The Author’s Corner with Richard Haw

Haw_Engineering America_cover, 2ndRichard Haw is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. This interview is based on his new book, Engineering America: The Life and Times of John A. Roebling (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Engineering America?

RH: The simple answer would be that I wanted to understand the person who envisioned and then designed the Brooklyn Bridge, about which I’d written a couple of books.  And I wanted more broadly to understand the world in which that bridge could come into being.

The more complex answer is that I wanted to understand a person who thought deeply about a host of different things—about science, politics, religion, national culture, philosophy, immigration, commerce, race, medicine, economics—and yet seemed to be composed almost wholly of contradictions. Roebling was a man of science who also attended séances and believed in spiritualism; he was capable of designing and erecting great works of engineering but he also wrapped himself up in a wet sheet most nights and ate charcoal on a daily basis; he was a man of great self-certainty but also quick to seize on a whole host of fads; he held deep religious beliefs yet loathed the established church; he read widely in Hegel, Emerson, and Channing, but also in Andrew Jackson Davis, Swedenborg, Baron Carol von Reichenbach.  I wanted to explore how one person could be naive and fallible while also brilliant and visionary.

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

RH: That John Roebling was a thinker, a seeker, and an ideas man. He had thousands of ideas during his lifetime and while most of them missed the mark in one form or another, some didn’t, and those ideas helped change the face of a nation.

JF: Why do we need to read Engineering America?

RH: John Roebling hasn’t fared well in the hands of historians.  The last biography written about him was published over 70 years ago and since then our understanding of him—not helped by his son’s rather harsh memoir of his father, long available to researchers but only recently published—has ossified into something both unfair and unflattering.  His genius has always been acknowledged but our sense of him as a person has become stuck in realms usually reserved for Hollywood Germans: overly formal, unbending, authoritarian, dispassionate, devoid of humor or humanism and prone to violence.  The real John Roebling was a far cry from this.

In addition, we tend not to write about engineers outside of the narrow confines of … well … engineering.  We write about politicians and soldiers and writers all the time but engineers are arguably just as central to our world although we rarely ask what they thought they were doing, outside of simply solving mechanical problems.  To put it another way: engineering is central to our world, but engineers are rarely central to the writing of history.  And even less central to the writing of biography. 

But engineers are often deeply engaged people who think of themselves as performing a social or political role.  Raymond Merritt once referred to engineers as “functional intellectuals” and that’s certainly how I think of Roebling.  He believed in the moral application of technology, that bridges, railroads and the Atlantic Cable would band people together, heal divisions, make neighbors out of rivals, and free people out the oppressed or enslaved.  He thought that railroads would help bring democracy to Russia, for example.  And he believed and said all these things over two decades before Walt Whitman was writing about “the strong light works of engineers” and their unifying, ethical potential.

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

RH: I grew up in the north of England and I wasn’t at all interested in history.  Or school or going to college.  Until that is I’d had some experience of trying to get along without either ‘A’ levels (the British equivalent of a High School Diploma) or a college degree.  When I did finally go to college in my mid-20s I didn’t really have any sense of disciplines.  I was interested in periods—Victorian Britain, for example—but I couldn’t find a program that allowed you to look at a thing or a period from lots of different perspectives. The only degree that let you do that was American Studies, so I took American Studies, not really knowing the first thing about America!  And I loved it.  I loved thinking about Film Noir movies and the Cold War; I loved discovering the Hudson River School during a class on Jacksonian America; I enjoyed reading Virgin Land and The Machine in the Garden; and most of all I loved interdisciplinary thinking. 

From there, I think I slowly made myself into a historian, albeit a rather ill-defined one.  As an undergraduate, I think most of my interests were in the arts but that changed through my graduate training and my career at John Jay College.  Over many years, I’ve come to think of most intellectual work (in the Humanities at least) as being about texts or about people.  It’s a simplification of course, but broadly true in my understanding.  And while I love teaching and talking about texts, I’m not terribly interested in writing about them.  I’d much rather write about people and events. 

JF: What is your next project?

RH: I’m writing a book about a somewhat forgotten New York artist called Leon Bibel who was very active during the late 1930s thanks to the New Deal.  (Most people encounter Bibel as the first man in the breadline at the FDR memorial in Washington, DC.  He was molded by his great friend George Segal, the sculptor commissioned for the memorial.)  Like many New Deal artists, Bibel was deeply committed to social justice and he produced lots of great art attacking racism, fascism, political hypocrisy, war, and injustice of all stripes.  If not for the New Deal, Bibel might have spent his life working as a carpenter like his brother.  But he didn’t.  He enjoyed a brief, precious moment when a government program enabled a person to be an artist.  And because of that, Bibel’s art is housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, among other prestigious museums.  I find those aspects of history fascinating.

JF: Thanks, Richard!

