More on Kelly’s Civil War Remarks

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I addressed Kelly’s remarks yesterday.  Today I want to point you to Binghamton University historian Carole Emberton’s piece, “The North tried compromise. The South chose war.

A taste:

By blaming a failure of compromise for the Civil War, Kelly repeated a well-worn tenet of the Lost Cause narrative that valorizes the Confederacy and its leaders like Lee. In this narrative, the failure to compromise is laid at the feet of radical abolitionists and Northern politicians, including the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, who gave Southerners no choice but to secede.

But it was slavery, and the refusal of Southern slaveholders to compromise on slavery, that launched the Civil War. In fact, the secession crisis of 1860-61 was the culmination of a decade-long movement led by ultra-radical pro-slavery “Fire-Eaters.” After decades of compromise between the North and South, the election of Lincoln spurred an almost paranoid anxiety about slavery’s future that made compromise untenable and war virtually unavoidable.

That technically makes Kelly correct. There was a failure of compromise. But lamenting it without addressing the role of slavery at its root reflects the flawed, Southern version of Civil War history that has nourished the white nationalism currently poisoning American politics.

Read the rest at The Washington Post.

Southern Porches

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A.D. Miller writes about them over at The Economist.  Here is a taste of his piece “Southern Comfort“:

Like many of America’s traditions, especially in the South, the porch is at once derivative and indigenous, a synthesis of multifarious influences into an American original. Some architectural historians think the concept was imported with and by west-African slaves. But other iterations of the same idea – a shaded outdoor space beside a too-stuffy house – have also been implicated: Italian loggias, Greco-Roman porticos, English colonnades, early colonial architecture in the Caribbean. Spain and France contributed latticed ironwork and other refinements; later came Gothic arches and the turrets and gables of high Victoriana. In the mid-19th century they were incorporated by housebuilders across the country, but in the South they were older and ubiquitous.

They have never been quite as innocent as I wanted them to be. Hybrid in origin, in its history and associations the porch is paradoxical. To begin with, it is at once public and reclusive. Like a negligée, it seems alluringly to lay bare a home, a family, its secrets, but also withholds them, the life that is out of sight somehow more opaque by being half-revealed – especially when, as many of the best porches do, it wraps around a house’s façade to make a zone of shady, unseen repose. And, while the neighbours might be able to see what you are doing on the porch, and with whom, your parents inside cannot.

Unsurprisingly, this has always been a place for courtship and assignations, in life and in art. “Sittin’ on the front porch on a summer afternoon,” Dolly Parton sings in “My Tennessee Mountain Home”; “And when the folks ain’t lookin’, you might steal a kiss or two.” Many of the romantic crises in “Gone with the Wind” occur on the porch. We meet Scarlett O’Hara, with her 17-inch waist, being courted by twins on Tara’s. From it she fatefully watches Ashley Wilkes riding up to the plantation and falls in love with him. Rhett Butler first propositions her on a porch in Atlanta, just before Scarlett sees the city burn.

Read the rest here.

Mississippi Historians: “Take the Flag Down!”

Mississippi State Flag

From the Jackson Free Press:

As college professors, we have watched events of the past few days in Charlottesville and around the country while preparing for a new semester. We know that students in our classes will bring many questions and perspectives about this moment in history. They will look for us to comment on a response from the president that many Republicans and Democrats alike found deeply troubling and insufficient. They will wonder why many white nationalists and racist groups feel empowered at this moment in time. We have our work cut out for us.

In turn, we are also historians in and of the state of Mississippi, where white massive resistance to black advancement has been the norm for 200 years. It is now incumbent upon us to take the strongest of stands against the white supremacist establishment in this nation and in this state and put this recent wave of white nationalism in historical context.

With that in mind, it is long past time for the emblem identified with the Confederate States of America to be removed from the state flag of Mississippi. This flag does not reflect the entirety of the state’s history and people. It ignores the reality of the African American experience, and it limits the scope of what Mississippi has been, is and can be.

