The Author’s Corner With Stephen Ash

rebel richmondStephen Ash is Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This interview is based on his new book, Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Rebel Richmond?

SA: After finishing another book some years ago, I began searching for a new topic. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone (Civil War-era social history) but was ready to try something new within that field.

I’d never written an urban history. The subject intrigued me, but at first I hesitated to take on Richmond. Several general histories of the city during the war have been published, and numerous books, articles, and dissertations have explored particular aspects of its wartime experience. But in doing research for my earlier books  I’d come across some extraordinarily rich primary sources that were unused, or under-used, by previous tellers of Richmond’s tale. So it seemed to me that the full story of Richmond during the Civil War remained to be told.

The earlier general histories depended heavily on newspapers, city council minutes, and published letters, diaries, and militar reports. This dependency skewed them: they have much to say about elite Richmonders, high government officials, and the battles around the capital, but not much about ordinary Richmonders and their daily struggles. Those sources have all been very useful to me, but the others I delved into—including census reports, soldiers’ military service files, records of Confederate government bureaus and manufactories and hospitals, and the correspondence of the Virginia governors—opened wonderful new perspectives.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Rebel Richmond?

SA: Between 1861 and 1865, Richmond experienced a storm of calamities and transformations like no other American city, before or since, has had to endure. The people–men and women and children, whites and blacks, rich and poor, bosses and workers, civilians and soldiers, secessionists and Unionists, long-time residents and wartime refugees–responded to this unprecedented crisis in very human ways, sometimes nobly and sometimes shamefully, but mostly somewhere in between.

JF: Why do we need to read Rebel Richmond?

SA: It not only tells us much that we didn’t know about the Civil War but also casts light on the broader question of how human beings cope with extreme circumstances.

In making my case, I emphasize the role of religion. Christian belief was at the heart of Richmonders’ understanding of the Civil War. White secessionists believed that God was on their side and would ensure Confederate victory, as long as believers were faithful to His commands. When the war turned against the South in 1863, some concluded that the sins of the Confederate people had cost them God’s favor; but others saw the military setbacks not as a judgment but as a test of their worthiness in God’s eyes.

Black Richmonders, by contrast, saw the war as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, promising freedom to the captives. As the war went on, they drew comfort also from the book of Daniel (11:15): “So the king of the north shall come . . . and the arms of the south shall not withstand.”

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

SA: I turned thirteen in 1961, the year that our nation began its observance of the Civil War’s centennial. That’s an age at which many people acquire a hobby and a focus, and that’s what happened in my case. I fell in love with the Civil War, read all I could about it in the succeeding years, chose to go to Gettysburg College and major in history, worked as a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg in the summers, and subsequently went to grad school at the University of Tennessee and wrote a dissertation about Middle Tennessee during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In all those years, I never really had any other aspiration besides studying the Civil War. I’m one of the lucky few who turned an adolescent fascination into a career.

JF: What is your next project?

SA: I wish I could answer this question. I think I’ve got at least one more book in me, but I haven’t yet found a topic that really intrigues me. If the readers of this blog have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them (sash@utk.edu).

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

The Author’s Corner with Vaughn Scribner

Inn CivilityVaughn Scribner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas. This interview is based on his new book, Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society (NYU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Inn Civility?

VS: OK, nerd alert here. In graduate school I was reading a lot on colonial America’s place in the “Atlantic world,” and was really enjoying it. I was also reading a lot of Tolkien. At one point in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien describes an inn in Bree:

Down the Road, where it swept to the right to go round the foot of the hill, there was a large inn…Bree stood at an old meeting of ways; another ancient road crossed the East Road just outside the dike at the western end of the village, and in former days Men and other folk of various sorts had traveled much on it.  Strange as News from Bree was still a saying in the Eastfarthing, descending from those days, when news from North, South, and East could be heard in the inn, and when the Shire-hobbits used to go more often to hear it. (Tolkien, 162)

As I read this passage, something really clicked—taverns in colonial America were no different than the inn in Bree. They were vital meeting places where peoples from diverse backgrounds with different mindsets could interact, and where “news from North, South, and East could be heard.” This started my deep dive into colonial American taverns, and ultimately culminated in Inn Civility.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inn Civility?

VS:  Inn Civility uses the urban tavern—the most numerous, popular, and accessible of all British American public spaces—to investigate North Americans’ struggles to cultivate a civil society from the early eighteenth century to the end of the American Revolution. Such an analysis, this book argues, demonstrates the messy, often contradictory nature of British American society building and how colonists’ efforts to emulate their British homeland ultimately impelled the creation of an American republic.

JF: Why do we need to read Inn Civility?

VS: I think Inn Civility is coming out at an especially poignant time—a time when powerful members of society have these ideals of how society should operate, but are constantly struggling with the messy realities; a time when many of these same powerful members of society make these rules of order, but don’t necessarily have to follow them; and a time when “civility” seems like a distant dream. This book demonstrates that this is nothing new, as eighteenth-century colonists were meeting in taverns and trying to hash out how they thought their “civil society” in British North America should work, but were growing increasingly dismayed at how it actually did work. It also shows that these mechanisms of power and inequality ultimately helped to feed into the American Revolution. Finally, who doesn’t like reading about drinking, gaming, fighting, and rioting in taverns?

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

VS: My students actually asked me this exact question a few days ago, and I was aghast to realize that I didn’t have a specific answer, or some clear “ah ha” moment to tell them about. That said, I give much of the credit to my parents, as well as Professor Louise Breen at my undergraduate institution, Kansas State University. My parents always instilled in me a deep interest in the past, especially through family vacations and our home library. When I arrived at KSU, Dr. Breen ignited in me a passion for colonial America and the American Revolution. Her guidance proved critical in my decision to attend graduate school. 

JF: What is your next project?

