The Author’s Corner with David Dzurec

DzurecDavid J. Dzurec is Chair and Associate Professor of History at the University of Scranton  This interview is based on his new book Our Suffering Brethren: Foreign Captivity and Nationalism in the Early United States (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Our Suffering Brethren?

DDThis project began when I came across the captivity narrative of Revolutionary prisoner of war John Dodge.  Initially I had planned to write about the experience of captivity during the American Revolution, but as my researched progressed it became clear to me that the impact of these Revolutionary captivity narratives stretched well beyond the 1780s and ultimately played a role in shaping American politics and culture in the first decades of the nineteenth century.  In addition to expanding chronologically, my research also broadened geographically ultimately including narratives from captive Americans in both Africa and Europe.  In examining these narratives, I was struck by how stories of captivity, even at a great distance, still had an impact on the politics and culture of the early United States.  It was an attempt to understand what role these stories played in shaping American political culture that led me to write this book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Our Suffering Brethren?

DDThe threat of foreign captivity in the decades following Independence simultaneously served to bring the American people together in defense of their fellow countrymen while dividing them along partisan lines.  Ultimately, the efforts of both Federalists and Republicans to claim the mantle of defender of American liberty abroad, while playing on fears of American insecurity, helped to create a language of American nationalism that would define American political culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Our Suffering Brethren?

DD: American nationalism (and nationalism more broadly) is often associated with bellicosity and empire.  Our Suffering Brethren demonstrates how the roots of American nationalism and the political culture that goes with it, sprang from a profound sense of insecurity in the early existence of the United States.  While a number of historians have examined how Cold War fears of the Soviet threat shaped American political culture in the 20th Century, I demonstrate that the exploitation of American insecurity abroad was present in the earliest days of American politics—and that it was employed across the political spectrum to advance political agendas.

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

DD: While there wasn’t one “aha” moment, I have been fortunate to have a number of great history teachers over the years who have helped me to develop a love of both the subject and the process of historical research.  The first “research paper” I ever wrote was on Thomas Jefferson when I was in fifth grade.  Thirty years later, I’m still essentially researching the same thing.  My high school history teacher, Mr. Cowan, brought an irreverence and energy to the study of the past that was infectious and inspired me to become a history major when I went off to college.  As both an undergraduate and graduate student I was fortunate to work with outstanding faculty who helped me become the historian I am today.

JF: What is your next project?

DD: Growing out of the research for this book, I’ve become interested in how the Federalists dealt with not only losing political power, but how they responded to the ultimate collapse of their party.  I’ve made an initial foray into this topic with my article “Of Salt Mountains, Prairie Dogs, and Horned Frogs: The Louisiana Purchase and the Evolution of the Federalist Party 1803-1812” and I’m excited to see where this project goes. 

JF: Thanks, David!

The Author’s Corner with Martha Saxton

SaxtonMartha Saxton is Professor of History and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies and Elizabeth W. Bruss Reader, Emerita at Amherst College.  This interview is based on her new book The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Widow Washington?

MSI wrote the Widow Washington because I discovered in researching my last book that Mary Washington and her son George had conflict over money and property like many other widows and eldest sons in Virginia.  I was puzzled, given his reputation for probity. Then I discovered that historians, based on very scarce evidence, have concluded that she was a selfish person and a bad mother.  I wanted to know more.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Widow Washington?

MS: Mary Washington, orphaned early and then widowed early, had a long and difficult life.  She struggled successfully to give her five children a good start in life and imparted to her first child, George,  many of his most  impressive qualities: persistence, stoicism and resilience, and much of the philosophy by which he lived.

JF: Why do we need to read The Widow Washington?

MS: It’s important to recognize that our founding father had a strong and influential mother.  It’s also important to get a sense of the violence  of slavery that permeated  eighteenth-century Virginia and how it blunted the empathy of  slave owners like Mary Washington.

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

MSIn college I thought that history was the most comprehensive approach to studying the world around me, and I majored in it.  I went on to graduate study some years later when I needed more training to complete a book  on women’s moral values in early American communities (published as “Being Good”) which I had started.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: I am not sure about my next project.

JF: Thanks, Martha!

The Author’s Corner with Strother Roberts

StrotherStrother Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. This interview is based on his book Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)

JF: What led you to write Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: As an undergrad I double-majored in economics along with history. The melding of these two disciplines has influenced my research over the years and, in particular, helped spark my interest in environmental history as a sub-field. Economics, at its heart, considers how societies allocate scarce resources. Environmental history similarly studies how past human societies have grappled with the challenges of scarce natural resources, but within the social, cultural, and historical context that is all too often absent from purely economic models. Economics also has a very explicit focus on the power of trade. A number of excellent scholars before me have written about the environmental history of New England, but I often found their work too insular. In the United States today we are used to thinking of ourselves as living in a globalized world. We are less likely to appreciate the fact that the indigenous and European inhabitants of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America were also experiencing the influences of relatively rapid globalization. I wrote Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy to tie the ecological changes that settler societies introduced into New England to the transatlantic commercial and political forces that drove them.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: Colonial New England was an integral part of England/Britain’s imperial commercial empire and everyone from imperial planners to its earliest settlers fully expected colonization to contribute exports to the imperial economy and the larger Atlantic World of which it was a part. Colonists and indigenous communities responded to the incentives offered by transatlantic markets to selectively extract resources from the region’s environment and in the process transformed New England’s physical and political landscape to the point that, by 1790, both would have been unrecognizable to an observer living two centuries earlier.

JF: Why do we need to read Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: The book takes a number of disparate threads from the contemporary historiography of early America and weaves them together into a coherent pattern – while also introducing significant new insights along the way. As I mentioned in my response to your first question, other scholars have done excellent research on the environmental history of New England, but the most influential studies are from the 1980s (and are becoming a bit dated) while even more recent works have tended to be rather insular in their focus. By contrast, most of the rest of the field of early American history stresses the interconnectedness of “the Atlantic World” or self-consciously situates the individual colonies or regions within a #VastEarlyAmerica. One manifestation of this trend has been the proliferation of so-called commodity histories, histories that trace the life of individual commodities from their site of production – usually in the colonies of America – through their processing and marketing, and eventually into the hands of their final owners – usually in Europe or colonial urban centers. Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy combines this new interest in commodity exchange networks and weds it to older discussions of environmental change, to show how the colonial ecology of New England was inextricably tied to the broader transatlantic economy beyond its shores.

The book also cuts through the decades-old argument over whether New England’s economic development was driven by domestic production and demand or by trade with Europe and other colonial regions. A similar argument over whether the consumer revolution and industrial revolution were the result of domestic economic forces or whether they were driven by overseas colonialism has long plagued British history. The best histories, in my opinion, recognize that these are false dichotomies. For instance, the New England farmer who felled an oak to make barrel staves and then sold them to a local merchant likely did not know or care whether those staves were ultimately fated to hold locally-milled flour that would never leave his township, or whether they would be traded to the West Indies to hold slave-grown sugar on a sea-voyage to London. Settlers, from the very first colonists up to the citizens of the early Republic, fully expected to participate in an interconnected system of local, regional, and transatlantic markets. The indigenous inhabitants of New England, too, contributed commodities to these markets, either as the eager consumers of novel European goods and weapons or, increasingly in later decades, as a result of the violent and/or legal coercion exercised by the region’s increasingly hegemonic Anglo-American society. Much of this participation in colonial and Atlantic markets, at whatever level, necessarily rested on the extraction of resources from the regional environment, and each act of extraction had a physical impact on that environment.