Historians have long held that the Civil War was fought for the right of southern states to maintain and expand the institution of slavery. In declaring their support for the Confederacy, Mississippi’s leaders clearly stated in the secession ordinance of 1860, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. … A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

Read the rest here.  The statement was signed by over thirty historians from Mississippi colleges and universities including the following friends of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Alison Greene, Otis Pickett, Daren Grem, and Patrick Connelly.

Should Mississippi Remove the Confederate Emblem on its Flag?

Flag_of_Mississippi.svgSome of you may remember historian Otis Pickett from his excellent post on teaching history in a Mississippi prison. Read it here.

Pickett teaches at Mississippi College in Clinton.  He recently wrote an op-ed in the Clarion-Ledger arguing that the Confederate emblem on the Mississippi flag must go.

Here is a taste:

After the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag took on new meanings on the Southern landscape. It became thoroughly identified with a movement known as the Lost Cause, which sought to memorialize and preserve a collective Southern memory celebrating the Confederacy. However, as African-Americans were entering into civic spaces, running for office and voting in large numbers during Reconstruction and into the 1880s, they began to represent to Southern whites many of the great changes affecting the Southern landscape — chief among them a threat to Southern white political power. The Confederate flag began to be used publicly as a symbol that represented a return to “white rule.” Further, the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 became a legal tool to help whites regain political control through massive disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Through literacy clauses, poll taxes and interpretation clauses, African-Americans were almost entirely removed from the voting process in Mississippi until the mid-1960s. In the midst of this, attacks on African-Americans in the form of lynchings and violent intimidation attempted to keep African-Americans from political activity or challenging a new system of white control.

What became known as the Mississippi Plan would soon travel to other Southern states, which would adopt similar state constitutions, and Mississippi would become the model of how whites could regain political control and reassert their power. For instance, convict leasing, in a sense, re-enslaved thousands of African-American males who were charged and sent to prison for violating ridiculous vagrancy laws. Men and boys were arrested and sent to work back in the same cotton fields that their ancestors worked as enslaved people. On a larger scale, sharecropping and tenant farming kept African-American laborers in cycles of debt and poverty for generations. Mississippi laws also limited these laborers from moving around and hiring out their labor to improve their financial position. Typically, the Confederate flag was the rallying symbol used by whites that embodied a reassertion of white political, economic and social control. In a sense, it was the symbol that provided a visible pledge to the aforementioned ideologies, philosophies, laws and social relationships.

It was during this time period, in April of 1894, some 30 years after the Civil War, that the Confederate emblem appeared for the first time on the Mississippi state flag. It was very clear what attaching this symbol to the state flag at this time meant: a return to white rule via violence, intimidation and disenfranchisement in order to regain an antebellum Southern “way of life” in which African-Americans were in their “proper” place. The flag was symbolic of a return to white-controlled state politics and segregated social relationships. The Confederate flag also came to resemble the enforcement of the Jim Crow system through violence and intimidation. Mississippi would become the No. 2 state in the nation in lynchings per capita. There was a constant threat of violence against African-Americans, and the Confederate flag became the symbol associated with that violence.

During the early to mid-20th century, the Confederate flag became a symbol for the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations that experienced a resurgence in the early 1920s. For just about all African-Americans and many whites, the Confederate flag became a symbol connected with hatred.

Since the late 1800s, the Confederate battle flag has been used as an emblem of rebellion against integration and human equality and has, as a symbol, come to do little more than create division.

Read the entire piece here.

Pickett’s powerful plea for justice (make sure you read the whole thing) has met with some opposition.  A writer at a conservative website in Mississippi recently argued that if the Confederate emblem is removed from the state flag then, by the same logic, we should also get rid of the Lincoln Memorial.  Read it here.

I think the author of this conservative piece needs to sit down and read the Second Inaugural and then see if he still thinks the leaders of Mississippi during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era are the moral equivalent of Lincoln.

