A Tour of the American Antiquarian Society

AASOur reports from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence last weekend continue to roll in.  Elise Leal is a Ph.D candidate in American history at Baylor University.  She is  working on dissertation on the relationship between evangelicalism, social reform, and childhood in the early nineteenth century with a particular focus on the American Sundays school movement.  Read all of her posts here. –JF

On the third day of OAH 2016, I participated in a special tour of the American Antiquarian Society. Six other conference attendees joined my bright and early Saturday morning for the drive to Worcester. I was the only graduate student, as the majority of the group were archivists, plus a high school history teacher. One of the archivists was a native of Massachusetts and regaled us with interesting historical facts about the state to help pass the time. For example, I learned that if you take the commuter rail from Worcester to Boston, it will take you just as long to get there today as it did in the late nineteenth century due to the slow speed of the trains.

We were greeted at the archive by Paul Erickson, AAS Director of Academic Programs, and James Moran, AAS Director of Outreach. They began the tour by sharing a brief history of the Society’s illustrious founder, Isaiah Thomas. A Revolutionary War era patriot and printer, Thomas was an outspoken promoter for independence in his newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy, which forced him to flee from Boston to Worcester in 1775 to escape being arrested by the British. In 1812, Thomas founded the American Antiquarian Society (then called the American Society of Antiquities) out of his personal library, creating the first historical society established in the United States with a national focus. The AAS now houses the largest collection of materials produced before 1820 and is surpassed in total collections size only by the Library of Congress.

One thing that I appreciated about the tour was that it was structured without being restrictive. After the brief historical overview, Paul and Jim took us through the main AAS Postcard.jpgreading room and upper conference room containing historical memorabilia (think commemorative china plates sporting Lafayette’s face or a grandfather clock belonging to John Hancock). They then spent the majority of the tour taking us through various archival stacks. Throughout this whole process, they let us wander around with a fair degree of freedom and allowed us to handle many of the historical documents. For example, the first archival room we visited housed the AAS’s extensive collection of eighteenth and nineteenth-century newspapers. Paul and Jim pulled a selection of these newspapers for us to view, and they generously let us pour over these documents to our hearts’ content (it definitely took awhile…) My personal favorite, though, was the next room, which housed the nineteenth-century literature, pamphlets, graphic arts, maps, and the like. Paul asked about our research interests a few days before the tour, and he had prepared a lovely stack of American Sunday School Union books for me to view. Of course, the Revolutionary War letters from British officers, eyewitness accounts of an eighteenth-century cross-dresser, the mid-nineteenth century Valentine’s cards, and the giant hand-drawn genealogies that he pulled for other tour members were pretty cool too.

Speaking of cool things, Paul pointed out a large collection of railroad sources that have never been viewed and said that he’d love to have someone come use them for a project. If there are any early stage graduate students reading this, I’ve just found you a dissertation topic. You’re welcome.

In all, this two-hour tour was definitely worth the trip to Worcester. I got a fascinating insiders view of how archives are run from two very engaging AAS staff members. I also got to view a range of rare historical documents, some of which I didn’t know existed let alone thought I would handle. Many thanks to the American Antiquarian Society, and to Paul and Jim in particular, for making my first OAH experience that much more enjoyable.

From Presidents’ Failures to Their Wives’ Successes


Jesse Ann Benton Fremont

Michael David Cohen, editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, checks in with another post from this weekend’s annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  For his previous posts click here.  Cohen is the author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  For another report on this panel see Elise Leal’s post from earlier today. Enjoy–JF

The 2016 conference of the Organization of American Historians came to a close on Sunday. After beginning with a discussion of the least successful presidents, it ended with presentations on two of the most consequential wives of presidents (or would-be presidents). My last session of the meeting was “Gender and Antebellum Political Leadership: Reconsidering the Power of the ‘First Lady,’” featuring Amy Greenberg on Sarah Childress Polk and Stacey Robertson on Jessie Benton Frémont.

