The Author’s Corner with Ben Wynne

5afdd229cb854.jpgBen Wynne is professor of history at the University of North Georgia. This interview is based on his new book The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist (LSU Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: My doctoral dissertation dealt with politicians in the South who argued against the idea of secession during the years leading up to the American Civil War, and in the course of doing my research Henry Stuart Foote’s name kept popping up. The more I read about him, the more interested in his life and career I became, to the point where I thought his life story might make a good book. Not only was he involved in a number of important national events in his lifetime, but he was a bit of a maniac. All of his contemporaries seemed to have an opinion about him, and those opinions ranged from genius to buffoon. I was also intrigued by his relationship Jefferson Davis. Foote was Davis’s most outspoken political enemy, and the hatred that the two men had for each other was epic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: The book is a strait biography. It captures the highly unusual spirit of the subject as well as his unique contributions to American history and politics from the 1830s until his death in 1880.

JF: Why do we need to read The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: Henry Stuart Foote’s life included many unusual twists and turns, making for an interesting read. In general, Foote was one of antebellum America’s true political mavericks with an eccentric and sometimes violent personality. He was a polarizing figure who was beloved by supporters but reviled by critics. During his career, he participated in innumerable physical altercations—including a fistfight with then-fellow U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis that provided the title for the book—and he carried bullet wounds from several duels. He once brandished a pistol during proceedings on the Senate floor, and on another occasion threatened a fellow solon with a knife. During his career he was also very well-travelled. He was in Texas during the early 1840s as the Texas annexation debate was in full swing, and he represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate during debates over the Compromise of 1850. In 1851, he defeated Jefferson Davis in an exceedingly bitter campaign for Mississippi governor. Later, he moved to California where he ran unsuccessfully for another senate seat, and then back to Tennessee, where he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. As a Confederate congressman, he remained a thorn in Davis’s side for the duration of the Civil War, publically lambasting the Confederate president again and again. A lifelong Democrat, Foote became a Republican after the war and ended up as superintendent of the U.S. Mint in New Orleans.

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

BW: Like others in the field, I have been fascinated with American history and culture all of my life. It seemed like a natural profession for me. I believe strongly in the cliché that you will not know where you are going if you do not know where you have been.

JF: What is your next project?

BW: I am currently researching for a book on the history of music in Macon, Georgia from the 1830s to the 1980s, that will include material on iconic American musical figures such as “Little Richard” Penniman, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

Author’s Corner with Leigh Fought

FoughtLeigh Fought is Associate Professor of History at LeMoyne College.  This interview is based on her book Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisia S. McCord, due out in paperback in September 2018 with University of Missouri Press.

JF: What led you to write Southern Womanhood and Slavery?

LF: The not entirely glib answer is that I wanted to understand my grandmother, a powerful southern woman, who bore many traits of Louisa S. McCord, from the father-worship to the contradictions between her ideals and her life.  The serious answer is that I never bought Mary Chesnut’s lament about “poor slaves, poor women” or that southern women were closet abolitionists. Now, of course that has been entirely dissected in the historiography, but I wrote this manuscript back in the 1990s when much of that research was very new or developing. McCord captured my attention in a section of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household. Not only did she seem more true to a white woman of the planter class, but she was also a woman who married late and widowed early, controlled her own property after marriage, and counselled women to be the “conservative force” behind the scenes while publishing essays on unfeminine subjects like slavery and political economy. I wanted to know more. This became, to the best of my youthful abilities, the book that I wanted to read.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Southern Womanhood and Slavery

LF: Because this was my first book, taken from my dissertation, the implied argument was: “Please give me a PhD and publish my manuscript!” The real argument was that Louisa S. McCord was a female Fire-Eater, one of the Southern political essayists who defended slavery even to secession. She injected women into their white supremacist construction of society, insisting that, while women could match any man intellectually, they must remain subordinate to prevent the nation from descending into chaos because they did not have the physical capacity to control slaves or the working class.

JF: Why do we need to read Southern Womanhood and Slavery?

LF: At this moment in our national life a critical mass of people cannot escape the strains of race and gender that have defined our nation from its inception, and they echo those of Louisa McCord’s time. Indeed, many of the idols of her life have been resurrected in ours, but their purveyors attempting to strip or deny the reality of their historical contexts. At the same time, on the left, especially among white feminist, many editorial and columns ponder the perplexing issue of white women seeming to work against their own political interests.

