The Author’s Corner with Andrew Lang

58ed00a62953dAndrew Lang is assistant professor of History at Mississippi State University. This interview is based on his new book, In the Wake of War: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America (Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write In the Wake of War?

AL: Ever since I entered the field of Civil War history, I have been deeply interested in the experience of the common soldier, who lived as an extension of a rich and complicated nineteenth-century America. Historians have produced a remarkable literature on these volunteers, explaining their motivations to enlist, the trials of living as fiercely democratic and individualistic males who served in a hierarchical and disciplined military ethos, the traumas of combat, and their perspectives on Union and emancipation. As a graduate student who came of age during the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I sensed that wars possess a confusing underside, one in which soldiers engage civilians, enact dramatic social and political changes, function as a policy arm of the state, and attempt to shape the conditions of peace in spite of continued insurgent warfare. In short, the US’s current wars revealed the complications of military occupation, which I knew had to have an origins story. Although my book certainly does not gauge the past according to the understandings and biases of the present—in fact, it does quite the opposite—it was nonetheless conceived with an eye toward the questions that we ask today about the military’s role within democratic life. I thus embarked on a project to understand the complicated experience of serving as a volunteer soldier within the ranks of United States armies of occupation during the Mexican-American War, Civil War, and Reconstruction.

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

AL: The book argues that the Civil War era ushered in the long age of American wars of military occupation, and the work thus considers these occupations through the eyes of the occupier, revealing dynamic internal wars that were just as complex and consequential as those waged on the front lines. I suggest that the republican military tradition—both the citizen-soldier ethos and the cultural discomfort with standing armies—underwent significant strains from the advent of occupation, by changing the disposition of volunteer armies, in managing the complicated processes of civilian pacification and state-sanctioned emancipation, and in negotiating the confusing dawn of peace during Reconstruction.

JF: Why do we need to read In the Wake of War?

AL: The book aims to link the American Civil War era to its broader cultural context, revealing how the events of 1861 to 1865 were shaped by a military ethos that preceded secession and which continued to influence the nation after Appomattox. Exploring how United States soldiers, who symbolized the society from which they came, interpreted occupation on both ideological and practical grounds reveals an in-the-ranks perspective on an unprecedented role of American armies in international and domestic wars and crises. This history of military occupation thus reveals how occupation brought soldiers face-to-face with a host of central problems in nineteenth-century America: the relationship between citizen and government; the tensions between democracy and republicanism; the Union’s perceived exceptionalism; the explosive issue of race in a white democracy; the limits of free-market capitalism; the boundary between formalized and irregular warfare; the place of standing armies in the American mind; and the uncertain role of the federal state in charting the murky transition from war to peace.

The book also reconsiders the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that Abraham Lincoln used to invite African American men to serve in Union armies. The proclamation’s language fit within the context of Lincoln’s anti-slavery politics, white soldiers’ anxieties about serving in armies of occupation, and contemporary questions about the fitness of African Americans for citizenship. Indeed, by placing black soldiers in garrisoned and auxiliary roles, the Proclamation attempted to marginalize the advent of black soldiering. Yet by doing so, African American troops wound up on the front lines of occupation, facilitating slavery’s demise everywhere Union armies of occupation moved. The complexion and purpose of wartime and peacetime military occupations changed fundamentally as African American soldiers embraced military power to occasion decisive social and political changes across the national landscape.

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

AL: The very first course I took in college was a survey of early United States history. I was captivated by the ideas and presentation. Coinciding with the events of September 11, 2001, which transpired during that same semester, I was drawn immediately to issues of historical context, notions of change over time, and America’s place in the world. Little did I know it at the time, but the professor in that course would become one of my closest professional mentors and personal friends. It was among the greatest privileges of my life to send him a signed copy of my book seventeen years after I took his survey course. I knew that I wanted to pursue the study of Civil War history when, during the summer of 2003, my dad and I took a trip to the Antietam battlefield, a haunting landscape filled not with the glory of the past, but instead with the horrors of a cataclysmic battle. I had spent much of the summer reading on the Civil War in preparation for an upper division course in my recently declared history major. I had thought that I would pursue a legal career, but that day at Antietam sealed an everlasting fascination with the central event in United States history. I have not looked back since.

