Review: Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire

This review is cross-posted from Ben Park’s own blog, “Professor Park’s Blog: Musings of a Professor of American Politics, Culture, and Religion.”

Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

This isn’t your grandparents’ antebellum South. A generation ago it was common for historians to talk about the “regressing” southern states in the decades preceding Civil War. The advent of democracy, the spread of enlightenment, and the triumph of free labor left slaveholders reeling and the slave institution crumbling. Secession, this narrative emphasized, was the last-ditch effort of a flailing boxer on the ropes. But scholarship from the past couple decades have put that myth to rest. Michael O’Brien demonstrated that southerners were intellectuals who contemplated the most sophisticated issues of modernity. Edward Baptist showed how the slave institution increased in strength as the financial staple in America’s capitalistic order. Walter Johnson and Sven Beckert displayed how slaveholders were at the forefront of an increasingly global economy. These and many other works all point to the same crucial revision: slaveholding southerners were “modern,” and their ideas and actions cannot be merely dismissed as remnants of an antiquated age. Continue reading

The Mormon National Convention, 1844

Given that we just witnessed the Democrat and Republican national conventions a few weeks ago, I thought I’d draw from a current research project and take a look back at an earlier moment in the development of presidential politics. And if you think Donald Trump’s convention was quixotic, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

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Sutcliffe Maudsley, “Lt. General Joseph Smith In Nauvoo Legion Uniform,” gouache on paper.

Whatever your feelings concerning Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder, you have to admit the guy was confident. The first decade of his church’s existence was mired in societal and political problems, and the final year of his life was spent trying to find novel and, to some, outlandish solutions. One of his most audacious proposals was his own candidacy for the United States presidency in 1844.

Smith’s presidential run mostly strikes modern readers as amusing. Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had already drawn around thirty thousand converts since its founding in 1830, a majority of them were located on the banks of the Mississippi River in an Illinois town called Nauvoo. They could hardly manipulate the politics within their own state, let alone those of the nation. How then could the controversial leader of this marginalized sect have such delusions of grandeur? Continue reading

Kicking off the 2016-2017 Season

snoopyIf you haven’t noticed, the blog has been a bit, well, quiet lately. We promise that wasn’t all a hiccup! Well, most of it, anyway. About halfway through the summer we realized our productivity was lagging so we decided to call it a summer sabbatical—we are academics, after all.

Anyway, I’m pleased to say that, as the Fall Semester is about to commence for many of us, The Junto is ready to kick off another great year. We have posts scheduled nearly every day for the foreseeable future, and I swear some of them will probably be good. We’re gonna attack the season like the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors, though we hope our ending won’t be so anti-climactic.

We do have some exciting things in store as the blog transitions into its next phase. Stay tuned for that. In the meantime, you can check out our new Contribute page to find out more about how to write a guest post for us.

As always, we appreciate any and all feedback. We truly appreciate all our faithful readers—we now have over four thousand subscribers to the blog, and even more casual visitors—and feel this is one of many digital centers for the early American history community. Or, ahem, #VastEarlyAmerica.

What Happened to the “Democratic” in the “Age of Democratic Revolutions”?

PalmerThis past semester I taught a course on “18th Century Atlantic Revolutions: America, France, and Haiti,” which included both undergraduate and graduate students. (I wrote about the assigned readings at my personal blog.) I’d like to highlight a central theme that I emphasized throughout the course as a way to discuss historiographical and pedagogical questions.

To give my grad students a sense of the field’s starting point, I had them read R. R. Palmer’s classic 2-volume The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (1959, 1964; 2014), recently combined and re-published by Princeton University Press. Advancing through the semester and reading much more recent books, the dated nature of Palmer’s book is readily apparent. Most obvious is its avoidance of Haiti. (At an AHA panel on the Age of Revolutions last January, Nathaniel Perl-Rosenthal mention that it’s basically an academic ritual to mention this whenever discussing Age of Democratic Revolution.) Palmer also focuses on high-end (and male-centric) intellectual history, ignores economic interests and intersections, and only engages the nations whose revolutions “succeeded.” This last point is obviously problematic, of course, given what happens in France after their Revolution. But as Janet Polasky’s recent book shows, a more comprehensive view can be gleaned through looking at revolutionary moments that did not have successful outcomes. Like any book published over a half-century ago, even a classic book like Palmer’s, there are plenty of holes to acknowledge. Continue reading

Call for Papers: 2016-17 Missouri Regional Seminar on Early American History

The following link comes from the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy’s announcement. I was privileged to be a postdoc fellow with the Kinder Institute for the last two years and attended most of these MRSEAH meetings. They are phenomenal. Bonus: you get to hang out with our own Ken Owen!

Kinder LogoThe Kinder Institute is currently inviting submissions for presenters at the 2016-17 meetings of the Missouri Regional Seminar on Early American History (MRSEAH), which will be held on October 7, 2016, and April 21, 2017, in Columbia, MO, and on November 4, 2016, and February 17, 2017, in St. Louis. We welcome work on all aspects of early American history, broadly defined to extend throughout the Americas geographically and forward in time through the 19th century, and we are especially eager for submissions relating to political development, political thought, constitutionalism, and democratization. All MRSEAH submissions will also automatically be considered for the Kinder Institute’s Friday History Colloquium Series, held on campus during the academic year. Please visit the link below for complete instructions on submitting a proposal to present at the MRSEAH. Continue reading

Re-Conceiving the Age of Revolutions in the Age of Obama

Plum PuddingRevolutions: What are they good for?

The organizational concept of “The Age of Revolutions” has been on my mind a lot lately. First, I recently finished a full book manuscript that includes a version of that phrase in its title, so I’ve naturally been engaging with that literature quite a bit. Second, I’m preparing to teach a course titled “Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Revolutions: America, France, and Haiti” this semester, which will begin next week. And finally, I’ve had a review copy of Nathan Perl-Rosenthal’s excellent Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (Harvard UP) sitting on my desk for a few months, struggling to come up with a more professional way to say “Go Out And Buy This Excellent Book Right Now.”  Continue reading

My Favorite Books from 2015: Or, a Christmas Book List for Your Early American History Nerd Friends

PolaskiI often have a goal to write a substantive post that addresses crucial historiographical topics. I really do. But then, I’m also lazy. Further, I love book lists. So let me put on my salesman’s voice and offer a gift guide for all of you who are searching for books for your overspecialized-early-American-history-nerd-friends. These are, in other words, some of my favorite books from the past twelve months in early American history. Continue reading