fired back: “Just sad. Tenured chair at Harvard, doesn’t seem to know how USA was created. Not a treaty. Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.” Later in the day, the Texas Senator continued on the offensive: “Lefty academics @ my alma mater think USA was “created by int’s community. No—USA created by force, the blood of patriots & We the People.” As might be expected, most academic historians rushed to defend Chaplin, while conservative websites viewed the exchange as another battle in their war against so-called liberal élites.

We should not make too much of this short Twitter exchange. Both Chaplin and Cruz used the social media platform to marshal historical evidence in support of their own political preferences. But the Chaplin-Cruz dust-up, and the reaction to it, does tell us a lot about how Americans understand and misunderstand, use and abuse, the past. Chaplin’s attempt to connect the Treaty of Paris to the Paris Climate Agreement was a stretch. On the other hand, her insistence that the United States was not forged in a vacuum is a point worth making. Cruz’s tweets reflect an older version of the American Revolution that serves the cause of American exceptionalism. Scholars sometimes describe this historiography of exceptionalism as “Whig history.” Cruz’s understanding of the nation’s founding—one that celebrates the “blood of the patriots” and “We the People”—ignores the fact that the colonies were part of a larger transatlantic world that influenced the course and success of their Revolution. Cruz’s brand of Whig history offers a usable past perfectly suited for today’s “America First” foreign policy and the Trump administration’s skepticism regarding globalization. It is also wrong.

Read the entire review here.

The Author’s Corner With Jenna Weissman Joselit

StoneJenna Weissman Joselit is Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at George Washington University.  This interview is based on her new book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Set in Stone?

JWJ: The importance that so many contemporary Americans attach to having the Ten Commandments a visible part of their physical environment piqued my curiosity, prompting me to look for the origins of that relationship both within and without the confines of the sanctuary. I wanted to know more about how earlier generations of Americans kept these ancient dos and don’ts close at hand – and why.  Many twists and turns later, which brought me to phenomena as disparate as mid-19th century archaeological sites in central Ohio and 20th century Hollywood movies, I came away with a heightened understanding of the multiple ways in which the Ten Commandments imprinted themselves on the modern American imagination.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Set in Stone?

JWJ: The presence of the Ten Commandments is vital to, even an anchor of, American identity as well as a testament to the porousness of the divide between religion and culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Set in Stone?

JWJ: In a word: context.  By exploring how previous generations variously celebrated, redefined, visualized, domesticated, miniaturized and monumentalized the Ten Commandments, the book offers its readers the opportunity to think about the relationship of the past to the present and with it, the life cycle of a religious and cultural phenomenon that is at once divine and earthly, word and object.  In the wake of the Civil War, the Reformed Church Messenger suggested it was high time for Americans to take another look at the Ten Commandments, or, in its words, to “air” and “ventilate” them.  I’d like to think that, a century and a half later, Set in Stone does much the same thing.

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

JWJ: I wish I could say that I experienced some kind of eureka moment when everything fell into place and my career path was clearly set forth, but that didn’t happen.  Instead I drifted into becoming an historian. From a very young age, I loved to write and to concoct stories and majoring in American history at college seemed like a good fit as well as a creative outlet.  By the time I entered graduate school, I had come to understand that the discipline of history was also a high-stakes enterprise. I relish its fusion of creativity and responsibility.

JF: What is your next project?

JWJ: At the moment I’m considering a couple of options.  Having very much enjoyed casting Set in Stone as a series of narrative accounts, I would like to try my hand at writing an honest-to-goodness mystery set in the past.  We’ll see.

JF: Thanks, Jenna!

“Hamilton” Minus Music?

FreemanYale University historian Joanne Freeman recently released her Library of America volume The Essential Hamilton: Letters and Other Writings.  In a short review at The New York Times, John Williams described it as “Hamilton Minus Music,” or, “a more direct (if less rhyming) way to learn about Alexander Hamilton.”