When New York Mayors Run for President

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Former New York mayor John Lindsay, October 1965 (Wikimedia)

What do DeWitt Clinton, John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani, Bill DeBlasio, and Michael Bloomberg have in common? They were all New York City mayors who ran for president.

Here is Ed Kilgore at New York Magazine:

So that brings us to 2020 and Bloomberg. Interestingly enough, he’s emulating Giuliani’s skip-the-early-states strategy, but he’s putting his vast wealth into ensuring that when the calendar does turn to Super Tuesday in March he will be extremely well-known and have a solid campaign in those states. And it’s looking like he is lucking into a landscape in which all of his surviving rivals will have weaknesses he can exploit. Whether it’s a one-on-one cage match with current front-runner Bernie Sanders, or a large field of wounded and underfunded candidates struggling from state to state, Bloomberg is positioned to do a lot better than Rudy did and perhaps as well as or even better than DeWitt Clinton. If he blows this opportunity, it could be a long time before another New York mayor ventures onto the presidential campaign trail.

Read the entire piece here.

Who Was David Ruggles?

RugglesColgate University historian Graham Hodges introduces us to David Ruggles, America’s “first full-time black activist.”  Here is a taste of his piece at Zocalo Public Square:

After he escaped from slavery in Baltimore in early September 1838, Frederick Bailey was broke, homeless, and scared. As he huddled among barrels in New York City’s Chambers Street dock, the man who later became known as Frederick Douglass worried about slave catchers and rats. Suddenly a large black man wearing a stove pipe hat, spectacles, and a formal jacket and pants emerged and invited Douglass to his home at 36 Lispenard Street, just a few blocks away.

Douglass’ savior was none other than David Ruggles, a free black man who was the secretary and general organizer of the New York Committee of Vigilance or NYCV, an abolitionist organization that battled slave catchers, kidnappers, and slave traders—and offered succor to hundreds of self-liberated people.

David Ruggles was arguably the first full-time black activist in the United States. He operated New York’s first library and bookstore for black people, edited and sold newspapers and magazines, and founded a black high school and a literary society. An innovator, he combined his activism with commerce by operating a grocery that only sold products made without enslaved labor. Over the course of his life, Ruggles was a true 19th-century Renaissance Man, a visionary political leader, a savvy street fighter, and a healer. He didn’t share Frederick Douglass’ fame or good fortune, but he was an indelible influence on the younger man—crucial to forging the legend that Douglass was to become.

In his 1845 narrative and in subsequent writings, Douglass used capital letters when he credited Ruggles with saving his freedom. He wasn’t being hyperbolic. Having fled from slavery in Maryland, Douglass was highly vulnerable to slave catchers or “black birds” who preyed upon northern African Americans, seizing them to exchange for cash and shipment into perpetual bondage in the South. During Douglass’ first 10 days out of enslavement, it was Ruggles’ home he stayed in as he launched his life as a free man. There Douglass married his fiancé, Anna Murray, in a ceremony at Ruggles’ house officiated by Reverend James W. C. Pennington, who escaped from slavery himself in 1828 and now served as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hartford, Connecticut.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Anna Mae Duane

educated for freedomAnna Mae Duane is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on her new book, Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Slave Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Educated for Freedom?

AMD: I was exploring the archives at the New-York Historical Society and I came across a skit included in the records of the New-York African Free Schools. This 1822 skit depicts two students, one student chastising the other for having a slothful mother who keeps him from getting to school on time. I wanted to know what it was like to be a nine–year-old child, and to stand on stage and act out a script that depicted your mother–and by extension the other mothers at the school–as being too lazy, or too ignorant to understand the great importance of getting to school on time. Since that day, I’ve been told many times that this is, perhaps, the wrong question to ask. We can’t ever know how any historical person really felt, and in this case, the evidence made it seem like a particularly futile question to ask. These were children, Black children in a slave nation no less, reading words written for them by white adults, which they dramatized before a public that would judge them on their performance. In other words, we must recognize that these two schoolchildren were utterly subaltern: it’s a fool’s errand to try to hear them speak.

Educated for Freedom is a response to that objection. As I’ve researched the work of the school, and the lives of the two of the remarkable people who have attended it (one of whom, Dr. James McCune Smith, turned out to be one of the kids in the skit), I’ve realized that the historical and the literary documents offer ample proof that these children and others like them were part of broad conversations about the nation, about power and, most particularly, about the future.

So while this book is a biography of two men who became giants of Black abolitionism, I wanted to keep the dialogue open between their lives as adults and their experiences as children by pausing at moments when their “adult” work–in medicine, science, and politics—was shaped by Black children in their lives, sometimes strangers, sometimes fugitives, sometimes their own children. Much work on Black abolitionism has stressed the ways in which the activists sought, understandably, to gain access to a citizenship that was coded both male and adult. I sought to structure the book in a way that braided the personal with the political, the needs of a child, with the demands of a citizen, to reflect how mutually constitutive these terms were in the process of determining how slavery was defined, attacked, and defended in the years leading to the Civil War.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Educated for Freedom?