Louisa McCord’s life and work illustrates aspects of these topics. She portrayed herself as a Roman matron in the cause of the Confederacy and, later, to the memory of the Confederacy, and she made perfectly clear that the Southern society defended by the Confederacy would not and could not exist without slavery. Her anti-woman’s rights position rested on privileges rather than rights. The ability of white men to exercise their rights without restriction would allow them to protect their dependents and thereby keep white women safe from other men, both black and white. She did not see the woman’s rights movement as empowering women to take care of themselves because, in a patriarchal slaveholding society, she understood physical violence as the decisive factor in maintaining order. Women, she believed, could not and should not wield that power. Race and class privilege, therefore, in her mind, came before the individual rights of gender for the preservation of civilization.

If you scratch the surface, of course, you find that she controlled the wealth in her marriage and was a widow for far longer than she was a wife. She found ways to use violence through overseers and the workhouse. She did not follow her own counsel on women remaining within their sphere, and others uniformly considered her a commanding presence. Indeed, many details of her upbringing resemble those of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, she just took a decidedly different ideological road. She was a challenging woman to encounter as a subject.

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

LF: I may have decided to become a historian when I was in elementary school, watching Little House on the Prairie and Roots, visiting historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg, reading children’s biographies of Betsey Ross and Annie Oakley or children’s novels about slave girls and Laura Ingalls and captives among the Native Americans. Blame the Bicentennial. That “historian” was an actual job that a person could do did not occur to me until late in college. Then, I simply wanted to tell stories. Since I didn’t have the experience to make them up very well, I turned to history. The stories are already there, you just have to find them, which is even more fun. I especially wanted to learn about and to tell stories about the places where different people meet, be it in the borderlands, on slave plantations, or in a movement for racial justice. Half of those stories always seemed to be missing and mysterious, arousing my curiosity, while I was growing up so sheltered in the suburbs of Houston. I wanted to know the rest of the story, the whole story, and I wanted women to be the main characters.

JF: What is your next project?

LF: The project after Louisa McCord was a short history of Mystic, Connecticut, for a lay audience predominantly of tourists. The one after that was Women in the World of Frederick Douglass. Next, I’m considering either exploring nineteenth-century ideas of race and civilization through Frederick Douglass’s tour of Europe or Little House on the Prairie and the memory of the American borderlands. I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment. There is quite a bit on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books, mostly within literary studies, but very little on the public history sites, television show, and other iterations of the story. I’m quite interested in the ways that the interpretations attempt to reconcile some of Wilder’s quite contemporary ideas about race and gender with more modern ones. I wonder at what point that becomes no longer possible. After all, the children’s literature award named for her was just un-named because of her racial depictions. I can’t say they were wrong in doing so.

JF: Thanks Leigh!

The Author’s Corner with April Holm

58ed097f35437.jpgApril Holm is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mississippi. This interview is based on her new book, A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicals, Loyalty, and Sectionalism in the Civil War Era (LSU Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write A Kingdom Divided?

AH: I have a long-standing interest in the border states and how border residents experienced the Civil War. I was led to this particular topic as a graduate student when I read Richard Carwardine’s Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America and was intrigued by his comment that the aftermath of the Methodist schism of 1844 deserved more scholarly attention. I gave it a look, and obviously, I agreed!

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Kingdom Divided?

AH: I argue that the border was at the center of a long struggle over slavery, sin, and politics in American evangelicalism that consumed individual congregations and entire states. This book illuminates border evangelicals’ view of their providential role in American history, demonstrates that border churches established the terms of the debate over the relationship between church and state in wartime, and explains how border Christians contributed to a lasting sectional rift in the churches that obscured the role of slavery in their history.

JF: Why do we need to read A Kingdom Divided?

AH: A Kingdom Divided analyzes the crucial role of the border churches in shaping antebellum divisions in the major evangelical churches, in navigating the relationship between church and the federal government, and in rewriting denominational histories to forestall reunion in the churches. It highlights how religion, morality, and politics interacted—often in unexpected ways—in a time of political crisis and war. My book offers a new perspective on nineteenth century sectionalism and regionalism. And, in revealing the surprising extent of federal intervention in border churches, it addresses the problem of loyalty and neutrality in wartime. Finally, it revises the timeline of postwar reconciliation and reunion, supplying a new explanation of the origins of Southern evangelical distinctiveness in the postwar period.