VS: I have two projects going at the time. I am just wrapping up my second book on a rather odd topic: merpeople. A few years ago, I stumbled across odd references to merpeople in the writings of leading eighteenth-century thinkers, which led me to write a scholarly article on the topic, as well as pieces for blogs and History Today magazine. Now, I am just wrapping up a book on the topic—Merpeople: A Human History (under contract with Reaktion Books, UK)—which demonstrates that humanity’s obsession with merpeople is hardly new: no matter where or when humans have lived, they always seem to find mermaids and mermen. It is in this universal pattern which Merpeople finds its core, as it uses merpeople to gain a deeper understanding of one of the most mysterious, capricious, and dangerous creatures on Earth: humans.

Before Reaktion Books reached out to me to write the merpeople book, I was researching for another project which will be one of the first books to approach the American Revolutionary War from an environmental/climatological perspective. Tentatively titled Under Alien Skies: Environmental Perceptions and the Defeat of the British Army in America, the monograph investigates how British and Hessian soldiers’ perceptions of the New World environment and climate had serious effects on their military effectiveness. Whether stationed in New York City or slogging through the Carolina low country, British soldiers increasingly deemed their strange environs as working against them, while American colonists considered the American landscape a bountiful land of “milk and honey”which would only aid their “glorious”cause. Ultimately, the manuscript argues that scholars cannot truly understand how and why the British Empire lost America without taking perceptions of local environmental and climatological factors into serious consideration. 

JF: Thanks, Vaughn!

The Author’s Corner with Martin Brückner

9781469632605.jpg.pngMartin Brückner is professor of English and Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware. This interview is based on his new book, The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860 (Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Social Life of Maps?

MB: This book had its beginnings in a map encounter and the slow realization that maps played a wonderfully complex role in the lives of early Americans. My map encounter was seeing Henry Popple’s luxuriously crafted A Map of the British and French Empire in America (1733) fully assembled and on display in Colonial Williamsburg. Designed as a wall map, the map measured a whopping six by six feet. It was not only the physically largest map showing the colonies during the long eighteenth century, but it managed to impress someone like John Adams, who, upon seeing it in Independence Hall in 1776, wrote to his wife Abigail “It is the largest I ever saw, and the most distinct. Not very accurate. It is Eight foot square!”

I found his reaction to be curious because it pointed to what I thought was an uncharacteristic response for an Enlightenment-trained actor like Adams: why would the Pennsylvania Assembly hang up a super-sized and costly map that would simultaneously broadcast its very inadequacy as a map? My curiosity grew when I realized that despite the fact that the Popple map was soundly rejected by the British scientific community, it nevertheless was prominently staged in colonial state houses and by private citizens like Benjamin Franklin. Contrary to my expectation, map accuracy was not all that mattered to early Americans. Instead, they engaged with maps using multiple and often contradictory frames of reference, from way-finding tool to theatrical spectacle and from empirical evidence to sentimental possession. Inspired by the diversity of map uses, I set out to track the social lives (or call it careers) of both singular maps like the Popple map and generic commercial maps by asking the twofold question: How were large and small maps embedded—real and symbolically—in American public and private life? And what did American-made maps do—really do—for Americans?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Social Life of Maps?

MB: This book’s argument, broadly speaking, is that American-made maps emerged as a meaningful media platform and popular print genre during the mid-eighteenth century precisely because the map as artifact and the concept of mapping had become involved in social relationships between people. On the one hand, the argument emphasizes that cartographic literacy was anything but a common competence; reading the squiggly lines of topographical maps, following map coordinates, in short, thinking cartographically was not only a skill and habit that had to be learned and practiced, but which in the process generated many applications and odd turns as American citizens took to maps as a major mode of social communication. On the other hand, because most maps were commercial maps and were thus considered by map-makers and map-users as saleable goods, much of their value—be it informational, symbolic, or affective—came emphatically alive during the social process of exchange. Examining the social life of maps in early America allows us to comprehend more fully the expressed faith in the usability of maps as a popular tool a large number of people embraced in order to shape their lives as individuals, citizens, or members of communities like the family or the nation.

JF: Why do we need to read The Social Life of Maps?

MB: You should read this book because I believe it will change the way you think about how maps work in American history and culture! Far too long have we undervalued, even misunderstood, the significance of maps by only considering maps as either empirical evidence of geographical knowledge or as rhetorical representation of political power. But if you read this book, you will discover that Americans had access to a vast array of commercial and home-made maps. These maps were not only best-sellers and available to a highly diverse audience, but they were prominent participants, even agents of change, in the new nation’s changing cultural landscape. From map giants imitating the size of the Popple map to flashy handkerchief maps, from cheap pocket maps to elaborately drawn and embroidered school maps, American-made maps helped shape the public sphere and new business models; they were prominent display objects in people’s homes; they were cherished as gifts and heirlooms; they were essential to the curricula of the nation’s educational systems; and above all, because they were widely available as visual and decorative objects, the very look of American maps defined the way in which people looked at pictures and their personal surroundings, be it indoors and outdoors. After reading this book, you will think about historical maps in new and different ways.

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

MB: I came to American history gradually and by following a circuitous path. As a student and teacher of early American literature, I always felt that it was my second job to always historicize the words and images I found in sermons and poems, plays and novels. But from the moment that I discovered that maps played a crucial role in early American literature, I became fascinated by the history of cartography, especially the “new history” of cartography and its attending focus on the production of maps, the role of industrial print culture, the social history of consumption, not to mention historical archives including wills, inventories, and sales records. While I now read maps through the lenses of being a textual historian, material culture specialist, and a map historian, my take on American history is deeply informed by the fact that I am an immigrant and that therefore I constantly look at American history and the maps that represent it in order to better understand my new home when thinking, for example, about its roads that are set up in grid patterns, its fascination with landed property and neighborhoods, or the way in which its public media opts to represent data as different as the weather or election results.