Nice work, Otis!

In Praise of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Yale Civil War-era historian David Blight salutes Landrieu’s willingness to look straight into his city’s past and do something about it.

Here is a taste of his powerful Atlantic piece “The Battle for Memorial Day in New Orleans“:

It is difficult for historians to favor monument destruction or removal. We worry endlessly about historical erasure or purposeful ignorance of any kind. We favor debate however conflicted, and new memorials that augment or change the narratives told on our public landscapes. But I nod with understanding and approval when the mayor asks: “Why are there no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans?” For half a century and more American historians of all stripes have written and taught newer, more inclusive, and yes, often darker histories such as Landrieu advocates. But it is essentially true that these histories of pain and tragedy, destruction and survival, do by and large await public memorials. They are receiving public museum exhibition and exposure. But in great civic monuments, not so much. The massacre in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in June 2015 took America on this new tortured, surprising path to Confederate flag and monument removals. Where and when it ends Americans do not know. More than any other Southern politician, Landrieu has expressed this reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy in a newly eloquent honesty. Americans ought to debate how best to take up his call. Many great and challenging monuments, both old and new, exist in the United States. The world wars, the Irish famine, the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, the attacks on 9/11, the Holocaust, and even the Civil War itself have inspired brilliant works of public art. But Americans have to know more history in order to learn to think about them more imaginatively.

The monuments in New Orleans, relocated to warehouses or holding stations and gone from view, are now the subjects of a new time, new imperatives, indeed even alternative victory narratives. Landrieu and the forces of popular support as well as the City Council have just declared the Confederacy, as the mayor put it, “lost and we’re better for it.” The “four year aberration called the Confederacy,” Landrieu said, ought never again to be celebrated even if never forgotten. His city, he maintained, ought never to embrace publically a “sanitized Confederacy,” held together by Orwellian language about history and “marinated in historical denial.” These are high ambitions about how America can actually heal the past and find justice. Much higher even that Lee’s statue stood. Landrieu invoked many of the best voices possible to his cause: Thomas Jefferson’s preamble in the Declaration of Independence, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln from the ending of the Second Inaugural, and George W. Bush as he honored the opening of the new African American history museum in Washington, DC.

It remains to be seen how neo-Confederates will take their latest defeats. They have a fledgling, unsteady, ahistorical victory narrative to follow now in the presidency and the White House. But Landrieu, with Dylann Roof and a host of many other major players, progressive and regressive in their aims, may have taken America into a truly new era of Civil War remembrance. Americans may never find e pluribus unum in their political lives. But we can surely keep striving to write, teach and know about our pluribus. American politics is an impossible distance from ever knowing how to be “out of one, many,” but the history keeps changing on us, keeps becoming many, forcing us to, as the mayor suggested: “By God, just think.”. Monuments, those removed after more than a century of struggle, or those erected in a new era with new histories, may never accomplish as Mayor Landrieu hopes, “making straight what has been crooked and making right what has been wrong.” But if this process makes Americans learn and think about our history more knowingly and reflectively, if painfully, it is all for the good.

Read the entire article here.

The Author’s Corner With Douglas Thompson

RichmondDouglas Thompson is Associate Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University.  This interview is based on his new book Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I never intended to write this book. A lot of the research for this project had been done for a dissertation. When I completed the Ph.D., I already had a job in a teaching university so publishing a book, particularly turning a dissertation into a book, did not register on my radar. Once I abandoned the “dream” of being a dean because it took me away from the classroom, I sketched out a research agenda that included a project on how automobiles transformed the American South. When I applied for a sabbatical, the plan was to begin the research on that project and develop an article for publication to float the idea for the larger project. Every time I sat down to work on the car project, however, I kept thinking about the Richmond research. Just before my sabbatical I pulled out the dissertation and began tearing it apart.

