The Author’s Corner with Cole Jones

captives of libertyCole Jones is Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University. This interview is based on his new book, Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Captives of Liberty?

CJ: When I began to study history professionally in 2007, the United States was deeply mired in the seemingly unending “War on Terror.” What had begun as largely conventional conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had devolved into complex counterinsurgencies in which the enemy did not abide by the laws of armed conflict as codified in the Third Geneva Convention of 1949. In a war against a tactic—terrorism—instead of a nation state, enemy prisoners posed thorny political questions. To treat Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters as prisoners of war eligible for exchange would implicitly acknowledge their legitimacy. Instead, U.S. forces held them indefinitely as illegal combatants. While the American populace responded in horror to news of abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention centers, official policy towards enemy captives remained unaltered.

This was the political context in which I began to think about America’s first war—the Revolutionary War. At the time, historians and pundits drew a stark contrast between contemporary Americans’ conduct of war in the Middle East—especially their treatment of enemy captives—and the apparent “humanitarian” actions of the “Founding Fathers.” I was intrigued by this juxtaposition and wanted to learn more. How had the American Revolutionaries negotiated the political and military challenges posed by prisoners? The answers I uncovered in the archives challenged my preconceived notions about the American Revolution and the war waged to secure it.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Captives of Liberty?

CJ: By analyzing the treatment of prisoners of war, Captives of Liberty recovers a revolutionary transformation in the conduct of the war that created the United States. Over the course of the struggle, British atrocities and loyalist resistance—both more often imaginary than real—galvanized ordinary Americans to wage an extremely violent war for vengeance that the decentralized revolutionary government could not contain.

JF: Why do we need to read Captives of Liberty?

CJ: Captives of Liberty is a cautionary tale about the power of revengeful rhetoric to escalate violence. The over 17,000 British and allied prisoners who suffered in American hands testify to the dangers of dehumanizing political opponents and to the fragility of law in the face of emotion. Revolutionary Americans had entered their conflict with Great Britain determined to demonstrate to the world that “Americans are humane as well as brave.” They failed to live up to this lofty aspiration of limiting war’s violence, but that does not mean that we should jettison their ambition. Instead of trying to live up to the standards set by the founding generation, we should strive to do better.

I also hope that my book restores the war, and its attendant suffering, deprivation, and death, to the political history of the American Revolution. Tearing down monarchical governance and establishing a republic came at a terrible cost that historians are only recently beginning to emphasize. American politics and society were profoundly shaped by the eight-years of civil war: a struggle every bit as revolutionary in character as its European successors. It is time, I think, for historians to abandon the antiquated and inaccurate title “The War for Independence” and to start calling the conflict what it really was: “The American Revolutionary War.”

JF: Why did you decide to become an American historian?

CJ: I grew up in the Hudson River valley of New York, surrounded by small vestiges of America’s colonial past. I have been fascinated by the American Revolution for as long as I can recall. The popular narrative of “Good American Patriots” versus “Bad British Redcoats” always troubled me. The causes, conduct, and consequences of the Revolution seemed so much more complicated than those platitudes suggested. I carried my interest in the Revolution into college where I caught the bug for historical research. After doing archival research on both sides of the Atlantic and loving every minute of it, I committed to the Ph.D. program in early American history at Johns Hopkins University. I count myself very fortunate to be able to read, write, think, and teach about American history for a living.

JF: What is your next project?

CJ: I am currently at work on two projects. The first is a short book, under contract with Westholme Press, that examines the opening stages of the Revolutionary War in North Carolina, culminating in the climactic battle at Moore’s Creek Bridge in 1776. The second more substantial project is a history of the war west of the Appalachian Mountains, currently entitled Patrick Henry’s War: The Struggle for Empire in the Revolutionary West. In short, it is a history of the rise and fall of Virginia’s empire during the era of the American Revolution.

JF: Thanks, Cole!

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress: “Why don’t we ever hear terrorists shout ‘this is for Jesus Christ'”

I am not excusing what happened in London this weekend. It was a tragedy.  I pray for the families of the victims, law enforcement, and our global leaders as they seek wisdom for how to deal with the threat of ISIS and other forms of Islamic terrorism.

But please Robert Jeffress, learn some history before you start spouting off on Twitter.

Just a quick scan of the “Christian terrorism” Wikipedia page reveals:

  • 1605: In the Gunpowder Plot Guy Fawkes and English Catholics try to assassinate James I and blog up Parliament.
  • 1860s and 1870s: Ku Klux Klan claimed to perform their acts of terrorism against African Americans in the name of white Protestant Christianity.
  • 1920s:  KKK again
  • 1971: A Catholic extremist group called Ilaga killed 70-100 Muslims worshiping in a Mosque
  • Since 1993, 11 people have been killed in attacks on abortion clinics in the United States.

And this is just a very small sampling.

None of these acts represent the true spirit of Christianity, which is a religion of peace and love for one’s enemies. But let’s not claim that terrorists have never acted in the name of Jesus.

I will agree with one thing in Jeffress’s tweet.  We need to pray.

Will Carly Fiorina’s Medieval History Degree Help Her Fight ISIS?

The GOP presidential candidate is taking a lot of heat for saying that her study of medieval history as an undergraduate at Stanford will help her fight terrorism as president of the United States. 