Over at The Anxious Bench, Agnes Howard of Valparaiso University worries that “Hamilton Minus Music” sends the wrong message.  Here is a taste of her post, “Does Hamilton Have to Sing?”:

My disquiet over Williams’s idiom of praise stems from questions about what Americans ought to know about their country’s history, or really, what they ought to want to know. One can’t know everything, and I have observed enough U.S. history survey courses to see that much over which teachers enthuse falls through the cracks in students’ interest. But still, some U.S. history topics, including Revolution, Constitution-making, and early nationhood, should clear that bar without overmuch enhancement. We should want to know about Hamilton’s career because it’s interesting. It’s also curious, formative, fascinating, and–in a way that Freeman is particularly good at bringing out–full of personalities, some deservedly famous and some stuck obscure, entirely as entertaining as television, often more so, and more significant. Those eighteenth-century arguments, the way they were framed and the way they tilted, shaped the country we all are sitting in.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner with Kevin J. Hayes

GW BooksKevin J. Hayes, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, now lives and writes in Toledo, Ohio. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington, A Life in Books (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: After finishing The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, I began searching for a similar project, that is, another intellectual life of a major figure in early American history. Once I started researching Washington’s life of the mind, other historians tried to discourage me, asserting that Washington had little intellectual life. My preliminary research told me different. The more I researched the more I realized I could tell a story of Washington’s life unlike any previous biography.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: My book presents a biography of Washington that concentrates on how the books he owned and read shaped the man he became. Organized chronologically and thematically, George Washington, A Life in Books examines many different subject areas Washington studied — devotional literature, histories, travel writing, political pamphlets, agricultural manuals — and situates them within the context of his public and private life.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: Though there are numerous Washington biographies available, mine presents a fresh look at Washington, portraying him as both a reader and a writer. It provides a unique view of Washington’s life and adds a completely new dimension to the story of a man we thought we knew.

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

KJH: I chose to attend graduate school at the University of Delaware because it was one of the best places in the country to study American literature during the eighties. Professor J. A. Leo Lemay, a leading scholar of early American literature, informed me about the numerous opportunities in his field. In addition to the critical study of literature, the field of early American literature would let me pursue parallel interests in American intellectual history and the history of the book. Researching the literary history of early America, I could be both literary scholar and historian.

JF: What is your next project?

KJH: I write biographies. This summer, Reaktion, a London publisher, will release my next book, Herman Melville, as part of its series Critical Lives. Over the past few years I have unearthed a considerable amount of new information about Benjamin Franklin, which I am now incorporating in an book-length study of Franklin’s life and writings.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

The Author’s Corner With William Harrison Taylor

HarrisonWilliam Harrison Taylor is Associate Professor of History at Alabama State University.  This interview is based on his new book Unity in Christ and Country: Presbyterians in the Revolutionary Era, 1758-1801 (University of Alabama Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Unity in Christ and Country

WHT: This project had its origins during my time in graduate school. I was hoping to make my small contribution to our understanding of the American Revolution and I had decided that the best way for me to do so was by exploring the emerging religious marketplace. Presbyterians were still my primary focal point, but I was determined to examine the dimensions of how they were competing for membership against the myriad of democratically inspired churches. After a year or so of research I couldn’t overlook the obvious any longer. The more I read, the more it became clear that the loudest cry from the Presbyterian church was not one of competition, but rather for cooperation. Having decided to let the sources speak for themselves (wasn’t that kind of me?) I realized that by pursing their goal of Christian unity, the Presbyterians had a much broader influence than I originally envisioned and it was a story, I thought, that needed to be told.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Unity in Christ and Country?

WHT: In Unity in Christ and Country I argue that during the revolutionary era, as the American Presbyterians began to actively pursue the elusive dream of Christian unity, they not only helped to shape the period, but they also unintentionally planted the seeds that kept unity beyond their grasp, split their church, and helped to divide the nation.

JF: Why do we need to read Unity in Christ and Country?

WHT: From what I have read, reading is thought to be a great exercise for the prevention of Alzheimer’s, so there’s that. However, if you already have your Alzheimer’s preventative reading regimen in place, you may still find this book helpful if you are interested in learning more about the dynamics and influence of people’s faith during the American Revolution. Included are stories where belief transformed the understanding of who should hear the good news, encouraged people to struggle and fight against tyrannies (real and perceived), and fostered desires for temporal and spiritual unity where once animosity and self-interest prevailed.  Granted, these stories don’t all have pleasant endings, but that is partly why they can be useful.