In addition to all these things, A Kingdom Divided is a study of the failure of neutrality as a strategy in the face of a moral and political crisis. White evangelical clergy in the border region who tried to remain neutral in divisive debates over slavery and secession came to view the debates—not slavery—as the greater evil. Moderate white border clergy saw their own neutral stance as morally superior to engaging in political conflict. However, when the war ended, neutrality was no longer possible and the major denominations pressured border clergy to take a side. These border clergy felt persecuted by their denominations and they began to turn to southern churches, which continued to defend slavery even after it had been abolished. Neutrality on slavery ultimately led them into proslavery denominations. My study of attempted neutrality in the face of moral disputes reverberates in present-day conflicts. It explains why people turn to moderation or neutrality as a strategy in the face of intensely charged conflicts. It also reveals why people who attempt to remain neutral so often feel that they occupy the moral high ground and why they ultimately find fault with people demanding justice, rather than with injustice itself.

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

AH: I can trace my interest in the past back to my childhood love of historical fiction. I decided to become a historian when I started taking history seminars as an undergraduate at Reed College. I am interested in the border states because they exemplify and complicate so many of the key issues of the Civil War era—they are paradoxically both peripheral and central.

JF: What is your next project?

AH: I am currently researching a book on provost marshals and civilians in the occupied border during the Civil War. During the Civil War, border civilians frequently came in contact with provost marshals, who were federal agents who acted as military police and commanded wide-ranging authority over the civilian population. Their many duties included enforcing martial law, administering loyalty oaths, seizing property, and arresting disloyal citizens. In sum, provost marshals wielded tremendous power.

My project will develop a clearer picture of who these men were and the role they played in civilian networks within their communities. Currently, my research suggests three conclusions. First, that Union occupation was both immediate and local. Provost marshals were usually appointed directly from the community and therefore policed neighbors and acquaintances. Second, provost marshals became the face of the Union army in interactions with civilians of all political orientations, races, and genders. This included loyal Unionists, Confederate sympathizers, guerillas, enslaved people, free African-Americans, and women (both black and white). In occupied cities, the provost marshal’s office was an avenue for groups outside the sphere of war to access federal power. Finally, civilian interactions with provost marshals led to the development of a contested language of loyalty that fused the moral and the political. I extend my study past the war years to show how negative memories of provost marshals—often rehashed and embellished—contributed to the development of Lost Cause mythology in postwar years.

JF: Thanks, April!

When a School Shooting Shifted the National Debate on Guns

Louisville_1846

Saul Cornell, the best historian on guns and the Second Amendment working today, tells us about an 1853 school shooting in Louisville, Kentucky.  Here is a taste of his piece at Politico:

Though little remembered now, the first high-profile school shooting in the U.S. was more than 150 years ago, in Louisville, Kentucky. The 1853 murder of William Butler by Matthews F. Ward was a news sensation, prompting national outrage over the slave South’s libertarian gun rights vision and its deadly consequences. At a time when there wasn’t yet a national media, this case prompted a legal conversation that might be worth resurrecting today.

And Cornell’s conclusion:

The Ward shooting, and the popular outcry it generated, reminds us that there’s another possible way to view the hierarchy of American rights—one in which the right not to get shot is on par with, and may even outweigh, the right to freely carry a gun and use it. The notion that the Second Amendment overrides these rights and prohibits sensible gun laws has never been the dominant position in American law. Most Americans in the 18th century and many in the 19th recognized this basic fact as fundamental to our Constitutional tradition. It is surely time to restore those other esteemed American rights to their rightful place in our contemporary constitutional debates over the role of guns in America.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Cook

51BmfDCLdAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Robert Cook is professor of American History at the University of Sussex. This interview is based on his new book, Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United since 1865  (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Civil War Memories?

RC: I’ve been working at the intersection of race, politics, and historical memory in the United States for more than two decades. This book grows directly out of a previous research project on the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s and a conviction that a deeper awareness of how and why particular strands of Civil War memory have been constructed over time can enhance our understanding of the war’s impact on contemporary culture wars.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Civil War Memories?