As editor of the letters of James K. Polk, in whose administration both Sarah Polk (obviously) and Jessie Frémont were active, I took almost embarrassingly copious notes. I won’t bore you with these. Drs. Greenberg and Robertson will, when ready, publish their findings much more fully and precisely than any summary of mine could. I will note, though, that their papers fit together in a welcome synergy.

Much scholarship of nineteenth-century gender history has divided into two areas: the domestically oriented sphere in which most women operated and the quest by some women and men for more nearly equal rights and opportunities. Yesterday’s papers showed us that women’s political empowerment (to use a word that neither the speakers nor their subjects did) arose through both avenues. Sarah Polk became one of the most powerful people in American politics by assisting her husband in a discreet and submissive manner. Jessie Frémont promoted husband


Sarah Childress Polk

John C. Frémont’s presidential campaign by, literally, stepping onto the political stage herself. Greenberg’s and Robertson’s papers thus bridge two large bodies of scholarship that, considered together in new ways, may yield new insights into both separate spheres and the early days of women’s rights. Along these lines, commentator Susan Johnson suggested that historians of politics take the household, not the individual, as the unit of action.

On another level, the panelists’ scholarship should help draw into the historical spotlight two women whose political activity (especially Sarah Polk’s) has faded into undeserved obscurity. Matt Gallman, the other commentator, pointed out that insidegov.com rates Polk as the twenty-third most influential first lady, right behind Julia Dent Grant. Like her husband’s a century ago, perhaps her star is now on the rise.

Until next year!

Sunday at #oah2016

a971a-oahProcess blog concludes its excellent coverage of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians with a Sunday wrap-up.  Read it here.

Here are the storified sessions:

Providence to Harrisburg Playlist

95Here was the playlist for the ride home from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence:

Outtakes from Springsteen, The Ties That Bind Box Set

Podcast:  In the Past Lane.  Episode on political primaries

Podcast: Ben Franklin’s World.  Episode with Andrew Schocket on memory and the founding.

Podcast: Ben Franklin’s World. Episode with John D. Wilsey on American exceptionalism

Podcast: Ben Franklin’s World. Episode with Kathleen DuVal

Album: The Very Best of the Doobie Brothers 

Album: Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes

Process Blog Recaps Saturday at #oah2016

OAH-300x200-jan2016The Process blog has posted its Saturday recap from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  Check it out here.

Here are the sessions that have been storified.  I live-tweeted the Kevin Kruse session and the Jon Butler session.

Reflections From a Rookie: My First Trip to the OAH Annual Meeting

Williams ChurchWe are happy to have Dan Roeber writing for us this weekend at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence.  Dan is a doctoral candidate at Florida State University where he studies American Religious History in the Department of Religion. His dissertation, which is in the proposal stage, considers the intersection of politics and religion in the early republic. He tweets occasionally – @danroeber.–JF

As a doctoral candidate who hopes to find a job in the next few years, I’ve tried to add more conferences to my schedule, both as presenter and attender. Attending a history conference, and one for Amercanists specifically, is new for me. While my field is American religious history, most of the conferences I’ve attended have come from a religious studies perspective. I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the distinctives of a conference designed solely for American historians.

While the geographic focus of the OAH conference was more focused and thus smaller than the mammoth AAR national conferences, I found a wide range of topics available for conference discussion. Religious history showed up in a number of panels (I seemed to be following Dr. Fea around to these!), and Jon Butler’s excellent presidential address on the religious environment of early 20th century New York City was right in my wheelhouse. But I was happy to take advantage of discussions centered on political, economic, and social history as well. When I have the opportunity to hear from a Nobel-prize winner like Paul Krugman, I take it!