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

WHT: I had some excellent story-tellers for professors as an undergraduate—Kit Carter and Allen Dennis standout in particular—who had a big impact on my decision to primarily study American history.  Yet, while they helped steer me to graduate study in American history, their work was aided by a foundation laid much earlier.  During most summers while I was growing up my family would trek to various places around the country as part of my dad’s job.  We drove everywhere and along the way we were forced to visit (at least at first) to what felt like every historical landmark within a hundred miles of our route.  I might not have admitted it then (what self-respecting and properly annoying teenager would give their parents the pleasure?) but I came to enjoy those side trips. Being so often immersed in an historical environment such as Colonial Williamsburg or Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri sparked an appreciation of the American past that not yet run its course.

JF: What is your next project?

WHT: Currently, I am exploring the depths of American anti-Catholic sentiment in the years leading up to the War for American Independence. Whether this will turn out to be anything more than my previous attempt to study the competitive nature of the Presbyterians in the religious marketplace remains to be seen. Still, my early reading suggests that there is much more to this relationship than has yet been revealed. Hopefully, the more I read, the more I will find to support this early optimism.

JF: Thanks, Harrison!

How Do Historians Measure Racial Progress in America?

LaskiGreg Laski has a great piece on this issue a Black Perspectives.  He raises several good questions in the process of plugging his new book Untimely Democracy: The Politics of Progress after Slavery.

You can read the entire piece here, but I was especially taken with the way Laski frames his discussion:

If the November 2008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency provided an occasion to measure the distance the United States had traveled from its origins in slavery, then Donald Trump’s rise to the highest political office has presented a different historical calculus. Viewed through the lens of this racial history, the new administration reminds us that structures and practices of exclusion endure across time.

Just how to conjugate the relationship between past and present in each of these instances is open to debate. But lurking behind these contemporary case studies is a more basic conceptual dilemma: What is the political function of historical comparison when it comes to measuring “progress” toward liberty and equality for all? If Obama’s presidency allowed us to celebrate racial progress, that is, what happens to democracy now, when that distance seems to have narrowed? To pose the query most plainly, does democracy require progress? If so, whose? And why?

My forthcoming book, Untimely Democracy, narrates the nineteenth-century backstory of these questions by studying the work produced by African American authors and activists after the official end of Reconstruction—and after the abolitionist aims of the Civil War had faded.

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Kidd

FranklinThomas Kidd is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.  This interview is based on his new book Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Ben Franklin?

TK: This book is a sort of follow-up to my 2014 biography of George Whitefield, the great evangelist of the eighteenth century. Franklin was the key publisher of Whitefield’s journals and sermons in America, but they also became close friends. They were two of the biggest celebrities in the Anglo-American world, yet the faiths of the evangelical Whitefield and the “thorough deist” Franklin would seem to have been worlds apart.

In researching Franklin’s religious journey, however, I came to believe that Franklin’s Puritan background exercised a major influence on his adult life. Although Franklin maintained doubts about basic Christian beliefs, the deep imprint made by his parents’ piety and his thorough knowledge of the King James Bible hardly dissipated when he discovered deism as a teenager.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Ben Franklin?

TK: Franklin arguably represented the American epitome of the “Enlightenment,” with his scientific discoveries, incessant charitable projects, and worldly-wise skepticism. But as Franklin’s long life proceeded, his skepticism was restrained by the weight of his Puritan background, by ongoing relationships with evangelicals like Whitefield and Franklin’s sister Jane Mecom, and by the seemingly providential events of the American Revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read Ben Franklin?

TK: If all we know of Franklin’s religion is the Autobiography’s description of how he jettisoned his parents’ faith and became a deist, we miss the extraordinary religious depth of his life and writings. Franklin not only published a great deal of religious material as a printer, but even as an author he seems to have published more on religious topics than any other eighteenth-century American layperson. Some of Franklin’s writing on religion, especially in the 1730s, displayed an amazing sophistication and polemical edge, even on complex topics like the imputed righteousness of Christ.

