Junto March Madness: Final Four

It is time. Our tournament, which began with over one hundred and fifty nominations are now down to a final four. If you want to see how we got here, look at the brackets on this previous post. Voting is open from now until midnight, eastern time. Winners will be announced tomorrow, and the final will take place on Wednesday. Below, you will find the final four books with their blurbs, a serious of questions answered by a few Juntoists, and finally the polls. Please chime in with your own answers or thoughts in the comments below.

These are the final four, chosen by you, our voters:

MorganEdumund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom

The men who came together to found the independent United States,” writes Edmund S. Morgan, “either held slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did.” George Washington, hero of the Revolution, was the master of several hundred slaves. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, owned more than two hundred men, women, and children while eloquently defending the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In this classic work, Edmund S. Morgan investigates the bond between slavery and freedom that lies at the very heart of our nation. Through a meticulous history of Virginia, from its earliest settlement through the seventeenth century boom in tobacco, the gradual replacement of servitude with slavery, and the rise of republican ideology, Morgan reveals the deep and interlocking relationship between these seemingly contradictory ideas.

RichterDaniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America

In the beginning, North America was Indian country. But only in the beginning. After the opening act of the great national drama, Native Americans yielded to the westward rush of European settlers. Or so the story usually goes. Yet, for three centuries after Columbus, Native people controlled most of eastern North America and profoundly shaped its destiny. In Facing East from Indian Country, Daniel K. Richter keeps Native people center-stage throughout the story of the origins of the United States.

Viewed from Indian country, the sixteenth century was an era in which Native people discovered Europeans and struggled to make sense of a new world. Well into the seventeenth century, the most profound challenges to Indian life came less from the arrival of a relative handful of European colonists than from the biological, economic, and environmental forces the newcomers unleashed. Drawing upon their own traditions, Indian communities reinvented themselves and carved out a place in a world dominated by transatlantic European empires. In 1776, however, when some of Britain’s colonists rebelled against that imperial world, they overturned the system that had made Euro-American and Native coexistence possible. Eastern North America only ceased to be an Indian country because the revolutionaries denied the continent’s first peoples a place in the nation they were creating. In rediscovering early America as Indian country, Richter employs the historian’s craft to challenge cherished assumptions about times and places we thought we knew well, revealing Native American experiences at the core of the nation’s birth and identity.

Cronon Changes in the LandWilliam Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

In this landmark work of environmental history, William Cronon offers an original and profound explanation of the effects European colonists’ sense of property and their pursuit of capitalism had upon the ecosystems of New England. Reissued here with an updated afterword by the author and a new preface by the distinguished colonialist John Demos, Changes in the Land, provides a brilliant inter-disciplinary interpretation of how land and people influence one another. With its chilling closing line, “The people of plenty were a people of waste,” Cronon’s enduring and thought-provoking book is ethno-ecological history at its best.

Johnson Soul by SoulWalter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Slave Market

Soul by Soul tells the story of slavery in antebellum America by moving away from the cotton plantations and into the slave market itself, the heart of the domestic slave trade. Taking us inside the New Orleans slave market, the largest in the nation, where 100,000 men, women, and children were packaged, priced, and sold, Walter Johnson transforms the statistics of this chilling trade into the human drama of traders, buyers, and slaves, negotiating sales that would alter the life of each. What emerges is not only the brutal economics of trading but the vast and surprising interdependencies among the actors involved.



1. Which book in the Final Four is the biggest surprise?

Jonathan WilsonChanges in the Land. It’s a magnificent book, but it’s easily the shortest of the eight, it began existence as a first-year seminar paper (the mind boggles), and I think it’s probably the most challenging to integrate into the general survey (which is another way of saying it falls outside the most common ways of conceptualizing American history as a discipline). I’m not sorry to see it in the Final Four, but I’m surprised it made it in so easily.

Kenneth Owen: When I first thought of the biggest surprise of the Elite Eight, I thought of Richter’s victory over Ulrich. But on reflection, I’m not as surprised as I was at first – Facing East is a very approachable book that I’ve used with great success in my Native American classes, and I feel confident recommending it to non-specialists and non-historians. I’m not sure I can say that about the other books on the list with quite such confidence. So I think the biggest surprise was seeing Soul by Soul in the Final Four. Partially because it was in a bracket with Alan Taylor, but also because getting past Lepore, Berlin and Hamaleinen in successive rounds was no easy feat.

2. Which result was most surprising to you?

Christopher Jones: I’m genuinely surprised that A Midwife’s Tale didn’t make it to the Final Four, not only because I personally love the book, but also because almost every other historian I know also loves the book. Its appeal seems to reach across sub-disciplinary and specialist boundaries, too.

Benjamin Park: Besides Midwife’s Tale being bumped, I was surprised that Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town not only lost, but lost in the second round. Besides being written by a major historian (though, to be fair, it was Foner who topped him) and in such elegant prose (one of the best-written in the tournament), it is a great embodiment of the micro-history movement. We often try to tease out how small stories can tell major lessons about social transformations–but do we still fall back on larger, sweeping classics when it comes down to the wire?

