Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Goodbye and Hello

The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog has moved!  We have moved from Blogger to WordPress.  You can now find us at

With the exception of the new design and a more streamlined approach to content, you will find that nothing else has changed at the blog.  You can still search for your favorite posts and learn more about all that we are doing these days at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  We are still putting some of the finishing touches on the blog so we thank you in advance for your patience.

Please adjust your booknotes accordingly.  We also appreciate any feedback on the new site.  Feel free to tell your friends about the new site.  We appreciate Facebook shares and Tweets!  Help us get this new site off the ground.

The new blog will also serve as the host of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.  Episode Zero was dropped at the blog and on ITunes earlier today.  Feel free to download, write a review at ITunes, send us feedback directly, and tell your friends!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"To Be Faithful to Jesus or Secular Paganism?"

In case you have not heard, "secular pagans" are rewriting American history and having "difficulty embracing the facts of history."

I am apparently one of these secular pagans.

In the latest example of the Christian Right's failure to fully grasp the complexity of the American founding, David Lane of the American Renewal Project has chosen to criticize me at the website of the Christian magazine Charisma.  

I have written about Lane before.  I am quoted in a recent Reuters piece about Lane and his attempt to get evangelical ministers to run for political office.  I also wrote a blog post in the wake of that article.  Yet Lane does not want to address those articles.  Instead, he has chosen to focus on a recent interview I did with National Public Radio that appeared over Thanksgiving weekend.

I will try to respond to Lane's Charisma article point by point:
Lane wrote:
In a recent NPR interview, Professor John Fea of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, minimized the influence of biblical Christianity in the founding of America. "There are a lot of arguments that say, 'This was just in the air. The Bible would have influenced their construction, even though it's never mentioned,' he says. 'But as a historian, I need a smoking gun. Maybe they left it out because they deliberately wanted to leave it out.'"
Just to be clear, here are the quotes that NPR religion reporter Tom Gjelten used in the article after I talked with him for about one hour at Messiah College:
Historians, however, have disputed the extent to which the Pilgrims can be counted as among America's founding fathers.
"This is one little pocket of colonial America," says John Fea of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Penn. He has written widely on America's early religious history.
"It's hard to make the same argument if you're studying Virginia or Pennsylvania or the Carolinas or Georgia," Fea says. "We've taken that New England model and extrapolated from it over the last 200 or 300 years into some kind of view of the nation as a whole."
Fea notes the absence of any reference to the Bible in either the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution.
"There are a lot of arguments that say, 'This was just in the air. The Bible would have influenced their construction, even though it's never mentioned,'" he says. "But as a historian, I need a smoking gun. Maybe they left it out because they deliberately wanted to leave it out."
Here is the part of those NPR comments that Lane included in his Charisma piece:
In a recent NPR interview, Professor John Fea of Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, minimized the influence of biblical Christianity in the founding of America. "There are a lot of arguments that say, 'This was just in the air. The Bible would have influenced their construction, even though it's never mentioned,' he says. 'But as a historian, I need a smoking gun. Maybe they left it out because they deliberately wanted to leave it out.'"
As you can see, he does not include everything I said that made it into the interview. Lane continues:
Apparently, even though the Founders wrote Christianity into the State Constitutions and Charters of all 13 original colonies, that does not meet the requirements of evidence. What does Fea do with the following documentary evidence?
Before I address the documentary evidence below, it is clear that Lane did not read the entire NPR transcript.  Or maybe he did read the entire transcript and simply chose to focus on the parts of the transcript that he found useful.  If he read it carefully, he would realize that I made the comments above in response to Gjeltin's question about whether or not Christianity influenced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Anyone who reads the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution knows that there are no references to the Bible in these documents.  There is no "smoking gun."   
But just for fun, let me respond to Lane's evidence:
  • Virginia Charter (1606) "... propagating of Christian Religion to such People as yet live in Darkness."  
Yes, the settlers of Virginia did want to propagate the Christian religion in Jamestown.  Thanks to new scholarship in this area, along with archaeological finds, we now know that religion played an important role in the colony.  Yet I would argue that Anglicanism and other forms of Christianity never came to define the culture of 17th-century Virginia in the way that Puritanism defined the culture of 17th-century Massachusetts Bay or Plymouth.