JF: What is your next project?

MB: I am currently working on three interrelated projects, all of which explore the relationship between American literature, material culture, and the history of capitalism. I am currently co-editing a volume investigating the phenomenon of fugitive archives; the contributors examine the facts and fictions surrounding the loss and recovery of archives or archived objects, including their structures, uses, and the challenge they pose for the curation of personal and communal experience. My second project is a digital database called “ThingStor” and is conceived to become a material culture database for finding and cross-referencing material objects cited in American literature and the visual arts. You can view its prototype (and actively contribute to it) at www.materialculture.udel.edu. Finally, my next research project examines the cultural history of “literary things” and the American tradition of object narratives; this book project explores in particular the transfer of popular fiction into material forms and the way in which these were packaged and sold in an emergent marketplace rife with mass-marketing, cross-over products, and the vertical integration of cultural forms.

JF: Thanks, Martin!

The Author’s Corner with Peter Guardino

510sRclx3YL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Peter Guardino is Professor of History at Indiana University–Bloomington. This interview is based on his new book, The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War (Harvard University Press, 2017). 

JF: What led you to write The Dead March?

PG: I wrote The Dead March because I was deeply dissatisfied with many of the things that both the general public and academic historians in the United States and Mexico believed about this crucial war. Most writing about the war still contained ideas about both countries that had first become embedded in conventional wisdom during the nineteenth century as an increasingly racist United States rose to become a world power. More recent and professional research has debunked or called into question many of these ideas. It was time to reexamine the war in the light of what we know now, and with new primary research. I also felt that a social history of this war would tell us much about both Mexico and the United States during the period.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Dead March?

PG: When we look at the Mexican-American War through the experiences of common people in both countries, it becomes clear that Mexico lost this war not because Mexicans were less committed to their nation but because Mexico’s economy was not as strong as the U.S. economy. Both national governments were still in the process of building national institutions and convincing people that loyalty to the nation should be more important than other forms of identity.

JF: Why do we need to read The Dead March?

PG: This war shaped the continent in dramatic ways, and it is best understood through the motivations and stories of the regular people who experienced the violent battles, the diseases that stalked American military camps, the atrocities inflicted on Mexican civilians, and the hunger that shaped the lives of Mexican soldiers and civilians. The political, strategic and tactical choices made by politicians and officers were important, but the social and economic realities of the two countries always shaped those choices. Researching and writing this book helped me learn an enormous amount about both the United States and Mexico, and I hope reading it will inform and entertain others.

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

PG: My path toward researching US history has been anything but direct. I have been fascinated by history for as long as I can remember, but in college I became interested in the history of Mexico. I focused my research almost completely on Mexican history through two books, many articles, and decades of teaching. Still, I was always dissatisfied with the ways in which our visions of Latin American history are often implicitly comparative: Latin American history is largely constructed as a story of the region’s relative lack of political stability, democracy, and economic development. Because that comparison is implicit it is usually intellectually weak, with people comparing idealized versions of the history of the United States or Western Europe to exaggerated versions of Latin American failures. It was the desire for better comparison that led me to write a book about an event that the US and Mexico shared, and that led me to serious research about American history in both secondary and primary sources. Oddly, I didn’t become a historian of the United States until I had been a Mexicanist for decades.

JF: What is your next project?

PG: Well, I am trying to figure that out now. I remain interested in the early nineteenth century in both the United States and Mexico. I have begun some very preliminary research for a new project focused on the 1820s and 1830s. Both countries dramatically expanded suffrage and experienced the development of mass political parties in this period, but in other ways they were quite different. Jacksonian Democracy was about expanding the participation of white males in formal politics while limiting the rights of racial others. Race also shaped social hierarchies in Mexico, but it had no formal political or legal role: Mexico abolished slavery, and all males, regardless of race, could vote. In fact, officials no longer even recorded racial identities in official documents. The contrast is fascinating, and I am hoping to write a book about this.

JF: Thanks, Peter!

The Author’s Corner with Tera Hunter

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

JF: What led you to write Bound in Wedlock?

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

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

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read TITLE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks Tera!

Friendship in Early America

JSHI just learned that the theme of the recent issue of the Journal of Social History is “Friendship in Early America.”

Here is the table of contents:

Janet Moore Lindman, “Histories of Friendship in Early America: An Introduction”

Gregory Smithers, “‘Our Hands and Hearts are Joined Together’: Friendship, Colonialism, and the Cherokee People in Early America”

Shelby Balik, “‘Dear Christian Friends’: Charity Bryant, Sylvia Drake, and the Making of a Spiritual Network”

Thomas Balcerski, “‘A Work of Friendship’: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Franklin Pierce, and the Politics of Enmity in the Civil War Era”

Janet Moore Lindman, “‘This Union of the Soul’: Spiritual Friendship among Early American Protestants”

Nik Ribianszky, “‘Tell Them that My Dayly Thoughts are with Them as Though I was Amidst Them All”: Friendship among Property-Owning Free People of Color in Nineteenth-Century Natchez, Mississippi.

Ouch! The “Weekly Standard” Reviews the New Museum of the American Revolution

Museum_of_the_American_Revolution_2014-03-27_NWRender_web

The Museum of the American Revolution opened on Wednesday.  Conservative pundits are already trashing it.

Here are a few snippets from Andrew Ferguson‘s review of the museum.  Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

As the chief historian at the new Museum of the American Revolution, which opened April 19 in this city’s historic district, Philip Mead had the job of writing the museum’s explanatory labels—those little signs next to an exhibit that tell you what you’re looking at. By his own admission, he would sometimes get carried away. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Harvard, and, perforce, he writes like a guy with a Ph.D. from Harvard. He might even use words like “perforce.” Not reader-friendly, in other words.

