The Author’s Corner with Joseph Adelman

AdelmanJoseph Adelman is Assistant Professor of History at Framingham State University in Framingham, Massachusetts.  This interview is based on his new book, Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

JF: What led you to write Revolutionary Networks?

JAThe book sits at the confluence of life and professional experiences that have shaped my thinking for several decades. I’ve long been interested in the American Revolution and in particular the politics of rebellion—how and why the “thirteen colonies” (and only those) decided to form a new nation. Second, between college and graduate school I worked for two years as the communications director for a New York state assemblyman. The work fascinated me, but because I was leaning towards becoming a historian, I often found myself stepping back from my day-to-day responsibilities to think about how various processes and structures of both politics and the media interacted and influenced what happened. So when I came to considering a research topic, I wanted to apply the questions I have about contemporary media to understand how the business of media intersected with politics during the era of the Revolution.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Revolutionary Networks?

JADuring the American Revolution, printers—artisans who worked with their hands at the press and also engaged in intellectual labor of editing and publishing—shaped political debate through the business practices of their trade. From the networks that printers developed across the colonies and around the Atlantic world to individual editorial decisions made in a single printing office, Revolutionary Networks shows how printers navigated a wide range of political and commercial environments to attempt to run successful businesses and also make an impact on the content of political debate.

JF: Why do we need to read Revolutionary Networks?

JAWe often assume that the news media were important during the American Revolution, and in fact many historians who have produced great scholarship on the Revolution require that to be true in order for their arguments to work. But very few have asked how the process of news creation worked—Revolutionary Networks fills that gap. It may seem like a narrow point at first, but what the book tries to document at a really close-in level is that those details matter a great deal. It changes our understanding of the politics surrounding the American Revolution that these artisans were making choices every day about what news to publish, where to situate it in context with other stories, whether to revise or amend the text they received, and so on. What appears on the surface to be a clear articulation of a political position instead is the result of a decisions and negotiations that focused not only on the beliefs of a text’s author but also—and in fact often more so—on the political perspective and business interests of the printer/editor who published the material.

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

JAI’ve been fascinated by history in general and the American Revolution in particular since I was in elementary school—as memory has it, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Deuel, gave me a book about the Revolution and it was off to the races. But I decided I wanted to pursue a career as a historian around my sophomore year in college as I immersed myself in scholarly readings. I talked about it with a few of my professors, who cautioned me that it was a difficult path in some ways but offered lots of flexibility (this was around 2000, well before the academic jobs crisis, and came from a privileged undergraduate institution). After the two years with the New York State legislature, I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. to answer the call to write and teach about the past.

JF: What is your next project?

JAOne of the key institutions that made the printing trade function was the Post Office, and the key player in that entity was Benjamin Franklin. I’ve wanted to do a project that focuses a bit more on Franklin and I’m fascinated by the contradictions in the Post Office’s development—people saw it as a government institution but it has always functioned in many ways as a profit-seeking business. So I’m now writing a history of the post office in early America and the Atlantic world.

JF: Thanks, Joe!

Mapping Early American Elections

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This looks like a really useful website from Lincoln Mullen, Rosemarie Zagarri, and the folks at George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media:

Mapping Early American Elections offers a window into the formative era of American politics by producing interactive maps and visualizations of Congressional elections from 1787 to 1825. The project makes available the electoral returns and spatial data underlying those maps, along with topical essays on the political history of the period and tutorials to encourage users to use the datasets to create their own maps.

If you use this project, please use the following citation or something like it:

Mapping Early American Elections project team, Mapping Early American Elections, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University (2019): http://earlyamericanelections.orghttps://doi.org/10.31835/meae.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016 to offer enhanced access to the early American election returns in the New Nation Votes collection at Tufts University. The New Nation Votes dataset is the only comprehensive record of elections in existence for the early American republic. Scattered in newspapers, state archives, and local repositories around the country, the election returns have been painstakingly gathered over the past forty-five years by Philip J. Lampi of the American Antiquarian Society.

You can find the data we have released in our GitHub repository, along with the other codeproduced by the project.

For more about the project, please read our introductory essay and the other essays on early American politics.

Learn more here.

Did Men Invent “Likability?”

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Check out historian Claire Potter‘s piece at The New York Times: “Men Invented ‘Likability.’ Guess Who Benefits.”  She reflects on the origins of the idea of “likability”  advertising culture and, eventually presidential politics.

As Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and others jumped into the race, each seemed to affirm the new power of women in 2019, a power that was born when President Trump was sworn into office, exploded during #MeToo and came into its own during the 2018 midterms.

But no female candidate has yet led the polls. The men keep joining — Michael Bennet this week, Joe Biden the last — and keep garnering glowing press coverage. Although Mr. Biden fumbled two previous presidential bids, we are told he has “crossover appeal”; Bernie Sanders has been admired by this newspaper as “immune to intimidation”; and Pete Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay man nominated for president, is “very authentic.” By contrast Ms. Harris is “hard to define”; Ms. Klobuchar is “mean”; and Ms. Warren is a “wonky professor” who — you guessed it — is “not likable enough.” Seeing comments like this, Mrs. Clinton said wryly in January, “really takes me back.”

Likability: It is nebulous, arbitrary and meaningless, yet inescapable — and female politicians seem to be particularly burdened with it even when they win and especially when they run for president.

In a recent interview on CNN with Michael Smerconish, Potter challenged the audience to find one female candidate in the 2016 race who has been called “likability.”

Here is another small taste of her piece:

Americans were also taught that being likable was a quality that could be cultivated as a means to get ahead. In 1936, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” warned that those who tried too hard to be liked would fail: Theodore Roosevelt’s naturally friendly greetings to everyone he passed, regardless of status, Carnegie noted, had made it impossible not to like him, but Henrietta G., now the “best liked” counselor at her office, had been isolated until she learned to stop bragging. (Though looking back, we have to wonder: Would Henry G. have needed to hide his accomplishments?)

As presidential candidates put advertising experts in charge of national campaigns, perhaps it was inevitable that likability would jump explicitly to politics. In 1952, some of the first televised election ads sought to highlight Dwight Eisenhower’s likability. The advertising executive Rosser Reeves put Eisenhower in controlled settings where his optimism, self-confidence, humor and nonpartisanship could be emphasized over his political inexperience and what Reeves viewed as his “inept” speaking style. The animator Roy Disney was commissioned to make a cartoon spot with a catchy jingle: “Ike for President,” the song repeated, cutting to Uncle Sam leading a parade down the streets. “You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike,” the chorus sang as Eisenhower’s smiling cartoon face passed.

Read the entire piece here.

Jimmy Carter Beat 17 Competitors to Win the Democratic Nomination in 1976

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As Gillian Brockell notes at The Washington Post, the last time we had a very large Democratic primary field we got Jimmy Carter.  The Plains, Georgia peanut farmer emerged as the primary winner over Birch Bayh, Lloyd Bentsen, Jerry Brown, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Sargent Shriver, Morris Udall, and George Wallace, to name a few.

Here is a taste of Brockell’s piece.

As the primaries approached, one Democrat after another announced campaigns for president. Most were senators. Some were governors. One came from a university town in Indiana. They spoke of a need to clean up an executive branch they said was riddled with corruption.

No, this isn’t a description of the 2020 campaign. It was 1976 — the most crowded Democratic presidential field in modern American history, until the current election cycle, which boasts 21.

And, despite worries about a bruising intraparty battle, the little-known peanut farmer who won the primaries also won the White House. His name was Jimmy Carter.

How many Democratic candidates were there in 1976? One historian put the number at 17, though it depends on how you count them. Let’s just say the race was remarkably fluid right up until the last primary.

Read the rest here.

Historicizing the “Politics of Touch”

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We now know that Joe Biden likes to touch people in ways that some might deem inappropriate.   According to University of South Carolina historian Mark M. Smith, Abraham Lincoln was also kind of handsy.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

Amidst the furor over former Vice President Biden’s handsy habits – and with examples of inappropriate touching by current and former U.S. presidents still lingering – it might be a good time to recall how past politicians learned to use touch not to molest, intimidate or cow but to connect, engage and inspire.

No one was better at tactile politics than Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln lived in a time when American political culture valued touch. Handshaking had long been important as a sign of political and social etiquette.

Quakers, for example, preferred the handshake over doffing hats and bowing because the act had something of a democratic ring to it, denoting a rough equality.

By the early 19th century, handshaking was becoming both more American and masculine. French and British gentlemen were less inclined to shake hands and considered the American habit of sweaty handshaking “disgusting.”

Lincoln and American politicians cast their touch as a necessary part of political culture and engagement.

I’m a scholar of sensory history, and in my research I have found that elected and electable leaders during the 19th century especially had to touch voters, metaphorically and literally, a point Lincoln probably learned while glad-handing as a young traveling lawyer.  

