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.”

*The Devil’s Music* Playlist

StephensOn Episode 38 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, we talk to University of Oslo historian Randall Stephens about his new book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Randall talks about his new book and I reflect on my own experiences at the intersection of evangelicalism and rock music.  The episode will drop next weekend.

In the meantime, head over the the website of Harvard University Press and listen to a Spotify playlist of songs and artists that Stephens considers in The Devil’s Music.  It includes music by Sam Cooke, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley & the Comets, The Beatles, Cliff Richard, Larry Norman, Phil Keaggy, Andre Crouch, Sha Na Na, Bill Gaither Trio, Bob Dylan, Amy Grant, Keith Green, DeGarmo & Key, Michael W. Smith, Stryper, DC Talk, and Sufjan Stevens.

And if you are a Randall Stephens fan, don’t forget to check out “The Randall Stephens Collection.”

Jon Meacham Offers Some Advice for Surviving the Trump Era

Jon Meacham Photo and Book 03082018

Meacham is on tour for his new book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.  In a recent piece at USA Today he shares some advice on how to survive the age of Trump.  A taste:

►Enter the arena. The battle begins with political engagement itself. Theodore Roosevelt put it best: “The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics; his second duty is that he shall do that work in a practical manner; and his third is that it shall be done in accord with the highest principles of honor and justice.”

Politicians will disappoint; that’s inevitable. But they will also, from time to time, thrill. “Every man who has been in practical politics,” TR remarked, “grows to realize that politicians, big and little, are no more all of them bad than are all of them good.” One need not become a candidate (though that’s certainly an option worth considering) or a political addict hooked on every twist and every turn and every tweet. But the paying of attention, the expressing of opinion and the casting of ballots are foundational to living up to the obligations of citizenship in a republic.

►Resist tribalism. Engagement, especially at a time of heightened conflict, has its perils: Those motivated by what they see as extremism on the other side are likely to see politics not as a mediation of difference but as existential warfare where no quarter can be given. The country works best, however, when we resist such tribal inclinations.

Ever practical, Eleanor Roosevelt offered a prescription to guard against tribal self-certitude. “It is not only important but mentally invigorating to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own,” she wrote. “For the same reason, I believe it is a sound idea to attend not only the meetings of one’s own party but of the opposition. Find out what people are saying, what they are thinking, what they believe. This is an invaluable check on one’s own ideas. . . . If we are to cope intelligently with a changing world, we must be flexible and willing to relinquish opinions that no longer have any bearing on existing conditions.”

If Mrs. Roosevelt were writing today, she might put it this way: Don’t let any single cable network or Twitter feed tell you what to think.

►Respect facts and deploy reason. There is such a thing as discernible reality. Facts, as John Adams once said, are stubborn things, and yet too many Americans are choosing this view or that perspective based not on its grounding in fact but on whether it’s a view or perspective endorsed by the leaders one follows.

Read the entire piece here.

The Hopeful Christianity of Jimmy Carter

Carter Jimmy

Check out Elizabeth Palmer’s interview with Jimmy Carter at The Christian Century.  Carter’s new book is titled Faith: A Journey for All.

A taste of the interview:

In Faith, you write, “I have faith that God is slowly bending eternity toward redemption, and that someday . . . moral perfection based on love as expressed by Jesus Christ will prevail.” What gives you a basis for this kind of hopefulness?

The history of America gives me hope. We’ve been through some very trying times in the past, and the resilience of our country and the principles of our Constitution have always prevailed. I have confidence that in the future we’ll do the same thing, despite the difficulties we face today.

We went through a civil war to do away with slavery, and later we struggled to give women the right to vote in our democracy. In the 120 years since the “separate but equal” ruling of the Supreme Court, our judges have had to struggle with discrimination against African Americans. We’re still struggling with that. We’ve had a resurgence of discrimination in the last few years—and it’s against not only African Americans and other minorities but also immigrants. We have a great disparity in income, with people’s opportunities depending on how rich they are. There’s also a disparity of treatment within our judicial system. We have about seven and a half times as many people in prison now as we did when I left the White House, for instance, and we have the most prisons of any country on earth.