Fortunately for him, he had several chefs peering into the pot of his prose. “They’d say things like, ‘You’ve got room for 75 words and you’re trying to get four ideas in,’ ” he said the other day. “They’d say, ‘That’s three too many. You only get one.’ ” The museum’s director of learning and engagement ran his every sentence through a pitiless piece of software called Hemingway Editor, which ranks a piece of writing by grade level. In Hemingway, the lower the grade, the better.

“She’d come back and say, ‘Hemingway says you’re writing at 37th grade level. You have to get it down to 8th grade.’ ” And so he did. Mead isn’t complaining—he says he’s glad he mastered the art of writing “short, declarative sentences” and keeping things simple.

Still, a plunge of 29 grade levels might prompt a grumpy critic to complain that the museum has undergone a measurable dumbing-down. Such a critic, whoever he is, will have to get over it. Nearly all attempts to educate the general public, from PBS documentaries to art shows to history museums, are pitched to the level of a slightly dim, constantly distracted middle-schooler. Curators and exhibit designers spend their lives gripped by the fear that they will lose the attention of this mythic museumgoer.

This is why exhibits in modern museums jump and shimmy and flash and roar with every digitized mechanism the budget will allow. The gimmickry is best understood as the frantic arm-waving of designers and curators, hopping up and down and screaming at the top of their lungs, “Hey! Kid! Over here! Look, look, look! It goes boom!”

And this:

The third-largest donor was the Oneida Indian Nation, with a check for $10 million, plus incidentals.

That would be the same Oneida in the exhibit with the stern-faced tribal elders. The Oneida’s donation came with a quid pro quo that is refreshing in its openly transactional nature. Concessions to big-ticket donors are of course routine in every nonprofit project, not only in museums but hospitals too, and performing arts centers, and so on. Long gone are the days when a benefactor like Andrew Mellon could found and endow a museum like the National Gallery of Art without naming the enterprise after his own modest and generous self. Ballrooms and theaters, even toilets and water fountains, carry the names of the donors who made it all possible. Inside or outside the Museum of the American Revolution you’ll have trouble finding a square foot of real estate whose naming rights haven’t been bought by a big corporation or a civic-minded, guilt-ridden member of the 1 percent.

But buying the content of exhibits is seldom so frankly acknowledged. The curatorial attention lavished on the Oneida is almost comically out of proportion to the role the tribe played in the real revolutionary war, and no one I talked to at the museum bothers to argue otherwise. The curators never miss a chance to pay tribute to the benefactor. In a cathedral-like space dubbed the Oneida Indian Nation Atrium, at the head of a grand staircase, a 16-by-19-foot painting of Washington conferring with Rochambeau, called the Siege of Yorktown, dominates the room.

Read the entire review here.

Obama the Historian

obama-and-historyCheck out Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on Barack Obama’s use of history during his presidency.   Here is a taste:

True, Mr. Obama may be unlikely to emulate Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and follow his years in the Oval Office with a stint as president of the American Historical Association. But some scholars see in him a man who used the presidency not just as a bully pulpit but also as something of a historian’s lectern.

And he wielded it, they say, to tell a story more strikingly in sync with the bottom-up view of history that dominates academic scholarship than with the biographies of great leaders that rule the best-seller list.

“Obama had these confabs with the presidential historians, but I don’t think he thinks like a presidential historian,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said, referring to the regular dinners Mr. Obama held with leading historians in the early years of his presidency. “I think he thinks like a social historian.”

Obama should be praised for his use of history in his speeches.  His usable past is a complicated one.  Grossman is correct.  Obama thinks like a social historian.  He gave a lot of attention to what happened at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.  But Obama also thinks like an American intellectual historian.  He is a historian of ideas and ideals.  When he talks about the common good he sounds a lot like Gordon Wood and the civic humanist tradition.  He calls for sacrifice and what the founders called virtue.

In the end, Obama used the past a lot.  But let’s remember that he was a politician and a POTUS who used the past to serve his progressive agenda. The fact that most of the historical profession believes that Obama’s progressive approach to history is correct does not make this point any less irrelevant.

Finally, I think we need to acknowledge the great irony of the Obama presidency as it relates to history and history education.  For all his magnificent invocations of the American past, Obama did virtually nothing practical to promote the teaching and learning of history.  Let’s face it, Barack Obama was a STEM president and the history community and the American democracy that he loves so much is weaker because of this.

The Author’s Corner with Jennifer Goloboy

CharlestonandtheEmergenceofMiddleClassCultureintheRevolutionaryAmerica.jpgJennifer Goloboy is an independent scholar based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This interview is based on her new book, Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?

JG: The project originally started because of a graduate school class I took with David Hancock, in which we read the Henry Laurens papers.  I was fascinated by Laurens as an exemplar of the eighteenth-century middle class.   He had a rigidly hierarchical view of the world.  He demonstrated a weird blend of public sanctimony and private willingness to betray his own principles, especially when engaged in the slave trade. 

When Prof. Hancock told the class there weren’t any other collections of letters from Charleston’s merchants that were as interesting as the Henry Laurens papers, I took it as a personal challenge.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?

JG: My book is designed to help us clarify what we mean by “middle-class” in Early America.  Focusing on merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, it shows how the economic impact of the post-Revolutionary transition shaped middle-class culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?

JG: For readers interested in class in early America, my book is unusual in that it focuses on work rather than the home as a cradle of middle-class culture.  Charleston’s merchants used shared cultural assumptions to connect with their business partners.  These assumptions changed over time.  Before the Revolution, the ideal merchant was deferential and polite; the post-Revolutionary merchant was a rowdy sport willing to do anything to serve a client; and the cotton-port merchant was a professional and an institution-builder.                  