After a feverish month I had a chapter written and drafted out the reimagined book. I sent the chapter off to two people I trust—one a specialist in religious history and one who is not—and told them to decide whether I should pursue the book on Richmond. Both readers encouraged me to write it, so I spent the sabbatical covering some new research and writing the book. The peer review draft went to the University of Alabama Press as I came off sabbatical.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of the book?

DT: Outside the glare of the 1960s spectacles of marches, kneel-ins, and sit-ins Richmond’s ministers and congregations provide a compelling story about how white Christians wrestled with social change. Without overstating the findings, their variety of responses shed light on Christianity as an agent of change in social movements.

JF: Why do we need to read Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I wrote the book for a middle ground between academics and practitioners of Christianity. While I dislike the term microhistory, the narrow focus helps us see how events on the ground both looked like the larger civil rights narrative but also how people disrupted that story.  My hope is that people will read about how folks tried to make progress and used denominational mechanisms to bring about change but also to impede change in desegregating schools and congregations. Chapter one addresses an idea found initially in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and repeated since then that the church is not the church unless its functions in its ideal form. Even as Myrdal praised black congregations for conserving cultural identities within African American communities, he blamed white Christians for failing to condemn segregation and racism. In fact, the same forces that help black congregations sustain cultural norms also inform how white congregations might resist desegregation.

In Richmond, I found lots of Christians doing what Myrdal called for but I also found other people attempting to maintain segregation in churches. A good example of this is when white Presbyterians opened a two-week desegregated summer camp in 1957 and maintained the practice through the end of the decade and beyond, but First Presbyterian Church, Richmond spent three years trying to undo that work. The traditional way to interpret this episode is that the progressive move to desegregate was prophetic and that FPC had a conservative reaction. The problem with that simple reading is that it misses two points about desegregation. First, the presbytery had created at least two black congregations so there were children within the presbytery who would not be able to attend and it could not afford a separate camp. Second, the arguments for desegregation were not forward thinking but backward glancing. Presbytery leaders took seriously the command in the Torah, emphasized in prophets like Amos, and taught in Jesus’ treatment of the neighbor that the stranger is a son or daughter of God. The nature of the prophetic voice is not politically progressive although we tend to think about it that way. Richmond’s religious newspaper editors, ministerial association, as well as Methodists and Presbyterians present an array of approaches to desegregation. Their stories can help us understand social change and churches in our present day.

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

DT: I am still coming to terms with that one. There was a day not long into my sabbatical when I had written something and realized that idea was all mine. A few weeks later someone asked what I did and I responded “I am an historian” for the first time, usually I would say teacher or professor.

The other way to answer that question is to tell the story of my first semester in seminary. I had Bill Leonard—Baptist historian now at Wake Forest—for church history. Since Southern Baptist Theological Seminary did not have an official advising program, I asked Bill if he would be my adviser. Within a few weeks of the start of the relationship while visiting in his office, he asked what I was going to do with an MDiv. I said I wanted to be a campus minister. Given our conversations up to that point and the rapid changes taking place in Southern Baptist circles, he said something like “you’ll never get hired.” Talk about existential angst. In hindsight, he was correct. I drifted through classes for the next couple of weeks wondering what I was doing in seminary. Shortly before the end of the term and sitting in one of his lectures, I thought, “I want to do that.” The Ph.D. program at Virginia tweaked that idea a little more and a teaching fellowship at Mercer landed me doing what I do today.

JF: What is your next project?

DT: I have a contract with University of Georgia Press for a book tentatively titled “A Journey of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, and the Struggle for the Soul of America.” I am also in the early stages of a project on Wendell Berry. The car project is always with me.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

 

Wayne Flynt on Southern Evangelicalism and Trump

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Southern historians know the work of Wayne Flynt.  He has written twelve books mostly focused on the history of Alabama and the history of southern religion.  He is currently Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University.

In a recent interview with Gary Silverman of the Financial Times, Flynt had a lot to say about southern evangelicals in the age of Trump.