Previous environmental histories of New England have failed to appreciate just how profound these physical changes were, or how early they began. In fact, I even surprised myself with some of what I discovered. Take the fur trade, for instance. Gripped by the “Little Ice Age” and facing the depletion of furbearer populations in Europe and eastern Asia, European consumers purchased a tremendous number of furs – most notably beaver pelts – from North America over the course of the early modern period. Native American hunters in New England gladly embraced the trade as a source of European tools, weapons, and cloth, sacrificing tens-of-thousands of beaver for use in European cold-weather fashion. The result was the extirpation of beaver from much of New England by the 1670s and the drainage of hundreds-of-thousands of ponds and wetlands – formerly maintained by beaver dams – by the turn of the seventeenth century. While other scholars have argued that significant ecological change did not come to New England until the supposed advent of commercial farming at the turn of the nineteenth century, my work shows that New Englanders were always commercially-oriented and that profound change began much earlier. In fact, my work on the fur trade suggests large swathes of the New England landscape had been profoundly altered by transatlantic trade before any European ever laid eyes on  its “natural” (or, at least, pre-European encounter) state.

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

SR: That depends on what you mean by “American” historian – my Master’s thesis and my early work in my PhD program focused on First Nations history in Canada. But as I began to consider possible dissertation topics, my PhD advisor pragmatically suggested that a more southerly focus would serve me better with publishers and on the U.S. job market. Since I was most interested in the processes of North American history – the meeting and clashing of indigenous and settler societies and the subsequent formation of new systems and economies that came out of those transatlantic encounters – I shifted my attention to the source-rich and historiographically-storied archives of New England. Both Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Ecology and my next project are defined, at least partially, by the geography of New England (and specifically by the Connecticut River Valley in the case of Colonial Ecology). At the same time, though, I have never wanted to be limited by this geography, which is why the book focuses so much attention on how connections to different parts of North America (and Europe) influenced New England’s environmental history.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: My next book project is an environmental and social history of dogs in the indigenous and Euro-American societies of early New England and New France – which means I get a chance to return to Canadian history. The Cliff’s Notes version so far  is that dogs were essential to indigenous economies as hunting partners and sources of meat, that English settlers intentionally persecuted indigenous dogs as a way to weaken Native American societies to the degree that they were extirpated and replaced by dogs of European descent, that European settlers also relied on dogs for economic purposes and as weapons of war, and that the ecological success of introduced dogs eventually led Euro-American societies to implement policies to control their populations. Today, dogs are the most populous large, non-human, omnivorous predator in the world. Now, that last sentence contains a lot of qualifiers, but it essentially means that once you start looking at things bigger that bugs, rats, and chickens – it’s just dogs and us as the most numerous meat-eaters out there. This was certainly true of the indigenous dogs that inhabited the northeast prior to 1600.  A conservative estimate would suggest that the region was home to at least twice as many dogs as it was wild wolves, while some sources suggest that this ratio would have been far higher. Early English records suggest that introduced colonial dogs were just as numerous as their indigenous cousins were. And yet, I can’t think of a single environmental history that seriously considers the effect that dogs had on the natural environment prior to the nineteenth century. And even those tend to focus on urban environments. Dogs were humanity’s first domesticated partners and the only form of livestock kept by New England’s Indians. They played important roles in the economies and societies on both sides of the European conquest of New England, and, in an important cultural sense, helped define how all of the cultures involved understood what it meant to be human. It is, in my opinion, high time that someone wrote a dogs’ history of early America.

JF: Thanks Strother!

The Author’s Corner with Lawrence Kreiser

KreiserLawrence Kreiser is Associate Professor of History at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This interview is based on his book Marketing the Blue and Gray: Newspaper Advertising and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LKA billboard in Alabama proclaiming a nationally distributed soft drink as a “Southern Original,” caused me, indirectly, to write a book on newspaper advertising and the Civil War.  I wondered whether the sign had increased sales in Tuscaloosa, where I teach?  Did it even run on the West Coast, or in the Northeast?  Did I, who grew up in the Midwest, and refer to soda as “pop,” somehow gain identity as a southerner if I purchased a two-liter

Those questions turned into a research project when I realized that one might ask similar questions about advertising and the Civil War.  Although historians make use of contemporary newspaper headlines and editorials to write many excellent studies on the Union and Confederacy, they all but ignore the advertisements.  Yet, between 1861 and 1865, merchants took advantage of the wide readership of newspapers to pitch everything from war bonds to biographies on military and political leaders, and from patent medicines that promised to cure any battlefield wound to “secession bonnets” and “Fort Sumter” cockades.  My book is the first full-length study on Union and Confederate newspaper advertising, and it’s a project that I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LKThe book argues that commercialism and patriotism became increasingly intertwined as Union and Confederate war aims evolved, with Yankees and Rebels believing that buying decisions were an important expression of their civic pride.  The notices also helped to expand American democracy by allowing their diverse readership to participate in almost every aspect of the Civil War, with readers perusing notices for, among others, the capture of deserters, the reunion of former slaves with their families, and the embalming, and transporting home, of family members and friends killed in battle. 

JF: Why do we need to read Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LK: Americans continue to debate the role of advertising and society.  Do words and images from clothing companies, restaurants, and political lobbying groups, to name just a few examples, exert too much influence?  My research helps to provide insight into the debate by exploring advertising while still in its early stages.

Still, although we live in a commercialized age, my study avoids using the nineteenth century to anticipate the twenty-first century. There are parallels between sales notices then and now, especially with lofty appeals mixed with low gimmickry; and a better life balanced against greater appetites. But throughout the book, my focus remains on how advertisements provide an understanding of mid-nineteenth-century Americans as a people and a nation modernizing even while they passed through a period of great peril and suffering. To view these notices as an idle curiosity would mean missing a window into how advertisers influenced their readers’ lives and society during the most turbulent domestic event in the nation’s history.

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

LK: Great question!  The short answer is on the fourth-grade flag football fields, when I realized that I had not one iota of the athletic talent to become the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, my hometown team!  The more serious answer is that history claimed me.  I have been very fortunate to do what I love—working with great students and colleagues at Stillman College and researching, to my mind, the pivotal moment in American history.  I know that it sounds cliché, but sometimes I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I do.  I hope that all of my students go onto careers where they have such rewarding opportunities and wonderful experiences.

JF: What is your next project?

LKI’m researching the role of newspaper and magazine advertising in national reconciliation during the late nineteenth century.  Almost as soon as the guns had fallen silent in 1865, publishing companies marketed their war-themed histories and memoirs as “objective” and “factual,” even though these works often were highly partisan.  Patent medicine dealers pitched their pills and potions as having saved the lives of almost countless numbers of soldiers, whether they had worn the blue or the gray.

While national advertisers attempted to find a profit in downplaying the results and causes of the war, local merchants pursued a different marketing strategy.  In the former Confederate states, store owners encouraged potential customers to “buy southern” to help the region regain its former economic clout.  In the black-owned press, salesmen encouraged readers to patronize their businesses as a blow for self-sufficiency and, ultimately, civil rights.  Whether in the North or South, veterans formed a new commercial market.  Merchants pitched their material wares and services based on why these men had fought and how they transitioned to peacetime.  The advertising pages offer a treasure trove of primary source materials on the memory and meaning of the Civil War during the Gilded Age.

As a closing note, and veering slightly off topic, thanks, John, for maintaining the “Way of Improvement” blog.  I find it fascinating, and appreciate the time you spend on its upkeep.

JF: Thanks, Lawrence!

The Author’s Corner with Katherine Gerbner

Christian SlaveryKatharine Gerbner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  This interview is based on her book,  Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian Slavery?

KGI started Christian Slavery with a simple question: how could seemingly good people support something that was morally abhorrent? Specifically, I wanted to know why European Christians, and especially missionaries, accepted slavery. What I was uncovered was a deeply troubling story that is important to understand today. It shows how people with good intentions can play a terrible role in perpetuating injustice, and it demonstrates the long history of complicity between Christianity and slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Slavery?