Readers interested in Charleston will remember that historians have rarely written about the city between the end of the Revolution and the late 1810s.  So there’s been a mysterious and unexplained transition in local behavior: before the Revolution, a happy participant in British mercantilism, but after the gap, disdainful of trade.  This book argues that Charlestonians distrusted merchants because of a forgotten post-Revolutionary bubble, based partly on the slave trade and neutral trading with the Caribbean, which ended disastrously because of the War of 1812.  This is important because antebellum Charleston was so central to Southern intellectual history; we need to know that resentment of mercantile outsiders was not a natural product of the cotton empire.

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

JG: I really became interested in history when I realized that the point was not to eulogize heroes of the past, but to explain the distinct internal worlds of our ancestors.  I was a big fan of the “If You Lived In” series as a kid— and now I torment my poor children by telling them what “If You Lived In Colonial Times” left out.

JF: What is your next project?

JG: As I was researching this project, I realized how much we still have to learn about American trade in the years before the War of 1812.  They’re exciting years in economic history: lots of smuggling, lots of semi-licit trade between Europe and the Caribbean.  Stephen Girard, as one of the most important merchants of his era, kept track of the goings-on in all the ports touched by his business— I intend to use his papers to clarify this confusing era.

JF: Thanks, Jennifer!

The Unraveling of White Working-Class America

grandpa

My maternal grandfather, a milkman, died 21 years ago today.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, journalists Bob Davis and Gary Fields have written a very interesting piece about the decline of working-class community in Reading, Pennsylvania. It is titled “In Places With Fraying Social Fabric, a Political Backlash Arises.”  This piece needs to be read alongside the Jedidiah Purdy piece that we posted on last week.  Populist voters are not just hillbillies and tea partiers, they are also members of the white ethnic working class–the children and grandchildren of immigrants who arrived in this country in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

Davis and Fields argue that “Donald Trump gets strong support where churches, civic groups and safety nets are in trouble.”  It is yet another version of the argument Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam made in his 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Here is a taste:

The buckling of social institutions fundamental to American civic life is deepening a sense of pessimism and disorientation, while adding fuel to this year’s rise of political populists like Donald Trump  and Bernie Sanders.

Here and across the U.S., key measures of civic engagement ranging from church attendance to civic-group membership to bowling-league participation to union activity are slipping. Unlocked doors have given way to anxiety about strangers. In Reading, tension between longtime white residents and Hispanic newcomers has added to the unease.

Read the entire piece here.

This makes perfect sense to me, although I can only speak anecdotally. I grew up in white working class America.  I am the son of a general contractor and a housewife.  I am the grandson of a milkman and a Teamster.  My extended family are (or were) plumbers, carpenters, police officers, linemen, mechanics, tavern-owners, beer distributors, backhoe operators, secretaries, and housewives.  My mother’s side of the family built our local volunteer fire company. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a box of bowling trophies I earned from the Saturday morning leagues I participated in as a kid.  We spent our Labor Days, Memorial Days, and July 4ths with one another–throwing horseshoes, playing softball, swimming in an above-ground pool, solving the problems of the world over hot dogs and beer, and going to parades and town carnivals that featured ferris wheels and other rides mounted on trucks.

It was a good childhood, although I now know that my parents shielded me, my brothers, and my sister from the hardships.  It was also a pretty white upbringing.  I think there were one or two African Americans in my graduating class.  I don’t remember any Latino classmates.  My elders were suspicious of newcomers who did not look like us. As a young boy this attitude was hard to ignore.  The real divisions in my community were class-based.  I lived in the older, more working-class part of town.  The other side of town was decidedly upper-middle class and professional.

The world of my childhood no longer exists.  Sure, some of my family still live in the North Jersey town where I grew up, but they will be the first to tell you that it is a very different place.  The working class community of my youth has been replaced by new housing developments–lots of so-called McMansions–filled with white collar immigrants from non-western countries.  (This is largely because the school system in my home town remains very strong).  The small Cape Cods and split-levels that still dot the landscape look like they are remnants of some strange universe that existed long ago.  Most of my extended family is gone.  My grandparents’ generation–the generation that helped build this town–has passed away.  Some of my parents’ generation is still around, but others have retired and moved elsewhere.  They probably feel the loss harder than anyone.

Most of my extended family–especially my parents and their siblings, siblings-in-laws, and friends are probably going to pull the lever for Trump in November for the same reasons that the people in Reading, Pennsylvania will be voting for Trump.  Some really like Trump.  Others are voting for him because they hate Hillary and especially hate Obama.  Many of them are Christians and thus believe that a vote for Trump will help them bring back (through Supreme Court nominations) the morality of the Christian nation that has been lost.  Or at least this is what they are told by their favorite conservative talk radio hosts.  But a vote for Trump, they believe, will also bring back jobs and in some small way restore the sense of community that they have lost.

Wait a Minute! Is “Founders Chic” Okay Now?

c4928-miranda

Many historians who are fascinated with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton seem to be saying “yes.”  Others, like Ken Owen of The Junto, say “no.”

For the last thirty years, social historians of the American experience have been ragging on something they call “Founders Chic.”  The practitioners of Founders Chic–David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Ron Chernow, Richard Brookhiser, etc.–have sold a lot of books by writing about the Founding Fathers in a way that appeals to the reading sensibilities of mostly older white men.  Publishers, of course, love Founders Chic.

Since the release of the Broadway musical Hamilton (which I have yet to see–can’t get tickets), Ron Chernow‘s biography of the first Secretary of Treasury has been selling like crazy again. When I walked into my local Barnes & Noble today I was met with a display featuring paperback copies of Chernow’s book alongside the Hamilton soundtrack.  As I write, Alexander Hamilton is #21 at Amazon.com.

