Asbury Park in November


Reporter Emily Wax-Thibodeaux took her five-year-olds to Springsteen’s old haunt on the Jersey story.  She tells about the visit in a piece at the Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

The Convention Hall’s Grand Arcade, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was another favorite family destination. The once-shuttered building is now open year-round and houses an artisan marketplace, where Gabby and Lincoln tried on mermaid outfits and flip-flops while I drank another round of gourmet coffee at the Asbury Park Roastery and bought organic, locally made soap at one of my all-time favorite shops, Big Spoon Little Spoon Naturals.

But for the kids, Asbury’s main draw is the Silverball Museum , with its row after row of vintage pinball machines, some dating to the 1930s. Its huge collection of arcade games, which visitors are invited to play, encompasses ’80s favorites like Pac-Man and Skee-Ball as well. The arcade’s tall stools are perfect for toddlers and preschoolers, and there are coin-operated rides out front, including two cars, a small train and a purple dinosaur.

As I watched my kids play the retro pinball machines, I felt happy for Asbury, a place that lived for so long only in my memories. Now it would be in my children’s memories, too.

Read the entire piece here.  I need to get back down to Asbury Park!



Commonplace Book #34

In short, and to an approximation only, the intellectual writes for the general public, or at least for a broader than merely academic or specialist audience, on ‘public affairs’– on political matters in the broadest sense of the word, a sense that included cultural matters when they are viewed under the aspect of ideology, ethics, or politics (which may all be the same thing). The intellectual is more ‘applied,’ contemporary, and ‘result oriented’ than the scholar, but broader than the technician. Approximate synonyms for ‘intellectual’ in this sense are ‘social critic‘ and ‘political intellectual.'” 

Richard Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, 23

Morning Headlines

The New York Times: “At Venezuela’s Border, a Strange and Deadly Showdown Over Aid”

The Washington Post: “Justice Department, Democrats brace for fight over access to Mueller report”

The Wall Street Journal: “Showdown at Venezuelan Border Turns Deadly”

Harrisburg-Patriot News: “Rodent-like droppings, flypaper in storage area: Dauphin County restaurant inspections”

BBC: “R Kelley: Singer charged with sexual abuse in Chicago”

CNN: “Mueller filing on Manafort sentencing still not public after midnight deadline”

FOX: “Dianne Feinstein scolds kids who pushed her to back Green New Deal: ‘I know what I’m doing'”

Out of the Zoo: “In Search of Knights, Peasants, and Bandits”


The mummy exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about Medieval history and a museum she visited as a child.  Enjoy! –JF

A considerable portion of my childhood was spent inside the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, a three story establishment filled to the brim with free entertainment and learning tailored to our community. On the first floor there’s a planetarium and a weather exhibit. One half of the second floor is filled with interactive displays that teach physics principles, and the other half contains a life-size timeline of Kalamazoo’s history. The third floor, though, was my favorite–it housed a real Egyptian mummy and had a massive space that was renovated every few months for visiting displays. It was hard to predict what wonders the third floor would contain when we went on our regular visits.

One morning my mom made the 45-minute trek from my house to the museum with her three children in tow. We spent a while visiting our favorite spots; my brother Nate liked building rubber band cars, while my sister and I enjoyed seeing our silhouettes on the thermal camera. None of these compared, though, to the adventure that awaited us on the third floor.

The third flight of stairs opened up to a massive recreation of a Medieval castle and village, complete with costumes and props. It seemed as if half of the kids in Kalamazoo were at the museum that day, immersed in an elaborate game of pretend. Some kids put on heavy aprons and imagined they were blacksmiths, others hoisted swords and served as knights, while still more set tables in the miniature great hall with plastic plates and play food. I can’t say we learned anything about Medieval England that day (most of us were too young to read the plaques) but we were given the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a culture that was foreign to us, and had a little fun along the way.

It’s easy for me to forget that the Medieval time period existed outside the walls of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum or popular fairy tales. Perhaps it’s because many of the books I read and movies I watched as a child were fantasy stories saturated with images of brave knights and fair maidens, but for the longest time this unique period in history just didn’t seem real to me.

A few weeks ago, however, I started taking a class called “Knights, Peasants, and Bandits: A Social History of Medieval England” here at Messiah College. Since then I’ve begun to learn that knights, lords, and ladies were real people who stayed in real castles and faced real hardships. They existed outside of fairy tales, and had lives of their own. The class is helping me come to terms with the strangeness of the past too–I mean, how else would you describe a time period during which nobles hunted with falcons and people built siege engines? However, I’m finding familiarity in my studies as well; I’m discovering the little ways I’m similar to men and women who lived in Medieval England, despite the fact that they walked the earth hundreds of years ago. It’s the job of the historian to reside in this tension between familiarity and strangeness–seeing past fairy tales, empathizing with real people, and accepting the past for what it really was.