Read the rest here.

19th Century Conspiracy Theories

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According to historian Mark Cheathem, “rumors of secret alliance, bank deals, and double-crossings were rampant in early American elections.”  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Smithsonian.com:

From claims that NASA faked the moon landing to suspicions about the U.S. government’s complicity in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans love conspiracy theories. Conspiratorial rhetoric in presidential campaigns and its distracting impact on the body politic have been a fixture in American elections from the beginning, but conspiracies flourished in the 1820s and 1830s, when modern-day American political parties developed, and the expansion of white male suffrage increased the nation’s voting base. These new parties, which included the Democrats, the National Republicans, the Anti-Masons, and the Whigs, frequently used conspiracy accusations as a political tool to capture new voters—ultimately bringing about a recession and a collapse of public trust in the democratic process.

During the early decades of the American republic, the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican Parties engaged in conspiratorial rhetoric on a regular basis. Following the War of 1812, the Federalist Party faded from the political landscape, leaving the Republicans as the predominant national party. Their hold was so great that in 1816 and 1820, James Monroe, the Republican presidential candidate, ran virtually unopposed, but in 1824, the Republicans splintered into multiple and disparate factions. Five viable candidates ran in that election cycle, and John Quincy Adams won the presidency.

The controversy around Adams’s victory quickly fueled suspicions: Tennessean Andrew Jackson had won the most electoral and popular votes and the most regions and states, but because he did not win the majority of electoral votes, the U.S. House of Representatives was constitutionally required to choose the president in a runoff of the top three vote-getters. Jackson’s supporters believed that House Speaker Henry Clay, who had placed fourth in the regular election, helped Adams win the House election in return for being appointed secretary of state. The Jacksonians’ charges of a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay ensured that the 1828 election would, in part, be fought over this conspiracy theory.

Read the rest here.

#OAH19: “Revisiting Reconstruction Political History”

Freedmen's Bureau 2Katie Lowe, a graduate student in American history at Towson University, is back from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians where she was covering the conference for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  In this conference dispatch, she writes about Session #AM2873: “Revisiting Reconstruction Political History.”  Read all of her OAH dispatches here.

Technically, the OAH meeting didn’t end until Sunday, but I had to catch a train, so my last panel on Saturday was #AM2873, “Revisiting Reconstruction Political History.” It was a good choice!

Corey Brooks (York College, PA) began with a discussion of Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau legislation and its eventual revision and passage. He argued that the bill represented a need for Congress to “advance meaningful liberty.” Brooks noted that there was a vocal minority, rooted in longstanding racial prejudice, against using a federal agency to help people of color. After Johnson’s initial veto, the legislation was changed in terms of appropriations, aid, and the distribution of claimed and abandoned land.

Hilary Green of the University of Alabama discussed efforts in Alabama to ensure education for African Americans during Reconstruction. These efforts were framed around the concept of “education as a vehicle for citizenship.” Delegates to Southern state conventions worked to have public education become part of state constitutions, with Alabama’s statute opening free education to all children ages 5-21. It became a right of citizens, including African Americans, to access education. This raised the question of who would be deemed worthy to gain education and the revolutionary nature of the conventions.  Texas and Arkansas had vague language in their statutes, without comment on freed or former slave status, while Florida’s statute made education accessible “without distinction or preference.” Race, class, and place continued to define access to education. Opposition from the South, philanthropy from the North, and the availability of resources could all affect the quality of schooling.

Kevin Adams of Kent State followed up with an examination of the far Western United States during Reconstruction..  He focused on the Army’s role in Reconstruction as part of a “chronological and geographically expansive approach.” Anti-Chinese mobs in the 1880’s triggered the use of the Army as posse comitatus in Seattle, even though this practice had officially ended years earlier.

Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut rounded out the panel with a paper reexamining Reconstruction with regard to the expansion of the state and the redefinition of American democracy to include political and civil rights for African Americans.  She began by suggesting that conventional wisdom, which paints abolitionists as political neophytes, is inaccurate. The political history of abolition and Reconstruction includes debates over the nature of the Constitution that led to political and social changes through government power.  Slaveholder influence in the U.S. government did not result in the growth of the state, but abolitionist work did. Radical Reconstruction could be seen as “rescuing the federal government from the clutches of the slave power.” She notes that suffrage and black citizenship were not new ideas during Reconstruction. The work of radical/political abolitionists remade constitutions to ensure the “[inscription] of black rights into law.” Sinha concluded by emphasizing the interaction between political citizenship and social justice.