  • Delaware Charter of King Adolphus (1626) "... further propagation of the Holy Gospel."
This is a reference to the Swedish charter associated with colony of New Sweden on the banks of the Delaware River.  New Sweden functioned as a colony between roughly 1638 and 1655.  It existed before the English settlement of the region.  The Swedish Lutheran Church was an important cultural institution in New Sweden and, as I have argued, these Swedish churches remained on the Delaware Valley landscape after the English settlement. 

  • Massachusetts Constitution (1780) Part 1, Article 3, "Every denomination of Christians ... shall be equally under the protection of the law and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall be established."
Lane is correct.  The Massachusetts Constitution does promote religious freedom. Lane could have strengthened his argument further here by noting that the Congregational Church was the established religion in Massachusetts until the early 1830s.  Either Lane is unaware of this, did not have the space to develop his thoughts, or he realized that the Massachusetts establishment may not be useful for his religious freedom argument.  Lane also fails to note that the religious establishment in Massachusetts was perfectly legal since the Constitution, until the passing of the 14th amendment, did not apply to the states.  No serious student of early New England should be surprised that the Massachusetts Constitution had a religious establishment since John Adams and the other framers were products of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts that also had a religious establishment   As I said in my NPR interview with Gjeltin, New England is just one "pocket" of colonial America.
  • Pennsylvania Constitution (1968) Article 1, Section 3: "All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their won consciences."
  • North Carolina Constitution (1971) Article 11, Section 4: "Beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate, and the orphan is one of the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state."
Not sure how the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1968 or the North Carolina Constitution of 1971 relates to the founding era, but these references to God and Christianity are very interesting.  I am guessing (and only guessing) that these may be left over references from the 19th-century.  I will need to do some more research on this.  
Lane continues to mount evidence:
1. "The Christian History of the U.S. Constitution," says: "Among the more notable ventures of the Congress was an effort to see about the printing of a Bible, as the supply from England had been cut off by the fighting. In October 1780, Congress adopted a resolution recommending that 'such of the states that may find it convenient ... take proper measures to procure one or more new and correct versions of the Old and New Testaments to be printed.' Congress also approved, as a matter of course, chaplains and religious services for the soldiers."
No argument here.  The Founding Fathers did believe that religion, even Christianity, was important to the health of the republic.  This is why they promoted the Bible. If there has been a "wall of separation between church and state" in American history, that wall has had a lot of checkpoints. Chaplains are a great example of this.
2. "Conservatism, Religion, and the First Amendment" says: "In addition to appointing chaplains, resorting to prayer, and seeing about the printing of the Bible, Congress took still other measures to advance the interests of religion [Christianity]. It passed, for instance, the Northwest Ordinance to manage the territories beyond the Ohio River, saying it did so, among other reasons, for purposes of promoting, 'religion and morality.' The committee approving the legislation (with Madison as a member) stipulated that, in the sale of lands in the territory, Lot N29 in each parcel, 'be given perpetually for the uses of religion [Christianity].'"
Yup.  See my comments above.
3. An online exhibit at the Library of Congress, "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," says: "Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of 'humiliation, fasting, and prayer' were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by 'covenant theology,' a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they 'should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears.' Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation."
Was the Continental Congress influenced by covenant theology?  Maybe.  But good historians are divided over whether this theology influenced the delegates who did not hail from New England.  I would argue that it did not.
And Lane concludes:
It looks as if America has come to her kairos, her moment in time—to be faithful to Jesus or to pagan secularism.
Lane implies that anyone who does not believe that America was founded as a specifically Christian nation is a pagan.  He cannot fathom another, more responsible, Christian approach to this material.
If you want to learn more about my views on religion and the founding and why I think that this history is not usually helpful in our current political debates, read my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  I also address the use of history in these debates from an evangelical Christian perspective in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast Update

For those of you have been waiting (and those who have not), The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast will be available on ITunes on Wednesday, December 30.  Here are a few updates:

1.  As you can see, we have an icon.  Look for it on ITunes

2.  Episode Zero is in the can.  It serves as a short introduction to what you can expect in the Spring 2016 season.  Episode 1 will drop in mid-January.