AMD: The book begins with Black students being told that they could never be fully American, and ends with one of those students speaking before Congress: that journey helps us understand the power of Black political organizing both in the public and private realms.  We can’t understand how the intertwined concepts of freedom and Americanness were transformed in the nineteenth century without fully recognizing the revolutionary work of African American students, parents and activists: people who were never meant to claim the role of free American citizens. 

JF: Why do we need to read Educated for Freedom?

AMD: Well, to start with, the lives of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet are incredibly exciting!  Smith and Garnet are far from household names, but they were players in many of the century’s most momentous events. The  impoverished sons of enslaved mothers, they managed to meet the Marquis de Lafayette, earn a Medical degree, fight off angry mobs, influence John Brown and his fateful raid, speak before crowds of thousands, challenge the terms of white abolitionism, and address Congress. Their lives and work allows us to reimagine  how we imagine the scope of African Americans’ influence in pre-Civil War America.

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

AMD: At first I thought I’d be a literary critic of the Renaissance! And then I enrolled in an early American literature class, and I was hooked. I was immediately intrigued by  how the New England settlers worked so diligently to place their suffering–and the suffering they imposed on so many others–within a coherent symbolic framework. Since then I’ve been fascinated with the stories we tell ourselves about the past, particularly about how often those stories return to the tableau of an endangered child.

JF: What is your next project?

AMD: I have two projects that I’m in the process of developing. The first, tentatively titled “American Orphans” builds on Educated for Freedom‘s argument that children are not bystanders in American history or rhetoric. Instead, they have been key to how the U.S. has explained itself symbolically. I’ll be researching schools, prisons, and other sites to chart how their  subjection to, and resistance of, their national role has shaped definitions of citizenship and freedom. I’m particularly interested in exploring how  the trauma of orphanhood became celebrated as an American rite of passage on the way to independence in ways that justified–even glorified–separating children of color from their homes and communities

My second project–in the very early stages–will be a developing series of biographies of the New York African Free School students aimed for younger audiences.

JF: Thanks, Anna Mae!

The Tail of George III’s Horse

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On July 9, 1776, colonial soldiers pulled down a statue of George III on horseback located at Bowling Green, New York City.  It is a famous story of revolutionary resistance.  Most of the broken statue was sent to Litchfield, Connecticut where the lead was melted into musket balls.

But one part of the statue did not make it to Litchfield.  The blog of the New York Historical Society tells the story of the horse’s tail.  Here is a taste:

After the gold was removed, the broken statue was carted off to Litchfield, CT, where the 4,000 pounds of lead were supposed to be melted down into musket balls for the coming war. In all, over 40,000 balls were made, but some key segments went missing along the way: The head, for instance, was apparently returned to England, where it disappeared from record. As for other pieces, the legend goes that the cart’s drivers stopped in a tavern in Wilton, CT, and local loyalists took the opportunity to spirit some of the segments away—including the horse’s tail.

What happened to the tail after that is not known. Nearly 100 years passed before it and several other pieces were found in a swamp near a Wilton farm in 1871. They were irresistible artifacts of the American Revolution, and in 1878, members of the New-York Historical Society banded together to purchase the fragments for one hundred dollars. They’ve been in our collection ever since, and the horse’s tail is currently on view in our second floor Dexter Gallery.

Read the entire piece here.

Help *The New York Times* Develop Its Walking Tour of New York City Women’s History

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Women’s Vigilance League at City Hall to protest the high prices of food in the city, 1917

The Times recently started a walking tour of New York City women’s history and they are looking to expand:

This summer, The Times started a walking tour to document some of the little-known locations where women made history in New York. (Want to check it out? Use the special offer code INHERWORDS for 15 percent off tickets or enter here for a chance to win two.)

Now we’re expanding our list beyond the city — and we need your help.

Is there a location in your town where some bit of remarkable women’s history took place?

It could be a bar that barred women until a groundbreaking law in 1970 (Barbara Shaum was the first to be allowed inside McSorley’s in Manhattan), a street corner where a woman was arrested for smoking in public (Katie Mulcahey, in 1908), or a nondescript office building where a group of women decided to start a feminist zine (Bust). Or something else entirely.

Email us at inherwords@nytimes.com and tell us about your spot. Where is it, and what happened there? Please provide as many specifics as possible — the more unexpected the better.

Read the entire piece here.

Trinity Church’s $6 Billion Portfolio

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Trinity Church in New York City was formed in 1697 by a small group of Anglicans. Alexander Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton, and Angelica Schuyler, three of the stars of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” are all buried in New York City’s Trinity Church.  Alexander and Eliza baptized five of their children at Trinity.  John Jay was also a parishioner.

Today, Trinity Church is very wealthy.  Over at The New York Times, Jane Margolies writes about the church’s real estate investments in the city and its own construction of a $350 million glass tower.  Here is a taste:

While many places of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their congregations and buildings, Trinity is a big-time developer itself.