The chair/commentator, Andrew Slap from East Tennessee State University, emphasized the “radical and revolutionary nature of Reconstruction” and suggested that the multiple approaches taken by the panel countered the idea of a “greater Reconstruction” that was too big to say anything meaningful. The floor was then opened to questions.

The first question was for Manisha Sinha.  How representative were radical abolitionists? She said that they were the “ideological vanguard” of the party, which is why they are important to the conversation and the formation of the idea of an American state responsible for the well-being of all of its citizens. Corey Brooks added that late wartime and post-war legislation had radical voices setting the parameters for congressional debate.

The next question was for Corey Brooks: Did the Freedmen’s Bureau have its own authority even after its reauthorization and realignment under the War Department?  The answer is yes. A follow up; “Why did Andrew Johnson veto the legislation? Brooks stated that Johnson claimed that eleven states did not have representation at the time and so he believed passage would be inappropriate.

Someone asked Kevin Adams if Washington was still a territory, how did federal authority extend there? He said that the Washington territory had asked for federal intervention.  Moreover, a broader view had emerged by this point giving government the power to intervene in all civil rights issues.

A member of the audience asked Hilary Green if the discussion over Reconstruction education extended to universities.   Yes, in South Carolina the University of South Carolina was desegregated. Some states agreed to build separate schools and others made provisions for students with special needs (blind, deaf).

Episode 49: Why is America So Divided?

PodcastWhether you ask a young college student or a baby boomer, the only thing people seem to agree on these days is that we are more politically divided than ever. But is this true, and if so, how did we get this way? Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling try to tackle this question. They are joined by Princeton historian and CNN commentator Julian Zelizer (@julianzelizer), the co-author of the recent book, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

Lindsey Graham and the “Judgement of History”

washington dcv

George Washington’s Annual Message to Congress, 1790

Lindsey Graham is furious with Nancy Pelosi’s decision to forbid Donald Trump from delivering the State of the Union Address in the chamber of the House of Representatives until he ends the government shutdown.

Interesting.

I wonder how Graham defines a “longstanding American tradition?” George Washington and John Adams delivered their annual message to Congress in person.  When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he did not deliver the message in person, preferring a written statement.  Every U.S. President followed Jefferson’s precedent until Woodrow Wilson revived the “in person” message to Congress in 1913..  (Actually, it was called the “Annual Message” until 1946).  Karen Tumilty explains it all in this piece at The Washington Post.

Moving from the historical to the political, I find it disturbing that Graham, a Senator from South Carolina and a Trump supporter, has saved the “judgement of history” line for this incident.

What Do Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Andrew Johnson Have in Common?

carter_kennedy_was_drinking_before_1980_snub

Fillmore, Pierce, and Johnson were sitting presidents seeking reelection who failed to win the nomination of their political party.  And it almost happened in 1980 as Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party nomination.

Could it happen in the GOP in 2020?

Jon Ward of Yahoo News discusses Kennedy’s challenge to Carter in his piece “Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and a lesson from history for President Trump.”  Here is a taste:

The heightened anxiety of the time—from gas lines, to rising costs for basic goods, to unemployment—was reflected in the public’s desire for a stronger form of leadership in the White House. More than half of the country—55 percent—still thought Carter was honest in a June CBS News/New York Times poll. But 66 percent said they wanted someone “who would step on some toes and bend some rules to get things done.” Democrats in the poll overwhelmingly said they wanted Kennedy to be their nominee in 1980, with 52 percent for Kennedy to 23 percent for Carter, and 8 percent for California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Beyond economics, Americans were worried that their country was “in deep and serious trouble” because of “moral threats which cut right through the social fabric,” according to one survey by Democratic pollster Peter Hart in Wisconsin. Hart’s results showed widespread concern over “a lack of morality and religion and the breakdown of the family structure.” People said they were “afraid that people have become too selfish and greedy, that the people are apathetic and just don’t care.”

Hart’s survey in Wisconsin showed a desire for “a reemergence of the more traditional approach to life and a turning away from the more publicized free-wheeling attitudes of the 1960’s and 70’s.” This should have given the Carter White House some reassurance that Kennedy, whose life bore all the hallmarks of excess and privilege, might not be as formidable a foe as the polls showed. But when things are going badly and you’re getting blamed, it’s hard to think clearly, and the Carter White House was spooked.