Critics say that Founders Chic privileges white wealthy men and places them at the center of late 18th-century life in a way that ignores people living in America at the time that were not white, wealthy, or men.  No argument here. (Although I don’t see why historians can’t write about the Founding Fathers if these historical figures interest them.  Why can’t writing about the Founders co-exist with scholarly work on the lower and middle sort, women, the enslaved, native Americans, and others?)

But according to Owen, many liberal academics seem to have no problem with Founder’s Chic when it is portrayed in the hip-hop style of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical. He writes at the Junto: “…much of the reception of Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway, seems to suggest that hagiography is acceptable, so long as it’s done to a catchy song-and-dance routine.”

Here is more of Owen’s piece:

Hamilton represents the apotheosis of Founders Chic. While I have a deep appreciation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s artistic talent, his creativity and novelty in presenting historical vignettes does not mask the fundamental dangers of the musical’s historical interpretation.[1] In the same way that the heroism of the HBO series John Adamspromotes a certain kind of hero-worship, so Hamilton will work against developing a complex, nuanced understanding of the American founding.

As the initial shock and excitement of seeing early American history at the forefront of popular culture has receded, historians have started to question some of the underlying assumptions of Miranda’s narrative. The Junto’s own Tom Cutterham got in on the act early, looking at the absence of ‘the inconvenient 1780s’ from the stage. Lyra Monteiro andAnnette Gordon-Reed have astutely taken aim at Hamilton’s racial politics, while Nancy Isenberg has once again taken to print to defend the reputation of Aaron Burr. These particular critiques all point to a deep interpretive problem

Hamilton portrays all of Hamilton’s failings as failings of personality or of character. While he is recognized as a divisive figure—after all, what else would provide the dramatic tension?—the substantive grounds of disagreement get subsumed by personality clashes. When Hamilton’s opponents celebrate the fact “he will never be President now!” it is because of his sexual impropriety, and not the deep national unpopularity of his elitist and crony capitalist economic scheming. Hamilton’s contributions to The Federalist are praised not for their quality, but only for their quantity. And in crafting a “scrappy immigrant” story, Miranda makes Hamilton’s rough edges those of a pushy up-and-comer, rather than the product of a man who was deeply anti-democratic, and owed most of his political power and prestige to patronage and nepotism rather than the approbation of the public.

Read it all here.

Owen’s critique is a fair one.  I largely agree with it and I am glad that Hamilton is triggering these kinds of posts and conversations.

At the same time, this musical has reinvigorated interest in early American history at a time when politicians and pundits are telling us that history and other humanities subjects are not useful.  People are talking about American history and some of them are even looking for resources to learn more about this era. Earlier this week I was talking to a history buff who is reading Chernow.  When he asked me to recommend some other good biographies of the era I suggested that he go out and get Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf’s new book on Thomas Jefferson and Nancy Isenberg’s biography of Aaron Burr. Whatever the scholarly critics might say about Hamiilton, Chernow, or Founders Chic,  we shouldn’t forget the upside of all of this.

Why I Still Stand By My Gordon Wood Post

As some of you may recall, I wrote a post last week on Gordon Wood’s essay in The Weekly Standard.

I want to thank all the historians who e-mailed privately with encouraging words. I also realize that my post was not popular among many in my profession. The community of academic historians does not tolerate dissent very well.

The discussion was especially lively on my Facebook page.  Several historians criticized my post. Others defended the idea of the “nation” as a scholarly category that remains worthy of exploration.   Some offered very thoughtful critiques of Wood’s work, especially Radicalism.

I  re-read Wood’s essay the other day.  I still found some of it troublesome.  In my original post I suggested that Wood has failed to understand that historical work on race, class, and gender should be an essential part of any national narrative.  But I continue to think that very few practitioners of social and cultural American history seem to be making any effort to construct national narratives or even write in a way to convince the general public that this approach to doing history is largely correct.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  I am thinking here of Alan Taylor’s American Colonies. It is not really a “national narrative,” but it is certainly an attempt to explain the multicultural origins of the United States.  I am also thinking about the recent attempt by the College Board to bring some more diversity to the AP US History exam.

I still believe that if academic historians don’t like Wood’s founding-father driven national narratives, they should step up to the plate and start writing their own narratives before moaning and complaining.

As I reread Wood’s essay, I also realized why I agree with so much of its general sentiment.  For the last few decades Wood has been crusading against two related practices:  First, the practice of condemning the past because it fails to meet the moral standards of the present.  And second, the practice of using the past to promote political agendas in the present.

I realize that the study of history is politicized.  We cannot escape our present-day convictions when approaching the past.  But a historian should at least try to understand the past on its own terms.  This is what makes our work a discipline.  It takes hard work to lay aside our own agenda in order to understand people or places that are different.  Perhaps this is a naive approach, but it is still the way I approach my encounters with the past.  I learned this from reading Gordon Wood.

Though Wood often overstates his case and makes unnecessary swipes at younger historians, in the end he is correct.  I am not willing to go as far as Wood in saying that all practitioners of race, class, and gender history are guilty of superimposing their own values on the past.  In fact, a lot of the social history I have read conforms to the standards that Wood is setting out for us.  But if overt politicization of the past is happening, then it fails to respect what Wood calls the “pastness of the past” and may be a form of historical malpractice.

I also agree with Wood’s belief that historians must avoid using the past to promote political agendas in the present.  I have learned this lesson first-hand as I engage the entire Christian America crowd. Folks like David Barton and others cherry-pick from the past to argue that we are a Christian nation. Their politically-charged views of the past influence lawmakers and have a profound influence on public policy.  Similarly, those on the Left, such as the late Howard Zinn, do/did the same thing.

Most of the critics of Wood are offended by his remarks about social and cultural history.  They should be.  But let’s not miss his larger point about respecting the “pastness” of the past.