KGI have three main arguments: (1) far from being forced to convert, enslaved and free blacks had to fight their way into Protestant churches; (2) Protestant missionaries paved the way for pro-slavery theology by arguing that conversion would not lead to freedom for the enslaved; and (3) White Supremacy grew out of “Protestant Supremacy”—the idea that enslaved people could not become Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Slavery?

KGThere’s a lot of discussion about White Supremacy right now. In those conversations, it’s essential to explore what we mean by “whiteness” and where this term comes from. What history shows us is that the word “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial records as a way to justify enslavement. In other words, whiteness was created under slavery in order to exclude people of African descent from freedom. So if we really want to understand White Supremacy, and to combat it, we have to acknowledge the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery.

My book also shows the possibilities for combating racism & White Supremacy. Some evangelical Christians and Quakers played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity could be used to support emancipation. And most importantly, enslaved and free blacks who fought their way into Protestant churches defined their faith around the concept of liberation, in opposition to pro-slavery theology.

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

KGI studied Religion and Middle Eastern Studies in college. But when it came time to write a Senior Thesis, I chose a historical document: the first antislavery petition written in the Americas, which was authored by German and Dutch Quakers in 17th c. Pennsylvania. I started by researching the origin of that document and its reception. As I did so, I realized that the anti-slavery Protest was rejected by English Quakers in Philadelphia. I was surprised by this—I grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school, but I had only learned about Quaker abolitionism. I was shocked to discover that there were Quakers who owned slaves. I wanted to know what else had been left out of the conventional histories. I started there, and I haven’t stopped researching since.

JFWhat is your next project?

KGI’m writing a book about slave rebellion and religious freedom, tentatively called Constructing Religion, Defining Crime. I noticed in my research for Christian Slavery that black Christians and other religious leaders were often blamed for slave rebellions. In response, white authorities created laws designed to criminalize black religious practices. My new research suggests that we cannot understand religion – or religious freedom – without examining slave rebellion. The history of slavery can help us to understand how and why some religious practices have been, and continue to be, excluded from the lexicon of “religion” and even criminalized.

JF: Thanks, Katherine!

The Author’s Corner with Jeffrey Ostler

OstlerJeffrey Ostler is Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific History at the University of Oregon.  This interview is based on his new book, Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas (Yale University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Surviving Genocide?

JO: After two decades of teaching and writing about Native American history, I realized that we don’t have a comprehensive overview of the impact of U.S. continental expansion on Native nations. There has been a huge outpouring of excellent books in American Indian history since the advent the “new Indian history” in the 1980s (and there was a lot of valuable scholarship before then), and so there is an abundance of information. I thought I could make a contribution by drawing on this huge literature to address important questions: What were the demographic trends for Native nations as they were increasingly affected by the United States and its settler citizens? What were the factors (violence, dispossession, removals) that led to demographic decline and how were Native communities able to counter these factors through economic adaptation, intermarriage, diplomacy, and political action? Was the impact of expansion in the South before the Civil War different from the impact of expansion in the North? If so, why?

Similarly, was the U.S. more violent in the West after the Civil War than in the East before 1860? Because the topic is broad (well over one hundred Native nations in the continental United States from 1776 to 1900), I decided at some point along the way that it would take two volumes to cover. The just-published first volume covers the East and Midwest from the 1770s to the eve of the Civil War. The second volume, which I hope to finish in a few years, will cover the American West from the 1780s, when American traders first began affecting Native people in the Pacific Northwest, to 1900.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Surviving Genocide?

JO: As I wrote the book, I became impressed that Indigenous people in the path of U.S. expansion consistently feared that Americans threatened not only their lands and ways of life but that Americans intended to kill them all to obtain their lands. The book argues that given the actual impact of U.S. expansion on Native communities, fears of genocide were reasonable and also shows how Native people survived massively destructive forces that threatened their very existence.

JF: Why do we need to read Surviving Genocide?

JO: I think most thoughtful Americans are increasingly willing to learn more about what the sociologist Michael Mann termed the “dark side” of American democracy. There is certainly a growing awareness of the role of slavery in the founding and building of the United States from the 1780s to 1860. But there is probably less awareness of how the emergence of democracy depended on the taking of Native lands. According to Thomas Jefferson, a seemingly limitless supply of land in North American would allow the United States to avoid replicating European social conditions in which a small aristocratic class monopolized land, leaving the majority dependent. In America, however, abundant land would allow small farmers political independence. Surviving Genocide shows why and how the United States took the lands of sovereign Native nations and documents the costs of democracy for Native people.

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

JO: It happened so long ago, that I can’t quite be sure, but if memory serves, I wanted to study American history to better understand the present (at the time, the Reagan years). My main interest at that time was why democratic movements (like Populism) that challenged economic and political inequality had so often failed. From there, I became more interested in exploring the importance of Indigenous history for U.S. history.

JF: What is your next project?

JO: As I mentioned earlier, my next project is a follow-up volume to Surviving Genocide, which will cover the American West.

JF: Thanks, Jeffrey!

The Author’s Corner with Joseph Adelman

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

JF: What led you to write Revolutionary Networks?

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Revolutionary Networks?

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Joe!

The Author’s Corner with Carli Conklin

The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding EraCarli Conklin is Associate Professor at The University of Missouri School of Law.  This interview is based on her new book, The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History (University of Missouri, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era?

CC: I had long wondered why Thomas Jefferson would choose a phrase as seemingly vague as “the pursuit of happiness” to be included as one of only three unalienable rights he specifically listed in the Declaration of Independence. That the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” was left untouched throughout an otherwise lengthy and quite detailed drafting process only further piqued my curiosity. I began to wonder if “the pursuit of happiness” had been left untouched because it was so clearly-defined and widely-accepted among the Founders that it required no editing or if it had been left untouched because it was so vague as to have no specific or controversial meaning to the Founders, at all.

In their later writings, Jefferson and John Adams both claimed that the Declaration was not intended to be a statement of new ideas. Taking my cue from them, I began exploring old ideas–key strands of thought that were most influential at the Founding: English law and legal history; the history and philosophy of classical antiquity; Christianity; and the Scottish Enlightenment’s focus on Newtonian Science. These strands of thought, while conflicting in their particulars, nevertheless converged at a place of particular meaning. That place of particular meaning was the late-eighteenth understanding of “the pursuit of happiness.”

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era?

CC: Far from being a glittering generality or a direct substitution for property, “the pursuit of happiness” had a distinct meaning to those who included the phrase in two of the eighteenth-century’s most influential legal texts: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). That distinct meaning included a belief in first principles by which the created world is governed, the idea that these first principles were discoverable by man, and the belief that to pursue a life lived in accordance with those principles was to pursue a life of virtue, with the end result of happiness, best defined in the Greek sense of eudaimonia, or human flourishing.

JF: Why do we need to read The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era?

CC: Today, we continue to invoke our unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness in a wide variety of settings. The right to “the pursuit of happiness” shows up everywhere from music and movies to U.S. Supreme Court cases, with a bewildering array of meanings attributed to the phrase. This work clarifies the meaning of the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness by placing the phrase within its broader eighteenth-century legal and historical context. The methodology behind this exploration highlights not only the interdisciplinary depth and breadth of the Founders’ intellectual world, but also the unexpected places where a variety of these influential, eighteenth-century schools of thought converged.