The church has always been land-rich. And it has long had its own real estate arm, which controls ground leases and office space rentals in the buildings it owns. But now it finds itself with a newly diversified portfolio worth $6 billion, according to the current rector, the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer.

After being instrumental in changing the zoning laws in Hudson Square, a neighborhood between West Houston and Canal Streets, Trinity Real Estate has entered into a joint venture that gives it a majority stake in 12 buildings that contain six million square feet of commercial space. A lucrative deal with the Walt Disney Company, valued at $650 million, was signed just last year.

And as it builds its glass tower — which will house administrative offices, public gathering spaces and, yes, commercial tenants — Trinity is also renovating the interior of its historic church, which is expected to cost $110 million.

Trinity has been able to do all this because it’s been a savvy manager of its resources. It is also, as a church, exempt from taxes.

But some wonder about the ethics of a religious institution being such a power player in the world of New York real estate.

Read the entire piece here.

New York City’s Sons of Liberty

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Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell calls our attention to a new exhibit at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in lower Manhattan.  It is titled “Fear & Force: New York City’s Sons of Liberty.”

Here is a taste of Bell’s post:

The museum’s announcement says:

On display in the Museum’s largest gallery, the exhibition will immerse visitors in New York City in the late 18th century, when the Sons of Liberty first began to make a name for themselves as an organized group who opposed British rule through violent resistance prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. 

The exhibition will take visitors through a timeline that chronicles key players and stories behind some of the most dramatic events that ignited the spark of revolution in the 13 colonies, from the staging of New York’s very own “tea party,” to tarring and feathering Loyalists.

The New York Tea Party took place on 22 Apr 1774, four months after the famous Boston Tea Party and one month after the less famous second Boston Tea Party. But I can see why this site wants to highlight the New York event, and I’ll say more about it tomorrow. 

As for “tarring and feathering Loyalists,” New Yorkers actually carried out that public punishment on Customs employees or informers before Bostonians did, though folks in some of the smaller ports along Massachusetts’s north shore had established the tradition even earlier. 

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Victoria Johnson

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

JF: What led you to write American Eden?

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read American Eden?

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF:  Thanks, Victoria!

The New York Slavery Records Index

Slave RevoltAnother great database:

The New York Slavery Records Index is a searchable compilation of records that identify individual enslaved persons and their owners, beginning as early as 1525 and ending during the Civil War.

Our data come from census records, slave trade transactions, cemetery records, birth certifications, manumissions, ship inventories, newspaper accounts, private narratives, legal documents and many other sources. The index contains over 35,000 records and will continue to grow as our team of John Jay College professors and students locates and assembles data from additional sources.

Our goal is to deepen the understanding of slavery in New York by bringing together information that until now has been largely disconnected and difficult to access. This allows for searches that combine records from all indexed sources based on parameters such as the name of an owner, a place name, and date ranges.

Learn more here.

The First Shaker Village in the United States

WatervleitAtlas Obscura is featuring some of the early American architecture of Watervliet, New York, the first Shaker village in the United States.  Here is a taste of the accompanying piece:

The millenarian Christian sect, fleeing persecution in England and isolating themselves from wider society in colonial America, established their village near what is now Albany, New York in 1776. Many of the buildings in the town, which stands just southwest of the Albany Airport, have been demolished, but the site still includes nine of the town’s original buildings built between the 1820s and 1920s, as well as the main Meeting House built in 1848 (which replaced the original built in 1791).

In addition to the large worship space, the Meeting House also includes a museum with many examples of Shaker products, village artifacts, and interpretive displays. Many of these artifacts have simple, uniquely Shaker designs. The sect not only farmed to meet their own needs but also created manufacturing industries, inventing or improving many products to sell very profitably to the public.

Read the entire piece here.

George Washington Asks for a Ride to Church

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Federal Hall, Wall Street, and Trinity Church, 1789

Historian Jonathan Den Hartog of the University of Northwestern is working on a project on John Jay at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington this month.  At his Facebook page he shared this great 1789 letter from Washington to John Jay.

The President of the United States presents his Compliments to Mr Jay, and informs him that the Harness of the President’s Carriage was so much injured in coming from Jersey that he will not be able to use it today. If Mr Jay should propose going to Church this Morng the President would be obliged to him for a Seat in his Carriage.

The letter is dated “April-Dec. 1789.” Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, so it is unclear if he is POTUS yet.  There is no place mentioned on the letter, but all signs point to New York.  This was the site of the Federal Government until 1790 and it was the home state of Jay.  I would guess Washington needs a ride to New York’s Trinity Church where Jay was a church warden.

Hey, we all need a ride to church every now and then.

ADDENDUM: See the comments section.  It looks like GW was probably asking for a ride to St. Paul’s Chapel, not Trinity Church.  Nice work!