JF: What is your next project?

AL: I had the good fortune two years ago to be asked by a senior scholar to serve as the lead writer for a co-authored book on the American Civil War in a global context. We have nearly finished a first draft of the manuscript, which argues that Americans of diverse persuasions—Unionist and Confederate, black and white, soldier and civilian—interpreted the coming, conduct, and consequences of the war through the lens of “American civilization,” or what we in the twenty-first century might refer to as “American exceptionalism.” The book argues that the Civil War era can be understood as a crisis of American identity, one that at once considered the United States a unique and chosen nation and one that feared for the United States’ place in a world consumed by perceived radicalism and revolution. Disunion and war resulted from a failure to forge a consensus on the roles of democracy, slavery, liberty, race in a republican “civilization.” The war, its great social changes, and its long aftermath served as referendums on this crisis of “civilization.”

My next individual project, of which I am still in the very formative stages of conceptualization, will be a cultural history of the demobilization of Union armies and the dawn of peace in the weeks, months, and years following the dissolution of the Confederate States of America. While many unresolved issues lingered in the wake of Appomattox, consuming the United States in political turmoil and social violence, the end of formal hostilities shaped how Americans understood life in a republic absent the state-sanctioned violence of public war. Fearing that the Civil War’s continuation beyond the formal surrender of armies might consume the United States in the same chaos and turmoil that plagued wars and revolutions in Europe, Central America, and the Caribbean, the implications of a defined peace directly influenced the foundations of, implementation of, and resistance to, postwar reunion policies. Ultimately, I want to highlight the role of nineteenth-century American fears of a large military state and subsequent commitments to anti-militarization after 1865 in shaping the meaning and process of postwar restoration.

JF: Thanks, Andrew!

My Boston Trinity Academy Chapel Talk on Rural America

rural

Get the context here.  I gave this short chapel talk to the faculty and students of Boston Trinity Academy on January 16, 2018–JF

I am so pleased to be back at Boston Trinity Academy. (BTA)  I continue to reflect fondly on my last visit in May 2014 when I had the honor of serving as your commencement speaker.  It is great to see old friends and I have already made some new ones.

Students: please know how privileged you are to be at this place.  BTA is a school committed to the integration of Christian faith and learning at the highest level.  There are few places like this in the country.  Cherish your education here.  Thank God for it every day.  And be attentive to God’s voice so that you can obtain the wisdom necessary to know what you should do with this great gift you are receiving.

I am also excited for all of you as you spend your J-Term exploring the culture of rural America.  I wrote my first book about rural America.  It focused on a young man living in the 1760s and 1770s.  His name was Philip Vickers Fithian.  Philip left rural America, went to college at Princeton, and served his country during the Revolutionary War. But he never forgot the people from the rural community who raised him and taught him how to love God and others.  Philip’s path of education and self-improvement always seemed to lead him home.  So, needless to say, the topic you are studying this week is near and dear to my heart and I look forward to working with you today– the first day of your journey.

The countryside.  The frontier.  The hinterland.  The backcountry.  Whatever you want to call it—rural America played a powerful role in our understanding of who we are as Americans.  One of my favorite rural novels is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (if you haven’t read it, you should!).  I teach it at Messiah College in a course I offer on the history of immigrant America.  In this novel we meet a young man named Jim Burden.  He grew up on the East Coast, but after both his parents died he was sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  As Jim gets a first glimpse of the Great Plains he says: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Several days later he adds: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough shaggy red grass, most of it as tall as I.”

As he stands in the Nebraska fields, Jim starts to consider his own smallness: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out…  that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Jim Burden teaches us that rural America—with its pristine meadows and vast expanses of land—can have a humbling effect on those who experience it.  The rural writer Kathleen Norris, in her introduction to the edition of My Antonia I use in class, writes that Jim is “obliterated by the landscape.”

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence may have related to the fictional experience of Jim Burden.  “Those who labour in the earth,” Jefferson wrote, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”  Jefferson wanted to build the United States around the character traits that he saw in the ordinary farmer.  He used the word “yeoman”—a common term for a landholder—to describe this kind of farmer.