RC: I argue that four principal strands of Civil War memory – Unionist, southern, emancipationist and reconciliatory – were constructed during the late nineteenth century by the men and women who lived through the turmoil of the 1860s and 1870s. Social and political change in the United States enabled the Lost Cause and reconciliatory narratives to dominate the field of Civil War memory until the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century raised the profile in public memory of the previously marginalized and predominantly African American story of black liberation and martial service to the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read Civil War Memories?

RC: The lethal violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 highlighted the continuing resonance of the Civil War in contemporary debates over race and historical commemoration. This book provides the essential backstory to the current controversy and will contribute positively to an informed and constructive debate over removal of Confederate symbols and statues.

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

RC: As a teenager growing up in the English midlands I enjoyed reading the Civil War histories of Bruce Catton. However, I didn’t decide to become an American historian until I was a student at the University of Warwick where I enrolled in Bill Dusinberre’s classes on the African American experience and the antislavery movement. Bill was an inspirational teacher. He encouraged me to pursue a PhD in American history at the University of Oxford in the early 1980s. I researched the early history of the Republican party in Iowa, focusing particularly on the party’s remarkably strong support for black rights in the Civil War era.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: I’m currently in the early stages of a project that investigates African American responses to different manifestations of the Lost Cause since 1880.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

 

The Author’s Corner with Lincoln Mullen

51E0Jh31O6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lincoln Mullen is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Early in graduate school I had the good fortune to do a reading course in American religious history with Jonathan Sarna, who became my PhD director. After that course I wanted to tell as broad a story about American religion as I could muster. The theme of conversion offers the chance to both compare religious groups and observe their interactions, so it became my way to write that kind of history.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Over the course of the nineteenth-century, pressures to convert, actual conversions between religious groups, and the possibility of having no religious affiliation at all changed the basis of religious identity from inheritance to choice. But that process played out very differently for different groups, so the chapters on black and white Protestants, Cherokee converts, Mormons, Jews, and Catholics see how the spread of that idea refracted through different religious traditions.

JF: Why do we need to read The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Different audiences will likely come to the book for different reasons.

I’d like for scholars in the field of American religious history to read it as a synthesis of nineteenth-century religious history on the basis of primary research on the topic of conversion. This book is hardly the first or only to attempt to put the field together in this way, but it isn’t a common approach either. Few books that aren’t textbooks try to bring so many religious groups together; most books are narrowly focused. So what other kinds of primary synthesis might scholars write?

Other readers might be interested in the book because of their own religious commitments, or even because they are converts. Those readers will find the book’s story both strange and familiar. Familiar, I hope, because they will recognize themselves in some of the book’s many stories of converts. But I hope they also find the book strange because people like to talk about their religious choices as being free, but the book shows the ways those choices are obligated and constrained. It’s their story, but not the way they would tell it.

And if you come to the book because someone assigned it for class, at least you get to cover a pretty wide swathe of nineteenth-century religious history in one book.

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

LM: In high school I thought I would go into mathematics or the like. But there were more history books than math books around the house.

JF: What is your next project?

LM: I am working on two projects at the moment. I’m turning a digital history project called America’s Public Bible into a digital monograph that will be published by Stanford University Press. And with a team at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, I am working on a project called Mapping Early American Elections.

JF: Thanks, Lincoln!

The Author’s Corner with Tera Hunter

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

JF: What led you to write Bound in Wedlock?

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

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

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read TITLE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks Tera!

Quote of the Day

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Abraham Lincoln to Joshua F. Speed, August 24, 1855

HT: John Craig Hammond

Another Reason Why Eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities Might Be a Bad Idea

In case you have not heard, Donald Trump’s federal budget proposal, released today, eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities.  This morning I wrote an extended piece on this development. We are currently shopping it around.

I have also been tweeting (follow along @johnfea1) older pieces from The Way of Improvement Leads Home in which I or others have defended the humanities.

In the meantime, here is another reason why the NEH might be useful.  Read this recent tweet from our Vice President:

I can’t imagine that mid-19th century Irish immigrants felt this deep sense of kinship.