Grant Wacker on Billy Graham’s 1957 New York Crusade

WackerI have always been fascinated by this Billy Graham crusade. When I was in divinity school I wrote an M.A. thesis on separatist Protestant fundamentalism in the 20th century.  The 1957 crusade was a key part of my story.

Over at the blog “Evangelical History,” Justin Taylor interviews Graham biographer Grant Wacker about the 1957 Crusade, which got underway 60 years ago yesterday.

Here is a taste:

Setting aside whatever influences on the culture this crusade might have had, historians recognize that one of the most significant internal legacies from this summer was Graham’s decision about partnering with modernists, moderates, and mainliners.

The New York crusade embodied and portended one of the most important strategic decisions of Graham’s entire life. He determined that he would work with anyone who would work with him if (1) they accepted the deity of Christ and if (2) they did not ask him to change his message.

In practice he quietly overlooked the “deity of Christ” provision. He accepted the help mainline of Protestants who probably would have the affirmed the divinity but not necessarily the deity of Christ, and of Jews, who found his emphasis on God, patriotism, and decency appealing.

But the second provision—“if they do not expect me to change my message”—proved absolutely non-negotiable. There is no evidence anyone tried.

Inclusiveness worked—on the whole. As I noted earlier, the invitation to New York came from a majority of the churches, evangelical and mainline. It is hard to generalize about Catholics, but signs abound that thousands of ordinary believers and many members of the Catholic clergy supported him. Some Jews, too.

That being said, fundamentalists relentlessly opposed Graham’s effort in New York and, from then, pretty much everywhere else. By working with so-called liberals and Catholics, they reasoned, he had sacrificed doctrine for success, and the price was too high. Their opposition could be called “the bitterness of disillusioned love.” In their eyes, Graham had once been one of them, but he had left the family, never to return.

The diversity was not only religious but also included men and women from a variety of occupations and social levels. The crusade was sponsored and undoubtedly partly funded by leading figures in the business community, such as George Champion, vice president (soon president) of Chase Manhattan Bank, one of the largest in the nation. The nightly meetings featured a retinue of testimonials from prominent entertainers, politicians, and military men. Anecdotal evidence suggests that thousands of ordinary people—more often readers of the New York Post than the New York Times—talked about the meetings on the subways and in street corner diners.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with Michael Rapport

the-unruly-city.jpgMichael Rapport is Professor of History at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. This interview is based on his new book, The Unruly City:  Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution (Basic Books, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Unruly City?

MR: I love walking – in the Scottish Highlands, in countryside and along coastline, but also in cities.  When you walk through a city with a long past, like Paris, London and New York (it has been pointed out that New York is older than Saint Petersburg or Versailles) you get a strong sense of the topography, which is often in itself the physical footprint of the past, no matter how much building and reconstruction has taken place over the decades.  And of course you can come across gems among the buildings and spaces – sometimes an entire street or neighbourhood – that bears an historic character.  All of this sparked my curiosity: what were these cities like two-and-a-half centuries ago?  And how did their citizens experience the upheavals and the fight for democracy in my own historical period, the age of the American and French Revolutions?  How were the buildings and the cityscape marked by these struggles?   I chose to write about Paris because it was the beating heart of revolutionary politics in France; New York because I wanted to explore the vicissitudes of revolution, war, occupation and reconstruction (after the fire in 1776)…and because of all American cities I probably know it the best; and London because it avoided revolution, so took an alternative political path.  These are also three cities that I love.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Unruly City?

MR: I start from an apparently obvious point, namely that revolutions take place in a physical space, that they of course erupt over ideology and culture, political power and social change, but that they are also in a very real sense struggles for the strategic and symbolic control of key places and spaces within the cityscape.  How revolutionaries, radicals and their opponents then adapted, embellished and used the buildings, streets and other sites in the city tells us a lot about the revolutionary process itself.

JF: Why do we need to read The Unruly City?

MR: Firstly, and foremost, I hope, out of pure curiosity: I cannot emphasise enough that this is a book that I wrote primarily to be enjoyed.  Secondly, I hope that readers will share in my own pleasure in walking the city.  While this is not a guidebook to Paris, London and New York, it does gently tell readers (either in the text itself or in the endnotes) how they can find each new site where the action unfurls.  Thirdly, the story of the American and French Revolutions, and of the British democratic movement in the same years, reminds us that many of the rights and freedoms that we enjoy were fought for in the past – and that they are still a matter of contest in many parts of the world today.  Finally, many of the streets, buildings and spaces described in the book still exist today, or their imprint does.  Although their association with the tumultuous events of the revolutionary epoch may now often be forgotten, or overlaid by other, more recent developments, they are – or could be – sites of memory, places that connect us directly with the eighteenth-century struggle for democracy.