At a town hall meeting in Windham, New Hampshire Fiorina said: “Finally my degree in medieval history and philosophy has come in handy because what ISIS wants to do is drive us back to the Middle Ages, literally.”

First of all, it is impossible for ISIS to literally drive us back to the Middle Ages unless they are able to engage in time travel.  But I digress.

Fiorina continued: “Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using, the crucifixion, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages, so we can’t avert our eyes and pretend it’s an exaggeration that ISIS wants to take its territory back to the Middle Ages but that is in truth what they want to do and are attempting to do.”

I am not a medieval historian so I do not know just how comparable these medieval “techniques” are to the techniques ISIS is using today, but I am willing to admit that they are similar.  I am also more than willing to say that the study of history can help us make sense of the present.  I think more presidential candidates need to study history.  I am also willing to say that the study of the past could provide understanding about ISIS that could aid in its defeat.  So in a lot of ways, Fiorina should be applauded for invoking her study of history.  But I think that there are some serious problems with the way she invokes it.

I could riff on this myself, but I think I will get a real medieval historian take it from here.  David Perry teaches teaches medieval history at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Guardian titled “No, Carly Fiorina, a degree in medieval history doesn’t qualify you to fight Isis.



I’d like to state unequivocally that my years of training to become a professor of medieval history in no way make me fit to be appointed commander-in-chief of the US military. While the Middle Ages do in fact shape contemporary events all the time, Fiorina unfortunately almost always gets the lessons of history wrong.

When we use the word “medieval” to characterize something we don’t like, be it Isis, the Ferguson Police department or Russia’s driver’s license regulations, we are trying to impose chronological distance between ourselves and things we find unpleasant. Thinking of these distasteful or evil aspects of the modern world as belonging to the past makes it harder, not easier, to understand their root causes and fight them.

That hasn’t stopped Fiorina from bringing up her medieval history training surprisingly often. It used to just be part of her “self-made” mythology: she graduated from Stanford with a degree that taught her how to think, but no specific skills, dropped out of law school, then clawed her way to the top.
The veracity of that story has been called into question, but she does make good points about the value of a humanities education, saying: “My medieval history and philosophy degree … did prepare me for life … I learned how to condense a whole lot of information down to the essence. That thought process has served me my whole life … I’m one of these people who believes we should be teaching people music, philosophy, history, art”. I wish more of her Republican colleagues would take these words to heart.
Lately, though, it’s all about scoring partisan points. She’s incorporated her quip about Isis driving us back to the Middle Ages as a standard part of her stump speech since at least last March. It’s a joke, perhaps, but given that her complete lack of national security credentials is a campaign issue, it’s not a throwaway line. She really does seem to be claiming that her undergraduate degree will enable her to make sound foreign policy decisions, despite her lack of experience.

Perry concludes his piece by suggesting a few things that the study of the Middle Ages should teach us today:

If Carly Fiorina really wants to draw on the Middle Ages for inspiration, I do have some suggestions. Lesson one: support universities, scholars, writers and artists, as their contributions outlive us all. Lesson two: peasants, oppressed for too long, always rebel. Lesson three: don’t go to war in the Middle East without a good exit plan.

Was Denmark Vesey an Abolitionist or Terrorist?

Douglas Egerton, author of He Shall Go Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey and the recent The Wars of Reconstruction, asks this question in Tuesday’s New York Times.   He writes in light of the controversy surrounding the recent unveiling of a Vesey statute in Charleston, South Carolina.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Vesey, he was a former slave who planned a slave rebellion in South Carolina in 1822.  South Carolina officials foiled Vesey’s plans and he was convicted and executed.  

Here is a taste of Egerton’s op-ed:

The complexity of Vesey’s story is hard to grasp, and wrestling with slavery and violence is hardly unique to South Carolina; white Southerners may rightly wonder when Manhattan will erect a statue to the slave Caesar Varick, who was burned alive in 1741 for plotting a revolt similar to Vesey’s.

More than a decade ago, while I was giving a talk on Vesey in Charleston, a member of the audience challenged my view that what Vesey wished to accomplish — the freedom for his friends and family — could be a good thing, on the grounds that he went about it the wrong way. “Why not work within the system for liberation,” the man asked, or even “stage a protest march?”

Although well intentioned, such questions reveal how far American society still has to travel before we reach a sophisticated understanding of the past. There was no “system” for Vesey to work within; his state had flatly banned private manumissions, or the freeing of slaves, in 1820. The only path to freedom was to sharpen a sword. Americans today can admire the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 nonviolent March on Washington, but his world was not Vesey’s, and we must understand that.

It is ironic that such historical myopia should be found in Charleston, which today bills itself as one of the nation’s most historic cities. Each afternoon horse-drawn carriages transport tourists about its narrow streets. But as the fight over the Vesey statue suggests, tour guides tell at best an incomplete story.

They often ignore, for example, the fact that of the roughly 400,000 Africans sold into what is now the United States, approximately 40 percent landed on Sullivan’s Island, a hellish Ellis Island of sorts just outside of Charleston Harbor. Today nothing commemorates that ugly fact but a simple bench, established by the author Toni Morrison using private funds.