Throughout American history farmers have been committed to local places, to living lives in community and to the importance of family.   They understood the dignity of hard work.  They were often portrayed as healthy and strong.  They were people of faith—the kind of faith needed to place complete trust in a God who controls the weather.  They were patient folk who knew how to wait on the Lord.

At the same time, farmers were independent–the kind of people needed to sustain a nation founded upon freedom.  In other words, they were not dependent on others—such as manufacturers and bank owners–to survive.  They were not defiled by the corruption and self-interest of cities—urban centers filled with workers who were at the mercy of factory owners. Jefferson envisioned a country filled with landowners who would spread out across the continent.  Manufacturing and urbanization did not play a major role in his vision.  These things were part of the vision of his political rival Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson’s rural vision for America died after the Civil War.  It gave way to industry and railroads and factories and markets.  If Jefferson were alive today he would probably be appalled by how dependent we are on food processed by big companies.  He would not be happy that we pursue the American dream by going into debt to credit card companies and mortgage firms and banks. (This, despite the fact that Jefferson spent most of his adult life in debt).

Indeed, we don’t live the kind of independent lives Jefferson envisioned.  We trade the patience of the farmer for immediate gratification.   We want it all—and we want it now.  But the American rural dweller,–the farmer–teaches us to slow down and listen.  To endure.  To trust God for our most pressing needs.  Maybe even to suffer—as many farmers did when the weather did not cooperate.  Farmers understood (and understand) that that suffering produces perseverance.  They understood that perseverance produces character. They understood that character leads to hope (Romans 5:4)

There is a lot to commend in this vision of America.  But it also easy to get nostalgic about it.  The warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we read about Jim Burden or study Thomas Jefferson’s America can blind us to another side— a dark side—of the history of rural life.  Maybe you have heard of this term, “nostalgia.”  I think of it as a sort of homesickness for a time in the past when everything was wonderful or when we at least thought that everything was wonderful.   But nostalgia is an inherently selfish way of thinking about the past because it often fails to see how other people—people who are not like us—lived through the same era and did not think it was so great.

With this in mind, as we gather on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, we would be remiss, and historically irresponsible, if we did not think about this other side of rural America.  After all, for most of American history the countryside was the home of forced labor camps—white people called them plantations—where millions of enslaved Africans and their families cultivated the land. Abraham Lincoln described slavery in his First Inaugural Address as “250 years of unrequited toil.” The whip of the slaveholder drove the Southern cotton economy and contributed to the success of Northern manufacturing and industry.  The growth of American power went hand in hand with the growth of slavery.  The rise of American capitalism would be impossible without the labor of the enslaved.

Slavery ended officially in 1865, but the enslaved—now called freedmen—had a hard time escaping rural America.  Many of them returned to the fields as sharecroppers—a system of work that could be just as degrading as slavery. And they also came face-to-face with white rural Americans who were not happy that they were free.  For the next century these white Americans in the South would do everything in their power to deny African Americans the liberties they were entitled to.

Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew this history of rural America very well.  But they refused to let the past have its way with them. They fought to bend the trajectory of America’s future toward justice.  By the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many African-Americans had left rural life in search of opportunities beyond the cotton plantations of the South.  They traveled to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.  They came to work in the factories of Buffalo, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.  Even those who stayed in the South left the farm for cities like Greensboro, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.  Ironically, it was in cities like these where Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the racism born in the fields of rural America.

Today about 10% of African-Americans live in rural areas.  This makes rural America largely the domain of poor white men and women who do not have the financial resources to get out. They often live alongside immigrant laborers—most from Central America—who do farm work for the big corporations that now control most of American agriculture.

As the urban population of America grows, the rural communities of the United States lose about 30,000 people per year. Donald Trump was right when he described a rural America of  “rusted-out factories” scattered “like tombstones across the landscape.” Once-thriving town-centers in rural communities are now filled with closed storefronts.  People in rural America have limited access to doctors and are now more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than people living in the cities and the suburbs.  Suicide rates in rural areas are double that in urban areas.  People are living in despair.  Access to a good education is becoming more and more difficult.  If you want to get a glimpse of rural America’s decline in places like Kentucky and Ohio I encourage you to pick-up a copy of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  I re-read some of it on the plane on the way here.  It explains a lot about why so many rural Americans saw Donald Trump as their savior in 2016.