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

CC: Throughout college, I pursued my love for English and education while remaining interested in law. I was particularly fascinated by the ideas that are embedded in our laws and how those laws—and the ideas undergirding them–change over time. Following my graduation from Truman State University, I learned of the University of Virginia School of Law’s dual degree program in American legal history. I still vividly remember the excitement I felt as I read the program description—it was everything I had ever wanted to study! I am happy to say that I could not have found a more welcoming and intellectually invigorating home for the study of early American legal history. As an early American legal historian who views scholarship as an extension of teaching, I remain so grateful for the outstanding education I received from Truman State University in teaching pedagogy, critical thinking and analysis, and the close reading of texts and the fantastic education in law and American legal history I received at the University of Virginia, first under Barry Cushman and Charles W. McCurdy in the J.D./M.A. program and then when I returned to Virginia to work under Prof. McCurdy again for my Ph.D. It has been a true joy to work in this field.

JF: What is your next project?

CC: I am fascinated by how our legal use and understanding of “the pursuit of happiness” has changed over time. I am currently working on a project entitled The Pursuit of Happiness after the Founding: Case Law and Constitutions. This project explores the use of “the pursuit of happiness” in key legal texts from 1776 forward, including constitutions and court cases at both the state and federal levels.

JF: Thanks, Carli!

The Author’s Corner with Stanley Harrold

American AbolitionismStanley Harrold is Professor of History at South Carolina State . This interview is based on his new book, American Abolitionism: Its Direct Political Impact from Colonial Times into Reconstruction (University of Virginia Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write American Abolitionism?

SH: For years I concentrated my research and writing on the physical clashes between antislavery and proslavery forces on both sides of the North-South sectional border. Particularly in writing Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), I came to appreciate how these confrontations influenced the sectional politics that led to the Civil War. Those involved included escaping slaves, black and white abolitionists who encouraged and aided the escapees, and defensive white southerners who pursued the escapees. But, in focusing on these clashes and those involved, I limited the book’s scope to a restricted region and a relatively brief time period. As a result I began to wonder about other ways that abolitionists directly impacted American politics and government over a much more extended period, stretching from the late 1600s into the late 1860s. Also the recent upsurge in interest among historians regarding the abolitionists’ impact on politics has emphasized their indirect political impact through preaching, holding public meetings, and circulating antislavery propaganda in attempts to influence public opinion. Because other broader forces than these influenced northern popular opinion, this is an impressionist enterprise. Therefore American Abolitionism focuses precisely on direct abolitionist impact on colonial, state, and national government, through petitioning, lobbying, and personal contacts with politicians, as well as the direct impact of abolitionist physical action on northern and southern politicians.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of American Abolitionism?

SH: American Abolitionism argues that, beginning during the Colonial Period and extending through the Early National period, the Jacksonian Era, the 1850s, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, abolitionists’ direct political tactics helped influence the course of the sectional conflict. The book emphasizes that even those abolitionists who emphasized moral suasion and refused to vote engaged in effective efforts directly to influence formal politics.

JF: Why do we need to read American Abolitionism?

SH: As I suggest above, the book provides a much more precise understanding than previous studies of the abolitionist impact on American politics and government over an extended period of time. It begins with Quaker abolitionist petitioning and lobbying from the 1690s into the 1770s. It discusses expanded efforts to influence politics, undertaken by the first antislavery societies, mostly at the state level, during the Revolutionary and Early National periods. It covers the expanded direct tactics undertaken by immediate abolitionists, aimed at Congress and begun during the late 1820s. It explores the relationships between abolitionists and the Free Soil and Republican parties from the late 1840s through the Civil War, including increasing abolitionist efforts to personally influence Radical Republicans and President Abraham Lincoln. The book concludes with an evaluation of such efforts.

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

SH: For me becoming an American historian was a gradual process. I enjoyed a fine liberal arts undergraduate education at Allegheny College, where I took courses in art, literature, philosophy, as well as history, and did not decide to major in history until the middle of my junior year. I graduated in 1968, while the Vietnam War was raging. I decided to go to graduate school at Kent State University in part because I was not sure what else to do and hoped being a graduate student might provide a continued draft deferment. At first I was not sure that I wanted to be a professional historian or continue in graduate school after earning a master’s degree in American history. But, as I learned more about the historical profession, and came under the influence of my adviser John T. Hubbell, I finally committed myself to a career as a professor of American history, with a concentration on the Civil War Era and the abolitionist movement.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: For the first time, I have not begun a new book project after completing one. I shall, though, remain co-author, with Darlene Clark Hine and Willian C. Hine, of the African-American Odyssey, the leading black history textbook, which is currently in its seventh edition. I shall also remain co-editor, with Randall M. Miller, of the Southern Dissent book series, published by the University Press of Florida.

JF: Thanks, Stanley!

The Author’s Corner with Mark Peterson

The City-State of BostonMark Peterson is Edmund S. Morgan Professor of History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power (Princeton University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The City-State of Boston?

MP: I began work on this book by pursuing an observation that emerged while researching and writing my first book, The Price of Redemption—that early Boston and New England’s residents were deeply interested in and engaged with continental Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, the Caribbean, even the Indian Ocean, much more so than the extant historiography would lead you to believe. And I was also bothered by the way that the history of the United States casts its enormous shadow backward on the pre-independence world, encouraging historians to pay attention to those events, people, trends that contributed to the making of the United States, and obscuring those elements that did not. The sharp break that many historians make between pre- and post-independence North American history also troubled me, as I saw many continuities in the history of Boston and New England across that divide. In the end, I wanted to write what I thought of as a more honest and thorough account of the formation and development of a highly significant American colonial endeavor in its own right, taking the advent of the United States as neither telos nor chronological endpoint, but another shift in the city and region’s long history of negotiating imperial relationships.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The City-State of Boston?

MP: The City-State of Boston argues that the founders of Boston aimed to create an autonomous self-governing republic in church and state, and over the course of its first century, managed to do just that by expanding its political and cultural authority over the New England region, and developing an integrated economy that linked city and region to the slave plantation colonies of the West Indies. Through the eighteenth century, the region sustained much of its autonomy in the face of growing pressure from the British Empire, even to the point of open rebellion, but the compact it joined with the other newly independent states in 1788 gradually eroded the political, economic, and cultural bases for this autonomy, as Boston became economically intertwined with and under the governmental authority of an expansionist American slavocracy.

JF: Why do we need to read The City-State of Boston?

MP:  All over the world today, there are signs of crisis in various forms of self-government, regardless of what we call this tradition – liberal democracy might be the most convenient shorthand. From the persistence of various forms of secession movements (Scotland, Catalonia, Brexit) to the rise of authoritarianism in formerly democratic countries (Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, the list goes on) and the rise of far right parties in many more places, dissatisfaction with the current state of many forms of national government is evident. The City-State of Boston was written in part to offer an examination of one form of popular self-government, the small autonomous republic with strong ties to other (often larger) polities, a model that was extremely prevalent before the nineteenth century, but was largely swept away by that century’s various forms of national and imperial consolidations, including the United States. So in addition to simply the intrinsically interesting history of Boston, I would also suggest that its story is good to think with as we contemplate the prospects for a way forward from our current predicament.

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

MP: I think of myself as an early modern historian whose work focuses on North America (and until now, mostly on New England), rather than simply an American historian. As an undergraduate, I majored in the history and science of early modern Europe, and as a graduate student, working with Bernard Bailyn was a great opportunity to explore the relationship between European colonial projects in America and the wider Atlantic world.

JF: What is your next project?

MP: I am currently working on a small book with a big title, The Long Crisis of the Constitution, which will argue that the purposes for which the US Constitution was created in the 1780s, rooted in eighteenth century assumptions about power, economics, and population, had largely been carried out by the end of the nineteenth century, when the crisis began. It traces how subsequent efforts to shore up the relationship between the evolving nation and the Constitution have come undone and generated the governance problem we face today.

JF: Thanks, Mark!