Theodore McCarrick Will Always Be a Priest


Over at The Conversation, Mathew Schmalz of the College of Holy Cross explains why the disgraced Catholic bishop Theodore McCarrick will continue to be a priest despite his recent defrocking.  Here is a taste:

The Vatican recently “defrocked” Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal  and the retired archbishop of Washington D.C. McCarrick was found guilty of a number of crimes including sexual abuse of minors.

“Defrocking,” as the name suggests, means the removal of the vestments, or clothing, symbolic of being a priest. This process is more formally referred to as “dismissal from the clerical state,” or “laicization.”

In 2014, the Vatican reported that 848 priests had been “defrocked” in the preceding decade for the rape and molestation of children. McCarrick is the highest ranking member of the Catholic Church to be punished in this way in modern times.

Many people might think that in being defrocked McCarrick would no longer remain a priest. That is not so. Catholics don’t understand the priesthood as simply a job that someone can be fired from.

Read the rest here.

African American History in the *Journal of American History*

JAHAs part of its Black History Month coverage, the blog of the Organization of American Historians has published an index of every article published on African American history in the Journal of American History.  Read the index here.

Here are a few of the articles included:

Charles Ramsdell, “The Natural Limits of Slavery Expansion” (1929)

Emma Lou Thornbrough, “The Brownsville Episode and the Negro Vote” (1957)

Benjamin Quarles, “The Colonial Militia and Negro Manpower” (1959)

Donald Mathews, “The Methodist Mission to the Slaves, 1829–1844” (1965)

James McPherson, “Abolitionists and the Civil Rights Act of 1875” (1965)

C. Vann Woodward, “Clio with Soul” (1969)

Edmund Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox” (1972)

Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “The Slave Economies in Political Perspective” (1979)

Peter Kolchin, “Reevaluating the Antebellum Slave Community: A Comparative Perspective” (1981)

Leon Litwack, “Trouble in Mind: The Bicentennial and the Afro-American Experience” (1987)

James H. Cone, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Third World” (1987)

Eric Foner, “Rights and the Constitution in Black Life during the Civil War and Reconstruction” (1987)

John Hope Franklin, “Afro-American History: State of the Art” (1988)

David W. Blight, ““For Something Beyond the Battlefield”: Frederick Douglass and the Memory of the Civil War”

Linda Gordon, “Black and White Visions of Welfare: Women’s Welfare Activism, 1890–1945” (1991)

Nell Irvin Painter, “Representing Truth: Sojourner Truth’s Knowing and Becoming Known” (1994)

Mary Dudziak, “Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and the Cold War” (1994)

Thomas Sugrue, “Crabgrass-Roots Politics: Race, Rights, and the Reaction against Liberalism in the Urban North, 1940–1964” (1995)

Daniel Mandell, “Shifting Boundaries of Race and Ethnicity: Indian-BlackIntermarriage in Southern New England, 1760–1880” (1998)

Walter Johnson, “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s” (2000)

Ira Berlin, “Presidential Address: American Slavery in History and Memory and the Search for Social Justice” (2004)

Lani Guinier, “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma” (2004)

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “Presidential Address: The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past” (2005)

Kenneth Minkema and Harry Stout, “The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740–1865” (2005)

Kate Masur, ““A Rare Phenomenon of Phiological Vegetation”: The Word “Contraband” and the Meanings of Emancipation in the United States” (2007)

Mark M. Smith, “Getting in Touch with Slavery and Freedom” (2008)

Dorothy Ross, “Lincoln and the Ethics of Emancipation: Universalism, Nationalism, Exceptionalism” (2009)

Mark Neely, “Lincoln, Slavery, and the Nation” (2009)

Penial Joseph, “The Black Power Movement: A State of the Field” (2009)

Nicholas Guyatt, “America’s Conservatory: Race, Reconstruction, and the Santo Domingo Debate” (2011)

Patricia Bonomi, “  “Swarms of Negroes Comeing about My Door”: Black Christianity in Early Dutch and English North America” (2016)

Historians At The Movies

National Treasure

Jason Herbert, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Minnesota, is your host.  Learn more about #HATM in this piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Have you ever, while watching the movie Julie & Julia, drawn comparisons between Julia Child’s struggle to find the right publisher and the mercurial marketplace of academic publishing?

