It was a ceremony that made [Tocqueville and Beaumont] want to smile. The trade associations and the militia marched past with an entirely spontaneous gravity and order, then the procession surged into a church where everyone sang verses to the tune of the Marseillaise accompanied by a single flute. The speech made by a lawyer foundered in rhetorical commonplaces. But the reading of the Declaration of Independence gave rise to a unanimous feeling that Tocqueville describes in the following way: “It was as though an electric current moved through the hearts of everyone there. It was in no way a theatrical performance. In this reading of the promises of independence that have been kept so well, in this turning of an entire nation toward the memories of its birth, in this union of the present generation with one that is no longer and with which, for a moment, it shared all those generous feelings, there was something profoundly felt and truly great.”From Andre Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography (Lydia Davis trans. 1988)
Here is a new book from the University of North Carolina Press that tells a hopeful story about the effect of Christianity on one border area during the Civil War–a surprising one, too. The author, Bridget Ford (California State University), argues that religion provided a common identity that eased the transition to emancipation in the Ohio River Valley. The book is Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland. The publisher’s description follows:
This vivid history of the Civil War era reveals how unexpected bonds of union forged among diverse peoples in the Ohio-Kentucky borderlands furthered emancipation through a period of spiraling chaos between 1830 and 1865. Moving beyond familiar arguments about Lincoln’s deft politics or regional commercial ties, Bridget Ford recovers the potent religious, racial, and political attachments holding the country together at one of its most likely breaking points, the Ohio River.
Living in a bitterly contested region, the Americans examined here–Protestant and Catholic, black and white, northerner and southerner–made zealous efforts to understand the daily lives and struggles of those on the opposite side of vexing human and ideological divides. In their common pursuits of religious devotionalism, universal public education regardless of race, and relief from suffering during wartime, Ford discovers a surprisingly capacious and inclusive sense of political union in the Civil War era. While accounting for the era’s many disintegrative forces, Ford reveals the imaginative work that went into bridging stark differences in lived experience, and she posits that work as a precondition for slavery’s end and the Union’s persistence.
Several years ago, I watched the HBO version of David McCullough’s book on John Adams, the one with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. It was a good version, but one scene in the last episode annoyed me, because it seemed such an obvious mistake. At the end of his days, Adams advises his grandson always to remain optimistic about life: “Rejoice always!” Adams says. And when his grandson doesn’t recognize the reference, Adams admonishes him. “It’s from St. Paul,” he exclaims!
Except that’s not the full quote. The full quote from St. Paul is, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” I’m pretty confident Adams wouldn’t have edited it in the way the writers did, because Adams was a devout man for the whole of his life. Perhaps the writers thought the full quote would have unsettled too many HBO viewers.
A new book from Oxford, Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, explores the way Christianity influenced that illustrious New England political dynasty–and, through them, American thought and politics. The author is Sara Georgini, editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Reflecting on his past, President John Adams mused that it was religion that had shaped his family’s fortunes and young America’s future. For the nineteenth century’s first family, the Adamses of Massachusetts, the history of how they lived religion was dynamic and well-documented. Christianity supplied the language that Abigail used to interpret husband John’s political setbacks. Scripture armed their son John Quincy to act as father, statesman, and antislavery advocate. Unitarianism gave Abigail’s Victorian grandson, Charles Francis, the religious confidence to persevere in political battles on the Civil War homefront. By contrast, his son Henry found religion hollow and repellent compared to the purity of modern science. A renewal of faith led Abigail’s great-grandson Brooks, a Gilded Age critic of capitalism, to prophesy two world wars.
Globetrotters who chronicled their religious journeys extensively, the Adamses ultimately developed a cosmopolitan Christianity that blended discovery and criticism, faith and doubt. Drawing from their rich archive, Sara Georgini, series editor for The Papers of John Adams, demonstrates how pivotal Christianity–as the different generations understood it–was in shaping the family’s decisions, great and small. Spanning three centuries of faith from Puritan New England to the Jazz Age, Household Gods tells a new story of American religion, as the Adams family lived it.
Shortly before departing from England for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Puritan leader John Winthrop delivered a sermon on what the Puritans hoped to accomplish in the new world. Adapting a famous Gospel passage, he said the colony would be “as a city upon a hill” and that “the eyes of all people are upon us.” The Puritan fervor lasted only a generation or two, but the sense of Boston as an exceptional place that would serve as a model for the entire world really never faded–either for Bostonians or for Americans as a whole.