The Author’s Corner with Quincy Newell

Your Sister in the GospelQuincy Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College. This interview is based on her new book, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: The most immediate spur was a conversation with a staff person at the LDS Church History Library. She knew I was working on nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons, and she told me that she had recently run across a mention of Jane James in the diary of one of Brigham Young’s wives. The diarist recorded that Jane James had stopped by and that told her that Isaac James (Jane’s husband, another African American Mormon) had left Jane for a white fortune teller. My jaw dropped—all I wanted to do for the next three days was scour the Salt Lake newspapers to see if I could figure out who that fortune teller was! That was the rabbit hole that finally convinced me I should write Jane James’s biography: I kept trying to write about African American and Native American Mormons more broadly, and I kept getting sucked into Jane James’s story. I joke that I made a deal with her: I would write her biography, if she would leave me alone. We’ll see if she keeps her end of the bargain!

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: Your Sister is a biography and might best be classified as narrative history, so there is not an overt argument in the text. The implicit argument, though, is that racial identity, gender identity, and religious identity all shape one another in powerful and often underappreciated ways, so we have to keep all of these aspects of identity (and more) in mind in order to understand the past.

JF: Why do we need to read Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: First of all, Jane James is a fascinating historical figure in her own right. So you need to read it because her life is just so interesting. My hope is that it is a relatively easy read—I wrote it for a broad audience with the aspiration of producing a book that might interest general readers, not just my academic colleagues.

But aside from having a good story, the book helps deepen our understanding of American history in four ways. First, it illustrates some of the less-frequently-trod paths open to African American men and women in the nineteenth century. Jane James lived in places that didn’t have large African American populations—rural Connecticut, western Illinois, Utah. And she joined religions that we also don’t typically associate with African Americans—Congregationalism and then Mormonism. Second, it helps us think in a more nuanced way about American religious history: James’s story gives us a totally different perspective on the development of Mormonism than the standard narrative, which takes the white male subject as normative. I sometimes explain James as “the Forrest Gump of nineteenth-century Mormonism” because she knew all the important people and was in the background for many of the most important moments. Because she was black, though, her experience of those events gives us a new angle of vision on them. Third, James’s life broadens our sense of nineteenth-century American women’s lives. James’s entire life was shaped by her identity as a woman and the struggle to conform to the gender norms of her community. Her experience demonstrates how those norms constrained her opportunities and made her vulnerable to attack, even as they offered some kinds of support and community not available to men. And finally, James’s story improves our understanding of the history of the nineteenth-century American West by increasing our knowledge of African Americans’ lives in the region. Grappling with James’s presence in Utah also helps us acknowledge the ways race shaped western societies: her experience demonstrates that even when those societies were overwhelmingly white, they still wrestled with the construction and meaning of whiteness and other racial identities.

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

QN: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the early religious history of Oregon, and I think it was that experience that really gave me the religious history bug. I vividly remember sitting in the Oregon Historical Society reading room, plodding through 1830s Methodist meeting minutes. I couldn’t believe that the OHS would let me touch these—they were over a hundred and fifty years old!—but I was also incredibly bored. The minutes were handwritten, sometimes barely legible, often badly spelled, and just plain tedious. But then I got to the bottom of one page and found a doodle: an elaborately drawn hand, in a frilly cuff, pointing to the next page. I realized that the poor guy taking the minutes was just as bored as I was reading them—and something about that connection, that shared boredom across the centuries, got me hooked on archival research.

JF: What is your next project?

QN: I’m getting back to the project from which Your Sister distracted me: an examination of the religious lives and experiences of nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons. W. Paul Reeve has shown quite convincingly in his Religion of a Different Color that the LDS Church was “struggling for whiteness” in the nineteenth century; I want to understand what it was like to be a Latter-day Saint of color during that time period.

JF: Thanks, Quincy!

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 Daniel Wells

Blind No MoreDaniel Wells is Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. This interview is based on his new book, Blind No More: African American Resistance, Free-Soil Politics, and the Coming of the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Blind No More?

DW: Although much of my work so far has focused on southern history, several years ago I became interested in the evolution of free soil thinking. Based on the reading I did in primary sources like newspapers, manuscripts, and sermons, I concluded that the genesis for shifting antebellum public opinions on slavery was rooted in the crisis over fugitive slaves. Because enslaved people persistently and at great personal risk fled bondage, they forced white northern voters and politicians to rethink their relationship with the South and their obligations to return runaways under the Constitution.

Blind no More is the print version of the Lamar Lectures that I was honored to deliver in 2017. One of the goals for such lectures is to be provocative, so I wanted to accomplish two primary goals. I placed African Americans at the heart of our understanding of Civil War causation and I made the case that given the parameters in place after the ratification of the Constitution there was a certain inevitability to the outbreak of civil conflict.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Blind No More?

DW: The book is really about how free state voters between 1820 and 1861 came to question the value of the Constitution, and the central role of African Americans in fostering that reevaluation. We often think about the coming of the Civil War as a product of hardening of southern views on bondage, but the free states underwent their own dramatic and important shift in thinking about the Union and the Constitution, a shift that contributed significantly to the coming of the Civil War.

JF: Why do we need to read Blind No More?

DW: Over the past few years, we have benefited from a number of important works on nineteenth-century African Americans, abolitionism, and the Fugitive Slave Law by leading scholars like Richard Blackett, Manisha Sinha, Leslie Harris, and Martha Jones, just to name a few. Other scholars like Corey Brooks and Rachel Shelden have contributed important works on antebellum politics. Blind no More seeks to connect our increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the black experience with our understandings of partisan politics in the antebellum North.

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

DW: I was privileged in that my father was a literature professor of what used to be called the “American Renaissance,” so I knew what becoming an academic would look like. I became interested in antebellum American history mostly through curiosity about the lively political battles of the period, especially between the Democrats and Whigs. Eventually, as a North Carolina native, I also became interested in southern history, African American history, and the history of slavery. I was fortunate to work with prominent scholars at the University of Florida like the late Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Kermit Hall, Ron Formisano, and other mentors like David Colburn, to whom Blind no More is dedicated, and with Mills Thornton as a PhD student at the University of Michigan.

JF: What is your next project?

DW: I am completing a book called The New York Kidnapping Club: Slavery and Wall Street before the Civil War, a true story about how a nefarious group of police officers, lawyers, merchants, and judges conspired to kidnap black New Yorkers and send them to slavery. It also tells the epic and tragic tales of how the illegal transatlantic slave trade used New York’s harbor all the way to the Civil War.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

The Author’s Corner with Joseph Reidy

Illusions of EmancipationJoseph Reidy is Professor of History and Associate Provost at Howard University. This interview is based on his new book, Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Illusions of Emancipation?

JR: Illusions of Emancipation began gestating nearly twenty-five years ago when Gary W. Gallagher and T. Michael Parrish, series editors of the University of North Carolina Press’s Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, invited me to write the volume on emancipation. My previous work with the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which included co-editing four volumes of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 (Cambridge University Press, 1982-1993), acquainted me with the incredibly rich Civil War-era military records at the National Archives. The documents revealed emancipation to have been a complex process rather than a single event and to have involved a cast of characters that extended well beyond President Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Republicans to include enslaved Southerners and free African American Northerners. For the past generation historians have shared this understanding of how slavery ended, but much remains to be explained.