3.  This week we are interviewing our Episode 1 guest.  We will reveal the name of the guest at the end of Episode Zero

4.  December 30 will also be the day that we will reveal the new design for The Way of Improvement Leads Home website.

Stay tuned!

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Author's Corner with Antoinette Sutto

Antoinette Sutto is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mississippi. This interview is based on her new book, Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists: Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic, 1630-1690 (University of Virginia Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists?

AS: I wanted to write about politics and religion in the early modern English world - how ideas about subversion and conflict and threats to law and order were shaped by ideas about religion and allegiance. Maryland was an ideal place to do this because in the seventeenth century, it was a colony run by Catholics that formed part of a growing empire ruled by Protestants. As I discovered in the course of researching and writing, the process of extending lines of authority across the Atlantic forced seventeenth-century people to confront the same questions about law, loyalty and confessional difference that caused a civil war and a revolution in the British Isles.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists?

AS: The book argues that the violent and colorful history of early Maryland is most intelligible when placed in the context of the troubled politics of religion of the seventeenth-century English Atlantic. Ironically, some of the most specifically American aspects of Chesapeake life - the challenges of diplomacy between Indian nations and Europeans, the ups and downs of the tobacco trade - proved so destabilizing because they seemed to fit within familiar European narratives of conspiracy and subversion.

JF: Why do we need to read Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists?

AS: This book explores the local, regional and imperial politics of Maryland (and to some extent Virginia) in the 1600s. But the scope of the book is larger than the Chesapeake itself. It’s about the history of ideas in the early modern world, and especially about how ideas and material circumstances - trade, disease, demography, economic expansion - are connected. Parts two and three of the book are about the interaction between the American continent and the English Atlantic and describe how the politics of the American continent and American people, many whose activities and concerns were not known to Europeans, meshed with the tensions of the English Atlantic to create a crisis in the Chesapeake. The book also grapples with the category of Atlantic history - whether and under what circumstances it is useful and how best to do it.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AS: When I took the PSAT in high school, the test included a questionnaire about your career plans. I remember filling in the bubbles for “history major” and “historian” for college plans and career, but I don’t remember why!  Later, I began my academic training as a history of early modern England, but I moved into early American history because I have always been fascinated by the moments at which Europeans’ plans and preconceptions about America (and Native Americans) encountered real people, landscapes and experiences.
JF: What is your next project?

AS: My next project will be about Puritanism in the colonial world and the United States. I want to write a book not about the Puritans themselves, but about how later colonists and Americans understood them. It’s a way to explore ideas about origins, nationality and changing understandings of how to write history.

JF: Thanks, Antoinette! 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Break at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

We are taking a few days off.  See on December 28.  Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Merry Christmas.  Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

1.  David Barton's The Jefferson Lies is Back
2.  What If Ken Burns Produced Star Wars?
3.  The Author's Corner with Alison Greene
4.  Calvinist Megachurch Pastor Speaks Out Against Jerry Falwell Jr. and Guns
5.  Do GOP Candidates Want Religious Freedom or the Closing of Mosques?  They Can't Have Both
6.  George Marsden's History of American Evangelicalism Syllabus
7.  The Author's Corner With Markku Ruotsila
8.  Sunday Night Odds and Ends--December 20, 2015
9.  A Wheaton Graduate Asks His Alma Mater to Consider Its Muslim Neighbors
10. More on History and Hope

Christmas in the Shenandoah Valley, 1775

"Christmas Morning--Not a Gun is heard--Not a Shout--No company or Cabal assembled--To Day is like other Days every Way calm & temperate--people go about their daily Business with the same Readiness, & apply themselves to it with the same Industry, as the used.--"

--Diary of Philip Vickers Fithian, December 25, 1775 (from Lower Calf-Pasture, Virginia) in Journal of Philip Vickers Fithian, ed. Robert Greenlaugh Albion and Leonidas Dodson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934), 150.

