Too 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 →
In their introduction to Slavery’s Capitalism, Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman write that the accumulation of scholarship about early American economic development necessitates “a fundamental rethinking of American history itself” (2). And, for someone who works on the seventeenth-century Caribbean, those words nonetheless resonated with debates very current in my own field of research. In 2011 – the same year that the conference that resulted in Slavery’s Capitalism was held – Latin Americanist John Tutino declared that, “We face a fundamental rethinking of the rise of capitalism” in response to the work of individuals like Dennis Flynn, Arturo Giráldez, and Kenneth Pomeranz. For Tutino, a global perspective on the development of capitalism amends the “enduring presumptions … that capitalism was Europe’s gift to the world,” and “historically antithetical” to places like Spanish America and the Caribbean. Beckert and Rockman recognize in their description of Dale Tomich’s “Second Slavery” the importance of new scholarship in “weaving together transnational and imperial frameworks, the history of capitalism, and the study of slavery as a profit-seeking enterprise” (11). Continue reading →
In a certain village of vast early America, whose name I do not recall, a book fell open. Then another. And another. By 1860, many generations’ worth of American readers had imbibed the two-volume work of Spain’s early modern master, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote, or, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha (1605). Cervantes’ metafiction of a mad knight-errant, often hailed as the first Western novel, bustled and blistered with originality. Continue reading →
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!
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 →
Diego Rivera and Bertram D. Wolfe, “Portrait of America,” 1934
When John Adams looked back on the American Revolution (something he liked to do), he reflected that, “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.” The colonists’ drive to independence marked a new era of American history, Adams thought, when “Thirteen Clocks were made to Strike together; a perfection of Mechanism which no Artist had ever before effected.” Scholars have struggled to frame the experience of the Revolution in picture and on the page. How can we use digital tools to curate collections of revolutionary culture and #vastearlyamerica for use in the classroom?
When most people think about the American Revolution and its cast of characters, names like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington spring to mind. On the British side, people might think of John André, Benedict Arnold, John Burgoyne, and, sometimes, Lord Dunmore. Though some of these people appear in Kathleen DuVal’s latest book, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 2015), most of DuVal’s narrative centers around people who seldom feature in books or articles on the American Revolution. It is not the American Revolution that most people know. Indeed, “The American Revolution on the Gulf Coast,” DuVal writes, “is a story without minutemen, without founding fathers, without rebels. It reveals a different war with unexpected participants, forgotten outcomes, and surprising winners and losers.” Continue reading →