The current consensus takes for granted a linear trajectory, that began in 1861 with slavery well entrenched in the Southern states and protected in law throughout the land and that ended in 1865 with slavery outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even a cursory reading of the records at the National Archives suggested that the process was infinitely complex and that the goal of achieving freedom was elusive if not downright ephemeral. When supplemented with material from African American newspapers and the memoirs of persons who had escaped slavery (in the form of both published narratives and transcripts of interviews conducted during the 1930s), a fuller picture emerges. Contemporaries often employed figurative rather than strictly literal terminology to describe their experiences and their actions. They viewed events as unfolding within a temporal framework that was linear in some respects but was also characterized by recurring cycles or by intermittent bursts in which time appeared to speed up, slow down, or even stop. Space often displayed similar malleable properties, including its ability to support or undermine slavery depending on who controlled it. I wondered how individuals and communities coped with such instability. I found that at least part of the answer lay in their use of concepts of belonging, especially “home,” which could imply a dwelling-place, a neighborhood, a community, as well as the nation and the human relationships associated with each of those settings, to establish order out of the threatening chaos.

Abandoning the view that Civil War emancipation represented an unqualified expansion of American freedom and democracy reveals not only the complexity and uncertainty of the struggle to destroy slavery but also the limitations of the North’s ability to extend the blessings extolled by the Founders to persons of African ancestry, freeborn and formerly enslaved. For more than 150 years the nation has wrestled with the imperfect and often illusory results of emancipation, and the struggle continues.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Illusions of Emancipation?

JR: Illusions of Emancipation views the end of slavery during the Civil War not as a single event but as a complex, erratic, and unpredictable process, the outcome of which—the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—outlawed slavery but left unaddressed the contours of the “new birth of freedom” Abraham Lincoln had referenced in the Gettysburg Address. The book explores mid-nineteenth century Americans’ concepts of time, space, and the universal human desire for belonging for clues into how they understood the momentous changes swirling around them and, in turn, how we might better comprehend their world and our own.

JF: Why do we need to read Illusions of Emancipation?

JR: Illusions of Emancipation views the destruction of slavery during the Civil War as an uneven, often contradictory, and ultimately incomplete process rather than a story of American progress in which the latent antislavery sentiment of the nascent Republican Party blossomed over the four years of war into a triumphant reaffirmation of the nation’s founding ideals. Like many other recent interpreters of this era, I take for granted that Abraham Lincoln was not the sole architect of emancipation and that African Americans (both enslaved and freeborn) contributed significantly to destroying slavery, saving the Union, and reconfiguring the contours of American citizenship. But I also argue that, from Fort Sumter to Appomattox and beyond, each day presented new contingencies to be navigated, that the flow of events—and people’s perceptions of them—moved in erratic and cyclical patterns rather than simple and straightforward ones, and that the presumed march of freedom under federal auspices could stop as well as advance and even turn backwards. Following the lead of contemporary observers, I argue that understanding this complex process requires employing figurative as well as literal meanings of time and space. I also explore the multiple concepts of the term “home” with which participants in the war’s earth-shattering events attempted to make sense of a world in the throes of being turned upside down. In the end, the Union’s victory resulted in a constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery; but it offered at best an imperfect resolution to such fundamental questions as the meaning of freedom and the essential rights and privileges of citizenship—not just to persons of African descent but to all Americans—the implications of which persist to the present.

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

JR: I followed a roundabout path to becoming a professional historian. I began my undergraduate studies in the mid-1960s in an engineering program, but after several years I found it to be less engaging than I had expected. What is more, the physical and natural sciences did not offer much in the way of understanding the pressing political and social questions embroiling the nation at that time, specifically African American civil and political rights and the Vietnam War. The social sciences offered a framework for filling that void, and I completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Following graduation, I began exploring the possibility of a career in higher education, with my focus shifting from sociology to U.S. history with the goal of comprehending the underlying context of contemporary events. The prospect of teaching about the past was appealing, but even more so was the opportunity to conduct historical research and advance the frontiers of knowledge. That fascination has animated my work ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

JR: Having recently retired, I am not inclined to embark on an entirely new research project. But I have a long-standing interest in the topic black sailors in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, and I would like to pursue that further. The navy grew from several dozen effective vessels at the start of the war to more than 600 by its conclusion, and roughly one-fourth of the enlisted personnel were men of African descent. What is more, nineteenth-century naval warships present something of a world unto themselves, one of rigidly confined space where time followed conventions unknown on terra firma, and the hierarchical authority structure looked (and functioned) more like a slave plantation than any living and working arrangements in the free states of the North. What a fascinating setting to explore the breakdown of slavery!

JF: Thanks, Joseph!

The Author’s Corner with Lindsay Schakenbach Regele

Manufacturing AdvantageLindsay Shakenbach Regele is Assistant Professor of History at Miami University. This interview is based on her new book, Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry, 1776-1848 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Manufacturing Advantage?

LSR: When I started writing this book, it had nothing to do with manufacturing. It actually started as a study of piracy and US-Spanish relations during the Latin American independence wars. I had started researching US shipping claims against the Spanish government, while at the same time becoming more interested in the relationship between business and state power. I discovered that one particular group of Boston merchants received a big chunk of federal funds as a result of the settlement of these claims. These same merchants were simultaneously developing the nation’s first fully integrated textile mills in eastern Massachusetts and were able to funnel the capital from the claims settlements into factory development. This caused me to wonder how else they might have benefited from state support, whether direct or indirect. I also was interested in US-South American trade. I had seen references to dye stuffs and hides being imported from South America, and finished goods being exported there as early as the 1820s.

Ultimately, I came to study manufacturing—specifically the arms and textile industries– through diplomatic papers. The richest source was the consular dispatches, which are all these letters, pamphlets and trade statistics that US consular agents sent back to the state department from their various posts in Latin American ports. In these documents, I began to see consuls negotiating favorable trade policies, and doing so increasingly for manufactured goods, such as Massachusetts-made coarse fabrics. I also saw several references to arms imports into South America from the US, which piqued my interest. The United States was supposedly neutral while Latin America fought its independence wars against Spain and Portugal. I did not immediately pursue the arms connection, but after another historian mentioned that a lot of industrial innovation was happening in the arms industry in Springfield, Massachusetts, I decided to check out the records at the New England Branch of the National archive. In a rare stroke of research luck, on my first day saw several mentions of arms sales to Buenos Aires. These letters were incredibly exciting to find, because the United States could not for diplomatic reasons openly supply weapons to colonies in rebellion. Federal officials had to arrange these sales in oblique ways through third parties, keeping it as clandestine as possible. Probably for that reason, those were the only references to South American arms sales in federal armory records that I ended up seeing. The more I read, though, the more I became interested in all these letters written from private gun contractors to the federal armory. They were totally dependent on government patronage. Basically, despite the “right to bear arms” in the United States, there was not enough civilian demand to create a robust arms industry. Textile manufacturers had a different relationship to the federal government; there was a civilian market for textiles in a way there was not for firearms. Government policies, however, shaped the way the industry developed. Diplomatic support, wartime initiative, and trade legislation engendered the growth of certain industries and factory locations. When I began to think in terms of national security it all made sense. Diplomacy with Spain, or any other nation, meant little without military and economic security. By the time I got to that realization, I had my reason for writing the book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Manufacturing Advantage?

LSR: In the period from the Revolutionary War to the Mexican American War, the United States industrialized as the result of national security concerns. Government agents and private producers responded to the opportunities and challenges posed by European and Native American warfare and treaty-making by investing in industrial capitalism, which generated revenue and martial prowess for early national development.

JF: Why do we need to read Manufacturing Advantage?

LSR: Because it provides a new interpretation of early national United States political economy by connecting war, trade, and state power to industrial development. It is the first work to study the development of two hallmark American industries–arms and textiles–side by side, and to place the rise of industry in the United States in the context of broader geopolitics. Manufacturing Advantage brings a wider cast of characters to the narrative of the American Industrial Revolution, as it closely investigates the relationship between private producers and War and State department officials, departments that I argue are stronger in these early years than other scholars have assumed. The individuals responsible for this system of manufacturing ranged from inventive mechanics in small New England towns and wealthy merchants in Boston to ordnance officials in Washington and consular agents in Lima, Peru. The sum total of their actions and relationships shed new light on how and why industry developed the way it did in the United States.