I also appreciated the focused discussion on recently books. Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God was analyzed from a range of perspectives, but what was most interesting was the division of emphasis. Kruse is a political historian writing on religious themes.  His field-spanning work invited responses from religious historians. Kathryn Lofton was enlisted to play this role, and her comments on the work were incisive, noting the problems of studying religion in history (which she discusses more fully in a forthcoming article on “The Problem of Religion in History,” to be released in the Journal of American History). The division engendered a lively discussion.

I also appreciated a common goal that pervaded the conference as a whole: a desire to understand and communicate American history to others. While the conference reached out to academics in higher education, I encountered high school teachers as well who wanted to improve their skills. I have not noticed such a focus on K-12 education at AAR conferences, perhaps because religious education is much less prominent at that level. Paul Krugman’s talk had a similar focus with a different audience: what role history plays in making decisions at a governmental level, and how historians can participate in such decision-making.

I skipped out on sessions on Sunday morning to take advantage of the religious history in Providence and attend a service at the church Roger Williams began in 1638 – a fitting end to a great conference.  I’m looking forward to attending this conference in the years to come.

Who Won Awards at #oah2016?

83502-oahProcess blog has it covered.  Here is a taste are a few of the award winners that got our attention here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Frederick Jackson Turner Award for the author of a first scholarly book dealing with some aspect of American history: Mark G. Hanna, University of California, San Diego for Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570–1740 (University of North Carolina Press).

Richard W. Leopold Prize for the best book on foreign policy, military affairs, historical activities of the federal government, documentary histories, or biography written by a U.S. government historical or federal contract historian: Jacqueline E. Whitt, Air War College for Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War (University of North Carolina Press).

Avery O. Craven Award for the most original book on the coming of the Civil War, and Civil War years, or the Era of Reconstruction, with the exception of works of purely military history: Martha Hodes, New York University for Mourning Lincoln (Yale University Press).

James A. Rawley Prize for the best book with the history of race relations in the United States: Margaret Ellen Newell, Ohio State University for Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery (Cornell University Press).

Ellis W. Hawley Prize for the best book-length historical study of the political economy, politics, or institutions of the United States, in its domestic or international affairs, from the Civil War to the present: Gary Gerstle, University of Cambridge for Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government from the Founding to the Present (Princeton University Press).

David Montgomery Award for the best book on a topic in American labor and working-class history, with cosponsorship by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA): Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf, West Virginia University for Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie (University of Illinois Press).

Mary Jurich Nickliss Prize in U.S. Women’s and/or Gender History for the most original book in U.S. women’s and/or gender history: Cassandra Alexis Good, University of Mary Washington for Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic (Oxford University Press).

Lerner-Scott Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in U.S. women’s history: Susan Hanket Brandt, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, “Gifted Women and Skilled Practitioners: Gender and Healing Authority in the Delaware Valley, 1740–1830.”

Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau Teacher of the Year Award for contributions made by precollegiate teachers to improve history education within the field of American history: Susan Miller, Middlesborough High School, Massachusetts.

Editing Presidents


CohenMichael David Cohen, editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, checks in with another post from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  For his previous posts click here.  Cohen is the author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  Enjoy–JF

My third day at OAH 2016 included a real treat. Not often does a session unite three of my historical passions: documentary editing, the U.S. presidency, and the history of education. “Presidents and Patronage,” however, did just that. Exploring patronage in a broader sense than job appointments (a dismal task that I know ate up much of James Polk’s time and patience), editors from the papers of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson told us some of their exciting discoveries about these men’s lesser-known activities.

I was glad to hear all the panelists, plus the commentator and audience, discuss not only the first three presidents but also the nuts and bolts of a documentary editor’s job. Few people, after all, really know what it is we do. We do not, as some may guess, abridge nonfiction films. Rather, we prepare published editions (in print or online) of primary sources, usually the papers or letters of a major historical figure. As a result, if you wish to draw on the writings of Washington, Adams, or Jefferson, you need not travel to numerous archives, decipher terrible handwriting on water-damaged sheets, and research every “Mr. Brown” mentioned. The panelists have located, transcribed, and annotated the documents so that you just reach to a bookshelf or navigate to a website.

