Writing History As If It Matters (to Lots of People)

tennessee_gentleman_portrait_of_andrew_jackson_by_ralph_e-_w-_earlIn a series of classic science fiction stories, Isaac Asimov imagined a scientific discipline called “psychohistory”: a way to predict the future of an interstellar empire. Psychohistory could not foresee individual choices, but it could supposedly predict collective behavior over the course of millennia. At one point in the Foundation series, however, a charismatic figure named the Mule threatened to upend psychohistory’s predictions: he was a mutant, acting in ways the original model could not anticipate. In the universe Asimov imagined, the Mule alone seemed to possess true individual agency. Resisting a powerful model of human behavior, he offered instead a story about a person.

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Guest Post: Questions About the Illicit Slave Trade, State Auctions, and Urban Infrastructure [Cross-Posted]

Todd Burst is an independent scholar who is researching and blogging about the eighteenth century British-African slave trade and the development of capitalism. He is currently writing about how Fante Africans on the Gold Coast vicariously influenced the role of the British state in commerce through the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa. He also runs the Roads to Modernity blog, where he reviews current writings about the history of slavery and capitalism, and occasionally publishes some of his own works. This guest post is cross-posted from his blog.

1_3 PAR20881410_Page_1.jpgIn Antebellum America, Southern municipalities generated revenue by confiscating and reselling illicit slaves through public auctions.[1] In 1807, Congress prohibited the international slave trade, a year later, Louisiana followed suite, but this did not stop the trade. An illicit trade from Africa across the Atlantic continued to supply the America South with slaves. Illegal slaves were forfeited to the state. The Sheriff’s department placed these slaves in prison to await resale to the public. These findings raise questions about the role of the state in the slave trade, property laws, municipal revenues, and contributions of the sale of slaves at “property auctions” to modern city infrastructures.

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Guest Post: Stephen Campbell, “Reimagining the Second Bank of the United States in Early American History”

Stephen W. Campbell earned a doctorate in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2013. A lecturer at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Campbell is the author of articles that have appeared in American Nineteenth Century History, Ohio Valley History, Perspectives on History, and History News Network. He has recently completed a book manuscript entitled Banking on the Press: Newspapers, Financial Institutions, and the Post Office in Jacksonian America, 1828-1834.

Cadwalder Family Papers, Box 98, Folder 24, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. [Click for full-size]

Unexpected “ah-hah!” moments make long hours of historical research worthwhile. A few months ago I was perusing a letter from an edited volume of Henry Clay’s correspondence when my eyes began to drift over to an adjoining page. A letter, dated August 17, 1830, showed the great senator and orator instructing his Washington agent, Philip Fendall, to send one of his slaves, Lotty, back to Kentucky. Clay wanted Lotty “to have the means to bring herself home…but if she wants money for that purpose I will thank you to apply to Mr. R[ichard] Smith to advance her the necessary sum.” Nothing in the footnotes or index shed light on this enigmatic Smith (an exceedingly common name both then and now), but I had come across this name several times before. This was almost certainly the cashier of the Washington branch of the Second Bank of the United States (BUS), the nation’s de facto central bank. A few weeks later, Clay again penned Fendall: “There are persons frequently bringing slaves from the district [of Columbia] to this State, some of whom might perhaps undertake to conduct [Lotty] to Maysville, Louisville, Lexington, or some other point from which I could receive her.”[1] Continue reading

Guest Post: Jeremy C. Young, “James Rush and the Invention of Personal Magnetism”

Jeremy C. Young is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

youngToo often, as American historians, we imagine the Civil War as an impenetrable barrier between eras—as if American history simply stopped in 1861 and an entirely new nation, filled with new people, came to replace it. In reality, of course, people who cast their first ballots for Andrew Jackson cast their last for William Jennings Bryan; people born into slavery died after the advent of talking motion pictures. Nevertheless, professionally speaking, we’re often tacitly discouraged from placing the antebellum and postbellum worlds in conversation with one another. This way of thinking disadvantages historians of the modern era in particular, I think, in that it makes us less likely to investigate the early American roots of the phenomena we study. In my case, it explains why it took me so long to realize that the story I was telling about the 1920s actually began in the 1820s. I want to tell you about that moment of discovery, about how my reluctance to look at early American history almost caused me to miss the most explosive revelation in my book—and about what I found when I finally pulled back the curtain to reveal the early-American origins of my narrative. Continue reading

Guest Post: Spencer McBride, Benjamin Rush and the Divine Right of Republics

We are thrilled to have another guest post from Spencer McBride, a historian and editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project. You can read Spencer’s previous two posts here and here. More importantly, you can order his hot-off-the-press book, Pulpit & Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (UVA Press) here. You can look forward to a review and Q&A later this month. -BP

pulpit-and-nationIn researching and writing my book, Pulpit & Nation, I became keenly interested in the religious language employed by participants in the ratification debates of 1787-88. Not only did it illuminate the role of religion and clergymen in the politics of Revolutionary America, but it seemed particularly relevant to the almost canonical way in which so many twenty-first century politicians and pundits view the Constitution. Of course, when—or if—these individuals ever consult that document’s history, they rarely bother to question what political motivations drove so many of the seemingly religious expressions made by early national leaders. And there are many such statements. Yet, amid the numerous examples of Federalists and Anti-Federalists employing (and exploiting) providential language and Old Testament Biblicism in arguing for ratification, one example stands out as particularly complex in its motives and implications: the argument Benjamin Rush made for ratification in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention. Continue reading

Women’s History, Primary Sources, and the United States History Survey

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Abigail Adams (Source)

“What did you find surprising about this source?”  It was Week Nine of the fall semester, when the students in my United States History to 1877 survey course were worn down by too many midterms and too little sleep. I was attempting to spark conversation about the day’s assigned primary source, the late-eighteenth-century journal of Mary Dewees, a Philadelphia woman who moved west to Kentucky. Surely, I thought, some of my students would have been surprised to read a woman’s firsthand account of crossing rivers and mountains as she took part in white trans-Appalachian migration and the resulting displacement of Native Americans from their lands. Continue reading

Q&A with Sowande’ Mustakeem

slavery-at-seaThis is an interview with Sowande’ Mustakeem, who is an Assistant Professor in the departments of History and African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Today she speaks with The Junto about her book, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage, which Casey Schmitt reviewed yesterday. Her previous work has appeared in journals such as Atlantic Studies and the Journal of African American History, and edited volumes such as Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, Teaching Lincoln: What Every K-12 Student Needs to Know, and Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Power in Maritime America. Continue reading