Here is a taste of Silverman’s interview:

I took my place in the book-lined study of Flynt’s redwood house in Auburn, Alabama, to hear his thoughts on the local economy, but the conversation turned to a central mystery of US politics. Trump would not be president without the strong support of the folks Flynt has chronicled — white residents of the Bible Belt, raised in the do-it-yourself religious traditions that distinguish the US from Europe. I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful.

Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality. Their faith, he says, has been put in a president who embodies an unholy trinity of materialism, hedonism and narcissism. Trump’s victory, in this sense, is less an expression of the old-time religion than evidence of a move away from it.

“The 2016 election laid out graphically what is in essence the loss of Christian America,” Flynt says, delivering his verdict with a calm assurance that reminded me of Lee’s hero, Atticus Finch, as played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film of her novel.

“Arguably, what has constituted white evangelical Christian morality for 200 years no longer matters, which is to say we’re now a lot like Germany, a lot like France, a lot like England, a lot like the Netherlands, and what we have is a sort of late-stage Christian afterglow.”

The entire piece is worth a read.

 

The Author’s Corner with William Thomas Okie

georgia-peachWilliam Thomas Okie is Assistant Professor of History Education at Kennesaw State University. This interview is based on his new book, The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Georgia Peach?

TO: I came to the project from two directions. As a scholar, I’m trained in environmental history, and so I’m fascinated with the ways we humans deal with the plants, animals, weather, and dirt we usually call “nature.” I started studying environmental history as the field was turning its attention to agriculture – arguably the most important site of human-nature interaction. When I got to graduate school, I found, to my surprise, that although we had books about oranges, rice, bananas, and tobacco (to name just a few), very little had been written about the peach, one of the South’s most visible agricultural symbols.

At the same time, the peach seemed like an obvious choice because of my childhood. Since I was very young, I’ve catalogued wildflowers, planted gardens, saved seeds, and experimented with asexual propagation. I grew up near the center of the Georgia peach industry, and my father was a stone fruit breeder (think peaches, plums, apricots) for the USDA experiment station in Byron, Georgia. I guess you could say – and I apologize in advance for this – that the peach didn’t fall far from the tree.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Georgia Peach?

TO: The Georgia Peach is famous because peaches emerged as a cash crop at a critical juncture for the South around the turn of the century, when evidence was mounting that the South was socially, environmentally, and culturally ugly. That historical phenomenon created the myth of the Georgia peach, which helps to explain the crop’s staying power as a cultural icon well into the twenty-first century – which in turn suggests that we routinely underestimate the power and the historical dimensions of beauty.

JF: Why do we need to read The Georgia Peach?

TO: I’ll give you two reasons. First, If you’ve ever wondered about the peachoid on I–85 (or its competitors on I–59 and I–75), or “The Peach State” moniker – especially if you’ve learned that California and South Carolina produce many more peaches than Georgia – then read this book to understand how Georgia became the peach state in the first place. Second, although it’s easy for the prosperous to forget in the midst of today’s “permanent global summertime” agriculture matters. The Georgia Peach examines the interplay of the biological and cultural features of a particular crop (especially the fruit’s perishability and popularity) with the economic and social features of a particular place (especially the cotton economy and the impoverished labor force on which that economy depended).

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

TO: I’ve always loved plants and animals; I’ve also always loved stories. As an undergraduate at Covenant College, I had the surprising privilege (the department had only three historians!) of taking Paul Morton’s American Environmental History course, which taught me that I could marry those two great loves in a field that told stories about nature. After graduating with a history degree, working as an administrative assistant, living in Honduras, and teaching middle school social studies, I decided to try studying further. American environmental history seemed like a natural fit, but it was also a practical choice: my first child was born just a few months before I started graduate study, and I knew that American archives would be easier to access.

JF: What is your next project?