These problems have long existed, but they’ve been aggravated or brought to the attention of the public more recently, since the election. But in general, our country has proven able to deal with such struggles.

You note the divisions in our society that have increased sharply in recent decades—divisions rooted in political differences, racial tensions, economic inequality, and more. If you were president today, what would be your first steps toward mending those divisions?

I’d emphasize through public statements that I pledge to keep my country at peace and to be a champion of human rights. One of the things that America would like to be is a superpower, but there are more elements of being a superpower than just military strength. The United States of America ought to be seen by the rest of the world as a champion of peace, not war, a champion of human rights, a champion of equality, and a champion of generosity to help people in need. Those are the kind of values that need to be emphasized in the future of America, and I hope and pray that this will be the case.

If you had one final Sunday school class to teach, what would it be on? What Bible verses would you choose?

I change my Sunday school lesson every Sunday to accommodate modern-day headlines. But one of my favorite Bible verses is “Be ye kind one to another, as God through Jesus Christ has been kind to all of us” [Eph. 4:32]. And that’s a challenge. We now have the possibility of eliminating all living creatures on earth with the use of nuclear weapons. The next step in the evolution of human beings has to be learning how to live with each other in peace and with some degree of love. Jesus said we should not only love our neighbor but love our enemies [Matt. 5:43–44], which means loving those with whom we disagree. We have to learn how to get along with Russians and Muslims and North Koreans in a constructive spirit of care, instead of asking what’s the best excuse we have to go to war with them.

Read the entire interview here.

 

My Review of Gary Dorrien’s *Breaking White Supremacy*

DorrienThe Christian Century just published my review of Gary Dorrien’s Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel.

Here is a taste:

Pick up any general survey of Christianity in America and turn to the section on the social gospel. It is likely that the narrative will be dominated by the names of two white pastors: Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschen­busch. Along with some other lesser-known white social gospel Prot­estants, they sought to Christianize America through reforms, government programs, and voluntary societies de­signed to address poverty, disease, immorality, and all forms of injustice resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

It is highly unlikely that the names Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, or Howard Thurman appear alongside Gladden and Rauschenbusch in the typical textbook narrative. But according to Gary Dorrien, these leaders of the black social gospel movement represented an intellectual tradition in American Chris­tianity that was “more accomplished and influential” than the white movement led by Gladden and Rauschenbusch.

Read the rest here.

Do You Read *The Babylon Bee*?

BeeIf you don’t, you should.  It is hilarious.

Over at The Weekly Standard, Mark Hemingway has a nice piece on the satirical Christian website.  (Am I showing my age if I say that the Babylon Bee reminds me a lot of the old Wittenberg Door?)

The article also talks about a new Babylon Bee book: How to Be a Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living.

A taste of Hemingway’s piece:

It’s safe to say that thus far, to the extent it has noticed, secular America is confounded by the success of the Babylon Bee. In March, Facebook threatened to reduce the visibility of the Bee’s stories. The reason? One of Facebook’s fact-checking partners, Snopes.com, obliviously labeled a Bee story (“CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication”) false rather than satire. Considering how important Facebook traffic is to Internet publications, the threat was no joke.

“We’ve been ‘Snoped’ before a number of times, but this was the first time Facebook used it to threaten us and to redirect readers away from our link and to Snopes’s website,” says Ford. “Over an article about CNN spinning news in a washing machine! It was just insane.” Snopes has fact-checked more than a dozen other Babylon Bee stories in the last two years. Last fall, the Bee even responded to all the unwarranted attention by publishing an article entitled “Snopes Rates Babylon Bee World’s Most Accurate News Source.” After an outcry on social media about the Bee’s mistreatment over the CNN gag, Facebook came to its senses and issued a public statement calling its treatment of the Bee a mistake. For its part, Snopes has continued to classify Bee stories as false, as it occasionally does stories from the Onion and other satirical publications, but has apparently not repeated the mistake of labeling Bee stories as false in Facebook’s fact-checking system.

Read the rest here.

Inside the Mind of the Book Editor

What Editors DoIf you have written an academic book or hope to write one soon, you need to read Rachel Toor‘s interview at The Chronicle of Higher Education with Mary Laur and Peter Ginna, the editors of What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing.