Addendum:  Again, some good discussion happening at my Facebook page.

Gordon Wood Is Still Relevant

History-related social media is blowing-up over Gordon Wood’s essay on historian Bernard Bailyn in the recent issue of the conservative Weekly Standard.  The fact that Wood, one of the most decorated American historians of the past century, is the center of attention today tells me that what he has to say is still important. It is thus necessary for left-leaning historians (which is most of the profession) to engage his ideas. 


Here is one of the many parts of Wood’s essay that is driving American historians crazy today:


Nearly 70 years later, it has gotten worse. College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.  

And another controversial statement:

But a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past. 

And again:

Not only does the history these moral reformers write invert the proportions of what happened in the past, but it is incapable of synthesizing the events of the past. It is inevitably partial, with little or no sense of the whole. If the insensitive treatment of women, American Indians, and African slaves is not made central to the story, then, for them, the story is too celebratory. Since these historians are not really interested in the origins of the nation, they have difficulty writing any coherent national narrative at all, one that would account for how the United States as a whole came into being. 

One more time:

For many of them, the United States is no longer the focus of interest. Under the influence of the burgeoning subject of Atlantic history, which Bailyn’s International Seminar on the Atlantic World greatly encouraged, the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct. The William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in early American history, now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.
There is a lot I agree with in Wood’s piece.  Large narratives–especially national narratives–are important to the way people understand the past.  Most academics are still favoring microscopic pieces of scholarship over bigger stories.  Wood thinks that such a trend is making history irrelevant. It is hard to argue with that point.  Specialized research, while necessary for tenure, promotion, and one’s reputation in the small world of academic historians, does not reach ordinary people.  But why can’t the new social history, which focuses a lot of attention on race, class, and gender, find its way into the national (or some larger) narrative?  Why must it be an “either-or” proposition?
But I also wonder if something else is going here.  Wood’s work has been attacked by liberal scholars for decades.  I understand honest disagreements.  I am also sympathetic to those who have criticized Wood for being insensitive to the categories of the new social history.  But this attack on Wood reflects some of the more parochial, tribal dimensions of the academic profession, a community that wins points by preaching to the choir and rarely tolerates dissent,
Does Wood write mostly about dead white males? Yes.  Is Wood insensitive to the race, class, and gender?  Probably.  But he has taught thousands and thousands of people–teachers, history buffs, general readers–to think historically.  When his academic critics, safely cloistered in academic offices isolated from the ideas and values of a good portion of the American people, start having the impact that Wood has had on our understanding of American history, I may start to take their critiques more seriously.
And by the way…The Creation of the American Republic and The Radicalism of the American Revolution are great books.  Also, The Purpose of the Past deeply informed my thinking in Why Study History?  We have also spent a lot of time at The Way of Improvement Leads Home discussing Wood’s work.

ADDENDUM:  There is a nice discussion of this post and Wood’s essay at my Facebook page.

Gary Nash Remembers "The Godfather of Artisans Studies"

As many of our readers know, the path-breaking social historian Alfred F. Young passed away last November.  I learned a lot from Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution.  I have come to rely on this book in my own work on the memory of a “tea party” that occurred in the small town of Greenwich, NJ in 1774.

Gary Nash, another groundbreaking American social historian, eulogizes Young in an article at History News Network.  Here is a taste:

To understand why Young spent so many years between his first big book on New York political parties and the publication of the biography of George Roberts Twelves Hewes, one has to appreciate that he was an eminently giving person who devoted himself to helping others — tirelessly reading drafts of essays and dissertation chapters, responding to questions from those he had never met, and pushing young scholars to contribute to volumes of original essays on American radicalism. This made him “the dean of artisan studies,” as one historian put it some years ago. In this vital role as network builder, gatekeeper, and facilitator-in-chief, he poured himself into searching out new work that ran against the grain and could be brought together for volumes on American radicalism. In the first, Dissent: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (1968), Young showcased the work of young scholars bucking the consensus tide. In the second, The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (1976), twelve essays covered the experiences of revolutionary women, Native American, African Americans, religious radicals, agrarian rebels, and urban mobs. In the third, Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (1993), ten essayists reflected broadly on the impact of the Revolution.

How Should We Teach History?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a point-counterpoint feature on the teaching of history.  The occasion for such a feature is the recent report by the National Association of Scholars, “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?”  

If you are unfamiliar with all the hullabaloo surrounding this report you can get up to speed here.  Basically, the “Recasting History” project concludes that college history courses in Texas (at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University) emphasize race, class, and gender at the expense of other types of history, such as military, diplomatic, or intellectual history.

Jim Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, and Elaine Carey, the V.P. for the AHA’s Teaching Division, have used their space in The Chronicle to challenge “Recasting History.”  It is a pretty damning critique.  Here is just a taste:

Any historian who writes or teaches about the dynamics of power in a context that includes black people is understood by this report to be interested exclusively in “race,” American slavery being merely a “racial” topic with little of consequence for political, intellectual, religious, diplomatic, or military history.

 The biography of a prominent Virginia planter is categorized solely under “race” and “class”—not political or intellectual history, fields supposedly underrepresented in syllabi. To study Abigail Adams is an exercise in gender history—never mind her writings about the political ramifications of the American Revolution (much less recognizing that any study of her husband and other founding fathers will be equally gender-related). A classic study of 17th-century Massachusetts—one that has taught two generations of students about Puritan notions of community, religion, and governance—is dismissed as “class” analysis, ducking the “big questions” of American history. 

