Book Review: Max Mueller, “Race and the Making of the Mormon People”

Modern Mormonism is known for being a predominantly white religion—at least in America. But a new book by religious studies scholar Max Mueller argues that the LDS faith has a complex and evolving story of racial imagination during the antebellum period. This is a declension narrative that is at once riveting and wrenching, and one that deserves a close reading.

MuellerMax Perry Mueller, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). 352 pp., 17 halftones, notes, bibliography, index. [Also, make sure to see Mueller’s interview with The Atlantic.]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons, had audacious beginnings. They claimed a new book of scripture, a modern-day prophet, and a restored ecclesiastical structure. It was a reenactment of Christianity’s origins. And according to Max Mueller, those origins included a reformulation of America’s racial imagination. Contemporaries during the mid-nineteenth century were, to use a complex and problematic term, “secularizing” racial differences. They sought to justify slavery and segregation through a strict delineation of racial compartmentalization. Race, in other words, was becoming a fixed identity. But among Joseph Smith’s radical protests was an attack on that very assumption: Smith, the book Smith translated, and the movement Smith led, posited that race was a malleable component dependent more on righteousness than descent. They believed in a moderate “racial universalism” that, though it required the subjugation of non-white races, could unite the entire human family. Or, at least, they believed this during their first two decades, before eventually succumbing to a much more mainstream structure of racial difference. Continue reading

Q&A with Carla Pestana on The English Conquest of Jamaica

Pestana ReviewTo accompany the review by Casey Schmitt that was published yesterday, we are pleased to have this Question & Answer with Carla Pestana today regarding her new book, The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire (Harvard University Press, 2017). We thank Dr. Pestana for her time. Continue reading

Review: Adam Jortner, Blood From the Sky

Adam Jortner, Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JortnerThe role of religion in the early republic has received a fair amount of attention in the recent decades. And though there are competing narratives concerning how ministers and denominations took advantage of the post-revolutionary era—the “Hatchites” arguing that they embraced the democratization and empowered the common man, while the “Butlerites” and “Porterfieldites” emphasizing how leaders capitalized on the fear of  a chaotic society—there has been a general point of agreement: religion and politics now took place within a secularized sphere. Expectations of democratic governance led religionists to frame their arguments in a way to match the new republican age. Politics drove religious belief and practice, and not the other way around. Continue reading

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

My Favorite Books from 2016; or, a Christmas Book List for Your Early American History Nerd Friends

2016 sucked in a lot of ways. Future historians will likely give lots of attention to this year and its events, and not with a positive assessment. But while we cope with this new reality, we at least can console ourselves with the fact that it was an excellent year in historical scholarship, especially in the field of early America. This post is a sequel to my Christmas Book List I posted last year, and may very well become an annual tradition. Below you’ll find some of my favorite books from the past twelve months.

2016-books

Just a few of my favorite books from the past year.

However, I should quickly add, these were far from the only excellent volumes to be released. (Like I said: it was a very strong year.) These books reflect my own interests and background. I hope others will share their favorite books, whether mentioned or not, in the comments. Continue reading

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