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

MR: This will take some space to answer…because I am primarily a European historian.  So to begin with ‘when’, we are all, in different ways, students of history throughout our lives.  I’ve been interested in the past for as long as I can remember.  My father, George Rapport – who is, amongst other things, a keen historian – always encouraged my interests in history and, for a few years, he lived in Belgium, a cycle-ride from the battlefield of Waterloo.  As my interests developed – and because I have both Swedish and Russian heritage – I was drawn to European history.  Moreover, although I was born in the United States (in Bronxville, New York) I have lived almost all my life in Europe, particularly France, England and, for the most part, Scotland, so my identity is probably best described as transatlantic.  I’ve always loved the creative and intellectual challenges of writing – short stories, an historical novel, and, above all, history – and in my late teens was drawn to a career in journalism.  But at school I also had a truly inspiring history teacher – Jeremy Barker – who was a zealous devotee of European history, and particularly modern France and the French Revolution.  At the same time, my mother and stepfather Mike moved to Paris, so historical passion aligned with location: I had found my period, and my place, namely revolutionary France.  My mother Anita was always there to remind me that much of history was social history, so the discovery of ‘how people lived’, has become a mantra.  So I’ve always been absorbed, one way or another, in pursuing the past.  That’s the answer to ‘when’.

That leaves the answer to ‘why’: despite my focus on Europe, my American origins have always been in the background – and they were (and still are) regularly foregrounded by frequent return trips to the US.  When we were boys, my brother Allan and I travelled with my father around sites of the American Revolution.  We visited Civil War sites, too: since my father is an alumnus of the Virginia Military Institute, it could not have been otherwise.  My father also wrote a novel about the Fetterman Massacre, during which time my stepmother, Jane, treated us to a trip to Montana and Wyoming as part of the research.  So I’ve had grounding in American history since at least my early teens.  As an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I won the Class Medal in the sophomore survey course on American History and then went on the study, as part of my Honours programme, the social history of colonial America under Alan Day, who had pursued his doctorate under none other than Jack P. Greene.  It also so happened that Helen, a Scottish historian (and, it should be said, a specialist in Scottish urban history) and the woman who became my wife, was in the same seminar group, so (as they say) we were firing on all cylinders.  And though I went on to pursue doctoral work at Bristol University with Professor Bill Doyle on the French Revolution, my focus has always been on the revolution in a wider, international context.  I rapidly discovered that, in order to understand the transnational dimension of the French Revolution – its origins, course and legacy – one must also understand, amongst other dimensions, the Atlantic perspective.  So I find myself pulled, repeatedly, back to the young American Republic and the Americas.

JF: What is your next project?

MR: Rather alarmingly, there are four irons heating up in the furnace.  Firstly, in writing The Unruly City, I came across (rather belatedly) a series of theoretical approaches to space and place that has exercised some historians and cultural geographers, namely the ‘spatial turn’, which engages with the different ways in which space, place and location affected human behaviour.  So I am writing a book on revolutionary Paris which deploys the hardware in this arsenal.  Secondly, I am working on a book for Cambridge University Press, A Concise History of Europe.  Thirdly I’m editing The Oxford Handbook to Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789-1914 and, fourthly, I have edited, with my excellent friend and colleague Ben Marsh of Kent University (and an American historian to boot), a volume on Teaching and Understanding the Age of Revolutions, a collection of essays published by the University of Wisconsin Press by leading and up-and-coming historians on a variety of cutting-edge, innovative approaches to teaching and learning about the many different aspects of the ‘age of revolution’ in the Atlantic world.

JF: Thanks, Michael.  You are a busy man!

New Trends in Early New York History

 

Albany Map

Cornell University Press editor Michael McGandy has a nice piece at the blog of the New York State Museum introducing us to two new projects in early New York history.  The piece features Liz Covart‘s book manuscript on early Albany titled “America’s First Gateway.” Many of you know Covart from her podcast “Ben Franklin’s World.”

I am hoping Covart finds the time to get the manuscript into print.  It sounds like a great project.

Here is a taste of McGandy’s piece:

The working title for Covart’s manuscript is “America’s First Gateway,” the gateway in this case being Albany, New York. In an effort to understand how present-day United States citizens identify as Americans, Covart explores how early Americans created regional cultural communities. Albany presents the best location for this exploration, she argues, because of its historical diversity and its location. From Albany, colonists, fur traders, imperial armies, and frontier settlers traveled the Hudson River north to Canada and south to New York City and the Atlantic Ocean. They took the Mohawk River and its portages to western New York, the Great Lakes region, and beyond. After 1826, frontier settlers traveled west via the continuous water route of the Erie Canal. This important riparian geography gave Albany and its people, both elite and non-elite, a front-row view of four imperial wars between 1689 and 1783, and positioned the city to become a center of the Transportation and Industrial Revolutions in the 19th century.