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

LSR: My decision to become a historian started when I switched majors during college. I remember writing “history” on my new major form, and feeling a sense of purpose and contentment (I think partly because as a child I had loved historical fiction and my father was always reading history books and waxing poetic about various historical sites and events). At that point, though, I had no idea that I would end up teaching, writing, and researching for a living. After graduating, I spent a year working as a long-term substitute teacher and track coach, while taking secondary education classes. My plan was to pursue teaching certification, but I also wanted to continue research, so I applied for an M.A. in history. I started working on my M.A. the following fall, and fell in love with the research process. During my first semester, I wrote a seminar paper on U.S. involvement in Francisco de Miranda’s failed Venezuelan revolution in 1806 and became obsessed with researching this event as it played out in the U.S. newspapers and political rumors. I decided to turn this project into my thesis and to apply for PhD programs. I was fortunate to have wonderful professors and advisers in both college and graduate school who inspired and facilitated my transition to the historical profession.

JF: What is your next project?

LSR: My next project is a dual biography of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) and the early national political economy. While Americans see the poinsettia every December without realizing its namesake, Poinsett’s career as a secret agent in South America, America’s first minister plenipotentiary to Mexico, U.S. congressman, and secretary of war helped shape the nation in which we live today. The last biographies of Poinsett were published in the 1930s and I think the time is ripe to revisit his various activities on behalf of the U.S. government. Over the past several decades, scholars have brought renewed attention to “capitalism” and “the state,” but there’s still a lot of ambiguity about what exactly each of these terms mean, when and where capitalism actually began, and how “strong” or “weak” the early U.S. state was. I’m hoping to use Poinsett to bring precision to these two nebulous concepts by connecting their theoretical underpinnings with on-the-ground practices. What, for example, did Poinsett’s secret code-writing in Chile reveal about early U.S.-Latin American relations? How did his intertwined business and political activities in Mexico shape continental politics? How did his experiences in Latin America in the 1810s and 1820s influence his administration of Indian removal and the Seminole Wars in the 1830s? And how did the sum total of all these activities reflect and influence the intersection of violence and economic development in the early republic? I’ve gone through many of Poinsett’s personal papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and will be spending the better part of this summer at the Library of Congress conducting more research.

JF: Thanks, Lindsay!

The Author’s Corner with Jacob Lee

Masters of the Middle WatersJacob Lee is Assistant Professor of History at Penn State University. This interview is based on his new book, Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi (Belknap Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Masters of the Middle Waters?

JL: In large part, my research is driven by things that surprise me. Years ago, I read about George Rogers Clark’s campaign into the Illinois Country during the American Revolution and realized that, although Clark and his soldiers had gone to fight the British, they mostly encountered French farmers and merchants. Across the Mississippi, they interacted with Spanish officials at St. Louis. At that point, my knowledge about colonial America was more or less limited to the traditional, Anglo-centric narrative, and I wanted to know more about who these people were, why they were there, and how they fit into the story of early America.

That curiosity about the Illinois Country intersected with a longstanding interest in empires and colonialism. I’m especially intrigued by how empires work, how they acquire power, and why they succeed or fail in their ambitions. Because multiple Indian nations and four empires claimed part or all of the Illinois Country during the period I cover, that region provided an ideal place to pursue questions about power and resistance in early America and to think about different models of colonialism.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Masters of the Middle Waters?

JL: Empires exist to dominate, but their authority is often proscribed, because it depends upon alliances with local peoples. In the North American midcontinent, power flowed through the kinship-based social networks that controlled travel, trade, and communication along the region’s many rivers.

JF: Why do we need to read Masters of the Middle Waters?

JL: Masters of the Middle Waters offers new ways to think about North America and its colonial history. First, it places kinship at the center of the story. Both Native peoples and European colonists organized their societies around kinship, and they understood the power of kinship ties in trade, politics, and diplomacy. Second, this book embeds intertwined Native and imperial histories in the physical geography of the midcontinent. Several of the continent’s most important rivers – the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, Wabash, Tennessee, and Cumberland – all meet in a relatively small space in Middle America. These waterways were the conduits of most economic, military, and political activity in the region. Commanding those rivers allowed Native peoples and Europeans to vie for status, influence, and wealth. Bringing these two threads together demonstrates the power of personal relationships in a complex, dynamic environment to shape the course of empires.

Additionally, his book narrates the story of early America from the center of the continent. Waterways linked the vast interior of North America, and along them, social networks joined disparate and distant groups of Indians and Europeans in an interwoven social landscape of movement and interaction. As a result, the consequences of events in the midcontinent reverberated throughout eastern North America and across the Atlantic. The history of Middle America is central to the history of early America.

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

JL: I inherited my interest in American history from my parents. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history. As I mention in the book, my earliest memory is walking up Monk’s Mound at Cahokia on a family vacation. But, the realization that I wanted to be a historian – and that I could become one – was slow in coming. I grew up in rural Kentucky far outside the world of academia. I was lucky to have great undergraduate mentors, who encouraged my passion for research and writing. Just as important, they also gave me guidance about the historical profession and helped me see the path that I ended up taking.

JF: What is your next project?

JL: My next project is a history of the Louisiana Purchase. Many historians have told the story of the negotiations between the United States and France over the purchase. This book picks up after the treaty was signed. Despite the agreement between the two empires, U.S. ownership of Louisiana was tenuous at best, and the decades after 1803 were filled with contests for control over the region. I am exploring how the U.S. state acquired and wielded power in the trans-Mississippi West but also how various groups of Native peoples and colonists in the region limited federal authority deep into the nineteenth century.

The Author’s Corner with Dale Soden

Outsiders in a promised landDale Soden is Professor of History and Director of Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning at Whitworth University. This interview is based on his book, Outsiders in a Promised Land: Religious Activists in Pacific Northwest History (Oregon State University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Outsiders in a Promised Land?

DS: I decided to research and write Outsiders in a Promised Land after publishing a biography of the most influential religious figure in the first half of the 20th century in the Pacific Northwest—the Reverend Mark Matthews (University of Washington Press, 2001). Most historians had neglected the role that religious activists, including Matthews, had played in the Northwest largely because of its reputation as the least-churched region of the country. However, it became evident, that beginning in the mid-19th century, religious activists played key roles in trying to shape the culture of the Northwest through the establishment of schools and colleges as well as lobbying for the passage of laws that would shape behavior. They led the way in the struggle for not just the prohibition of alcohol, but as the century wore on, the advocacy for civil rights and other issues of social justice. All of this was largely untold by previous historians.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Outsiders in a Promised Land?

DS: The argument for Outsiders is that in the period between the mid-19th century and the 1930s/40s, religious activists (Protestants, Catholics, and Jews) exercised outsized influence on the culture of the region as they tried to mitigate the early influence of largely young adult males who were mainly interested in gambling, prostitution, and alcohol. The second half of the book is focused on the cultural war between largely conservative and liberal elements within the middle class after mid-century; this war largely focused on whether more conservative social values should prevail within the Northwest or whether more liberal values that emphasized pluralism and social justice should predominate.

JF: Why do we need to read Outsiders in a Promised Land?

DS: Outsiders helps us understand two fundamental questions: What was the role of religious activism in the history of public life in the Pacific Northwest, and secondly, Outsiders helps explain the larger trajectory of religion in public life not just in the Northwest but in the context of the larger American story. This book is unique in the sense that it should help reveal how a region of the country can express elements that are unique to that region, but also elements that are familiar across the American landscape. As we attempt to understand the culture wars that continue to dominate many of the country’s political dynamics, having a better understanding of how these culture wars evolved from the mid-20th century to the present should be helpful perspective.