JF: You are a very productive scholar.  Any writing tips for us mere mortals?

TK: I frequently write about productivity and the writing process in my weekly newsletters. The advice I keep coming back to, however, is the importance of making daily writing progress, even if it is only a couple hundred words. Writers get in trouble when they let their projects languish for weeks and months at a time.

JF: What is your next project?

TK: I am writing a two-volume American History textbook for B&H Academic, which (Lord willing) should be out by 2019.

JF: Thanks, Tommy!

Ben Sasse’s New Book

SASSEI need to read it.

After I read Emma Green’s review of Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult I was struck by two things:

First, I am eager to see how Sasse’s understanding of a virtuous republic differs from the Obama vision of a virtuous republic.  Obama did not use the term “virtue” that often, but his appeals to self-sacrifice for the good of the country certainly drew heavily from the founding fathers’ understanding of the term.  I have argued this multiple times, including here.

Second, it looks like the Nebraska Senator’s call for a republic of virtue draws deeply from the wells of American history, political philosophy, theology, and ethics.  (One might expect this from a Yale Ph.D in American history).  It sounds like it is a much more thoughtful and intellectually respectable argument than the one put out last year by evangelical culture warrior and radio host Eric Metaxas.

Here is a taste of Green’s review:

Sasse pays little attention to the real divides in income, race, and religious conviction that have left many Americans feeling like they live among strangers in a country that wasn’t built for them. Some of his ideas seem punitive, showing the dark side of the Protestant work ethic he so cherishes: Historically, Sasse writes, “the important American cultural cleavage was … not rich versus poor, but rather dignified working poor versus supposedly lazy, undeserving poor.” He updates this mythical archetype for the modern age: parents who stream another Netflix sitcom instead of shoveling their neighbor’s walk, or “needy, undisciplined, coddled, presumptuous” young people who lack “much of a filter between their public personas and their inner lives.” Blaming Millennials for American’s cultural drift is the book’s most grievous and inexplicable category error—maybe we could call it ad millennialem, in the spirit of Sasse’s exhortation for the young to study ancient Rome on their path to virtue. It’s an out for the 45-year-old senator to finger the generation below him rather than grapple with the structural inequalities and cultural differences that have fractured the country over the course of many years.

But it’s also a mistake to call The Vanishing American Adult a “consummate politician’s book” or a naïve ode to the power of chores, as The New York Times has done—Sasse is working in a much older tradition of writing and thinking. Throughout the book, he keeps returning to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile as a reference point and implicit model for what he’s doing. In keeping with Sasse’s studied performance of folksy erudition, this 18th-century text is a bit of a political-philosophy deep cut. It follows the fictional story of a child, Emile, as he gains the education he needs to survive in a corrupt society. The book is about the wisdom that comes from firsthand experience, like flying kites to teach a sense of direction or swimming streams that will one day become the Hellespont.

Like Rousseau, Sasse believes challenging experiences form a person’s character and the heart of education. Like Rousseau, Sasse sees healthy society as a function of virtuous individuals. The senator is making “a plea for self-discipline and self-control” as “the one and only dignified alternative to discipline and control” by the government. At its core, the book also pleads for something greater: the rehabilitation of shared values in a time of intense difference; a focus on culture as the deepest challenge of politics; and the ability to imagine virtue as part of who we are as citizens, whether Sasse gets it right or not.

Read the entire review here.

 

What An Academic Job Search Is Really Like

BerlinerJacques Berlinerblau‘s piece “Better College, Better Scholars, Right? Not So Much” is currently behind the paywall at The Chronicle of Higher Education, but I hope it sees the light of day soon. The piece comes from his new book Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students.  I am looking forward to reading it.

First, Berlinerblau rightly argues that “professorial prestige…is an awfully arbitrary thing.”

A taste:

Amanda and Irene were best friends in grad school. Both studied theoretical linguistics. They received the same training. They worked under the same doctoral adviser. They possess nearly identical publication records — two articles apiece in respected field journals. They even both somehow showed up at the party celebrating their successful doctoral defenses in the same distressed high-rise, skinny jeans from Madewell! Yet Amanda teaches part time at a community college and supplements her income doing data entry for an HMO. Irene has a tenure-track job at a top research university. Their relationship has grown strained.