Neal Millikan, discussing the field, focused on the task of identifying major stories for each volume of the Washington Papers. Though the documents address numerous topics, finding the main plot line helps to guide document selection, annotation, and of course writing jacket copy at the end. Dr. Millikan, currently working on the last—the last!—volume in the presidential series, found that plot line for the first president’s final six months in office to involve his concern with the building of Washington, D.C. Worried that it might not be complete by 1800, as required by law, he anxiously corresponded with the commissioners overseeing it. Millikan mentioned what Washington described as a “jocular letter from the Capitol”: a missive from a relative, written from the perspective of Congress’s future building, that lamented no one’s seeming to care about it. The president probably got both a laugh and a pang out of that.

Sara Georgini explained that an indexing dilemma led to further insight into John Adams’s accomplishments while a commissioner to the United Kingdom in the 1780s. (Her remarks touched a chord among the editors in the room, on and off the panel, who shared their own frustration with the crucial but challenging job of indexing an edition.) The Adams Papers try to index his doings as public and private activities, but he did much on the border between those two. This helped Ms. Georgini to discover, and to show through the documents, the importance of Adams’s working on the fringe of formal diplomacy to bend European intellectuals toward support of U.S. culture. She dubbed the job “cultural diplomacy.”

Ellen Hickman, after agreeing on the challenge of indexing Adams, moved the discussion to Jefferson’s efforts in 1818–19—the period of volume 13 of the Jefferson Retirement Series, due out next January—to get Virginia to establish its state university at Charlottesville. She shared the sentiment (with which I’m well familiar) that whichever documentary volume one has just been immersed in seems the most important in the series. But this one, she promised us, really is the most important (until volume 14). Jefferson stepped out of his “self-focused” retirement to engage once more in public life, though trying his best to stay invisible to the public eye. When the legislature created a committee to plan the university, he completed its report before the committee met; later he, anonymously, authored the bill that located UVA at Charlottesville.

As commentator, Gordon Wood heaped well-deserved praise on all three speakers. Reminding us of the sad fact that most historical monographs are forgotten within a few years of publication (thank you, UVa Press, for displaying mine here nearly four years later!), he pointed out that the editions that Millikan, Georgini, and Hickman produce will nourish scholarship and bring primary sources to students and others for many decades to come. Their massive knowledge, gained through close study of their presidents’ writings and broad study of their context, make them sound like they know these men personally. Dr. Wood might even have added that the editors know them better than almost any of the presidents’ contemporaries. Few if any friends learned their thoughts about every topic on which they ever wrote.

My summary does not do justice to the three papers or to Wood’s commentary. I’ve highlighted their insights about the job of editing historical documents, but of course they went into much more depth about their historical findings. Hopefully, as Wood urged, all three panelists will publish their papers as articles. Whether they do or not, they’ve shown us just a few of the fascinating nuggets we can mine in their editions. So explore those editions, online or on paper, and use them in your research or classroom!

Start with the indexes.

Saturday at #oah2016

OAH-300x200-jan2016Thanks for reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend.  Today has been a very busy day so I did not do too much blogging. I did, however, wanted to write at least one post on the day’s events.  Here goes:

This morning I attended a session on Kevin Kruse’s book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. I know I promised on Twitter that I would write a more extensive post on this session, but I am just not going to get to it tonight.  I thus want to direct readers to #oah16_208  You can find all of my tweets there.  I still want to try to write a post on this session.

This morning I also chaired a session on teaching religion.  It was great to meet Mark Silk and Diane Moore.  It was a small crowd (about 15 people) but we had a good discussion. After the session I had the privilege of talking religion and politics with Silk, a veteran journalist and scholar whose work as an observer of American religion I have admired for a long time.