A new book from Princeton describes the history of the city, from its Puritan founding through its decline in influence, which the author dates to the Civil War. Looks very interesting. The book is The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865; the author is Yale historian Mark Peterson. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
A groundbreaking history of early America that shows how Boston built and sustained an independent city-state in New England before being folded into the United States
In the vaunted annals of America’s founding, Boston has long been held up as an exemplary “city upon a hill” and the “cradle of liberty” for an independent United States. Wresting this iconic urban center from these misleading, tired clichés, The City-State of Boston highlights Boston’s overlooked past as an autonomous city-state, and in doing so, offers a pathbreaking and brilliant new history of early America. Following Boston’s development over three centuries, Mark Peterson discusses how this self-governing Atlantic trading center began as a refuge from Britain’s Stuart monarchs and how—through its bargain with slavery and ratification of the Constitution—it would tragically lose integrity and autonomy as it became incorporated into the greater United States.
Drawing from vast archives, and featuring unfamiliar figures alongside well-known ones, such as John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and John Adams, Peterson explores Boston’s origins in sixteenth-century utopian ideals, its founding and expansion into the hinterland of New England, and the growth of its distinctive political economy, with ties to the West Indies and southern Europe. By the 1700s, Boston was at full strength, with wide Atlantic trading circuits and cultural ties, both within and beyond Britain’s empire. After the cataclysmic Revolutionary War, “Bostoners” aimed to negotiate a relationship with the American confederation, but through the next century, the new United States unraveled Boston’s regional reign. The fateful decision to ratify the Constitution undercut its power, as Southern planters and slave owners dominated national politics and corroded the city-state’s vision of a common good for all.
Next month, Harvard will release American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War, by Duncan Ryuken Williams (University of Southern California). The book offers a new perspective on the US Government’s infamous internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. One thinks of the internment program as a racial and ethnic phenomenon. But Williams argues that the internment program had a strong religious component as well: the Government targeted Buddhists in particular. Looks interesting. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:
The mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is not only a tale of injustice; it is a moving story of faith. In this pathbreaking account, Duncan Ryūken Williams reveals how, even as they were stripped of their homes and imprisoned in camps, Japanese American Buddhists launched one of the most inspiring defenses of religious freedom in our nation’s history, insisting that they could be both Buddhist and American.
Nearly all Americans of Japanese descent were subject to bigotry and accusations of disloyalty, but Buddhists aroused particular suspicion. Government officials, from the White House to small-town mayors, believed that Buddhism was incompatible with American values. Intelligence agencies targeted the Buddhist community for surveillance, and Buddhist priests were deemed a threat to national security. On December 7, 1941, as the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Attorney General Francis Biddle issued a warrant to “take into custody all Japanese” classified as potential national security threats. The first person detained was Bishop Gikyō Kuchiba, leader of the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist sect in Hawai‘i.
In the face of discrimination, dislocation, dispossession, and confinement, Japanese Americans turned to their faith to sustain them, whether they were behind barbed wire in camps or serving in one of the most decorated combat units in the European theater. Using newly translated sources and extensive interviews with survivors of the camps and veterans of the war, American Sutra reveals how the Japanese American community broadened our country’s conception of religious freedom and forged a new American Buddhism.
I was surprised to read an ad in the current Claremont Review criticizing the American history text I used in high school, The American Pageant, as hopelessly anti-American. As a student, I thought the book was great. The author, Thomas Bailey, had a talent for identifying anecdotes that made history come alive. (I heard later that he paid his grad students to find the anecdotes, but I don’t know whether that’s true). Maybe things have changed in the new editions, or maybe I simply didn’t notice the problems at the time. The Wikipedia page about the book says that the new authors have simplified the language to make it more accessible to contemporary teens, which sounds ominous. Anyway, this forthcoming American history textbook from Encounter Books by scholar Wilfred McClay (University of Oklahoma) Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, looks like a good buy for readers with kids in high school. Here’s the publisher’s description:
We have a glut of text and trade books on American history. But what we don’t have is a compact, inexpensive, authoritative, and compulsively readable book that will offer to intelligent young Americans a coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative of their own country. Such an account will shape and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit, and by making them understand that land’s roots, will equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in American society, and provide them with a vivid and enduring sense of membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the exciting, perilous, and immensely consequential story of their own country.