Here is a taste:

What are some of the main commonalities that emerged between the different types of publishing that might be of use to academic authors?

Peter: I make the argument in the book that editing has fundamental similarities across categories of publishing. There are real differences between, say, trade and scholarly presses, but for editors at both, the single most important question is: Should I acquire this book? And related to that: Who is the audience for it? And do I know how I can get that audience excited about it? We often need to think about an audience bigger than the one that’s on the author’s mind. That is, the author may be more worried about a tenure committee than about the New York Review of Books.

Editors also ask themselves, What is working with this author going to be like? Do I want to spend a year (or several) bringing this person’s work into print? At one place I worked, some authors were known as “LITS” — “Life is too short.” Most authors are a pleasure to deal with, but either way it’s an intimate relationship. You want the author to be a partner in the publishing process, so how you get along with them is important. Finally, whatever kind of book you’re publishing, editing the text comes down to reading it with loving care and trying to make it the best version of itself it can be.

I have worked with some great editors over the years, including Bob Lockhart, Jana Riess, Cynthia Read, Charles Van Hof, Lisa Ann Cockrel, and David Bratt.  They have all been great. When my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction was picked as one of the three finalists for the George Washington Book Prize, Jana came with us to Mount Vernon for the big awards ceremony!

Read Toor’s entire interview here.

OAH Dispatch: Historians on “Hamilton”

Rutgers UP

The editors of Historians on Hamilton sign books! (From Rutgers University Press Twitter feed)

We are happy to have Julianne Johnson writing for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento.  Julianne is a Ph.D student at Claremont Graduate University and Assistant Professor of History at College of the Canyons in San Clarita, California.  Enjoy!  –JF

Friday morning’s 8am session Historians on Hamilton at the OAH conference was uncharacteristically full.  Scholars Patricia Herrera of the University of Richmond, Claire Bond Potter of The New School and Renee Romano of Oberlin College led a panel discussion surrounding their contributions to a new book from Rutgers University Press titled Historians on Hamilton; How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s PastRomano and Potter are both editors of, and contributors to, the book.  The panel discussion approached the phenomenon of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton The Musical by interrogating how the show has been received, how the show is revolutionary, and what historians can learn from the show about how to communicate the past to popular audiences.

All three panelists challenged the audience to consider how Hamilton The Musical does history.  Renee Romano, Professor of History, Comparative American Studies, and Africana Studies at Oberlin, considered Hamilton in the context of historical memory and what she describes as a “new civic myth.”  Romano questioned whether Hamilton The Musical is expanding the circle of “we” for Americans by offering young people of color a sense of belonging and challenging white audiences to accept minorities in the roles of our founding generation.

Patricia Herrera, Professor of Theater at the University of Richmond, told a heartwarming story of her experience listening to Hamilton The Musical with her children while taking a road trip throughout our nation’s national parks.  Her young daughter’s desire to be Angelica Schuyler for Halloween pushed Herrera to interrogate how Hamilton The Musical conflates the historical figure of Angelica the slave owner with the beautiful African American actress playing her on stage.   For Herrera, the national parks and the musical perform a similar function.  The parks represent beautiful democratic vistas and leisure for white Americans on the backs of a tragic narrative for Native Americans.

Finally, Claire Bond Potter, Professor of History at the New School, discussed her interest in Hamilton The Musical and Miranda from a social media perspective.  Her chapter in the book, “Safe in the Nation We’ve Made,” looks at how the musical reaches a large audience on social media, allowing for a more authentic connection and turning fans into cultural investors.

Palpable throughout the panel discussion was the historians’ respect for Miranda’s work and a hope that other historians will use the musical as an entry into teaching and talking about history. At the end of the session, the line in the exhibit hall to purchase the book had the Rutgers staff sweating.  I secured my copy and am happily reading it now.

Michael Roth on Steven Pinker’s *Enlightenment Now*

EnlightenmentOver at Inside Higher Ed Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University and a strong defender of humanities and the liberal arts, reviews Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

A taste:

In his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker expands his purview to include progress in everything from access to basic nourishment and health care to income and increased choices in how we spend our time. In every important area, Pinker sees robust improvement. The world is getting safer, more prosperous and less authoritarian. “Look at the data!” he cries again and again, and you will see that human beings have much to cheer about and much to look forward to. Evidence from surveys even suggests that we are happier — although not nearly as happy as we should be, given the progress we’ve made.