Spanning the history of Albany from its Dutch origins as Beverwijck to the boom that accompanied the opening of the Erie Canal, Covart’s history is big. It involves four political regimes (Iroquois, Dutch, English, and American), titanic demographic shifts (from the clearance of the Iroquois to Yankee migration out of New England), and radical changes in political economy (from mercantilism to capitalism). In and through these changes, she finds a coherent narrative line and, by focusing on the social history of the Albany community, makes something whole out of this welter of diversity.

Read the rest of the piece here.

McGandy also discusses Nicole Maskiell‘s manuscript, “Bound by Bondage: Slavery and the Creation of a Northern Gentry.”

The Author’s Corner with Kyle Roberts

evangelical-gothamKyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. This interview is based on his new book, Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860 (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Evangelical Gotham?

KR: The scholarship I found most exciting in graduate school was about the history of evangelicalism. So many great books came out in the 1990s and early 2000s – Heyrman’s Southern Cross, Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival, Lambert’s Inventing the Great Awakening, Noll’s America’s God – but so few focused on evangelicals in cities. For a while I thought evangelicals only existed in the rural hinterland.

As for Gotham, I was regularly crossing through New York as I took the Amtrak back and forth between my home in Boston and graduate school in Philadelphia. I felt like historians had sort of figured out Boston (Puritan) and Philadelphia (pluralistic), but the story of New York was still waiting to be told. When scholars did write about religion in nineteenth-century New York, they often focused on eccentrics, such as Johnson and Wilentz’s Kingdom of Matthias, or religious communities who settled themselves in urban spaces built by others, such as in Orsi’s glorious Madonna of 115th Street. I wanted to know more about the religious beliefs, practices, and worldviews of the mainstream folk who built the city in the first place.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Evangelical Gotham?

KR: In Evangelical Gotham, I argue that the astonishing rise of the nation’s leading city and its dominant Protestant religious movement were intricately intertwined between the end of the American Revolution and the outbreak of the Civil War. Inherently pluralistic and syncretistic, evangelicalism provided a broad range of New Yorkers with a meaningful and adaptable, if at times contradictory, urban religion that helped them respond to, locate themselves within, and significantly contribute to the growth of the city and the nation over a crucial eighty-year period.

JF: Why do we need to read Evangelical Gotham?

KR: I think we miss a key part of the American experience if we ignore the place of religion in the development of the nation’s cities. There are two important things that surprised me in writing this book:

First, evangelicals were really innovative. Earlier scholars of nineteenth-century urban religion have discounted evangelicals as failures who could not think beyond transplanting rural models in urban spaces. What I found couldn’t be more different. Evangelical New Yorkers were remarkably creative people, eager to put the secular resources of the city to sacred ends. Take, for example, their rethinking of sacred space. They had some of, if not the, earliest storefront churches in the country, dating back to the 1760s; they perfected a vernacular style for meetinghouses that well suited the realities of urban real estate; they threw out centuries-old modes of funding churches and created a series of Free Churches on a radically new plan; and they adapted everything from theaters to ship decks into places for preaching the gospel. Even the briefest glance at the extent, plan, and scale of their publishing ventures confirms how forward-thinking they were.

Second, evangelicalism was not all about social control. It’s easy to caricature antebellum evangelicals as pious, middle-class do-gooders. Many of them were. But reducing their faith to some form of class control isn’t fair to my historic subjects and misses the point. I wrote each chapter around the story of one or more New Yorkers so that readers could get a sense of what their faith meant to them and how it inspired them to act upon it. Some, like Lewis Tappan and Phoebe Worrall Palmer, are still remembered today; others, like Charles Lahatt or Michael Floy, have been forgotten – but have much to tell us.

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

I think it was the summer after my junior year in high school that I made peace with the fact that I was destined to be an Americanist. I had spent that summer at MASP – the Massachusetts Advanced Studies Program – sort of a nerd camp for public school kids held at Milton Academy. There I discovered that I hated economics and loved writing. So, I gave up my thoughts of becoming an insurance agent like my father. I jumped feet first into American Studies when I got to Williams College and haven’t looked back. Along the way I also embraced my calling as a public historian and digital humanist.

JF: What is your next project?

KR: I’m trading evangelical New Yorkers for Midwestern Catholics. When I arrived at Loyola six years ago, I knew I wanted a locally-based research project through which I could teach the digital humanities, public history, and the history of religion. My first week there I made an appointment with University Special Collections to see what they had for materials related to the history of the library. (It wasn’t a completely random question, I had just spent two years in London creating Dissenting Academies Online (http://www.qmulreligionandliterature.co.uk/research/the-dissenting-academies-project/dissenting-academies-online/), a recreation of the holdings and borrowing records of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dissenting academies.) The archivist brought out a detailed manuscript library catalog from the school’s first decade. I knew at that moment that I had found my next project.