You probably haven’t. But historians have.

The comparison is one of many under the Twitter hashtag #HATM. The abbreviation stands for Historians At The Movies and was created by Jason Herbert, a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities who now lives in Florida where he studies indigenous people and ecology.

Every Sunday at 8 p.m. EST, Herbert and other historians, plus people who just enjoy history, watch the same movie. They tweet along, sharing insight, tidbits, and punchlines. They prepared for the 2019 Oscars, by watching Roma, a Best Picture nominee. On Sunday, they’ll live-tweet the awards ceremony — which will be fun and a break from the norm, Herbert says.

Since the hashtag kicked off in July 2018, the weekly ritual has cultivated quite the following.

The Chronicle spoke with Herbert about what sparked the idea, how to forge scholarly camaraderie online, and why historians have a soft spot for Benjamin Franklin Gates, the historian/treasure hunter played by Nicolas Cage in the movie National Treasure.

Q. How did this idea come to you?

A. When I left Minnesota, I left behind a lot of my friends and colleagues who I saw on a day-to-day basis and would have these great conversations with. I needed to create a new network for myself where I could still be intellectually engaged with an academic community, even though I was physically removed. I got active on Twitter. I would talk to other historians. I had seen that National Treasure was going to be on Netflix. I just tweeted out, ‘We should all watch it.’ And someone said, ‘Yeah, we should do that.’

The running gag with historians is that the archeologists get Harrison Ford, but historians get Nicholas Cage. You laugh at it, but we all kind of love National Treasure. So why not? It’ll be fun and silly and a nice way to blow off steam on a Sunday night in the middle of the summer. We had a lot of people engage. Joanne Freeman, who’s a professor at Yale, jumped in. She studies early America and she just died when she saw them putting lemon juice on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Read the rest here.

Sharing the Stories of Fugitive Slaves


Freedom on the Move is a digital project that shares the stories of fugitive slaves.  Learn more about it here.

Five of the historians involved with the project introduce us to the project in a recent piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

Freedom on the Move (FOTM), which officially launched last week, is a digital project that aims to recover, collect and share the stories of fugitive slaves. At launch, we have uploaded some 20,000 fugitive-slave advertisements. Thousands more will be added soon, with the ultimate goal of making available to the public every such ad published in a newspaper from the Colonial era through the age of emancipation. With the help of citizen historians, professional scholars, students, genealogists and other researchers, fugitive-slave ads now can be transcribed through a crowdsourcing website and mined for details about the enslaved people they document and the people and places associated with them.

FOTM is a new tool for studying the history of slavery in the United States. The growing database will allow users to ask questions about enslaved people and their environs: about language and material culture, gender differences and racial classifications, geography and seasonal mobility, physical and mental health, skilled labor and family relationships, violence and the slave trade, and policing and surveillance. Indeed, because fugitive-slave advertisements provide such a wealth of information that sheds light on the experiences of enslavement and flight, they contain answers to questions that we cannot yet predict.

Significant troves of source material rooted in the perspectives of black people themselves illuminate the history of slavery in the United States. The narratives of fugitives such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and interviews with formerly enslaved people published in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration deliver us the voices of those who experienced bondage. These are not straightforward sources: 19th-century narratives appealed to the sensibilities of white abolitionists, and the interviews from the 1930s must be read with an eye on the white questioners who conducted them. Nonetheless, these sources reveal the experiences of those who endured slavery and in some cases escaped it.

The fugitive-slave advertisements gathered through FOTM complement and augment those materials. The ads reflect the perspectives of enslavers and jailers, rather than those of the enslaved people they describe. But they have particular and unique advantages as sources.

Read the entire piece here.

The “Fate of Pluralism” in America


The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has released a new study titled “American Democracy in Crisis: The Fate of Pluralism in a Divided Nation.”   Maxine Najle and Robert Jones are the authors.  Here are some of my quick takeaways:

