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 →
On December 8, 1747, Gov. George Clinton (1686–1761) told a British statesman that the Assembly of New York “treated the person of the Governor with such contempt of his authority & such disrespect to the noble family where he had his birth that must be of most pernicious example.” He thought he might have to “give it [i.e., his position] up to a Faction.” The extant copy of this letter, held within Clinton’s papers at the William L. Clements Library in Michigan, was written by his most trusted advisor and ally—Cadwallader Colden, the subject of John M. Dixon’s first book, The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York, published in 2016 by Cornell University Press.
In February 1812, eight American missionaries—five ordained clergymen and three of their wives—set sail for India as representatives of the recently established American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Though the specifics of their mission were ill defined, and none of the eight lasted long in India, their mission marked the propitious beginnings of the foreign mission movement in America. Over the course of the next four decades, more than one thousand men and women were commissioned by the ABCFM to missionize non-Christian peoples far beyond the borders of the early American republic. In Christian Imperialism, Emily Conroy-Krutz analyzes the experiences of the ABCFM missionaries from roughly 1812 to 1848. She argues, as the title of her book implies, that the missionaries were agents of “Christian Imperialism,” a vision and effort to convert (and civilize) “heathen” peoples around the globe that variously worked in concert with and in contest against other forms of early American imperialism. Continue reading →
Alejandra Dubcovsky’s Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016) is an ambitious book. She analyzes how information was communicated throughout the early South, a region that was without a regular mail system or print culture prior to 1730. The “early South,” as Dubcovsky acknowledges, is an “ambiguous” term (3). Her “early South” includes much of the lands from the Jamestown settlement south, and from the Mississippi River east. The result is a vibrant blend of Native American peoples, Africans, and European interactions that both complicate and enrich her analysis. Her sources include not only English, French, and Spanish, but also a number of Native American sources, including Timucua. She draws not only on written sources, but linguistic and archaeological evidence as well. This interdisciplinary approach allowed for broader inclusion of non-European networks than appears in many studies. Networks, as Dubcovsky defines them, are a “pattern of ties connecting discrete places or peoples”(4) She discusses a number of different types of networks—economic, political, religious, diplomatic, subaltern—but depicts all nodes as uniform in size. While some might take issue with this approach, the uniformness of the nodes makes sense, given the book’s goal of decentralizing European power structures, and does not detract. Continue reading →
Right after I agreed to review Sam Haselby’s The Origins of American Religious Nationalism for the Journal of Religion, Gordon Wood’s review of it appeared in the New York Review of Books. When one of our number gets that kind of exposure with their first book, we should all applaud, but there I was, feeling out-classed before I even opened the book. Now that I’m done with my review, everything about Wood’s makes sense to me—it was big exposure on a big stage for a big book. And I learned something from Wood there, which was to have enough patience with a big book’s faults to appreciate what it’s trying to do. Wood called Origins an “unusual book” with a meandering argument, but nevertheless “a book to be reckoned with.” I have to agree, and (spoiler alert) said as much in my forthcoming JR review. In writing that, though, I realized that if I hadn’t been primed for indulgence by Wood’s review I would have judged Origins more harshly. I think Origins is a good book that’s in too much of a hurry. Without repeating what I’ve written in JR for a religious-studies audience, I want to use this space for something of an historian’s rant about the hurried use of sources in this book. Continue reading →
When most people think of European colonization in New England and New Netherland, we think in very terrestrial terms. This familiar narrative includes the fur and wampum trades, treaties and the negotiations over land, and conflicts such as the Pequot War, Kieft’s War, King Philip’s War, and so on. But Andrew Lipman, an assistant professor of history at Barnard College, flips this entire terrestrial story upon its head. He does this with one simple question: “What if we considered this contested region not just as a part of the continent but also as part of the ocean?” In doing so, Lipman recovers the astonishing maritime contexts of seventeenth-century America, where both Indigenous and European peoples encountered, collaborated with, and fought against one another on the water just as much as they did on the land. This, then, is the provocative beginning to Lipman’s Bancroft Prize-winningThe Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (Yale University Press, 2015).Continue reading →
Between 1650 and 1750, the courts of Maine, Rhode Island, and Essex County, Massachusetts heard 1,843 cases concerning sexual misconduct. These suits, which concerned matters including rape, sodomy, adultery, and sex outside of marriage, are the subject of Abby Chandler’s new book, Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750: Steering Toward England(Ashgate, 2015). By examining three jurisdictions not previously studied by historians of law and sexuality, Chandler complicates standard narratives of the extent to which New Englanders adhered to English law. She also engagingly reconstructs the familial and neighborhood conflicts that shaped individual cases.