The Great Depression, too, falls into the “class” category, as any study of that period will by definition focus exclusively on workers and employers rather than on banking, politics, and diplomacy, not to mention the history of ideas or politics.
This all seemed at first glance odd, tendentious, and uninformed. Upon careful reading, it turned out to be that and worse

Despite its denunciation of “ideologically partisan approaches,” the report itself is based on an idiosyncratic and ideologically driven taxonomy of the books, articles, and syllabi of historians, compiled with little knowledge of the scholarly literature and even less inclination to engage historians in serious conversation about our work.

Although ostensibly analyzing how American history is taught at two universities, the authors neither attended classes nor spoke with instructors. They did not examine lectures, in-class activities, or audiovisual presentations; their report signals no knowledge of digital materials or discussions, assignments, or examinations. The document tells us little about teaching or learning; it merely surveys reading assignments, many of which the authors seem to have either not read or not understood. Moreover, they assume that to the extent that faculty members focus on so-called RCG subjects, they necessarily sacrifice coverage of broader themes in American history.

The counterpoint is written by Richard Pells, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas.  He believes that the “Recasting History” report is correct.  He chides the historical academy for it exclusive obsession with social history.  Here is a taste:

Nevertheless, what has developed at the University of Texas over the past 20 years is an almost oppressive orthodoxy and a lack of intellectual diversity among the history faculty. The result is that (with a few notable exceptions, like the work of the presidential historian H.W. Brands) very few courses are taught or books written by the current faculty on the history of American government, economic development, or culture and the arts, or on America’s strategic and tactical participation in wars, particularly in the 20th century. Indeed, the Texas department has not employed a military historian since the 1970s.

These are all subjects of supreme importance in understanding the evolution and current state of America. One cannot expect either undergraduate or graduate students to fully comprehend the complexities of American history without serious and extensive consideration of such topics.

In short, to paraphrase the columnist George Will, academics and especially specialists in American history at Texas are in favor of diversity in everything but thought. This is not just an acerbic quotation, nor is the NAS report to be dismissed as a right-wing polemic. The crises of intellectual conformity that Will and the association are depicting are endemic to academic life all over the country.

From where I sit it appears that both articles make some good points.  Grossman and Carey remind us that it is hard to place a piece of scholarship into only one category.  Pell’s point about the lack of intellectual diversity in the academy is worth considering.

What is Happening to the Institution of Marriage?

Last month the Brookings Institute released a report on the state of marriage in American society.  It was co-authored by Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, and Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at the Johns Hopkins.  Wilcox is a conservative.  Cherlin is a liberal. 

Wilcox and Cherlin argue that the institution of marriage is in trouble, especially among the lower classes.  Here is a taste of their diagnosis:

In the affluent neighborhoods where many college-educated Americans live, marriage is alive and well and stable families are the rule. Young Americans with college degrees, once thought to be a cultural vanguard, are creating a neotraditional style of family life: although they may cohabit with their partners, nearly all of them marry before having their first child. Furthermore, while most wives work outside the home, the divorce rate in this group has declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s. In contrast, marriage and family stability have been in decline in the kinds of neighborhoods that we used to call working-class—home to large numbers of young adults who have completed high school but not college. More and more of them are having children in brittle cohabiting unions. Among those who marry, the risk of divorce remains high. Indeed, the families formed recently in working-class communities have begun to look as much like the families of the poor as of the prosperous. The nation’s retreat from marriage, which started in low-income communities in the 1960s and 1970s, has now moved into Middle America. Take divorce. Today, moderately-educated Americans are more than twice as likely to divorce as college-educated Americans during the first ten years of marriage, and the divorce divide between these two groups has been growing since the 1970s. Similar trends are apparent in nonmarital childbearing, a category that includes both single and cohabiting women. By the late 2000s, moderatelyeducated American women were more than seven times as likely to bear a child outside of marriage as compared with their college-educated peers. Indeed the percentage of nonmarital births among the moderately educated (44 percent) was closer to the rate among mothers without high school degrees (54 percent) than to college-educated mothers (6 percent).

In response to these problems, the authors offer six specific policy ideas.  You can read about them in detail in the brief, but I have summarized them below.

1.  Increase training for middle-skill jobs.  The economic benefits could lead to more stable unions.

2.  Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless workers and reduce the marriage penalty.  The EITC “imposes a substantial marriage penalty because the higher joint earnings of a married couple reduce the benefit below what they would have each received if they had remained single.”

3.  Start a social marketing campaign that encourages young people to “follow a success sequence characterized by finishing high school, getting a job, getting married, and then having children.”

4.  Expand the child tax credit to $3000 per child.

5.  Invest in preschool children’s development.

6.  Reform divorce law.  No-fault divorce has reduced “the public’s confidence in marriage and willingness to invest in their spouse, insofar as no-fault divorce weakened the marital contract by allowing a unilateral divorce for any reason whatsoever.”

How Will Historians Use Twitter?

A few weeks ago it was announced that the Library of Congress had struck a deal with Twitter to store the complete archives of this social networking site. That’s about 50 million “tweets” per day. We blogged about it here. At the time I thought it would be a goldmine for future social historians. I still do.

Along these lines, Christopher Beam has an interesting take on all of this in a recent piece at Slate. Beam asks if access to all of these tweets will make the historian’s job easier or more difficult:

The answer is: both. On the one hand, there’s more useful information for historians to sift. On the other, there’s more useless information. And without the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to tell which is which. It’s like what John Wanamaker supposedly said about advertising: He knew half of it was wasted, he just didn’t know which half.

But I wonder: What exactly is “useless information?” This seems like the old argument that early American diaries had too much in them that were mundane and or pedantic and were thus of little use to historians–an idea that was debunked in the Pulitzer-Prize winning fashion by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s masterful Midwife’s Tale (among others). While I agree with Beam that future historians using Twitter will have their work cut out for them, I also think that was might “useless” to one historian could be very useful to another one. (I don’t think Beam would disagree).

The entire article is worth a look.

HT