Here is a taste of Paul's interview with Rebecca:
1) Rebecca, talk about the path that led you to this topic in the first place, and to early American history more generally. Of all the things you could have done/studied at Harvard, how did you end up with this topic and approach? Who were your main influences in grad. school, and how did they influence you?
When I went to college, I was going to be a double major in Spanish and Political Science. I came out the other end a double major in German and History. Go figure! I credit Jim Leamon, my undergraduate mentor, with convincing me that being a history major would be a good way to go. I just loved his class on colonial New England, and after I took that in the first semester of my sophomore year, I was a convert. I ended up writing a senior thesis on the Revolutionary War diary of a Massachusetts soldier named William Dorr. I was interested in why his diary was almost identical to several others. (The answer to your question is most likely pension fraud--getting a pension was difficult if you didn’t have direct evidence that you had participated in a particular campaign. This was especially true of Dorr’s campaign--Benedict Arnold’s March to Quebec in the winter of 1775-1776.) I had so much fun writing that thesis that I knew I wanted to keep doing history professionally.
I thought I would go to Harvard to study soldiers’ diaries. And my advisor, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, was a recognized expert on colonial diaries. But I got sidetracked in my second year of graduate school. I took Joyce Chaplin’s research seminar on race in early America. As I was selecting a topic, I happened upon William Waller Hening’s early nineteenth-century edition of Virginia’s colonial laws. Almost immediately I noticed that early Virginia lawmakers conflated what moderns would call religious and racial descriptors. So they used the words “English” and “Christian”, and later in the seventeenth century, “white,” interchangeably. They also conflated words like “black,” “tawny,” and “savage” with “pagan” or “heathen.” Though sometimes Hening introduced these categories in his marginal notes, it was pretty clear that he was picking up on seventeenth-century categories. And so I wondered: what did English people think they were doing when they used the words “English” and “Christian” interchangeably?
This was the early 2000s, so race, class, and gender were hot topics. In seminar everyone was talking about the obligatory “Foucault footnote” (my book doesn’t have one!). Kathleen Brown’s deeply influential book Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (1996) was only a few years old. But what bothered me about a lot of that literature was that religion was incidental....a mere cultural artifact that illustrated the influences of other analytical categories (e.g. race and gender) on the creation of race. Yet Hening’s Statutes suggested to me that religion, in this case Christianity, was hardly incidental...it was fundamental. So I wrote a seminar paper about how Christianity created race in early Virginia. I remember finishing it and thinking to myself, “I’ve barely scratched the surface here.” and I went to see Joyce. I asked her if this would make a good dissertation, and she said yes, and the rest as they say is history.
When I started talking to people about my dissertation, I had an uphill battle convincing people that the topic was both justified and doable. One of the prime objections was there was no religion to speak of in early Virginia. Luckily Ed Bond had just come out with his Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (2000) and I started referring people to that. (Bond’s book is really overlooked, I think. He makes a strong case for religion *mattering* in early Virginia and I think he does a great job showing how an Anglo-Virginian Anglican piety developed by the late seventeenth century.) I don’t have to spend as much time doing that anymore; I think scholars are pretty convinced that religion matters in the early Chesapeake, even if it matters in a different way than say. in New England. Others were sceptical that I would find sources. I have a fond memory of explaining to a senior scholar in my field that I would find evidence of the Christian construction of race in county court records. She looked puzzled and said, “Oh, you’ll never find anything like that.” But I thought, if Kathleen Brown found gender in the archives, I’ll find race and religion. And I did. I found more evidence than I was able to include in the manuscript!