3. What do these results tell us about Junto’s readership? The field in general?

Christopher Jones: That our readership is perhaps slightly more diverse in terms of geographical, chronological, and topical speciality/interests that I imagined. Given the overwhelming focus on the history of late colonial Anglo-America and the early Republic represented in the 64 books nominated and selected for the tournament, it’s encouraging to see that the Final Four includes more than one book focused on an earlier period of American history and one whose entire study is based on records from the very tail end of what generally counts as “early American history.” It is similarly nice to see some diversity of geographical focus from each of the books (even if some of us who think of early America as extending beyond the current borders of the United States would’ve liked a bit more).

Kenneth Owen: One thing that is definitely notable about the whole process is how poorly political history books have fared at the business end of the tournament. In the Sweet 16, there’s only two books that were explicitly addressing political topics (though clearly political themes are present in others). I hesitate drawing any conclusions about the profession from an unscientific exercise like this one, but I think it is worth further consideration.

4. What are your predictions?

Chrisopher Jones:  think it’ll be Morgan vs. Cronon in the championship, though I won’t be shocked if Johnson’s Soul by Soul makes it. Regardless of what it faces, I think _American Slavery, American Freedom_ is going to win this thing. It’s a book about which even its critics find much to praise.

Kenneth Owen: As I think many of us believed at the outset, I expect American Slavery, American Freedom to win. The weight of support in the nominating process was so much greater than that for any other book that I think it would take a major upset for it to ‘lose’.



11 responses

  1. My initial impression is how negative about our country and it’s history these all are. Perhaps it’s generational. Not much to recommend to the world about the US in these 4 admittedly significant books. Haven’t we done anything right?

    • Do you think they’re negative or is it merely a reflection of the patriotic history that overlooks what really happened in our nation’s past? This doesn’t just apply to the US. It applies to all countries. The warm fuzzy feeling historical interpretation of a nation’s history usually obscures all the warts and wrinkles that went into making the country. People should not be surprised by this because people are not perfect. The people of the past were not perfect. In the case of the Founders, many of them said as much, but in the desire to establish American nationalism their objections and writings to the contrary were ignored in favor of the mythical men on pedestal version.

      • I agree that warts and all history is preferable to filiopietistic versions but the US is still the beacon to the world. Washington and Jefferson and Adams all have blots on their record but still accomplished a great deal in getting our country started. I wouldn’t want the history of the American Revolution to be absent Alfred Young or Gary Nash anymore but equally I wouldn’t want it to ignore the work of Merrill Jensen or John Ferling either.

        • I’m all in favor of exposing more readers to Merrill Jensen, but I wouldn’t call him a filiopietist.

          Washington, Adams, and Jefferson are an interesting trio to pick when thinking about the United States as a “beacon to the world” – none (I believe) had very favorable things to say about immigration, and only one (Washington) showed much interest in promoting internal economic development, which is what eventually produced the high standard of living that still attracts so many immigrants to the United States. All three openly opposed the use of American military power abroad (the Barbary wars excepted), and probably all three would have been repelled by the principal projector of American soft power, namely Hollywood. (Washington might have been willing to co-produce a film version of Addison’s Cato. I doubt it would have made much money, though.)

          • I didn’t say Jensen was filiopietistic. I simply wanted to indicate that his generation, and mine that came right after, were less judgmental rightly or wrongly about the Founders. I don’t think that’s all bad. But each generation writes it’s own version for better or worse.

  2. It’s too bad Richter had to face Morgan in the semifinal instead of the final; those were my two favorites after the sweet sixteen. Morgan vs. Cronon would not be a bad final, either. Those are two significant books and worthy of the honor of being the last two standing.

  3. I’m surprised that Johnson made it this far and Ulrich and Taylor did not. I’m not sure what it says about the readership, except that I think that lots more people voted in later rounds than in earlier rounds. So, maybe the weird results (as I think of them) have more to do with late-comers than the regular readership.

    • I believe that the failure of Ulrich and Taylor to live up to their high rankings may say something about the genre of microhistories more generally. People love them for their stories, and are quick to proclaim them as a favorite book. But when compared with “bigger” projects, these books may seem to be less significant.

  4. With regards to assessing the Junto’s readership, I must confess that a few of my votes were based on loyalty to authors (read: advisors)! If I’m not the only one, and I’d be surprised if I was, then the picks could in some part reflect the readership’s academic pedigrees.

  5. In regards to academic pedigrees and diversity, it must be noted that the four finalists were white males who received their doctorates from Ivy League institutions which is not surprising considering that about half of the field of sixty four received their Ph.D.’s from those schools. Of course there was a smattering of other private institutions such as Hopkins, Brandeis, Northwestern, etc. Only eleven of those receiving their doctorates from within the U.S. received those from public universities, Ulrich (New Hampshire), Freeman and McCoy from UVA, Hyde from Cal Berkeley, White from University of Washington, Brown and Najar from Wisconsin, Martin from William & Mary, and Rockman, Duval, and Brooks from UC-Davis. There were as many white males from public institutions (four) as there were children of academics (Cronon, Johnson, Foner, and Jasanoff) in the field of sixty-four. Were there any minority authors other than Annette Gordon-Reed?

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