The New York Times columnist Tom Wicker noted that many of those polled about Kennedy supported him despite holding less liberal views than he did on health care and government spending. “He is a glamorous figure with a great name,” Wicker wrote. “Those who are trying to draft him are looking for a winner.”

Carter remained publicly defiant about his political future, despite his tanking popularity. One day after the June numbers appeared, he hosted several dozen congressmen at the White House for a briefing on the Panama Canal treaty, which was struggling to gain support. The House members were seated at round tables, in groups of ten or so. Carter went from table to table. While he spoke to one group, he was asked by Representative Toby Moffett of Connecticut how he felt about the 1980 election. Carter claims that Moffett asked him if he was even going to run for reelection, “which was kind of an insult to an incumbent president.”

“Of course I am,” Carter told Moffett.

Moffett persisted. “What about Ted Kennedy?” he asked.

“I’m going to whip his ass,” Carter said.

Representative William Brodhead, a Michigan Democrat, was taken aback.

“Excuse me, what did you say?” he said.

Moffett cut him off. “I don’t think the president wants to repeat what he said,” he told Brodhead.

Read the entire piece here.  And check out Ward’s new book Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight That Broke the Democratic Party

The Author’s Corner with Edward Rugemer

slave law and the politics of resistance in the early atlantic world

Edward Rugemer is an Associate Professor of African American Studies and History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: When I was in graduate school at Boston College, both Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone and Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint were published during the years before my oral exams. I read both and was inspired to take on a comparative project, though not, I was advised, for my dissertation. The idea for the comparison at the heart of this book came from my dissertation/ first book, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2008). I realized in writing that book that the planter classes in Jamaica and South Carolina had this very similar relationship with abolitionists. They were the most radically pro-slavery in these different regions of the Anglo Atlantic, the U.S. South and the British Caribbean. When I considered this realization alongside the work of Richard Dunn and Peter Wood, that both Jamaica and South Carolina were “colonies” of Barbados (to use Wood’s phrase), I saw that these two slave societies had followed very similar historical arcs. They had common origins, developed into the wealthiest colonies of their respective regions, and though each went its separate way during the American Revolution, both followed a very similar pattern in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution and the emergence of radical abolitionism. Comparison requires both similarity and difference and the political histories of Jamaica and South Carolina have the necessary mix.

The central theme of the book — the relationship between slave resistance and broader political changes — also came from the first book, specifically in the first few chapters. I felt there was much more to say about the impact of slave resistance upon the political history of slave societies. Some of this work had been done by historians of the American Civil War era such as Jim Oakes and Steve Hahn, and historians of the nineteenth century Caribbean such as Mary Turner and Emilia Viotti da Costa, and more recently Gelien Matthews and Claudius Fergus. But no one had gone deeper into the colonial period and I thought it was important to do so.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: Very early in the history of Atlantic slave societies a political dialectic developed between Africans who forcefully resisted enslavement, and slaveholding colonists who sought to impose the rigid social control they saw as necessary for profitable colonial enterprise. This dialectic is evident in slave law, it developed and changed until the abolition of slavery, and it shaped the histories of Jamaica and South Carolina in fundamentally different ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: First, it is a valuable account of, and explanation for, the political significance of slave resistance in Anglo-Atlantic slave societies from their origins to the 1830s. Secondly, the book makes clear the differences between the slave regimes of the Caribbean and the U.S. In this way it complements Richard Dunn’s important study, A Tale of Two Plantations

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

ER: I worked as a Jesuit volunteer teaching high school in Kingston, Jamaica, from 1994-1996 and my experience there led me to some deep reading in the history of slavery and eventually graduate school.

JF: What is your next project?

ER: I have two different projects that are in the early stages. I am thinking about writing a synthesis of slavery in the Western World. My most ambitious self wants to start with some of the theories on the origins of slavery, move into ancient Greece and Rome, the decline of slavery in Western Europe and its persistence in the Mediterranean, the expansion into the Atlantic. But I want to take this history up to modern slavery and human trafficking in our own time. I don’t think we have an historical narrative that integrates the racial slavery of the Atlantic World, which lasted for generations and has had such insidious afterlives, with the various forms of slavery that persist today. Many modern day abolitionists invoke the abolitionist movements of the past without careful attention to the distinctions between these manifestations of slavery across time and space. Historians need to do this. So I’d like to come up with a synthesis that brings this history together.