Christmas in South Jersey, 1774

"Preached to day at New England-Town (Fairfield, NJ) on Matt. 4:23: 'From that time Jesus began to preach,' & c.  I used my Notes some, but was none afraid.  My Brother Josiah is now very ill in a Pleurisy."

--Diary of Philip Vickers Fithian, December 25, 1774 (Greenwich, Cumberland County, NJ) in Journal of Philip Vickers Fithian, ed. Robert Greenlaugh Albion and Leonidas Dodson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934), 248.

Christmas at Nomini Hall, Virginia, 1773

"I was waked this morning by Guns fired all round the House.  The morning is stormy, the wind at South East rains hard. Nelson the Boy who makes my Fire, blacks my shoes, does errands & c. was early in my Room, drest only in his shirt and Breeches!  He made me a vast fire, blacked my Shoes, set my Room in order, and wish'd me a joyful Christmas, for which I gave him half a Bit.--Soon after he left the Room, and before I Drest, the Fellow who makes the Fire in our School Room, drest very neatly in green, but almost drunk, entered my chamber with three or four profound Bows, & made me the same salutation; I gave him a Bit, and dismissed him as soon as possible.--Soon after my Cloths and Linen were sent in with a message for a Christmas Box, as they call it; I sent the poor Slave a Bit, & my thanks.--I was obliged for want of small change, to put off for some days the Barber who shaves & dresses me.--I gave Tom the Coachman, who Doctors my Horse, for his care two Bits, & am to give more when the Horse is well.--I gave to Dennis the Boy who waits at Table half a Bit.--So that the sum of my Donations to the Servants, for this Christmas appears to be five Bits, a Bit is a pisterene bisected; or an English sixpence, & passes here for seven pence Halfpenny, the whole is 3s and 1 1/2 d.

At Breakfast, when Mr. Carter entered the Room, he gave us the compliments of the Season.  He told me, very civily, that as my Horse was Lame, his own riding Horse is at my Service to ride when & where I Choose.

Mrs Carter was, as always, cheerful, chatty, & agreeable; She told me after Breakfast several droll, merry Occurrences that happened while she was in the City of Williamsburg.

This morning came from the Post-Office at Hobbes-Hole, on the Rappahannock, our News-papers. Mr. Carter takes the Pennsylvania Gazette, which seems vastly agreeable to me, for it is like having something from home--But I have yet no answer to my Letter.  We dined at four o-Clock--Mr. Carter kept in his Room, because he breakfasted late, and an on Oysters--There were at Table Mrs. Carter & her five Daughters that are at School with me--Miss Priscilla, Nancy, Fanny, Betsy, and Harriot, five as beautiful delicate, well-instructed Children as I have ever known!--Ben is abroad; Bob & Harry are out; so there was no Man at Table but myself.--I must carve--Drink the Health--and talk if I can!  Our Dinner was not otherwise common, yet elegant a Christmas Dinner as I ever sat Down to..."

--Philip Vickers Fithian, Saturday, December 25, 1773 from Journal and Letter of Philip Vickers Fithian, ed. Hunter Dickinson Farish, 39.

Christmas in Greenwich, NJ, 1766

"There was many guns fired last eve and I heard of some frolicks.  To day we had a Sermon upon the 4th Chapter of galations., the 4th and 5th Verses.  But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his son made of a woman & c.  We dressed flax."

-Diary of Philip Vickers Fithian, Thursday, December 25, 1766 (Greenwich, NJ) cited in F. Alan Palmer, The Beloved Cohansie of Philip Vickers Fithian (Greenwich, NJ: Cumberland County Historical Society, n.d.), 58.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A History of Christmas Cards

I heard Ellen Brown talking about the history of holiday cards the other day on The Takeaway and thought it would make for a nice Christmas Eve post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

Here is a taste of Brown's piece at JSTOR Daily:

Cultures have enjoyed sharing written New Year’s greetings for centuries. The English-speaking ritual of sending holiday cards, however, dates back only to the middle of the 19th. Some sources say it originated with Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, Scotland, who, in the 1840s, produced cards showing a jolly face with the caption “A Gude Year to Ye.” 

