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. 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 →
In 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 →
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. As anyone who read her New York Times obituary (or any other, really) knows, Maier is famous for describing Thomas Jefferson as “overrated.” 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 →
Last 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 →
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 →
It’s been an exciting week for history in the news. First, we learned that Karen Nipps has discovered buried treasure in Harvard’s Houghton Library–650 signatures of Boston citizens pledging to boycott British goods taxed by the Townshend Acts in 1767. The signatories include Paul Revere, John Wheatley (owner of Phillis), and several of Boston’s women.