I spent most of the afternoon enjoying some intellectually stimulating meetings with new friends and old friends.  I love that the OAH provides tables near the book exhibit where attendees can sit, eat, drink coffee, and chat.  I took full advantage of it.

My day ended with Jon Butler’s presidential address on religion in New York City.  Butler argued, contra Max Weber and William James, that as modernity invaded New York, religion became stronger.  Read the tweets at #oah_butler

Again, I hope I get some time to expand on all of these sessions.  Stay tuned.

I will be attending at least one (maybe two) more session on Sunday morning before driving home.  Follow @johnfea1

Process Blog Recaps Friday at #oah2016

OAH FridayThe good folks at Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians, have been providing some very thorough coverage of this year’s annual meeting in Providence.  Check out the blog’s Friday recap.

Here is are the storified tweets:

History of, and at, the National Park Service


Michael David Cohen, editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, checks in with another post from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  For his previous posts click here.  Enjoy–JF


Mammoth Cave. Denali. Great Smokey Mountains. Arcola Mills. The John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams homes. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s home. Through my youth and adulthood, I’ve made my way to these and many more of the sites operated by the National Park Service. No doubt, many of my fellow U.S. historians have, too. (And if you’ve never been to one, Robert Stanton wants to have a talk.) Our own experiences in the parks and their importance to the teaching of history to the American people made today’s plenary on “The National Park Service at 100: A Conversation with Robert Stanton” perfect for this year’s OAH conference.

None can speak about the NPS with more authority and experience than Dr. Stanton. Though he swore that he had not been around for the agency’s founding, he did draw on more than half a century of involvement with it. In 1962 he took a job as a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton. Rising through the ranks, he served as NPS’s director, 1997–2001. Though at some point he tried to retire, Stanton remains active in the parks and preservation community, having been appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation in 2014 and currently teaching as a visiting executive professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M.

Accompanying Stanton on the stage were two of our own, famed environmental historian William Cronon and chair Gary Nash. Joan Zenzen, though scheduled to speak, could not attend. (Her absence, as Dr. Nash forewarned us, rendered this an unconstitutional session; the OAH Constitution requires gender diversity on all panels. Microphone issues at the start were, perhaps, subtle punishment for the violation.)

Anxious to leave time for questions from his co-panelists and the audience, Stanton confined his initial remarks chiefly to a review of the NPS’s history. Created by a Congressional act of 1916 (as you probably guessed from the plenary’s title), the agency actually arose after the creation of about thirty federal parks, previously administered by the Interior Department with help from the War Department. Historic sites such as Civil War battlefields and cemeteries, Dr. Cronon noted, were shifted to its jurisdiction. Now the NPS controls about four hundred areas in every state and several territories. Besides its large paid workforce, it relies on nearly two hundred thousand volunteers.

Cronon introduced the issue of race, on which Stanton had much insight. The growth of the national park system, in his view, has been in part an effort to embrace the pronoun “we,” the first word of the U.S. Constitution and a symbol of unity with which Americans always have struggled. Until 1945 some national parks segregated camping facilities. Even thereafter, economic challenges and hoteliers’ legal right to refuse accommodations to African Americans made it impossible for most black families to take the road trip to a national park that became a tradition among middle-class whites. Although blacks were involved in land stewardship very early, only in the 1960s did the NPS begin recruiting African Americans such as Stanton into leadership positions.

The conversation, guided by the speakers and by audience members, headed down more paths about the national parks’ challenges and their roles in historical education than I can summarize here. Cronon stressed the parks’ outsized influence, through their choices about how to portray history and simply what history to portray, on lesson plans in schools. Nash pointed out that historic sites run by the NPS give many visitors to the United States their first lesson in American history.

Stanton presented a thoughtful and hopeful sketch of the national stories told by the parks. Through the addition of more sites (though, alas, rarely more money), the NPS has increasingly told the stories of minorities and of the elements of our history, such as slavery and segregation, that prompt lessons for improvement rather than opportunities for celebration. Some may fear, as Jack Nicholson did in A Few Good Men, that Americans “can’t handle the truth.” But, Stanton believes, we can handle it and must hear it.