Over the past few years I’ve worked with dozens of bright undergraduate and graduate student interns on the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project (https://jesuitlibrariesprovenanceproject.com/). It has provided some on my most rewarding teaching and confirmed the value of collaborative research. We’ve recreated Loyola’s first library catalog in a virtual library system, tracked down and documented most of the nearly 1500 titles still surviving from the original library, identified library catalogs and collections at other Jesuit colleges and universities, and even started to reconstruct the Catholic book trade in the 1840s Mississippi Valley from a massive ledger kept by Jesuits in St. Louis. The goal is now to bring this all together in a monograph that asks readers to rethink Catholicism, print, and nationalism from the perspective of the nineteenth-century Midwest. Let’s just say Lyman Beecher actually had something to fear when he published his Plea for the West in 1835!

JF: Thanks, Kyle!

The Author’s Corner with Gergely Baics

feedinggothamGergely Baics is Assistant Professor of History and Urban Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Feeding Gotham?

GB: Working on a research paper as a graduate student, I came across a vernacular sketch of African American dancing contests at Catharine Market in 1820 in Shane White’s wonderful article, “The Death of James Johnson.” The drawing captivated me for its intimate depiction of the vibrant and cosmopolitan public spaces of Early New York City. Catharine Market—its economy, social organization, and everyday life—became the subject of that paper. Over time, I realized that that small sketch of Catharine Market opened up a much larger subject: the vast and complex landscape of food provisioning in America’s first metropolis.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Feeding Gotham?

GB: Feeding Gotham brings the critical question of food access to the center of our understanding of nineteenth-century urban life and living standards. It argues that the antebellum deregulation of food markets created a new structural inequality, similar to health and housing conditions, that defined and shaped the development of the American city.

JF: Why do we need to read Feeding Gotham?

GB: Feeding Gotham examines the vital problem of food access in a city experiencing unprecedented growth, with its population rising from thirty thousand to nearly a million. It presents a comprehensive account based in political economy and the social and geographic history of the complex interplay of urban governance, market forces, and the built environment in provisioning New Yorkers. The book’s narrative traces how access to food, once a public good, became a private matter left to free and unregulated markets. In situating the deregulation of food markets within a broader matrix of public and private goods, it underlines the highly contested and open-ended outcomes of antebellum political economy debates. Moving beyond the debates, the bulk of the book studies the stakes involved. Most critical, Feeding Gotham brings the subject of food access to the center of our understanding of nineteenth-century urban living standards, a conversation thus far dominated by concerns over housing and sanitary provisions. The book documents how unequal access to food, much like shelter and sanitation, became a structural condition of inequality, part of the modern city’s increasingly stratified built and social environment. Importantly, the analysis extends to the understudied subject of food quality. It documents that the city’s surrender of all regulatory oversight of its food supplies contributed to deteriorating quality, which disadvantaged especially the rising rank of working-class immigrant populations. Central to the book’s approach is the systematic application of geographic information system (GIS) analysis. Feeding Gotham is the first book that maps the food system of a major nineteenth-century city, and one of few that deploys GIS systematically to study a specific problem in urban history. GIS mapping—from data creation to interpretation—provides a theoretical framework, methodological approach, and empirical base for the book’s main arguments. The extensive cartographic material was carefully created and designed to present a systematic and layered spatial analysis of food access in the nineteenth-century American city.

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

GB: First, I became an urban historian, and second an Americanist. I cannot recall when my fascination with cities began—probably, growing up in Budapest has a lot to do with it. It was during my undergraduate years that I discovered that I could become an urban historian, and this felt like an obvious intellectual path for me. My attraction to America also began with cities. I watched films like The French Connection or Serpico as a kid, and I was thrilled by the images of gritty New York City. Over the years, I found myself again and again seeking to study in the U.S., and becoming intellectually fascinated by the extraordinary complexity of this country. American cities, their history of immigration, booms and declines, deep inequalities, layered geographies, perplexed and fascinated me. Focusing on transnational urban economic and social history for my Ph.D., I found my topic in the food system of nineteenth-century New York City. What began as a project in urban history, over the years also became a project in U.S. economic and social history. Today, I consider myself both an urbanist and Americanist. I am most fortunate to have a joint-appointment in History and Urban Studies.

JF: What is your next project?

GB: I am currently at work on a new monograph, tentatively titled, The Transitional City: Economic and Social Geography of New York in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. My ambition is to study empirically (with the systematic application of GIS mapping) and then to theorize the spatial processes that propelled the transition from what historians describe as the walking city of the early nineteenth century to the segregated metropolis of the late nineteenth century. In addition, with a coauthor we have been writing a series of articles linking back to this larger work, and making use of advanced GIS methods, focusing on land use, the street grid, and the experiential geography of nineteenth-century Manhattan. Finally, with two colleagues we are developing a new project on the spatial history of late nineteenth to early twentieth-century Copenhagen, making use of new crowdsourced GIS data. In all of these projects, besides the specific urban historical questions at stake, I am also interested in advancing methods of spatial history.

JF: Thanks, Gergely! Sounds like some great stuff.