The second idea is a deeply archival project about a slaveholder we know very little about. His name is Charles Douglas and the Beinecke Library has about 30 years of his correspondence with his brother Patrick. I read it all during my first year at Yale, thinking I would use it for this book, but I only used one brief quote. Douglas moves from Ayr, Scotland to Jamaica when he was a teenager. He mostly worked as a bookkeeper at first (kind of an assistant overseer), but he does accrue some wealth and becomes a slaveholder. What’s curious about him is that when he buys land, he buys land that directly abuts Moore Town in the Blue Mountains, which is one of the Maroon Towns. He becomes the superintendent for the Moore Town Maroons, which is a position established by the 1739 treaties that ended the first Maroon War and recognized Maroon autonomy within the colony. Formally, he was the Maroons’ military commander, but in fact I don’t think it worked that way. Yet there were these superintendents, one for each of the towns, and they were well paid by the colonial state. But there is an archival challenge: I need to find his reports. I don’t know where they are and no one has ever referenced them. And if I can find them, it could be a really interesting book. I need to dig deeper and I love that challenge, but it will take some time.

JF: Thanks, Edward!

Jefferson: “Every man cannot have his way in all things”

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An 1801 letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson will be auctioned next month.  Learn more about it at Emily Heil’s piece in The Washington Post.  A taste:

The letter is 218 years old, and yet it might be arriving right on time to deadlocked Washington: a missive from Thomas Jefferson heading to the auction block on Feb. 2 warns against digging in against opponents (sound familiar, anyone?).

The Potomack Company in Alexandria will gavel off the 1801 letter, written by the then-new President Thomas Jefferson to fellow Founding Father John Dickinson. In it, the commander in chief offers words that folks on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue might find useful, as President Trump and congressional Democrats remain at an impasse that’s partially shuttered the federal government.

“My dear friend, if we do not learn to sacrifice small differences of opinion, we can never act together. Every man cannot have his way in all things,” Jefferson wrote, as he despaired about the political divisions of his own day. “If his own opinion prevails at some times, he should acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at others. Without this mutual disposition we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.”

Read the rest here.

Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL is back with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association going on this weekend in Chicago.  You can read all his posts here.  –JF

Could there be a better moment for a revival of the 1976 film “Network” on the Broadway stage, starring the man (Bryan Cranston) who played such television white everymen as Hal on Malcom in the Middle and Walter White on Breaking Bad, than during the so-called “age of Trump,” what Ed Stetzer has dubbed “The Age of Outrage?”  As the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin rightly noted, “no predictor of the future – not even Orwell – has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’”  So, it’s interesting and perhaps no coincidence, that in their new book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer pick up the story of the fracturing of an America that’s “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore” only two years before Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivered that famous movie line.

Today Kruse chaired, and Zelizer sat on, a panel that explored the topic of “Divided Loyalties in the United States: Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America” at AHA19.  Nicole Hemmer kicked things off with a simple premise: polarization might have a negative connotation for most people, but it hasn’t been bad for everyone.  Over the last several decades, for conservatives and the Republican party, polarization has worked.  Hemmer gave two reasons for this strategy’s success on the right – an increased reliance on the politics of “playing to the base” (something Reagan, Bush 41, and even, at first, Gingrich did not overtly do) and a powerfully ideological media platform (i.e. talk radio starting with Limbaugh and then the Bealeistic rage-machine that became FOX News).

Timothy Stewart-Winter pushed back against the narrative that the United States is more divided today than it ever was, and did so through the prism of LGBTQ rights.  He deconstructed two common Obama tropes: first, that the 43rd president accomplished nothing after November of 2010 and, second, that he failed to remake the America of blue states and red states into a United States in the image of his 2004 DNC speech. According to Stewart-Winter, “what Lyndon Baines Johnson was for Civil Rights, Barack Obama was for gay rights.”  The man who hadn’t even heard of the Stonewall Riots when he ran for the Senate included a reference to it in his second inaugural address, after declaring his support for marriage equality at the same point in his political career that both President Clinton and Bush 43 had tacked to the right on that same issue.  Said Stewart-Winter, “Obama modeled for many Americans, especially men, what it means to change your mind.”  As polling continues to indicate and Stewart-Winter effectively argued, the nation changed their minds with President Obama, and the Trump Administration’s recent attempts to limit the rights of transgender people seem unlikely to reverse that cultural shift.