So what happened to Jefferson’s vision of a country built upon yeoman farmers?  Does Jim Burden’s Nebraska still exist?  What has the long legacy of slavery and racism done to rural places?  These, I hope, will be the questions you will try to answer this week.

As I close, let me suggest that your task in making sense of rural America must be guided by the practice of at least three virtues essential to any kind of educational endeavor:

The first is empathy.  For many of you here in Boston, “rural America” might as well be a foreign country.  Empathy will be your passport for entry into this strange land.  This is going to take some discipline on your part.  You will need to walk in the shoes of those who live in rural America.  Your mind must be open to the experiences of the people who have inhabited and continue to inhabit these places.  As historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, to practice empathy means you must make every effort to “understand their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, [and] their perceptions of the world.” I challenge you to see life on their terms, not yours.  Pray about this.  Ask God to open your eyes and ears to people who are different.  This, after all, is what school is all about.  The Latin word for education literally means to “lead outward”—to grow personally by encountering others.

This kind of empathy will ultimately lead to a second virtue:  humility.  Like Jim Burden, who felt overwhelmed and small from staring into the Nebraska sky, your experience with people who are different should make you realize that you are part of something much larger than this moment, this particular place, and this particular time.  As an individual, you are important.  You are a child of God.  That gives you a dignity that no one can take away.  But at the same time, it’s not all about you!  To take a deep dive into another culture or another part of the world, or even another part of the United States, is to realize that God’s human creation is much more diverse, much larger and wonderful, than the tiny little slice of the world that you experience here in Boston or through the screen on your cell phone.   Pray for humility this week.  Whenever we study people who are different we see the awesomeness of God’s glorious creation.  This kind of encounter should humble us.  If it doesn’t, the problem is not with the rural Americans you will be studying this week.  The problem is with you!

Third, welcome the stranger.  During J-Term you will be meeting people who live in rural America.  You will also encounter the voices of rural America visiting your classroom in the form of historical documents and pieces of literature and videos and online sources.  Listen to these voices.  Make them feel at home in your classrooms. Make them your guests.  I know that sounds kind of strange, but unless you show hospitality to the texts you read and the people you encounter—even in a virtual or imagined way—you cheat yourself and are rejecting an opportunity to learn.

So I wish you well in this educational and intellectual journey for which you are about to embark.  Remember that Boston Trinity Academy is a place where your teachers love you.  And because they love you they want to encourage you to love the Lord with your minds.  And for that we can say “thanks be to God.”

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

Roy Moore Reminds Us When America Was “Great”

Moore RoyIt was during the era of slavery.

Read all about in this piece at VOX.

A taste:

Alabama’s Republican candidate for Senate, Roy Moore, says America needs to be a bit more like it was when it had slaves.

This is not a joke or exaggeration. When asked earlier this year when America was last great, Moore acknowledged, according to the Los Angeles Times, that the country had a history of racial tensions. Then he answered the question: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another. … Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

The quote comes from a Los Angeles Times report published in September, but it was recently resurfaced by a viral tweet from former Obama administration official Eric Columbus.

There are so many problems with this remark that it’s hard to know where to start.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Anne Bailey

51yawlmV0vL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Anne Bailey is associate professor of African American history at Binghamton University. This interview is based on her new book, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What is the argument of The Weeping Time?

AB: Drawing on victims’ accounts and descendants’ memories, The Weeping Time uses the largest slave auction in U.S. history as a lens to explore the legacies of slavery, diaspora and the Civil War.

The story of “The Weeping Time” is also a story of the strength and resilience of families – in this case, African American families. Building on the great work of historians like Herbert Gutman (The Black Family in Slavery and in Freedom) and Annette Gordon Reed ( The Hemingses), The Weeping Time demonstrates that in spite of a history of displacement and loss, some Black families managed to reconnect after emancipation and reestablished strong ties that remain to this day.

JF: Why do we need to read The Weeping Time?