Pinker himself is not happy with colleges and universities, especially humanities programs, which, he claims, tend to emphasize the tragic, the negative, even the apocalyptic. He takes particular aim at Nietzsche and the streams of critical theory that flow from his thinking. Nietzsche’s antimodern polemics against smug, middle-class complacency especially rankle the Harvard University professor who can’t seem to imagine why anyone wouldn’t be grateful for the greater access to food, shelter and leisure that modernity has created.

There is plenty to criticize in Pinker’s historical portrait of triumphant modernity. He ignores any part of the Enlightenment legacy that doesn’t fit neatly into his neat, Popperian understanding of how scientific progress is made through disconfirming hypotheses. In describing progress in societies that behave more rationally, he says almost nothing about the social movements and struggles that forced those with power (and claims to rationality) to pay attention to political claims for justice. When science leads to bad things, like eugenics, he just dismisses the results as bad science. He criticizes those with whom he disagrees as being narrow-minded or tribalistic, but he seems to have no self-awareness of how his own thinking is plagued by parochialism. He writes that we have to cure “identity protective cognition,” but for him history is an effort to find figures like himself in the past so that he can write a story that culminates with people who have the same views as he. “There can be no question of which was the greatest era for human culture; the answer has to be today.” Maybe he thinks that the gesture of expecting an even better future is an expression of intellectual modesty.

But as much as Pinker’s self-congratulation may annoy anyone concerned with (or just curious about) the ways the achievements of modernity have been built through oppression, exploitation and violence, it would be a mistake to ignore the extraordinary accomplishments that he documents in Enlightenment Now. Take the astonishing reductions in poverty around the world. Over the last century, the portion of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced from 90 percent to under 10 percent. The acceleration of this progress in the last half century has been truly remarkable, and we can see similar good news in regard to decreased child mortality and increased life expectancy (to pick just two of the subjects Pinker covers).

And Pinker is right that many of us in the humanities and interpretive social sciences are loath simply to celebrate such gains when discussing the legacies of the Enlightenment or embracing contemporary critical thinking. Why? Part of the reason is that the story of those achievements should not be divorced from an account of how social injustice has made them possible. Humanists don’t dismiss the importance of reductions in poverty, but neither do they simply want to describe slavery, colonialism and other forms of exploitation as the price one has (always?) to pay for progress.

Read the entire review here.

Evangelical Activist John Perkins on Racial Reconciliation

One BloodOK–time for a different guy named Perkins.  Very different.

The Tennessean is running a nice piece on John D. Perkins, longtime evangelical rights activist.  Perkins’s new (and last) book is One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race.

A taste of the article:

John M. Perkins, a leading evangelical voice on racial reconciliation, thinks that 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the church is not focusing enough on unity. 

“It scares me. We’re not talking about togetherness,” Perkins said. “That doesn’t improve the issue.”

Perkins, a minister who fought for civil rights in Mississippi, is hopeful for the future. But he believes that for reconciliation to happen, people must first affirm the dignity of all human beings and then move forward together.

“I believe that’s the gospel,” Perkins said. “God created man to reflect his image in the world and his likeness and then he said, ‘Don’t make no other god before me.’ What we’re doing is making ourselves god before God and each other.”

Perkins, 87, was in Nashville on Friday sharing that message, which is included in his new book, “One Blood.” The roughly 200-page work, co-written by Karen Waddles, is billed as Perkins’ parting words to the church on race.

Read the entire piece here.

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

Do you want to know what evangelicalism was like before the Christian Right came along and politicized it?  Check out Greg Thornbury‘s piece at The Washington Post: “What evangelicals looked like before they entered the political fray.” Thornbury has just completed a biography of Larry Norman, one of the founders of “Christian rock” music.  His book is titled Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock.

