Stonecutting and Religion in America

stonecuttersI’ll just admit it: Freemasonry is one of those things in American history that I have trouble getting my head around. I suppose I understand the importance of guy-time, but many of my closest friends are women. The very idea of secret societies, with initiations and special rings, just seems boyish to me. I would suppose that the boyishness is the point–a search for wonder and enchantment and all of that–except that early in the nineteenth century the Masons banned alcohol at meetings: no stein hoists here. The largest group at midcentury actually required its members to be teetotalers, making enchantment a much harder sell, for my money. More to the point, in the same period enchantment without booze could be had at a Methodist camp meeting, which seems like it would have been quite a lot more interesting, what with women there. Continue reading

Just How Free Was Religious Life in the Early American Republic?

Religious liberty, perhaps, is the key legacy of the Revolutionary generation. The new United States was a society where slavery was a growing economic force, gender inequality was becoming entrenched, and the new nation’s expansion relied on the exploitation and expropriation of Native Americans. If there was one freedom, however, on the march in the early republic it was religious freedom. The progress of religious freedom in the United States was also the progress of religion itself. “[T]he number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the state” noted James Madison, that famous advocate of religious liberty, in an 1819 letter.[1] Religious freedom, then, is the American freedom. This has been the animating assumption behind most scholarship on the religious development of late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Continue reading

Review: The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South

The larderIn his concluding remarks to The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South, Ted Ownby hopes it “likely that this book will be one of the last collections of academic essays in which any scholars feel the need to explain or defend their choice of foodways as a topic” (363). Ownby and co-editors John T. Edge and Elizabeth Engelhardt have done as much as they can to realize this aspiration; their collection of essays is timely and scholarly rigorous. By assembling a group of scholars who concentrate “not on food but on foodways”—which comprise the production, preparation, or consumption of food—the editors have delved into questions about food studies and southern studies that bridge boundaries between different disciplines and historical time periods (364). Continue reading

American Enlightenment! Which American Enlightenment?

Earlier this year, the Journal of American History published an essay bemoaning the lack of attention Americanists give to the idea of an American Enlightenment. The authors suggested some provocative reasons, like a latent exceptionalism that has made American scholars reluctant to pick up a topic still seen as rooted in Europe. Equally problematic was America’s religious character, which has left Americanists wary of a movement still viewed as secular. Despite noteworthy scholarship on an American Enlightenment being produced “at the margins of university research” (though I hesitate to call scholars like James Delbourgo, one such scholar, “marginal”), I sympathize with the authors’ case.  There just isn’t that much good recent scholarship that American historians can readily incorporate into their work. Continue reading

Review: Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World

Native ApostlesOn the eve of the American Revolution, an unlikely band of ministers and benefactors devised a plan to send John Quamine, a free black man, and Bristol Yamma, a slave, as missionaries to Africa. The project was conceived by the two would-be missionaries themselves, and supported by controversial Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins and his more moderate colleague Ezra Stiles. In 1774, Stiles and Hopkins arranged for the duo to be sent to the College of New Jersey, where Presbyterian minister (and president of the College) John Witherspoon would train them. Their proposed mission gained some notoriety, and a diverse lot of supporters championed their cause, including Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet, New Jersey lawyer and politician Elias Boudinot, Scottish theologian John Erskine the noted black poet Phyllis Wheatley, Eleazar Wheelock and his Mohegan pupil-turned-preacher Samson Occum, and black Anglican missionary to Africa Phillip Quaque (though his endorsement came with serious reservations). The outbreak of war in 1775 and the subsequent death of Quamine in 1779 ultimately thwarted the planned mission. In spite of its failure, though, it remains an important but oft-ignored episode in what Edward E. Andrews calls “the tangled history of cultural encounter between Europe, Africa, and the Americas” (188). Continue reading

Enemies Foreign and Domestic

George Wythe represented the best of the Revolutionary-era Virginia gentry. Wythe, as a law professor, instructed and inspired many of the leading lights of the Patriot movement, including Thomas Jefferson. Wythe was also a racial liberal. After his wife’s death he freed the family’s slaves and even went as far as to adopt and pay for the education of one of their number, a young man named Michael Brown. By the opening years of the nineteenth century Wythe served as chancellor of Virginia’s court of equity where he handed down a monumental decision in the case of Wright v. Hudgins, which held that the burden of proof in cases of runaway slaves rested with the enslaver – not the accused runaway.

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Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders

I hope that Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders (New York: A. A. Knopf, 2013) gets picked up for a Fox News segment. Denise A. Spellberg (UT-Austin) has synthesized a large body of scholarship into a readable, teachable, and thoughtful look at the significance of Islam in the American founding era. Conservatives pounced on Spellberg during a dust-up over a novel about Muhammad’s wife a few years ago, and in this book she suggests both that the Founders were occasionally wrong and that some of them believed Islam could have its place in the American polity. So it seems possible to hope that the usual suspects will take notice. She deserves the publicity. Continue reading

Looking for Religion in all the Right (and Wrong) Places

“The Revolution may be the most important event in American history,” James P. Byrd reminds us. Many of the readers of this blog will likely agree with him in that. Fewer, perhaps, will agree with one of the central arguments of his (very) recent Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution that “the Bible was arguably its [the Revolution’s] most influential book.”[1] At the recent OIEAHC conference in Baltimore I was able to get my hands on a copy of this excellent new book and Sacred Scripture, Sacred War has given me a lot (despite it’s relatively conciseness) to chew on over the last two weeks. Continue reading

“The True Key of the Universe Is Love”

Cayton - Love in the Time of Revolution - UNC Press

During a panel at this summer’s Revolution conference in Philadelphia, someone asked Annette Gordon-Reed whether she sees any hope for a synthesis of contemporary scholarship on race, class, and gender. She answered that she tries to achieve this by talking about people—that is, telling stories about particular lives.

Whether biography represents the culmination of decades of historical scholarship on identity and social power or an admission of its shortcomings is an interesting question. Either way, biography, including biographical microhistory, has a growing place in the field.[1] British and American historians have taken part in the “biographical turn” with special enthusiasm, though it is hardly unique to us.[2] 

With Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818, Andrew Cayton advances biographical historiography by binding it unusually securely to two other trends in early American historiography: studies of print culture, broadly conceived, and studies of the Atlantic world as a system. Cayton builds the family life of Mary Wollstonecraft into the center of a narrative about what it could mean to be a revolutionary intellectual in the Atlantic republic of letters. Continue reading

Science, Meet Slavery: “River of Dark Dreams” and the Future of Slavery Scholarship

04b0c-johnsonI bet few graduate students these days haven’t read, or at least seen referenced, Walter Johnson’s essay “On Agency.” Published a decade ago, the essay was prompted by what had become hackneyed trope in slavery scholarship. Everyone seemed to ascribe slaves a role in shaping their lives—“agency”—despite the power asymmetries inherent in the slave-master relationship. Johnson famously called for an end to this kind of writing. But one of his subtler points may have been lost amid his overarching argument. It wasn’t that slave agency was unimportant, but that it had lost its contemporary relevance. Finding agency mattered in the Civil Rights Era, the years in which the scholarship flourished, because it bolstered African Americans’ claims on the nation’s past, and thus its future. Continue reading