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Irish 3Irish 4

The Author’s Corner with Joanna Cohen

luxurious-citizenJoanna Cohen is a lecturer in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London. This interview is based on her new book, Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Luxurious Citizens?

JC: I found my way into this book in three stages! The first step was reading Godey’s Ladies Book in my first year of graduate school. I was fascinated by the elaborate fashion plates and the juxtaposition of those images with numerous stories that praised the virtues of American women’s thrift and economy. These contradictions got me interested in the ways in which consumption habits were framed in overlapping ways in American cultural life, as signifiers of cultural sophistication and national virtue, not to mention the gender norms they promoted. The second step was two graduate courses I took: one on Gender, Nationalism and Citizenship, the other on the History of Consumer Culture in America. Both piqued my interest in different ways. When it came to citizenship I became increasingly dissatisfied with the idea that citizenship was simply a legal relationship. I wanted to explore the ways in which citizens imagined their relationship to the nation-state, especially when it came to obligations. Turning to consumer culture, I read avidly about the politics of consumption in the eighteenth century and picked up the story again in the twentieth century, but found little that explained how one connected to the other. Finally, after only a month in the archives at the American Philosophical Society, I found the phrase “Luxurious Citizens” in a speech given by “Pig Iron Kelley” in front of the Franklin Institute. That phrase summed up my conviction that the histories of citizenship and consumption were intertwined in crucial ways. I set out to trace those connections, wanting to understand the ways in which consumer capitalism shaped the meaning of citizenship in nineteenth-century America.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Luxurious Citizens?

JC: At the close of the Revolution, the newly-formed government expected citizens to serve their nation through self-sacrifice, by limiting their consumption of imported luxuries. But time and again, through war and peace, ordinary Americans demonstrated that they would not accept such limitations on their desires. Instead, they transformed themselves into citizen-consumers, claiming that the freedom to consume could be of service to the nation. In 1861, at the outbreak of war, the Union government not only acknowledged the power of the citizen-consumer, they harnessed that power to the service of the war effort. Using a tariff to harvest much-needed revenue from their citizens’ desires, the Union confirmed that the citizen-consumer was an important member of the body-politic – whose freedom to indulge themselves could save the republic or send it to its destruction.

JF: Why do we need to read Luxurious Citizens?

JC: For readers interested in nineteenth century capitalism, the origins of consumer culture in America, the gendered meanings of citizenship and the political economy that shaped the road to the Civil War, Luxurious Citizens has much to offer. But the book is also timely reflection on the far-reaching consequences of the apotheosis of the citizen-consumer. The idea that a citizen can serve the state through their consumption has a flip side: it also suggests that citizens’ consumer choices can be blamed when the state encounters economic failure.

In 2008, when the United States faced the great crash, the first round of blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of ordinary citizens who had overspent and over extended their credit. Such a story hid the deep-rooted structural failures of the US economy. Luxurious Citizens reveals the ways in which these narratives of individual accountability took root in the United States, often cloaked in the language of civic rights and personal freedoms. It is an exploration of the ways in which Americans imagine the way in which their economy works, and how the state can use and even exploit those understandings. So, at a moment when neo-liberalism as an ideology stands on the brink of collapse, Luxurious Citizens will hopefully remind people that they can re-imagine the nation’s political economy and redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state.

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

JC: Well officially I decided I wanted to become an American historian when I was doing my final year Honors thesis at Cambridge. I looked at the work of four great female authors and wrote a paper on the way in which those writers constructed (and deconstructed) what it meant to be a woman in nineteenth century America. But unofficially, I have to confess, it goes back to reading Little House on the Prairie and Little Women as a girl. Those stories still fascinate me. I recently re-read them when I got all my childhood books down from the attic for my daughter, and I still find the narratives of survival, ambition, compromise and resilience utterly compelling.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: Right now, I am working on a project that focuses on the ways in which Americans experienced loss in the nineteenth century. I explore how new capitalist, bureaucratic and commercial technologies shaped people’s emotional understanding of losing their homes, possessions and environments.

I am also working on a collaborative project with Zara Anishanslin, that explores how people “came to terms” with the ends of conflicts in the Atlantic World. Privileging visual and material culture as a source, this project asks how people made their peace with violence and war through the things and images they had in their lives.

