Herb Sloan’s Contributions to Scholarship on Jeffersonian America

Last Tuesday, May 13, the Columbia University Seminar on Early American History and Culture and the Department of History hosted an evening in honor of Professor Herb Sloan of Barnard College. Herb, who is retiring this spring after 28 years as a member of Barnard’s history faculty, was the guest of honor at an evening commemorating both his contributions to the field of early American history, as well as a roundtable discussion on “Jeffersonian America.” 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

The JuntoCast, Episode 9: The Early American Presidency

The JuntoCastIn honor of President’s Day, this month’s episode features Ken Owen, Michael Hattem, and Roy Rogers discussing issues related to the development of the Presidency in the early republic, including the initial defining of the office by Federalists and John Adams’ and Thomas Jefferson’s challenges in navigating that office, as well as the role of the Presidency in public memory. Continue reading

Cold Water and Living Documents

There is a breed of historians known, colloquially, as “cold water” historians for their drive to pour analytic “cold water” on the politically or historiographical fashionable arguments. Pauline Maier most certainly belongs to this historiographical polar bear club.[1] As anyone who read her New York Times obituary (or any other, really) knows, Maier is famous for describing Thomas Jefferson as “overrated.[2] Her wonderful American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence brings the most powerful weapons of the skeptical historians— context and contingency—to bear on that central document of American political and national identity. Continue reading

Whither Early American Intellectual History?

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 21.34.40Last week, I attended the annual conference for the Society of United States Intellectual History, this year held in Irvine, CA. It was a fun time, and I learned enough and met enough people to consider the conference a success (and worth the 12 hour flight from London!). Yet one thing struck me the entire weekend, and was reinforced by Mark Peterson who gave words to my thoughts during his session response: why is there a paucity of work on early America within the recent surge of interest in US intellectual history? Or, to ask a different, but still related, question, why do so few historians of early America do work on intellectual history, or self-identify as intellectual historians? Continue reading

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