The rest of the essay probably says more about Berlinerblau and his academic life at Georgetown University than it does about the academic lives of most college professors.

Another taste:

Among professors, where one works is a marker of status. Thus, the assistant professor employed by an Ivy League college accrues greater glory than her counterpart at a midsize regional university. The latter, in turn, is more esteemed than an assistant professor laboring at some far-flung small liberal-arts college. The same hierarchies prevail, I guess, among high-school seniors comparing their college-acceptance letters as they hotbox their parents’ Toyota Priuses.

The juveniles and, distressingly, the professors are just following the logic of popular college-ranking systems. They are assuming that the greater the renown of an institution as measured by U.S. News & World Report, the greater will be the quantity and quality of research produced by scholars in its employ. Is this assumption accurate?

If it were, it would follow that an assistant professor in anthropology at Princeton University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 1) publishes more and better work than her exact counterpart at the University of Southern California (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 23). The USC savant, in turn, outperforms the identically ranked anthropologist at Clark University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 75). The Clark ethnographer has a heftier CV than a comparable scholar employed at Oklahoma State University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 149). The better the institution, the better the research its tenure-line professors produce. Right?

I appreciate what my friend Berlinerblau has to say here, but after fifteen years at a “far-flung small liberal arts college” located in what most cosmopolitan academics would call a “doleful place” (a school and a place where, I might add, I deliberately chose to work), his parsing of the differences between Princeton, Southern California, Clark, and Oklahoma State make him sound like he lives on another planet.

Yet, the planet Berlinerblau describes does exist.  Some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home–many of them are my friends–have found themselves living on it.   Other readers do not live on this planet, but they are working hard in the hopes of moving there.

Which brings me to Berlinerblau’s hilarious description of how academic job searches take place at institutions on his planet.

Here is a taste:

Besieged by a surfeit of credentials, the typical harried evaluator will focus on two vital metrics: 1) where a scholar received the doctorate, and 2) what the scholar has published. That takes about 90 seconds. In the remaining 90 seconds, assuming the applicant has not been consigned to the thickening reject pile, the reviewer glances at what courses the applicant can teach. So much for pinpointing precise merits and demerits! And it goes without saying that no psychological evaluations are ever administered.

The search is kicking into high gear. Timeless irregularities of academic culture begin to infest the deliberations. For starters, scholars tend to hire tribally, preferring people with similar intellectual interests. Politics and ideology also rear their scowling heads. The radical Left is notorious for commandeering search committees. That’s why some film departments are staffed solely by Deleuzian Maoists or vegan Derridians. Sometimes professors look exclusively for people who attended their own graduate schools. How many departments have I seen with a forensically suspect cluster of hires who received their doctorates from the same place, under the same thesis advisers?

In accordance with these peculiar criteria, roughly 95 percent of the aspirants will soon be eliminated. The field has been narrowed to three or four outstanding individuals (though that decision is always contested and accompanied by a few resignations from the committee expressed in 10,000-word manifestoes). Once the shortlist is drawn up, rituals of backchanneling, influence peddling, and whoremongering ensue. On-campus interviews are booked. Rumors run rampant. Unexpected alliances crystallize around unexpected candidates.

Cross-cutting through this intrigue are other distractions. Scholars have the ill-advised tendency to fall in love with one another. Their passion gives rise to an “academic couple” — perhaps the most dreaded phrase in a search committee’s lexicon. No search, it seems, is complete without this ghastly spousal subplot. It comes out of nowhere — like the toothy maw of the monster from Jaws emerging from the sullen deep — and drags the entire process down into some dark, litigious murk.

Ought I mention inside candidates? The seamiest secret of the academic job search is that its outcome is often foreordained. A tenure-track line is a precious commodity. Is there any wonder that the desire to attain this treasure trumps our ethical impulses?