AB: The book is also about memory and why there is such amnesia about slavery particularly about the mechanics of the system. Slave auctions were as common as stock trades today yet most of us cannot recollect even one. How does something so important disappear from public memory? Why is there still contention about Confederate generals and the statues built in their honor? I think all aspects of slavery are important to share because there is still a lot of misperceptions and misinformation about the period and its effect on American history. There is still a lot of healing that needs to take place – a lot of understanding that there are strong connections that we share that should help us to overcome our differences. I also hope the book will open up again the discussion on Reparations – the debt that is due to descendants of slaves whose ancestors labored without compensation. This debt or investment could be a particular boon to inner city communities across the nation.

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

AB: I don’t think I consciously decided until I was in my mid twenties yet I was interested in history from I first saw ROOTS in 1977. I later did a school research project on slavery. That project created in me an endless thirst to know more about this period and, in fact, about my own roots.

During college, I ended up taking the route of Literature (French and English), but again, was more interested in the places where literature and history connect. In the end, I found that that original thirst would best be quenched through the field of history yet I have maintained a strong interest in many disciplines including English and Anthropology.

JF: What is your next project?

AB:  Transatlantic Slave auctions—an edited volume on slave auctions in Brazil, Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean and South America.(2019)

Back to the Future: Jamaican Identity in a Globalized World, co -edited with Dr. Hilary Robertson Hickling of the University of West Indies regarding the history of the Jamaican Diaspora and its relationship with host countries such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, (Expected date: 2018.)

JF: Thanks, Anne!

The Roy Moore Case Offers a Glimpse into How Jerry Falwell Jr. Sees the World

In a piece at The Washington Post published back in July, I wrote:

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.

I think this Roy Moore mess is another example of the way that evangelical Christians are going to have to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.  I don’t recognize the evangelicalism of the so-called “Christian leaders” who are defending Moore right now.

For example, here is a taste of Emily McFarland’s Religion News Service piece on court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s response to the news that Judge Roy Moore allegedly molested teenage girls:

“It comes down to a question who is more credible in the eyes of the voters — the candidate or the accuser,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of evangelical Liberty University who has endorsed Trump and Moore, both Republicans.

“The same thing happened to President Trump a few weeks before his election last year except it was several women making allegations,” Falwell told RNS in an email. “He denied that any of them were true and the American people believed him and elected him the 45th president of the United States.”

Wow! I don’t even know where to begin. Falwell Jr., the president of the largest evangelical university in the world, does not seem capable of addressing this issue from a moral perspective informed by his Christian faith.  No Jerry, what Roy Moore allegedly did to these young girls does not “come down to a question of who is more credible to the voters.”

I can’t believe a Christian college president would imply that the rightness or wrongness of Moore’s supposed actions comes down to what the majority of people in Alabama think.  Is Falwell implying that if Moore is elected to the Senate, and it turns out he did molest those girls, that his actions are somehow washed clean because the people of Alabama believed his denials and voted him into office?  This may be how right and wrong is defined in a democracy, but it is not how right and wrong is defined by people committed to Christian faith.

I seem to recall that in the first half of the 19th-century the people of Alabama believed that slavery was a “more credible” position “in the eyes of the voters” of the state.  By Falwell’s logic in the Moore case, this would make slavery a morally acceptable institution.

The Author’s Corner with Adam Smith

41xrlTvJ9rL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Adam Smith is professor of history at the University College of London. This interview is based on his new book, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterised both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterized both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: Why do we need to read The Stormy Present?

AS: Because it might remind us that political change happens as much through accident as design, with people coming to support potentially radical transformation for reasons far removed from what we might imagine. It will remind us, also, that for its vaunted modernity and fascination with progress, the United States has always been in many respects a profoundly conservative society, preoccupied with a decisive founding moment and anxious about threats to the prevailing order. And finally because the book offers a new interpretation of the coming of the Civil War in which the mass of white northerners—the men and women who were not abolitionists or radicals or even necessarily Republicans, but whose reactions and judgements mattered so much—are placed centre-stage.

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

AS: When I was an undergraduate I was lucky to be taught by Eric Foner, who provided such a compelling account of the Civil War era that I was totally gripped. I don’t know if that was when I decided to become a historian of the United States, but it’s certainly when I began to imagine it as a possibility.

JF: What is your next project?

AS: A study of compromise as a practice and an idea in American politics. 

JF: Thanks, Adam!