JF: Thanks, Joanna!

The Author’s Corner with Jon Scott Logel

DesigningGotham.jpgJon Scott Logel is Associate Professor in the War Gaming Department of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. This interview is based on his new book, Designing Gotham: West Point Engineers and the Rise of Modern New York, 1817-1898 (LSU Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Designing Gotham?

JL: My research into the relationship between the men of West Point and New York City began while I was an American History instructor at the U.S. Military Academy.  One of my additional duties at the Academy was to provide tours of the West Point Cemetery and the various figures interred there.  At the pyramid tomb of Egbert L. Viele, I had to explain that he was a graduate from the class of 1847, served in the Mexican-American War, was the first designer of Central Park, and was a Union general in the Civil War.  It was the phrase “the first designer of Central Park” that left me concerned that I might be em­bellishing Viele’s legacy, especially given the rightful place of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the history of the park.  So in an effort not to be embarrassed while leading tours, I began my research.

The project expanded from Egbert L.Viele into a larger question of what was the relationship between the graduates of West Point and the rise of New York City in the nineteenth century.  Specifically, how were graduates such as Viele, George S. Greene (1823), and Henry Warner Slocum (1852) able to influence the politics, culture, and urbanization that occurred in Gotham from 1817-1898.  What I discovered is that this dynamic relationship of engineering expertise and the rise of the modern city fostered the professionalization of the civil engineering field, and influenced the manifestation of American progressivism at the turn of the twentieth century.

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

JL: West Point graduates who came to New York City before, during and after the Civil War leveraged their professional relationships and military experiences to influence the transformation of New York into a modern metropolis by 1898. Moreover, in New York, these West Point engineers with their city peers contributed to the development of civil engineering, professionalization, and civic administration in the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read Designing Gotham?

JL: Most histories of New York marginalize or ignore the role of West Point graduates in the building and development of the city.  This book not only recovers the experiences of these military figures in the city, it also describes a time when the relationship between American military and American society was more intertwined than today.  The primacy of engineering in the Military Academy curriculum led to an American officer corps that was more pre-disposed to building aqueducts, canals, and railroad than fighting wars.  As a result, military-learned ideas and actions served as the forerunner to the reform impulse that accompanied American urbanization more than a century ago. 

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

JL: In 1998, the United States Military Academy selected me to attend graduate school and then teach U.S. history to the cadets.  For two years I studied at Syracuse University under a cadre of gifted professors.  Scott Strickland, Peggy Thompson, David Bennett, Bill Stinchcombe, Roger Sharp, and Stephen Webb provided a foundation in American history and the finest example of how to be an historian.  At West Point, I became committed to the field and have remained fixed on leveraging historical context for understanding current challenges.

JF: What is your next project?

JL: At the Naval War College we have been experiencing a renaissance in the art of war gaming.  Many leaders in the Navy have looked to the war games of the interwar years as their model for how to be innovative and respond to the prospect of future wars at sea.  My current project seeks to understand the interwar experience of American Naval leaders who studied at Newport and how that experience affected their World War Two actions and decisions.  In many ways, this project is similar to Designing Gotham in that I am seeking to explore the connections between an institution of military education and the outcomes manifest in its graduates.

JF: Thanks, Jon!

What Would Jonathan Blanchard Do?

BlanchardI my recent response to Aaron Griffith’s post on Wheaton College’s history in light of the Larycinda Hawkins case, I included this sentence:

Griffiths may be right when he argues that Hawkins’s decision to stand with persecuted Muslims in America is fitting with 19th-century Wheaton. (Although I am not sure that Jonathan Blanchard’s activism would have extended to non-Christian religions). 

Over at Old Life, D.G. Hart has seized on this point and elaborated on my parenthetical remark about what Jonathan Blanchard would have thought about Islam.

Hart writes:

Yes, it’s a shame if Dr. Hawkins loses her position over her remarks. Yes, it’s tough for administrators to protect faculty privileges while also maintaining institutional identity (not to mention satisfying alumni and donors).

But we don’t need to make up theology or history to justify our own rooting interests. The idea that the Blanchards would have been on the side of Muslims is risible, almost as funny as thinking that anyone would want to justify an institutional policy or personal conviction today by appealing to — wait for it — Jonathan and Charles Blanchard. Those guys would chew any contemporary Protestant up and spit us out. If they’d do that to Protestants dot dot dot

Read Hart’s entire post here.  He is right.