TO: Right now I’m writing a piece about nineteenth-century horticulturists (fruit breeders, landscape designers, kitchen gardeners) as environmental thinkers and actors, which will hopefully give me a chance to work out some of the themes I could only touch on in The Georgia Peach. In the longer term, I’m working on an environmental history of Christian relief and development, in which I’ll examine the role of American non-governmental organizations and missionaries in imagining and reshaping the environments.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Karp

ThisVastSouthernEmpire.jpgMatthew Karp is Assistant Professor of History and Elias Boudinot Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write This Vast Southern Empire?

MK: It’s been a long time coming. My senior thesis in college was on Great Britain and the annexation of Texas, so I’ve been working with the main characters and events in this book for over a dozen years. Some people might say that a dozen years is a lot of time to spend with John Tyler and John C. Calhoun.

As a student, I think what stimulated my interest was an early sense of the open-endedness, the geopolitical uncertainty, that surrounded U.S. foreign relations in the 1840s and 1850s. For Americans, Texans, Mexicans, Indians, and Europeans, there was nothing inevitable about the process we still tend to call “western expansion.” The U.S. annexation of Texas, for instance, had to be organized, planned, managed. When I got to graduate school, and started looking into it more deeply, it struck me how many of these American organizers and managers of foreign policy—men like Tyler, Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis—were  slaveholding southerners. And often, the most powerful policymakers were not just run-of-the-mill southern politicians, but the country’ s most outspoken defenders of slavery. That seemed to warrant a fuller investigation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of This Vast Southern Empire?

MK: The slaveholders who dominated antebellum American foreign policy were not sectional advocates of states’ rights, but ambitious empire-builders who saw the United States as the world’s leading champion of slavery. This Vast Southern Empire follows their strategic management of American expansion in the mid-nineteenth century, recovers their deep ideological confidence in the future of slave labor, and helps explain their ultimate decision to leave the Union in 1861.

JF: Why do we need to read This Vast Southern Empire?

MK: My book joins a wave of recent scholarship that has refocused our attention on antebellum slavery’s economic dynamism, its national and international reach, without in any way diminishing our sense of slavery’s enormous raw brutality. I think my book extends this work by exploring the geopolitical imagination of the South’s confident and prosperous slaveholding leaders.

Partly because the South lost the Civil War, we are accustomed to looking backward at the antebellum period from the perspective of Appomattox. Both scholars and the general public, I think, find it easy to imagine southern elites as provincial conservatives, hostile to the federal government and concerned above all with preserving their own social power at home. But the antebellum master class was very different: in many ways, they did not fear the federal government because they controlled the federal government. As guardians of U.S. foreign and military policy, they did not see a strong national state as a threat to their local power, but a tool to extend their international power.

In this sense, I think the book is important because it refuses to sectionalize the slave South. Slaveholding elites like U.S. Secretary of State Calhoun or U.S. Secretary of War Davis did not view themselves primarily as Southern partisans or crypto-Confederates. They saw themselves as Americans, and as proper leaders of the entire United States.

Most previous scholarship on slaveholders and foreign relations tends to focus on colorful but marginal figures like the filibuster William Walker, who led a private army to conquer Nicaragua in 1856. Walker’s story is fascinating, but it seems to me that putting weak and failed filibusters, separatists, or African slave traders at the center of the antebellum story can serve to exoticize the master class as a whole. My book concentrates instead on powerful national leaders like Calhoun and Davis—men whose fervent devotion to slavery did not, in their minds, make them anything less than the purest American patriots.

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

MK: When I decided I wasn’t really interested or able to become anything else—probably in my first year after college. I just wanted to keep reading what I had been reading as a history major, and I couldn’t figure out any other way to make that happen.

JF:  What is your next project?

MK: I’m beginning work on a new book with the hypothetical title The Radicalism of the Republican Party. I say hypothetical because it’s based on a hypothesis—that, given what we know now about slavery’s national power and international profitability, the antebellum Republican Party looks more unlikely and perhaps even more radical than most accounts give it credit for. But I’m just at the start of this project, so it remains to be seen whether the hypothesis will hold up through deeper reading and research.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

The Author’s Corner with Robert Elder

thesacredmirrorRobert Elder is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University. This interview is based on his new book, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Sacred Mirror?