According to Leah Wright Rigueur, “political polarization is racial polarization.”  She placed the origins of America’s current political climate a little earlier than Kruse and Zelizer did, in the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the subsequent conservative ascendancy within the GOP.  She powerfully made the connection from Goldwater to Reagan when she stated, “If Goldwater rang the death knell for black Republicans, Ronald Reagan dug the grave and buried the bodies.”  Wright Rigueur also made an effective argument for the idea that despite the entrenchment of partisanship in recent years, many black voters (especially pre and post Obama) are often voters without a party.  Most can’t conceive of voting Republican but feel that the Democratic party ignores them or takes them for granted.  The black vote (or absence of it), just might have been the decisive factor in the 2016 presidential election.

Zelizer concluded by agreeing with Hemmer’s thesis that the political right has benefited immensely from polarization since the 1970s, but added that the left has been just as susceptible to using divide and conquer strategies and ideologically-driven media platforms.  The difference has been, according to him, that liberals just haven’t been very good at using either of those tactics successfully.  Like Stewart-Winter, Zelizer also countered the idea that there’s been an overall shift to the right among Americans.  The progress made in feminism and gay rights belie that narrative.  As Zelizer noted, however, “we have left many questions unanswered since the 1970s.”  The answers to those questions animated culture warriors like Jerry Falwell Sr. and Phyllis Schlafly in their day and that mantle has been taken up by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham today.  When seen as a desperate, rear-guard action to save White Christian America, perhaps it makes sense why in the age of Trump, some people are still “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore.”

Thanks, Matt!

Deconstructing the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”

ParanoidIn the age of Trump, many are saying that we are witnessing a resurgence of a phenomenon that historian Richard Hofstadter once called “the paranoid style of American politics.” Over at The Baffler, UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted traces the history of the “paranoid style” and how it may or may not be employed in today’s political climate.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Hofstadter also highlighted another common trope in right-wing rhetoric that’s relevant to today’s politics: the curious sense of loss among Americans on the right. Their anger, he argued, stemmed from their sense of dispossession, even though many of them were relatively well off. They believed, he said, that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

Many scholars today have commented on this sense of dispossession among Trump supporters. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild captured this sentiment in the title of her book on the worldview of rural white voters, Strangers in Their Own Land. The rural white people who Hochschild interviewed felt angry at “line-cutters”: immigrants and people of color who, they believed, had jumped the queue in front of patient, hard-working white Americans like them, and were rewarded with welfare checks and affirmative action jobs. Hofstadter might call this fear that someone will take your place in line—i.e., push you out of your rightful spot in the social order—just another form of status anxiety.

Finally, even back in the 1960s, Hofstadter remarked on the skepticism of science and contempt for expertise among Americans on the right. The paranoid spokesman, he said, was not open to new ideas, scientific studies, or scholarly arguments. “He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter.” This phrase could have been written about the most passionate Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential race. The Oxford Dictionaries picked “post-truth” as their word of the year for 2016, or the word “chosen to reflect the passing year in language,” and defined it as circumstances in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Trump was not embarrassed that his sources or his facts might be wrong; “All I know is what’s on the internet,” he said at one point during the campaign.

Read the entire piece here.

Why Do Rural Whites Vote GOP?

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Daniel K. Williams of the University of West Georgia explains why rural white voters, once a stronghold of the Democratic Party, started voting Republican.  Here is a taste of his piece at History News Network:

If there was one demographic group that blunted the force of the “blue wave” in this month’s midterm elections, it was rural white voters. Even as Republicans lost control of the suburban areas that had been their strongholds in the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans extended their hold over rural America. The GOP is now on the verge of uniting nearly all rural white voters into a single party – which has never happened before. 

For most of the Republican Party’s history, the notion that the GOP would become the party of rural whites was unimaginable. Rural whites were the last voter group in the South to leave the Democratic Party; they did not begin consistently voting Republican until the 1990s, nearly a generation after suburban white southerners entered the GOP. But now rural whites in both North and South are the stronghold of the GOP and the key to the party’s future. 

Why have rural whites throughout the country started voting Republican? And why have Democrats been unable to win them back, despite making an effort to do so in 2018? 

Read the rest here.

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!

The Constitution as a “cudgel with which to attack their enemies”

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In The Atlantic‘s ongoing series on the state of American democracy, Yale Law School professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld argue that partisanship has “turned Americans against one another–and against the principles enshrined in our founding document.”  They call for a “constitutional patriotism.”  Here is a taste:

America is not an ethnic nation. Its citizens don’t have to choose between a national identity and multiculturalism. Americans can have both. But the key is constitutional patriotism. We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements.