Framing that thesis were the quotations with which Stanton began and ended the session. He first quoted Stephen Mather, founding director of the NPS, who asserted that visiting the national parks makes an American a better citizen. Today, it seems to me, if the parks teach historical lessons that few dared to propose in 1916, they are fulfilling Mather’s hope. Stanton closed by quoting Frederick Douglass, whose home joined the national park system in 1962, and who thus joined its family the same year as Stanton. Unity among turbulence and difference is the theme: “We differ as waves, but we are as one as the sea.”

–Michael David Cohen

Tomorrow: What is the Relationship Between Church and State in the Teaching of Religious History?

Bible in SchoolsIf you are at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence and are free during the 10:50-12:20 slot on Saturday morning, please consider attending #oah16_226: “State of the Question: What is the Relationship Between Church and State in the Teaching of Religious History.”

I will be moderating the session.  The panelists will be Mark Silk of Trinity College/Religion News Service and Diane Moore of Harvard Divinity School.  Mark and Diane will discuss teaching religion in the classroom and outside the classroom. It should be a great conversation.

Scale and Religious Geography in Early America

ChurchI only made it to one session today at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  I spent the morning in the book exhibit and then attended a meeting of the OAH Committee on Communication and Marketing.

In the afternoon I was torn between a session on podcasting and a session titled “Scale and Religious Geography in Early America.”  In the end I decided that I had attended to too many podcasting sessions in the last couple of years.  I opted for the religious geography session and got to hear some excellent papers by three young[er] historians of early American religion: Shelby Balik, Christopher Jones, and Kyle Bulthuis. (Heather Miyano Kopelson commented and Aaron Fogelman chaired the session).

It looks like I was the only one in the room who was live-tweeting the session.  The OAH has storified the tweets.  You can see my thoughts there.

Best Conversation of the Day

fudgeThere are a lot of potential conversation partners at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  I had some great chats today with friends and fellow historians.

After attending a great session on religious geography in early America (I am hoping the good folks at Process blog will Storify the session.  If not, I will eventually do it),  I had hoped to attend and live-tweet Paul Krugman’s plenary address on the uses of history in public debate.  But when I arrived at the room it was already packed.  I wanted to see Krugman, but I can’t tweet unless I am seated with my laptop.  So I took another lap around the book exhibit and eventually read the twitter feed.

As I left the exhibit to head back to my room I was tempted by the amazing candy and fudge stand in the lobby.  It was here that I met Joe, the hotel staff member who was working at the stand.

Joe asked me what area of history I studied.  When I told him that I was a historian of early America who writes a lot about religion, Joe’s eyes widened.  We spent the next 30 minutes talking about American evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney. (And he sold me a white chocolate peanut-butter cup).  Joe was reading a book that offered a critique of the new atheism, so we talked about that.  It turns out that Joe attends a local Assemblies of God congregation in Providence and was really interested in American religious history. He had a lot of  questions and I did my best to answer them.  I also learned a lot about his personal story. We had similar backgrounds.

Joe was really interested in learning more about Butler’s plenary address (tomorrow night) on the religious history of modern New York City.  He said that he was not working that night and might be interested in coming, but he worried that he would not be allowed to attend. I told him to come anyway.  I hope that was OK.

If we are serious about reaching public audiences with good history, we need to be having more conversations with people like Joe.

Process Blog Recaps Day 1 at the OAH

Process, the blog of the Organization of Historians, has done a nice job of summarizing the first day of the annual meeting (Thursday, April 7, 2016).  Read the post here.

Someone at Process is doing some great work storifying sessions.  Here are some of them:

The Worst President Ever


Was Nixon the Worst?