Here is a taste of Thornbury’s piece in The Post:

In spring 1978, a young man named Mike Pence did two seemingly incongruous things, almost simultaneously. During one moment, he fist-pumped at a rock festival outside of Lexington, Ky., and in the next he knelt to pray and “receive Jesus Christ into his heart.” One of the artists headlining that concert had unwittingly created a new musical genre called Christian rock. His name was Larry Norman, and little did he know way back in 1969 when he recorded an album called “Upon This Rock” and wrote anthems such as “Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music?” he was pioneering what would become a cultural phenomenon and a billion dollar industry. Nor could he, as a person of faith making albums for secular record companies, have envisioned a time in which the majority of Christians thought of themselves locked in a “culture war” with the rest of society. Pence would go on to embody much of that culture war as governor of Indiana, and now as vice president of the United States. But less is known about Norman, the rocker whom Pence went to see.

Read the rest here.

I must admit that Norman came along a bit before my time.  I joined the evangelical ranks in the early 1980s.  Norman was still popular, but I never really connected with his music.  When evangelicals of a certain age think about Norman, his hit “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” comes immediately to mind.  But as a young evangelical I was always more intrigued (and often time scared to death) by his “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”  It served as the soundtrack to the cheesy (and frightening) 1972 evangelical rapture movie “A Thief in the Night.”  (The song picks up around the four minute mark):

 

The Author’s Corner with Robert Ferguson

51tsc6ALGHL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Robert Ferguson is Assistant Professor of History at Western Carolina University. This interview is based on his new book, Remaking the Rural South: Interracialism, Christian Socialism, and Cooperative Farming in Jim Crow Mississippi (University of Georgia Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Remaking the Rural South?

RF: This book was adapted from a dissertation I wrote while a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I knew when I arrived to UNC that I wanted to research race relations in the rural South. After discussing ideas with my advisor, Fitzhugh Brundage, he suggested that I meet with the archivists at the Southern Historical Collection which housed on UNC’s campus. When I told them my very general and undeveloped plans for a dissertation, they showed me the 11.5 linear feet of documents they had pertaining to two intentional, interracial communities in rural Mississippi at the height of the Jim Crow era. I was hooked. Thank goodness for archivists!

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Remaking the Rural South?

RF: Focusing on two interracial, Christian socialist communities in the rural South, the book argues that former sharecroppers and their allies enacted significant cultural shifts that placed their communities in the vanguard of human rights struggles in the 1930s to the 1950s. From the Great Depression to the civil rights movement, residents of Delta Cooperative Farm and Providence Farm acted out moments of modification that created egalitarian, democratic communities and which were ultimately quashed by white massive resistance to the black freedom struggle.

JF: Why do we need to read Remaking the Rural South?

RF: In times of national polarization, history doesn’t have to be a weight that paralyzes us. We should never look at the world and say, “well, it’s always been that way” and then go about our days weighted down by an ahistorical, erroneous understanding of the past while doing nothing about the present. Rather, history can liberate us when we understand that in the face of overwhelming hardships—such as, say, the Great Depression or Jim Crow—historical actors have posed radical changes and set about achieving those changes.

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

RF: My father and grandmother were high school history teachers. I grew up in a house where the past was part of our daily conversations. We loved good stories. We especially loved uplifting stories. And while the past is full of astonishing tragedy, it can also be the source of inspiration. By the time I was a teenager, I was already reading about the civil rights movement and other minority freedom struggles that allowed me to imagine alternatives to the sometimes problematic race relations I witnessed growing up. Even now, as a historian, writer, and teacher, I seek out the stories of everyday Americans who have struggled against the status quo. If my readers and students find some inspiration there, all the better.

JF: What is your next project?

RF: I’m currently working on an environmental and economic history of how the boom and eventual bust of twentieth century industries have lead to a new era in southern history. In particular, by looking at industries that have relied on harnessing water – textiles, energy, and beer – I argue that while most of the twentieth century experienced almost unfettered industrial growth, since the 1970s many small towns across the region have begun to resemble the Rust Belt rather than the Sunbelt, complete with environmental degradation and economic decline.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

The Author’s Corner with Jeanne Abrams

abrams comp final (004)Jeanne Abrams is a Professor, University Libraries at the University of Denver. This interview is based on her new book, First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role (NYU Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: It was actually my last book, Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health, which sparked my interest in the way our inaugural first three ladies carved out a role for themselves in the political life of the early American republic. Revolutionary Medicine examined the lives of George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James and Dolley Madison from the perspective of sickness, health, and medicine in their era. In the process of writing that book I gained a deeper appreciation for the role these formidable and path-breaking women, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, played in the grand experiment which transformed America from a colonial outpost to an independent nation.