There are lessons here for both the left and the right. The right needs to recognize that making good on the Constitution’s promises requires much more than flag-waving. If millions of people believe that, because of their skin color or religion, they are not treated equally, how can they be expected to see the Constitution’s resounding principles as anything but hollow?

For its part, the left needs to rethink its scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals. Exposing injustice, past and present, is important, but there’s a world of difference between saying that America has repeatedly failed to live up to its constitutional principles and saying that those principles are lies or smoke screens for oppression. Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. They were also political visionaries who helped give birth to what would become the most inclusive form of governance in world history.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Mark Cheathem

CoD Book Cover.jpgMark Cheathem is Professor of History and project director of the Papers of Martin Van Buren at Cumberland University. This interview is based on his new book The Coming Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Coming Democracy?

MC: Originally, I started out writing a book about the 1840 election for undergraduate students. As I researched the Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign of 1840, however, I saw a need for a more general book on presidential campaigning in the Jacksonian period. The closest one we had was Michael J. Heale’s The Presidential Quest: Candidates and Images in American Political Culture, 1787-1852. Heale’s book is excellent, but it was published in 1982 and did not address the new scholarship on Early Republic cultural politics. Having research and written extensively on Jacksonian politics, I thought I could provide a book that provided an interpretive framework for understanding this fascinating period.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Coming Democracy?

MC: This book argues that forms of cultural politics (e.g., political cartoons, political songs, etc.) were essential to engaging voters in presidential campaigns during the Jacksonian period. Not only were these political expressions increasingly used to engage voters between 1824 and 1840, they also played a critical role in making them a permanent part of presidential campaigning.

JF: Why do we need to read The Coming Democracy?

MC: This book is immensely relevant to today’s political culture. As I argue in the conclusion, while some forms of Jacksonian-era cultural politics have changed, all of them continue to exist in some form. For example, political cartoons may not be as relevant in today’s world of disappearing newspapers, but the popular memes on social media essentially serve the same purpose: providing a visual shorthand of a politician or issue that requires some level of political literacy on the part of consumers.

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

MC: My undergraduate adviser, Monty Pope, knew that I wanted to teach history, and he convinced me to go to graduate school so I could teach at the college level. Monty’s course on Jacksonian Democracy and his encouragement to work at The Hermitage, Jackson’s home in Nashville, led me into the period I study.

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently at work on the Papers of Martin Van Buren project, which is making the eighth president’s papers accessible in both digital and print editions. I am also writing a book on the 1844 presidential election for the University Press of Kansas’ American Presidential Elections series.

JF: Thanks, Mark!

A Right-Wing Pundit Gets a History Lesson

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I know a lot of you have been following Kevin Kruse‘s twitter take-down of right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza.  Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, is challenging D’Souza’s claim that today’s Democratic Party is the party of racism because it had championed racism in the past.

Any undergraduate history major knows that political parties change over time.  On matters of race, the Democratic Party of the 1950s and early 1960s is not the Democratic Party of today.

Jeet Heer calls attention to the Twitter debate at The New Republic:

D’Souza has made a specialty of highlighting the undeniable racism of the 1960s Democratic Party as a way to tar the current party. His arguments ignore the way the two political parties switch positions on Civil Rights in the 1960s, with the Democrats embracing Civil Rights and Republicans, under the guidance of national leaders like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, exploiting racist backlash.

Read Heer’s entire post, including some of the tweets between Kruse and D’Souza.

Finally, don’t forget to listen to our interview with Kevin Kruse at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  The interview focuses on Kruse’s use of Twitter to bring good history to the public.

Zimmerman: The GOP Should be Careful What They Wish for in Overturning *Roe v. Wade*

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University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman wonders if overturning Roe v. Wade will lead to a liberal resurgence that might change the face of American politics.  Here is a taste of his piece at The New Republic:

Now, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the bench has American conservatives chomping at the bit: with the swing vote removed and replaced with a nominee of President Trump’s choosing, perhaps the 1973 ruling can be overturned. Conservatives’ own history, however, suggests that they should be careful for what they wish for. Instead of an unambiguous and permanent conservative victory, they might face a liberal political resurgence unlike anything seen in decades. A victory in the courts could spawn backlash at the polls.

That, after all, is precisely what happened after 1973, with the roles reversed, when Roe galvanized a right-wing revolution. Sixteen states had liberalized their abortion laws in the years leading up to the decision, provoking sporadic conservative protests. But the issue didn’t become a truly national one until the Supreme Court intervened in 1973, declaring that the protections of the Constitution did not apply to the unborn.

Read the entire piece here.