Credit more commonly goes to Sir Henry Cole, who would later become the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He commissioned an artist to create 1,000 engraved holiday cards in 1843. Cole’s greeting featured a prosperous-looking family toasting the holidays, flanked on both sides by images of kindly souls engaging in acts of charity. A caption along the bottom read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

With advances in printing technology and mail service, the practice of sending commercially produced Christmas cards caught on. By the 1880s, it was an integral part of the holiday season for many American families as well. In “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship,” Yale anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo explains that the practice thrived amid postbellum industrialization and the demise of the family farm. As relatives spread out geographically, women assumed responsibility for “the work of kinship” and became caretakers of extended family connections. Christmas cards were a convenient way for them to nurture relationships among their husbands, children, and distant relatives.

As the Christmas card habit took hold, manufacturers rushed to meet demand. Best known was German emigrant Louis Prang, who produced attractive and reasonably priced chromolithographed cards for the mass market. He is often referred to as the father of the American Christmas card.

Read the entire piece here.  You can listen to the interview below.  Allen comes in around the 24:00 mark.

John Piper's Thoughts on Guns Go Beyond Guns

The other day I wrote a post on John Piper's response to Jerry Falwell Jr.'s recent statement on guns. Piper offered nine points from the Bible about how to think about guns.  
I've been thinking about these points and it seems that a lot of them apply not only to guns, but to the way Christians should think about their role in public life generally.  
Here they are again:
1.  The apostle Paul called Christians not to avenge ourselves, but to leave it to the wrath of God, and instead to return good for evil.
2.  The apostle Peter teaches us that Christians will often find themselves in societies where we should expect and accept unjust mistreatment without retaliation.
3. Jesus promised that violent hostility will come; and the whole tenor of his counsel was how to handle it with suffering and testimony, not with armed defense.
4.  Jesus set the stage for a life of sojourning in this world where we bear witness that this world is not our home, and not our kingdom, by renouncing the establishment or the advancement of our Christian cause with the sword.
5.  Jesus strikes the note that the dominant way (not the only) way Christians will show the supreme value of our treasure in heaven is by being freed from the love of this world and so satisfied with the hope of glory that we are able to love our enemies and not return evil for evil, even as we expect to be wronged in this world.
6.  The early church...expected and endured persecution without armed resistance, but rather with joyful suffering, prayer, and the word of God.
7,  When Jesus told the apostles to buy a sword, he was not telling them to use it to escape the very thing he promised they should endure to the death.
8.  A natural instinct is to boil this issue down to the question, 'Can I shoot my wife's assailant?" (he gives seven-fold answer to this question).
9. Even though the Lord ordains for us to use ordinary means of providing for life...nevertheless, the unique calling of the church is to live in such reliance on heavenly protection and heavenly reward that the world will ask about our hope (I Peter 3:15), not about the ingenuity of our armed defenses.

Many evangelicals are fearful these days. I understand this.  But unfortunately evangelical Christians have spent too much time over the past forty years seeking protection from the things that scare them through politics and politicians.  This, I think, is the best explanation for why so many evangelicals are flocking to candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz--candidates who claim to be Christians but who behave, and promote policies, that run contrary to the teachings of the New Testament. 

Trump and Cruz are the natural result of the fusion of evangelicalism and GOP politics that began in the 1970s.  Jerry Falwell and the rest of the so-called Christian Right is to blame, but so are evangelical ministers who have failed to provide the people in their congregations with teaching about how to consistently apply their faith in public life.

Piper's words are worth pondering.

History and the Tragic Sense of Our Fallenness

I wish I had more time to engage with Peter Wirzbicki's excellent piece on historians and hope.  It is unfortunate that this was posted so close to Christmas because it is worth a full read.  

Andrew Hartman agrees with me:

Wirzbicki is responding to Ta-Nehsi Coates's Atlantic piece, "Hope and the Historians."  If you have been following The Way of Improvement Leads Home, you know that we have been discussing this piece as well.  See our comments here and here and here.