 

Joshua Rothman on the New History of Slavery and Capitalism

CottonIn the last several years American historians have been calling attention to the connections between slavery and capitalism. I must at admit that I am not completely up to speed on this literature, but I do have books by Ed Baptist and Sven Beckert on my nightstand.  I am hoping to get to them during the remainder of my sabbatical.

In the meantime, I found Joshua Rothman’s summary of this new literature at Aeon to be useful.  Rothman is the Director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Of course, given the historical significance of slavery in the US, its links to capitalism are hardly the only issues worth considering. Like all scholarly waves, the current one will eventually crest and trough. But the evidence mustered in recent studies is not likely to lose its import any time soon and, ultimately, the larger point made by scholars bringing that evidence to bear is not that capitalism is a system of inherent evil. It is that capitalism without limits can produce nearly unfathomable human misery as it produces wealth for a select few. Indeed, the abolitionists, most of whom were hardly enemies of capitalism, nevertheless understood that capitalism without limits can and will make property of man. In the US, the Civil War and the age of emancipation was a moment when the nation tried to draw a clear line delineating what can and cannot be legitimately sold in a capitalist system. Historians of slavery and capitalism today remind us that when that line blurs, we fail to sharpen it at our peril.

 

Muslims Are the New Catholics

Yesterday we linked to John Turner’s Anxious Bench essay “Muslims are the New Mormons.” Turner is not the only one making historical analogies these days.  In a recent essay at Religion Dispatches Patricia Miller reminds us that 19th-century Americans were not always very friendly to Catholics.

Here is a taste of her piece: “When Catholics Were the Muslims“:

A well-known national figure tries to rally Americans to the danger posed by a poorly understood minority religious group that’s increasingly making its presence felt in the country. He charges that their faith is a “political” religion inimical to American concepts of civil and religious liberty. He speaks darkly of how it treats women, cloistering them from the world. And he claims the press is held captive to its agenda and is failing to alert Americans to the growing threat at their door.
No, it’s not Donald Trump talking about Muslims, it’s a prominent Presbyterian minster talking about Catholics in the 1830s, and it serves as a reminder that when it comes to political demagoguery, Catholics were once the Muslims.
Robert Breckinridge was a leader of the Old School Presbyterians and the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, a city that had one of the largest Catholic populations in the country in the 1830s. He hailed from a politically prominent Kentucky family (his father was Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general), which gave him national clout even early in his career.
Breckinridge, along with his brother John, the previous pastor at Second Presbyterian, used the pulpit to whip up concern about the growing population of Irish and German Catholic immigrants, who he held couldn’t be good Americans because they owed their fealty to the pope.
Read the rest here.

Quotes of the Day

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading Daniel Walker Howe’s magisterial Pulitzer Prize-winning tome What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.  Howe provided the June 5, 2015 quote of the day at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

“To entertain guests meant to ply them with several kinds of alcohol until some fell down.”

The more I read What Hath God Wrought, the more I get the feeling that Howe had a lot of fun writing this book.  The book is filled with pithy lines that are making me laugh out loud.

I found three more yesterday morning:

The first quote of the day comes from p.335.  Howe is talking about Andrew Jackson’s choice of cabinet members after his election to presidency in 1828:

“The other cabinet secretaries were little-known figures who appealed to Jackson in large part because they all hated Henry Clay.”

The second quote of the day comes from page 339.  Howe is quoting James Parton‘s 1860 biography of Jackson.  The subject is the Peggy Eaton affair and the way that Martin Van Buren endeared himself to Eaton in order to please Jackson and thus advance his political career.

“On the eve of the Civil War, James Parton could write that ‘the political history of the United States, for the last thirty years, dates from the moment when the soft hand of Mr. Van Buren touched Mrs. Eaton’s knocker.'”

The third quote of the day also comes from page 339.  Here Howe quotes Henry Clay’s reaction when the scandalous Peggy Eaton finally left Washington.

Upon Margaret Eaton’s departure from Washington, Henry Clay quipped, ‘Age cannot wither nor time stale her infinite virginity.”