Often, the job description, the composition of the committee, the questions asked at the interview — all of these have been rigged to assure that one predetermined candidate (or trailing spouse) is hired. Need I point out that for the poor applicants, the entire ordeal is time-consuming and expensive? Rebecca Schuman, writing in Slate, has chronicled this well. She reminds us that a job seeker in academe actually has another job: applying for jobs. The ritual is needlessly degrading.

If you have access to The Chronicle of Higher Education you can read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.

The Author’s Corner with Jason Opal

OpalJason Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University.  This interview is based on his new book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Avenging the People?

JO: I had always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson and his intense following in the United States, especially in the wake of his controversial invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida in 1818. I was also struck by the tone and vehemence of the Congressional debates that followed in early 1819. The pro-Jackson representatives talked about the “laws of nations” and the “rights of nature,” suggesting that Old Hickory symbolized a new claim to national sovereignty within the brutal world he saw.

But what made me want to dig deeper was what happened right after these debates—not the bitter controversy over slavery in Missouri, but the severe economic crisis that lasted from 1819 to 1822. Here, Jackson was an arch-conservative foe of public banks, stay laws, and other assertions of democratic sovereignty against international “laws” of commerce. Here, he rejected some of the most popular—and, in some sense, nationalistic—measures of his day. This just did not fit with the traditional view of Jackson as a patriotic champion and democratic reformer. Nor did it align with the usual critiques of Jackson, which stress his hostility to native peoples and black Americans.

So, I wanted to offer a new look at the towering enigma from Tennessee, one that stayed as close as possible to primary sources (rather than historiographical debates) and that scrutinized Jackson’s early career and political education (rather than his legendary times in the White House). I did not intend to besmirch Jackson, nor to condemn his fans. I just wanted to see what he was about, and to understand why so many Americans loved him so fiercely.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Avenging the People?

JO: I argue that Jackson led and embodied one version of American nationhood—of the American people as a nation who shared blood—that grew out of the long struggle with the British Empire and its native and black proxies during the post-Revolutionary decades. This kind of nationhood asserted American sovereignty vis-à-vis its enemies, including the right to avenge American blood around the globe, while restricting their sovereignty in times and places of peace, that is within the society they reluctantly composed.

JF: Why do we need to read Avenging the People?

JO: Especially since the United States, unlike most western democracies, still functions according to its first written Constitution (with amendments), it is always important to study the Founding era. In a way, this history is not history at all, but a kind of ongoing past.

Jackson was not one of the Founders of 1787, but he was probably the single most important figure in the later, longer rise of “democratic” models of American nationhood and popular sovereignty. Understanding that is especially important now that President Trump repeatedly and (I think) sincerely invokes Jackson’s name to authorize an “America First” course of action.

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

JO: I have loved history for as long as I can remember and was determined to become a history professor by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade. (One viewing of Les Misérables at the Shubert Theatre in Boston clinched it.) I honestly can’t imagine anything more compelling than the debatable record of what people have done and what it all means.

I decided to study the early United States after I took Mary Beth Norton’s class on the American Revolution at Cornell in the spring of 1996. I turned to cultural and social history after working with Jane Kamensky at Brandeis in 1999. Inspiring teachers have that effect!

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Moving to Montreal in 2009, right when I was starting this project, gave me a new vantage point on American history. It also revealed the importance of other languages, which had always been a weak point for me. I’m comfortable at last in French and am now studying Portuguese, both of which will help for my new book project, a global history of Barbados. As many early Americanists have shown, this island was the center of the early English empire and the starting point for its seventeenth-century turn to black slavery. I want to retell the island’s long ordeal by drawing in the associated histories of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British empires and of the many African nations that later gave rise to the Bajan people.

I’m also working on two collaborative projects. The first is a collection of essays on the “Patriot” rebellions of the late 1830s along the US-Canadian border. I’m writing about the economic priorities that underlay US-British rapprochement and that helped to doom the Patriots. Maxime Dagenais of McMaster University and Julien Mauduit of Université du Québec à Montréal are editing this book, which I hope will reach people in both French and English Canada and in my native country. Second, I’m writing a history of epidemic diseases and the American people with my dad, Dr. Steven Opal of the Brown University School of Medicine.

JF: Thanks, Jason