Michael David Cohen is the editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  He is also writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence, Rhode Island.  Michael is also the author if Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  Here is first post:

Greetings from OAH 2016!

Providence welcomed us historians today with a gentle spring rain. At least, by Noah’s standards. Surely I was not the only one who arrived at the Rhode Island Convention Center soaked to the bone. My umbrella fared rather worse, blown inside out by the day’s refreshing breeze. Nonetheless, after changing into dry clothes, I made it to the Exhibit Hall in time for the conference’s first plenary session.

As one who spends his days studying a U.S. presidency, I was looking forward to the presentation titled “Worst. President. Ever.” It did not disappoint. Guided by chair Claire Potter, panelists David Greenberg, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Jacob Weisberg (who assures us that, despite the original program, he is not Sean Wilentz) offered their insights both on who was the worst president and, perhaps more important, on how we should judge presidents as best or worst.

Dr. Greenberg argued that, although only a few things make a president great, our chief executives can be bad in a variety of ways. He grouped the failures into four categories: “completely insignificant and forgettable presidents” (such as Millard Fillmore, for whom, he noted, even the White House’s website offers faint praise); those who responded terribly to a crisis (think Herbert Hoover); those who accomplished much that we don’t like (some may say Indian remover Andrew Jackson); and those guilty of corruption or abuse of power, crimes “that transcend party and politics.”

Mr. Weisberg suggested similar criteria for badness. A bad president may have accomplished something harmful, through either action (entered a war or dropped atomic bombs, for example) or inaction; may not have left a significant lasting impact (cough, William Henry Harrison); or may have displayed bad character. The first two being opposites—bad impact and no impact—no president could have achieved all three types of bad.

Though they hesitated to settle on a single “Worst. President. Ever.,” their typologies led both these speakers to select the same candidate for the dubious honor. Richard Nixon, as Weisberg put it, was the only president to have attained true “Shakespearean villainy.” Despite his oft-cited accomplishments, especially in foreign policy, Nixon’s abuse of power—Greenberg’s transcendent evil and Weisberg’s character flaw—damaged the presidency and the American people’s faith in government. It propelled him to the top (or bottom) of the list.

Dr. Gordon-Reed, though she shared her co-panelists’ condemnation of Nixon, gave a different answer to the plenary’s question. Her two approaches to presidential failure were to find a leader who responded poorly to an intractable crisis and to find one who chose not to follow the best available path. The former approach yielded James Buchanan, who has so often been lambasted for his weak response to secession. But what, Gordon-Reed asked, could Buchanan have done? No promising solution presented itself.

The latter approach yielded Andrew Johnson. Republicans in Congress and elsewhere


Or was it Andrew Johnson?

proposed alternatives to his Reconstruction policies that held the hope of unifying the nation across both regional and racial lines, expanding true citizenship and independence to recently emancipated African Americans. But, owing to his “stubbornness” and to the fact that “he hated black people,” Johnson forswore that path. The president who put his “petty prejudices” ahead of the good of the nation earned the title of Worst. Buchanan can rest easy for once: not a single panelist named him President Number 44.

The speakers’ initial presentations and the questions from audience members brought much more nuance to the conversation than this summary indicates. They also brought more names. Franklin Pierce, Ronald Reagan, Herbert Hoover, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, and Thomas Jefferson all received consideration for Worst, though Gordon-Reed quickly responded, “Jefferson is no part of this conversation, okay?” I was pleased to hear at least a brief reference by Weisberg to James K. Polk, whom I study and who so rarely gets any attention, good or bad. George W. Bush came up several times, though the panelists hesitated to evaluate very recent presidents. (Weisberg did admit to having once debated, against Karl Rove and Bill Krystol, whether Bush was the worst president of the past hundred years. Weisberg lost.) Even Abraham Lincoln, the racist emancipator who angered half the nation by reunifying it, was raised by several audience members in this conversation on America’s worst president.