JF: What is the argument of First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, the three “first” First Ladies of the United States, invented the position without a roadmap to follow to accommodate the demands of a new republican government. Although they had to walk a fine line between bringing dignity to the position and distancing themselves from the courtly styles of European royalty that were seen as inimical to the values of a republic, these three spirited women, who in their time could not even vote or hold office, exercised intelligence and initiative to play a substantial role in the nation’s early political life.

JF: Why do we need to read First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: First Ladies of the Republic demonstrates that the creation of the United States was not only a male enterprise. Although they were constrained by the customs of their era, elite women like the inaugural First Ladies played a substantial role in the nation’s early political life. All three helped shape the nation’s political culture and were able to transcend boundaries between the private and public sphere. The lives of these three extraordinary women intersected on many occasions, and they learned from one another as the brand new position of First Lady evolved. Moreover, though most historians have looked at male and female socio-political roles in their era as a binary divide, I argue that it is more useful to view the manner in which they operated together with their presidential husbands as members of a family unit. For early members of America’s governing elite, political life was often a joint cooperative undertaking, an effort in which they participated actively as part of a close-knit family circle. The three First Ladies were all deeply committed to the public good and the principles of independence and liberty which had first emerged in Revolutionary America and continued to develop in the early national period, but at the same time, they also worked to burnish the public images of their presidential spouses and advance their family interests.

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

JA: As a freshman in college many decades ago, I had to write a paper on American Loyalists in the American Revolution for a history class. I paid a visit to the New York Historical Society, and too my astonishment and gratitude, I was handed a box of letters written by Loyalists in the 1760s and 1770s. I couldn’t believe I was holding historical documents from two centuries prior in my hands, and the experience launched my on the road to becoming an historian. That fateful day, I immediately fell in love with primary sources, and it is a love affair that has endured to this day.

JF: What is your next project?

JA: I am now working on a book manuscript about the European journeys of John and Abigail Adams and how their time abroad influenced their increasing admiration for their home country of America and commitment to the republic of the United States.

JF: Thanks, Jeanne!

The Latest From Marilynne Robinson

RobinsonNovelist and public intellectual Marilynne Robinson has a new book of essays out.  It is titled What Are We Doing Here?

Over at The Guardian, Robinson answers a few of Vanessa Thorpe’s questions.

Here is a taste:

Are you likely to be best understood by an ideal reader who comes to you with Christian faith already in place?

I don’t really have an ideal reader in mind at all, whether one with or without faith. When I write it is to try to figure out something for my own purposes. It is self-indulgent really. It is much more the blank page that I write for, in some way. I have this feeling, should a problem present itself, that I should try to resolve it.

How troubled have you been by the extent of God-fearing Christian support for Donald Trump in the last two years?

The terrible turn this part of the populist culture that calls itself Christian has taken is appalling. It is terribly destructive, too. It is a failure of the Christian argument. Religious leaders have failed in that they have not inculcated a good enough understanding of what Christianity should be. They should have paid much more attention to this. That is not to say that the history of Christianity is not pretty scary, even before now. It is very liable to being treated as subservient to some other cause or political purpose.

Read the entire interview here.

The 2018 George Washington Book Prize Finalists Announced

fda8a-gwprize1

*Was America Founded as a Christian Nation* Was a Finalist in 2012

The 2018 George Washington Prize finalists are:

● S. Max Edelson, The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence (Harvard University Press)

● Kevin J. Hayes, George Washington: A Life in Books (Oxford University Press)

● Eric Hinderaker, Boston’s Massacre (Harvard University Press)

● Jon Kukla, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (Simon & Schuster)

● James E. Lewis, Jr., The Burr Conspiracy Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis (Princeton University Press)

● Jennifer Van Horn, The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture)

● Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture)

Congratulations!

“Evangelicals Fell For It”

Trump bioI will confess that I had never heard of conservative pundit Erick Erickson until he started speaking out against Trump. Yesterday The Weekly Standard published Erickson’s scathing review of David Brody’s and Scott Lamb’s The Faith of Donald Trump.  It is brutal.