  •  The number of white evangelicals who have a favorable view of Donald Trump was higher in 2018 than it was in 2016.  (It is, however, slightly down from 2017).
  • White evangelicals “remain the only major religious group in which a majority holds a favorable view of the president.”  For more on why I think this is the case, see my argument in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
  • White Americans with a college degree (78%) are “substantially likelier than whites without a college degree (56%) to say they interact with someone who does not share their race or ethnicity at least once a week.”
  • “Fully half (50%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans say they interact with people who do not share their religious affiliation within their family, compared to 32% of white mainline Protestants, 30% of Catholics, 26% of nonwhite Protestants, and 25% of white evangelical Protestants.”  If I am reading this correctly, it appears that Protestants of all varieties (mainline, nonwhite and white evangelical) do not spend much time with family members who do not share their faith.   Religious faith trumps blood?
  • Americans are “most likely to view their interactions with people who do not share their political affiliation in a negative light.” There are “no significant differences between partisans on this question.”  This, of course, reveals the incivility of our political discourse in the United States.
  • Republicans are three times more likely as independents and Democrats “to say they would be unhappy if their child married someone of a different religious background.”  White evangelicals stand out among religious groups on this question by a significant margin over nonwhite Protestants, Catholics, and mainline white Protestants.
  • “When faced with the prospect of their child marrying someone who identifies with the opposite political party, Democrats are likelier than Republicans to say they would be unhappy.”  Interesting.
  • Nearly 30% of white evangelicals would “be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Democrat.”
  • 66% of white evangelicals would “be at least somewhat unhappy if their son or daughter married  someone of the same gender.”  Frankly, I thought this number would be higher.
  • 60% of white evangelicals prefer “a nation primarily made up of people who follow Christian faith.”  Only 8% of white evangelicals prefer a “nation made up of people belonging  to a wide variety of religions.”

There is a lot more here.

The “Dignity of Work” and the 2020 Presidential Election


The “dignity of work” is a Catholic idea.  Here is the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops:

The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to  make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If  the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must  be respected–the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the  organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic  initiative.

The Catholic Church roots its understanding of work using several scriptural passages, including:


Read more here.

Over at The Washington Post, Jenna Johnson shows how politicians of both parties use and have used the “dignity of work” as part of their political campaigns.  For example, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has made it a central theme of his potential presidential campaign.  Here is a taste of Johnson’s piece:

As Democrats try to better talk about and to working-class voters — especially the white working-class voters who were key to President Trump’s unexpected win in 2016 — the phrase “dignity of work” keeps coming up. Brown says he has used the phrase and its idea throughout his entire political career; other Democrats, including former vice president Joe Biden, have as well. It’s a phrase deeply rooted in the Catholic Church’s teachings, and Brown’s aides say that in addition to those roots, he has long been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s embrace of the sentiment. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains its message in this way: “Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected — the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.”

Republicans, too, have used the phrase. But in their case, it’s often invoked while calling for reductions to welfare benefits so that the poor are pushed to work harder and thus, the suggestion goes, gain dignity.

As governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker frequently spoke of the “dignity of work” as he and Republican lawmakers slashed the powers of public unions and gutted state welfare programs. He said in a statement last year: “We want to help those in need move from government dependence to true independence through the dignity of work.” In an op-ed last year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue advocated further restricting access to food stamps — with the blessing of the president — and concluded: “This restores the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population, while it is also respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program.” And Trump has used the phrase in promoting apprenticeships over college degrees, saying in 2017: “There is dignity in every honest job, and there is nobility in every honest worker.”

Read the entire piece here.  I like what Brown is doing here.  If he can bring the religious roots of his labor views to the forefront, and reference them on the campaign trail, he might have a chance of winning some religious voters in the way that Hillary Clinton could not.

Commonplace Book #34

But what the original-intentions debate brought most sharply into relief was a different question of time: how clearly one could penetrate through the incomplete and muddied historical record to its original, undistorted core. The illusion of original-intentions’ advocates, the Constitution’s leading historian Jack Rakove wrote, was what ‘a particular set of pristine meanings, uncorrupted by interpretation, was somehow locked into the text of the Constitution at the moment of its adoption.’ But could one know with any useful certainty what lay behind the words the Constitution’s drafters had used, when there were so many points of view in the convention, so many verbal compromises to accomplish, when they kept their own deliberations secret and barred the records from publication.

Daniel T. Rodgers, The Age of Fracture, 238

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week on The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1. Max Boot’s Screed Against Historians
  2. Michael Gerson on Depression and Hope
  3. A Southern Baptist Seminary Professor Reflects on the SBC Sexual Abuse Scandal
  4. Evangelicals Love Trump’s “National Emergency” Declaration
  5. The University of Providence is the Latest School to Cut Liberal Arts Programs
  6. Sam Wineburg’s Twitter Thread About Wikipedia
  7. Timothy Dalrymple is the New President and CEO of Christianity Today
  8. A Quick Visit to the City of Angels
  9. On Historians, Public Debate, and Journalists
  10. What Franklin Graham Said About the “Private Sins” of Bill Clinton in 1998

Morning Headlines

The New York Times: “New Election Ordered in North Carolina Race at Center of Fraud Inquiry”

The Washington Post: “Work computer use alerted Coast Guard to lieutenant’s terror plans, prosecutors say”

The Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Bets on China’s Special Envoy in Trade Talks”

Harrisburg-Patriot News: “The 25 hardest colleges to get into in America: which Pa. school made the top 10?”