One question that noticeably did not come up in the plenary was whether determining overall greatness or badness is of historical value. Certainly historians and other Americans love to rank. I was excited when once surveyed for a presidential ranking. As Dickens wrote, many people prefer “being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Yet, if Nixon went to China and his people bugged the Watergate, does it help for us to name him overall as 44, 36, or 12? Does it help to compare his record with James Buchanan’s? Can a presidency be graded as a whole or compared with one in another historical context? It’s a sign of a great panel that I’m left with questions as well as answers.

This was just my first session of the conference. I’m looking forward to plenty more sessions, questions, conversations with old colleagues, and meetings with new ones. Perhaps I should go easy on the discounted books, though. I’ve already bought two more than I have room for in my suitcase.

Made it To Providence

After a stressfOAH-300x200-jan2016ul six-hour drive through the pouring rain I finally made it to Providence for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  I thought my non-conference hotel was going to be located on an outpost somewhere, but it is actually closer to the Convention Center than some of the official conferences hotels.  (And it was a lot cheaper!)

I am tied up with meetings most of the day Friday, but I hope to get to the session on “Scale and Religious Geographies in Early America” and Paul Krugman’s plenary, “Can We Use History?”  I am hoping to tweet both sessions using #oah1026.  You can also follow along @johnfea1

Stay tuned.  Our correspondents are in the field. I am hoping to hear from some of them sometime tomorrow, if not sooner.

Heading to the OAH in Providence

ProvidenceBy the time you read this I will be on the road to Providence, Rhode Island for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.

On Saturday morning I will be moderating a session titled “State of the Question: What Is the Relationship between Church and State in the Teaching of Religious History?”  It will feature Dianne Moore of Harvard University and Mark Silk of Trinity College.

We will also be covering the conference here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  We have put together a nice team of correspondents, but it is till not too late join us.

I finally got a chance to look over the conference schedule.  Here are some sessions that caught my eye:

“Women’s Leadership in the Anti-Abortion Movement” (Michelle Nickerson, Marjorie Spruill, Daniel K. Williams, Stacie Taranto, Mary Ziegler)

“Worst. President. Ever.” (Clare Potter, David Greenburg, Annette Gordon-Reed, Sean Wilentz)

“Historian Presidents” (Jon Butler, Drew Faust, Ricardo Romo, Ed Ayers)

“Open Question: What is the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism” (James Oakes, Ed Baptist Sven Beckert, Caitlin Rosenthal, Craig Wilder)

“Democracy in America and Europe” (Leslie Butler, Rachel Hope Cleves, David Blight, James Kloppenberg)

“Writing History for a Trade Audience” (David Nasaw, Jill Lepore, Eric Foner, Patricia Limerick, David Levering Lewis, Tony Horwitz)

“Podcasting: Reaching a Mass Audience From Above and Below” (Rebecca Onion, Robert Cassanello, Edward Ayers, Daniel Murphree, Tony Fields)

“Scale and Religious Geographies in Early America” (Aaron Fogelman, Christopher Jones, Heather Miyano Kopelson, Shelby Balik, Kyle Bulthuis)

“Can We Use History?” (Paul Krugman, Naomi Lamoreaux, Eric Rauchway)

“Christianity and Capitalism in Modern U.S.: Historians Respond to Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God” (Alison Greene, Kathryn Lofton, Jared Roll, Kevin Kruse)

“God, Gotham, and Modernity” (Jon Butler, presidential address)

“Historical Perspectives on the Common Core” (Thomas Fallace, Andrew Hartman, James Fraser, Christopher Phillips, Kristy Stoffey)

“Writing Religious Leadership” (Rick Kennedy, David Holland, John Turner, Barry Hankins, Suzanne Smith)

“The American Revolution, Transatlantic Communities, and New Leaders” (Benjamin Irvin, Elijah Gould, Kate Carte Engel, Amanda Moniz, Christopher Hodson, Travis Glasson)