RE: I noticed that most historians writing about religion in the pre-Civil War American South described conflict between evangelicalism and the South’s honor culture, at least in the period before 1830, but that they often used a relatively thin and gendered (male) definition of honor that didn’t really do justice to the complexity and depth of honor as an ethical system. If Bertram Wyatt-Brown was right, and I think he was, about the pervasiveness of this ethic in the South, then you would expect to find it influencing every aspect of evangelicalism, and that’s exactly what I found. I found that early evangelicals didn’t reject honor, but instead tried to subtly redefine it as coming “from God alone.” I found that when you take into account gendered versions of honor, especially female honor, the tension between honor and evangelicalism evaporates, which helps to explain why women joined evangelical churches in greater numbers than men during this period. I found that church discipline, which was a very public process, was a powerful site for determining honor and shame in a culture that gave great weight to communal authority and opinion. Since honor cultures place such a heavy emphasis on communal authority, and since churches throughout this period were so willing to exercise that authority, this also has important implications for our view of evangelicalism as a the religious expression of modern individualism.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Sacred Mirror?

RE: I argue that evangelicalism in the pre-Civil War South drew a significant part of its strength from the same cultural wellspring that fed honor, a deep assumption of the legitimacy of communal authority. I also argue that because evangelicalism combined a belief in communal authority with an emphasis on individual experience, it served as a kind of cultural bridge between two ways of defining individual identity, and so represented a uniquely southern version of modernity.

JF: Why do we need to read The Sacred Mirror?

RE: I think the standard way of teaching southern evangelicalism is to describe a period of early radicalism followed, post-1830, with a nearly complete capitulation to southern mores, especially honor and slavery (with important exceptions, such as the emergence of black Christianity). What I hope to do with this book is to smooth out that trajectory at both ends, and to describe southern evangelicalism from an angle that escapes the opposition/accommodation binary that has often characterized the field. I’d like to think that anyone interested in American or southern religious history, particularly the history of evangelicalism, needs to read this book. I’d also like to think that anyone interested in the transition to modernity (a much bigger topic!), the historical alternatives to modern individualism, and, of course, honor, should also read the book. 

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

RE: I think I can only answer the question if I change it to “a historian of the American South”. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, but my father is from Chattanooga, Tennessee, so I was very conscious of the cultural differences between the midwest and the South from a pretty early age. When I got to college in South Carolina, I figured that history was probably one of the best ways to explore that difference and I ended up in an “Old South” course that cemented the deal. I was also fascinated by the sense in South Carolina that history mattered: people argued about it all the time, and you could literally see it around you. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to be a historian (I don’t even remember weighing whether or not to go to graduate school), I just became fascinated with it and kept following that fascination. That’s probably not a good model to follow in every case, but I’ve been very lucky.

JF: What is your next project?

RE: I’m just starting to work on a new cultural and intellectual biography of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina senator who the historian David Potter once called “the most majestic champion of error since Milton’s Satan.” I’m hoping to reinterpret Calhoun in the context of the flood of recent scholarship on slavery and capitalism, southern intellectual history, and new international histories of secession and the modern nation state (not to mention recent events). The last biography of him is almost twenty-five years old, and these new histories have completely redrawn the landscape, so it seems like we need to come to terms with him again. Plus, there just aren’t enough biographies of dead white guys, so I thought I’d do my part. 

JF: Thanks, Robert!

Quote of the Day

Actually, this quote comes from yesterday (Thursday–January 7, 2016):

The post-Civil War South has been so invested in promoting the Confederacy that it actually named  a military base after Braxton Bragg.  This is a clear example of Confederate heritage trumping mediocrity on the battlefield. 

W. Fitzthugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina at the plenary session on Confederate monuments at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.