BBC: “Venezuela crisis: Maduro closing border with Brazil”

CNN: “All the President’s broken men”

FOX: “Dem 2020 hopefuls Harris, Warren say they embrace the idea of reparations for Black Americans: report”

Sam Wineburg’s Twitter Thread About Wikipedia

Some great stuff here from Sam Wineburg:

Commonplace Book #33

Nowhere had the line between rituals of church and state been more blurred in the post-1945 years than in the way in which the presidential speech making capitalized on the forms of Protestant preaching. The resemblance ran much deeper than the references to God sprinkled heavily throughout presidential speeches or the benedictory forms with which they closed. Adaptation of sermonic authority and sermonic cadence was integral to the high presidential style. The people gathered together—preacher and congregation—to hear their civic creed reaffirmed.

Daniel T. Rodgers, The Age of Fracture, 31.

The Author’s Corner with Chris Mortenson

politician in uniform

Chris Mortenson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Ouachita Baptist University. This interview is based on his new book, Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?

CM: Lew Wallace is famous for the popular and enduring novel, Ben-Hur, as well as his negotiations with Billy “the Kid” during the Lincoln County Wars of 1878-81 in New Mexico Territory. However, he was also a controversial Civil War general.  I wanted to write a Civil War biography, and it is often easier to complete the work when the subject is interesting to the author. Wallace was a complicated fellow; he could be very effective as an officer, in certain circumstances, but then botch the next assignment. He desired acknowledgement as a professional soldier, but also disdained the culture of West Pointers with whom he worked. In fact, his conception of manhood differed in ways from that of West Point graduates and other professionals, causing him to not get along with superiors.

Along with all of the above, Wallace served at the Battles of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Monocacy (sometimes performing well, and sometimes not). On the other hand, his administrative and recruiting assignments may have offered a greater contribution to the Union, making for an interesting Civil War career.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?

CM: Despite creating problems for himself, such as a number of mistakes and his recurrent unwillingness to give speeches and recruit soldiers for the Union, Wallace concluded his Civil War service having contributed both politically and militarily to the war effort. His service as a volunteer general demonstrated how a politician in uniform should be evaluated differently than most professionally trained officers.

JF: Why do we need to read Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?

CM: Anyone interested in the Civil War, US Army politics, or generalship would hopefully enjoy the book. While the work focuses on questions asked by professional military historians about the qualities of good officers and the relationships between professional and political generals, the lay public will also enjoy a story about an interesting man whose temperamental nature often led to troubles that hurt his career–only to become very famous for other accomplishments later in life.

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

CM: I benefited from three excellent academic advisers: M. Philip Lucas of Cornell College (Iowa), Vernon L. Volpe of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and Joseph G. Dawson III of Texas A&M University.  Lucas’ undergraduate course on the Civil War hooked me, and I never turned back, as Volpe and Dawson continued to encourage progress. While battles and leaders initially drew me to history, I increasingly find myself interested in the lives of soldiers.

JF: What is your next project?

CM: A colleague and I are currently finishing a project; it is titled Daily Life of U.S. Soldiers: From the American Revolution to the Iraq War, and should be released in June or July. This project is a 3-volume reference work which will explore the lives of average soldiers from the American Revolution through the 21st-century conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each chapter (on an American war) with address topics such as recruitment, training, uniforms, weaponry, compensation, combat, the homefront, and the myriad issues that veterans have dealt with over the years. This work will also examine the role of minorities and women in each conflict, which will shed light on their long and difficult path in the U.S. military. Paul J. Springer (Air Command and Staff College) and I edited the volumes, and also wrote a couple of the chapters.

JF: Thanks, Chris!

Morning Headlines

The New York Times: “Pope opens summit on Sexual Abuse: ‘Hear the Cry of the Little Ones'”

The Washington Post: “Allies decline request to stay in Syria after U.S. troops withdraw”

The Wall Street Journal: “Deutsche Bank Lost $1.6 Billion on a Bond Bet”

Harrisburg-Patriot News: “Facing another year of stagnant state funding, nursing homes warn of potential closures”

BBC: “Bangladesh fire: Blaze kills dozens in Dhaka historic district”

CNN: “Senate investigators pursue Moscow-based former Trump associate”

FOX: “Nike ‘working to identify issue’ after Duke star Zion Williamson sprains knee when shoe bursts open”