I’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
In 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
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
On 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
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.
Over at Slate last week, our Junto colleague Eric Herschthal reviewed some of the latest popular histories of revolutionary America, including two new studies of the years around 1776 by Richard Beeman and Joseph Ellis. Eric takes a very critical view of the analytical stance of the books–arguing that they are too in thrall to outdated and invalidated historical techniques; focusing too much on elites and ‘leadership’ at the expense of more recent trends in scholarship, such as the new emphasis on those who stayed (or tried to stay) neutral during the Revolutionary War.
Perhaps the most provocative part of the review is this statement:
“If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different?”
To me, the answer seems self-evident. Continue reading
“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.” 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
Every sub-field has its classic books. It should not take long for most of us to rattle off a couple of titles. In my field of church-state relations in the early American republic (particularly in the upper South), few books tower over the field more than Thomas E. Buckley’s Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776-1787. Despite being published thirty-six years ago references to this classic litter the footnotes of subsequent books from fellow classic histories like Rhys Isaac’s Transformation of Virginia to more recent works such as David Sehat’s Myth of American Religious Freedom. Anyone grappling with the politics of religion in early national Virginia, that overheated cauldron of disestablishment, must grapple with Buckley’s work. But this great historian did not stop there; in a series of articles Buckley expanded his analysis to include much of the evolution of religious freedom in the Old Dominion over the nineteenth century. Continue reading
Almost by definition, studying communications media means examining the nature of rationality and the meaning of citizenship. So literary historians generally see the novel, which privileges dialogue and individual subjectivity, as helping to constitute a liberal social order, while political historians see newspapers as essential to various expressions of republicanism and democracy. In The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture, Jared Gardner contributes to the history of American citizenship by arguing that early-national American literary intellectuals mostly had their minds on a different print medium – and that they embraced a neglected model of rational public discourse.
This is not, sadly, a post about the troubled relationship between the modern Republican Party and politicized Christianity. I’d like to discuss, rather, a powerful and provocative synthesis of American political, theological, and religious history published a decade ago – Mark Noll’s America’s God. Noll’s magisterial tome brings together over a generation of scholarship on the relationship between American politics and religion (the “democratization thesis”), civic humanism (the “republican thesis”), and Scottish commonsense philosophy in the early national and antebellum United States. America’s God is in many ways a capstone to Noll’s truly outstanding career as a great historian and public intellectual. Continue reading