Here is a taste:

President Trump relishes his reputation as a savvy dealmaker. “Deals are my art form,” he once tweeted. “Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals.” He promised during the 2016 campaign that if elected, he would work with politicians and foreign leaders to make “smart deals for the country.” But since he took office there has been precious little evidence of Trump’s vaunted dealmaking prowess. Such successes as his administration has been able to claim have generally been accomplished without his direct involvement—and sometimes in spite of it.

There is, though, one obvious piece of evidence from the president’s political career that suggests his dealmaking reputation might be deserved after all: the relationship he has with evangelical political leaders. He has lavished them with attention and let them bask in his celebrity star-power, things that they, long feeling like outsiders in American culture and politics, have badly craved. In exchange, they have thrown him their support—unconditional support, by all appearances—and with it, the backing of a political constituency vital to his success at the polls.

In The Faith of Donald J. Trump, authors David Brody and Scott Lamb provide an in-depth look at the relationship between the president and American evangelicals. Brody and Lamb—respectively a newscaster with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and a vice president at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University—have written what they dub a “spiritual biography,” even though they come right out and say they have no intention of answering the question of whether Trump is a Christian. Instead, they hope to convey his faith through his actions.

In the process, though, Brody and Lamb inadvertently expose the corruption and moral vacuity of the political evangelical movement in the United States.

Trump only started paying attention to evangelicals once he began to consider running for president—some five or more years before the 2016 campaign. He made a show of cozying up to evangelical pastors who write books that usually don’t sell well outside their own congregations. He reached out to the prosperity-gospel heretic Paula White and flattered her. He asked questions of other religious leaders.

As his ambitions grew, Trump cannily cultivated relationships with evangelicals, and they convinced themselves that those relationships must be sincere since they began before he openly started campaigning for the presidency. Once he did start openly campaigning, the outreach only became more intensive. As Brody and Lamb report, Trump would seek out the preachers to sit next to at events. He would bring his mother’s Bible to meetings to show it off. Evangelicals fell for it. So deluded and distracted are they by the trappings of power, they do not even see what Brody and Lamb see. “He’s the P. T. Barnum of the 21st century,” an anonymous banker in the book says of Donald Trump. These evangelical leaders have yet to realize that they are the suckers.

Read the entire review here.

In case you haven’t heard, we take a different approach to Trump in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Believe Me JPEG

Historian Richard White on the Gilded Age

WHiteOver at Readers Almanac, the blog of the Library of America, Stanford historian Richard White answers a few questions about his recent book, The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

Here is a taste:

Library of America: In The Republic for Which It Stands, you take up the challenge of treating two periods of American history, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which are often written about in isolation from each other. One way you bridge the divide is by taking the Republican vision of a good society—a society of homes and “homogenous citizenship”—as an overarching theme, using it as a kind of yardstick against which to measure the age. Was the distance between governing ideology and life as it was actually lived unusually great in this period?

Richard White: Originally, the distance between ideology and life wasn’t great at all. At the end of the Civil War, the United States hadn’t yet become a nation of wage workers. Independent labor and prosperous homes seemed the inevitable outcome of a war to eliminate slavery. Large factories remained relatively rare and class divisions, although real, weren’t impenetrable. Americans believed that free labor would secure independent homes, and black homes, identical to white homes, would arise in the wake of the war. Springfield—Lincoln’s home town—embodied their hopes; the nation would become a collection of Springfields.

Similarly, a homogenous citizenry with a set of uniform rights guaranteed by the federal government in a remade republic was legislatively possible in 1865, but the ideal was never absolute. In practice Indians and Chinese would be totally, and white and black women partially, excluded.

By the 1870s the gulf between the ideal and the reality had widened considerably and would continue to widen for the rest of the century. Americans listed as the markers of this failure the decline of independent labor and the rise of a large and permanent class of wage workers. The inability of many wage workers to earn enough to support the gendered ideal of a home—men protecting and supporting families, women in charge of hearth and home and nurturing children as republican citizens—proved alarming. Particularly in cities, immigrant tenements became the antithesis of the home. Not only did the federal government fail to secure black people a full and equal citizenship, but in both urban areas and the South, reformers pushed restrictions on suffrage. A kind of cultural panic, often racialized, ensued in which black people, Indians, Chinese, tramps, single working women, and many immigrants were defined as threats to the white home.