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

DS: I decided to become an American historian several decades ago in graduate school. It was only after I taught a couple of courses in American history that I decided to make that my emphasis. In general, I was drawn to American history because of how evident it was that my father, who had lived through the Depression and fought in World War II, had such a different experience that I who was living through the ‘60s with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. I wanted to understand him and myself more fully.

JF: What is your next project?

DS: I’m currently working on a comparative study of the role that predominately African-American churches and pastors played in the struggle for civil rights on the West Coast. I’m looking at churches and pastors in Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I’m most interested in how these pastors, many of whom went to school with Martin Luther King Jr., or knew him directly, navigated the influence of Black Power on their own ministries and efforts to work for social justice.

JF: Thanks, Dale!

The Author’s Corner with David Silkenat

Raising the White FlagDavid Silkenat is a Senior Lecturer of American History at the University of Edinburgh. This interview is based on his new book, Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Raising the White Flag?

DS: Growing up, I constantly heard that “Americans never surrender” – every president and major political figure since JFK has uttered some version of this claim. Yet, during the Civil War, armies and individual soldiers surrendered all the time. Trying to make sense of why they surrendered so often was the motivating impulse behind the research.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Raising the White Flag?

DS: It argues that American ideas about surrender at the beginning of the Civil War grew out of inherited notions that surrender helped to distinguish civilized warfare from barbarism, but evolved over the course of the war as demands for “unconditional” surrender, the enlistment of black men into the Union Army, the proliferation of guerrilla warfare, and what some historians have termed “hard” warfare all challenged the meaning of surrender. In the final phase of the war, when Confederate defeat became inevitable, surrender became the route to peace, albeit a difficult and perilous one.

JF: Why do we need to read Raising the White Flag?

DS: The American Civil War began with a surrender at Fort Sumter and ended with a series of surrenders, most famously at Appomattox Courthouse, with dozens of surrenders in between (Ft. Donelson, Harpers Ferry, Vicksburg, etc.). One out of every four Civil War soldiers surrendered – either individually on the battlefield or as part of one of the large surrenders. Looking at the Civil War through the lens of surrender opens up new questions about the plight of prisoners of war, Confederate guerrillas, Southern Unionists, and African American soldiers, the culture of honor, the experience of combat, and the laws of war.

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

DS: I first really fell in love with American history in high school because of some great teachers. In college, I had my first experience with archival research and I was hooked. I taught high school for several years before going to graduate school, and it wasn’t really until graduate school that I knew I wanted to be an academic historian.

JF: What is your next project?

DS: I’m currently writing an environmental history of American slavery.

JF: Thanks, David!

The Author’s Corner with Karen Kupperman

Pocahontas and the English BoysKaren Kupperman is Silver Professor of History Emerita at New York University. This interview is based on her new book, Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia (NYU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Pocahontas and the English Boys?

KK: In the years around 2007, marking the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding, I spoke to many groups of high school history teachers, and those experiences made me see that they needed this story whose actors played key roles and were the ages of the kids they teach. As I worked on the book, I realized that the story has a broader impact and that it contributes to histories of consciousness and boundary-crossing in the early modern period.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Pocahontas and the English Boys?

KK: Native and colonial leaders in the early colonies left kids with the other to learn the language and culture from the inside. The English saw kids as malleable and somewhat expendable, but they never foresaw that these go-betweens would form close relationships with the Virginia Natives who sheltered them. Colonial leaders ultimately came to mistrust them and disregarded their information, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

JF: Why do we need to read Pocahontas and the English Boys?

KK: Virginia’s beginning as an English colony has been seen as inferior, especially after New Englanders began to push the Pilgrims as the superior founders in the nineteenth century. Pocahontas and the English Boys works toward getting beyond the dominant narrative and finding the varied stories of people on all sides in these colonial situations, and how they coped with many different kinds of challenges. Through Pocahontas’s and the boys’ experiences we see Virginia’s Native people as real human beings with feelings and doubts.

To reinforce these insights, I was able to do a new transcription from the original pages of Henry Spelman’s Relation of Virginia, which is in the Harlan Crown library in Dallas. This is the first edition from the original manuscript since 1872, and it presents the memoir as it was actually written, correcting errors in the version we have all been using. Henry Spelman, Relation of Virginia, is out as a separate book from NYU Press.

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

KK: I went to Cambridge University for my PhD in 1973 expecting to become a Tudor-Stuart historian. But as I worked on my dissertation on eyewitness writing about the land and the people of America in the earliest period of English colonization, I came to think of myself as an American historian. Finally, through my scholarship and teaching, I realized that I am an Atlantic historian, meaning that relations around the Atlantic as well as those between London and Boston or Williamsburg are crucial to true understanding. I began the Atlantic history program at NYU and those of us at NYU construe the field broadly, moving as far as possible from the little boxes early American history had been constrained by.

JF: What is your next project?

KK: My next project looks at music as a mode of communication. In encounter situations where the new arrivals and the Native people did not have knowledge of the other’s language, participants on both sides sang and played musical instruments. This happened around the world. Music indicated peaceful intentions, but it could also be used as a ruse to cover hostile plans. Some intellectuals, such as Thomas Harriot who had been in Roanoke as a young man, began to think that music might be a way to create a universal language that could be understood by all. Harriot created a syllabary for coastal Carolina Algonquian and argued that recording languages by sound rather than meaning would facilitate universal communication.

JF: Thanks, Karen!

The Author’s Corner with Richard Kagan

the spanish crazeRichard Kagan is Academy Professor and Arthur O. Lovejoy Professor Emeritus of History at Johns Hopkins University. This interview is based on his new book, The Spanish Craze: America’s Fascination with the Hispanic World, 1779-1939 (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Spanish Craze?

RK: My interest in US attitudes towards Spain, and more broadly, Hispanic culture in general, dates to the early 1990s, and what I felt was the failure of the AHR, in keeping with the celebration of its centenary, to address the trajectory of US scholarship on Spain. The journal had commissioned articles on US historical scholarship on France, Italy, and other European countries, but not Spain. That lacuna led initially to my “Prescott’s Paradigm: American Historical Writing and the Decline of Spain,” published in the AHR in 1996, and later to other essays and articles on such related issues as the changing image of Spain in the US along the history of collecting of both Spanish and Spanish Colonial art. By 2009, after having explored the history of Spanish-themed architecture in the US, I decided a book that addressed these topics along with the often stormy political relationship between Spain and the US, the history of Spanish language instruction in the country, Spanish-themed movies, music, as well as literature demanded comprehensive treatment as well. The Spanish Craze is the result.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Spanish Craze?

RK: Key to the book is “forgive and forget,” an idea which surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898, a conflict that ended an imperial rivalry that lasted for a well over a century. With Spain no longer to threat US interests, Americans, starting with Theodore Roosevelt, demonstrated a new fascination with Spanish culture–art, architecture, language, music and more –, essentially embracing much of that culture as their own.

JF: Why should we read The Spanish Craze?

RK: I believe that it enriches our understanding the composite character of American culture. It also brings new attention to what Walt Whitman once termed “ The Spanish Element in our Nationality.”

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

RK: For most of my career, I have been a historian of Spain and its overseas empire. American history is a relatively new subject for me, and I still have much to learn. However, I have long been interested in the complex links between Spain, Spanish America, and the US. The Spanish Craze explores some of these links, but there is more, much more, to be done on the subject.

JF: What is your next project?

RK: A biography of Henry Charles Lea, the 19th Century Philadelphia publisher-cum-historian and author of the first comprehensive history of the Spanish Inquisition. Lea’s papers are mainly located in Philadelphia, which, following my retirement from Johns Hopkins in 2013, is where I now live.

JF: Thanks, Richard!