Here is a very small taste of Wirzbicki's essay at the U.S. Intellectual History blog:

I found their arguments about the split between history and hope compelling and thought-provoking. I am especially convinced that there are triumphalist narratives of US history that must be combatted. But I also was concerned about where the logic of these essays seemed to go.  Many of us, after all, study social movements for lessons on how to recreate those successes. Or we study structures of oppression to find their weakness. Where does a history without hope leave us? More pernicious, I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism. There is a pessimism about mankind’s abilities in these narratives, a tragic sense of our fallenness 
found most often on the right. In many ways, I think, the fault lies with us historians, who have claimed that history should be our total guide to present political life.  Counter-intuitively, by seeking in the past a totalizing guide for present politics, we have sucked the air from our contemporary political imagination, leaving us necessarily disillusioned.  An overly-politicized past may inadvertently lead to an under-politicized present. A politics shaped solely by history is one that runs the risk of a pessimism, the denial of the human task of rebellion against the given, a rejection of the power of critical rationality to reshape.

A couple thoughts/questions:

1.  If I read him correctly, Wirzibicki has a hard time accepting a view of the past defined by human fallenness.  He "worries" that Coates's narrative will inevitably lead to an "approach to politics" that "falls into a realism that borders on conservatism."  But does such realism about human nature always translate into a conservative political agenda?  I am thinking here of Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been described as a progressive who believed in original sin.  If Jim Kloppeberg is correct, one might also put Barack Obama in this category.

2.  Is it really fair to say that progressives have a corner on the market when it comes to "imagination" and "hope?"  Again, here is Wirzbicki, "I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism."

OK--I realize I am nitpicking here.  On the other hand, the rest of Wirzbicki's provocative argument builds off of the paragraph I pasted above.

The Author's Corner with Padraig Riley

Padraig Riley is Assistant Professor of History at Dalhousie University. This interview is based on his new book, Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Slavery and the Democratic Conscience?

PR: I wrote Slavery and the Democratic Conscience to understand how white men in the early national North came to terms with American slavery.  Specifically, I wanted to know why democratic partisans in the 1790s and early 1800s joined forces with slaveholders to create the Democratic-Republican coalition, which governed the United States from the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 to the collapse of the first party system in 1824. I suspected that the Jeffersonian coalition might explain some long-term patterns and problems in American political culture: the willingness of white non-slaveholders to tolerate the anti-democratic authority of American masters; the ties between white supremacy and American nationalism; and the difficulty of building an antislavery political movement in the United States, given the partisan and ideological compromises with slaveholding that sustained American democracy. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Slavery and the Democratic Conscience?

PR: Democracy in the United States was built through accommodation of slaveholder power.  That accommodation had significant costs for later attempts to oppose slavery and establish political equality within the American nation-state.      

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery and the Democratic Conscience?

PR: This book reframes Edmund Morgan’s idea of an “American paradox” between freedom and slavery by asking how and why early American democrats came to terms with mastery, rather than by asking how Virginian slaveholders built a quasi-egalitarian community of white men.  In my story, democratic ideology has roots in northern and transnational struggles against arbitrary rule—against the Federalist party in the North, the British state in Ireland, and aristocratic regimes throughout Europe.  These struggles embodied a real egalitarian and cosmopolitan potential, one that at times incorporated antislavery sentiment.  But northern democrats foundered when it came to slavery in the United States.  They made considerable allowance for the anti-democratic authority of southern masters and they turned to racial exclusion to justify their political acts and choices.  The contradictory ties between freedom and slavery that shaped American democracy were not the result of an elite project of social control led by slaveholders, they were produced by the ethical and political and compromises made by democratic subjects.  Examining the problem slavery from this perspective emphasizes the crucial role of non-slaveholders in both accommodating American masters as well as resisting their authority. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PR: I became a historian as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley because I was obsessed with old photographs.  That led me into a project on the history of early photography which led me to the Bancroft Library, where I spent a semester studying family photograph albums from the early twentieth century.  I didn’t know much American history at that point, but I knew I wanted to keep working with archival material as long as possible.  Thanks to some great advisors I found my way into graduate school and eventually to the history of slavery and democracy in the early United States.   

JF: What is your next project?

PR: I am writing a series of essays on slavery and American nationalism and I am developing a book project about slaveholder power and American democracy in the nineteenth century.     

JF: Thanks, Padraig!