Although the economy grew immensely, the evidence we have indicates that individual well-being declined. Americans grew shorter, sicker, and the children of the poor—particularly the black and urban poor—died in shocking numbers. If the purpose of the economy was to buttress the Republic, it seemed to be failing while the two dangerous classes, the very rich and the poor, increased in numbers. The old ideal of a working life—the original American dream of a competency, the amount of money needed to support a family, provide a cushion for hard times and old age and to set children up in life, rather than great riches—seemed harder and harder to attain.

Read the rest here.

Are Pro-Life Christians Really Liberals?

Lewis abortionOver at Religion Dispatches, Eric C. Miller interviews Andrew R. Lewis, author of The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars.  According to Miller, “Lewis argues that anti-abortion activism has been instrumental in conditioning the Christian Right for participation in liberal discourse. Though launched in the stern language of moral condemnation, the Christian Right has followed its anti-abortion vanguard into a twenty-first century rhetoric based in the liberal language of rights.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Your book argues that anti-abortion activism has prompted the Christian Right to embrace liberal discourse. How so?

The primary argument is that the politics of abortion have taught conservative Christians about the value of public arguments grounded in the language of rights, as rights are one of the most accessible forms of American political discourse. This is particularly true as American culture has become more secular and less apt to embrace calls for public morality.

Going back to the early days of the pro-life movement in the 1960s, there was a strong liberal, human rights element to anti-abortion activists, seeking to defend the right-to-life of the unborn. Much of this came from Catholics. As evangelicals and the Christian Right joined the cause in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was often more rhetorical focus on the immorality of abortion than the rights of the unborn. This reflected the politics of the “Moral Majority.”

A rights-based stream within the pro-life movement persisted, however, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the right-to-life rhetoric triumphed for both the elite activists and the rank-and-file. Importantly, this right-to-life-based framework has allowed for opposition to abortion to compete with the liberal right-to-privacy based argument, serving as a quality public counter-argument. Even more, as conservative Christians have increasingly become a cultural minority in the past two decades, they have begun embracing rights-based rhetoric first learned and used in the pro-life movement in a whole host of other areas of public life, specifically free speech and religious liberty politics. 

Read the rest here.

 

The Magician Who Was the First Black Celebrity in America

hodgson_final_coverJohn Hodgson is the author of Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity.  Hodgson has published an excerpt of his book over at Salon.  Here is a taste:

He was very, very good at what he did. For many years he was the foremost ventriloquist in America, and the most celebrated magician as well. Indeed, he was the most famous American entertainer of any kind: there was no actor or vocalist or musician in the country who could even come close to Richard Potter’s renown. It wasn’t just secondhand fame, either, the kind that could be spread by stories from the daily newspapers of the large East Coast cities and republished as entertaining filler in the weeklies of remote little towns, rumors from a wonderful world that the provincial readers were unlikely ever to experience—George Frederick Cooke taking the stage in the role of Iago, the sea serpent again appearing off Cape Ann, the Pig of Knowledge doing arithmetic. While Richard Potter always made his home in New England, his tours took him across the length and breadth of the nation. Wherever you lived in America, even if you had not yourself attended at least one of his exhibitions, you probably knew people, perhaps even many people, who had. When he died, in 1835, he had become a national icon.

Fame comes in various flavors, of course. As a showman, Richard Potter could not expect to achieve the kind of recognition traditionally reserved for prominent politicians, military leaders, or eminent writers. Moreover, even the formal theater at this time still suffered some degree of disrepute across wide swaths of American culture; more populist forms of entertainment, like Potter’s, incurred that kind of cultural condescension and disapproval to an even greater degree. Many Americans disapproved of such amusements in and of themselves, associating them with dissipation, frivolity, and “juggling” (knavish trickery), and many others who openly enjoyed them nevertheless felt that their professors were not entirely respectable. But enjoy those entertainments people certainly did; and Richard Potter himself contributed enormously to the long, gradual process of making American showmanship respectable. . . .

Read the rest here.