The existing texts simply fail to tell that story with energy and conviction. They are more likely to reflect the skeptical outlook of specialized professional academic historians, an outlook that supports a fragmented and fractured view of modern American society, and that fails to convey to young people the greater arc of that history. Or they reflect the outlook of radical critics of American society, who seek to debunk the standard American narrative, and has had an enormous, and largely negative, upon the teaching of American history in American high schools and colleges.
This state of affairs cannot continue for long without producing serious consequences. A great nation needs and deserves a great and coherent narrative, as an expression of its own self-understanding; and it needs to convey that narrative to its young effectively. It perhaps goes without saying that such a narrative cannot be a fairy tale or a whitewash of the past; it will not be convincing if it is not truthful. But there is no necessary contradiction between an honest account and an inspiring one. This account seeks to provide both.
I’m ambivalent about the current polarization here in America. Sometimes, it seems to me that we really are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, in which two large parties, secular progressives and religious conservatives, truly distrust one another and can find nothing in common. At other times, it seems to me that things aren’t so bad, in historical terms. Early 19th Century America, before the Era of Good Feelings, was pretty rough. Just go back and read some of the campaign literature from 1800. There was a fair amount of political violence at the end of the nineteenth century. Two presidents were assassinated in the space of less than 20 years. There were the 1960s. And of course we did have a Civil War in this country.
History is a good antidote to despair. It teaches us that things have been bad before–and will no doubt be again! A new history of America, A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History, from Basic Books, highlights the contingencies of our past. The author is Jay Sexton (University of Missouri). The publisher’s description follows:
A concise new history of the United States revealing that crises–not unlike those of the present day–have determined our nation’s course from the start.
In A Nation Forged by Crisis, historian Jay Sexton contends that our national narrative is not one of halting yet inevitable progress, but of repeated disruptions brought about by shifts in the international system. Sexton shows that the American Revolution was a consequence of the increasing integration of the British and American economies; that a necessary precondition for the Civil War was the absence, for the first time in decades, of foreign threats; and that we cannot understand the New Deal without examining the role of European immigrants and their offspring in transforming the Democratic Party.
A necessary corrective to conventional narratives of American history, A Nation Forged by Crisis argues that we can only prepare for our unpredictable future by first acknowledging the contingencies of our collective past.
Thomas Jefferson and his home state of Virginia have had a disproportionate influence on church-state law in America. Ever since Chief Justice Morrison Waite quoted Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in Reynolds v. United States (1878)–a quotation that was more or less an accident, as our friend Don Drakeman has written–American judges have invoked Jefferson’s “wall of separation” whenever they have wished to endorse a strict segregation of church and state. Jefferson’s neighbor, James Madison, also appears regularly in judicial discussions. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Court’s first major Establishment Clause case, Justice Hugo Black cited “Madison’s Great Memorial and Remonstrance” in the Virginia Assessment controversy of 1784-86 as a true statement of First Amendment values. No matter that other Founders, and states, had rather different views on the subject. The Virginian experience has become the the Court’s most important historical point of reference.
This month, LSU Press releases Jefferson and the Virginians: Democracy, Constitutions, and Empire, by historian Peter Onuf of the University of Virginia (emeritus). Looks like interesting background reading for people interested in church-state issues. Here’s the description from the LSU website:
In Jefferson and the Virginians, renowned scholar Peter S. Onuf examines the ways in which Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Virginians—George Washington, James Madison, and Patrick Henry—both conceptualized their home state from a political and cultural perspective, and understood its position in the new American union. The conversations Onuf reconstructs offer glimpses into the struggle to define Virginia—and America—within the context of the upheaval of the Revolutionary War. Onuf also demonstrates why Jefferson’s identity as a Virginian obscures more than it illuminates about his ideology and career.
Onuf contends that Jefferson and his interlocutors sought to define Virginia’s character as a self-constituted commonwealth and to determine the state’s place in the American union during an era of constitutional change and political polarization. Thus, the outcome of the American Revolution led to ongoing controversies over the identity of Virginians and Americans as a “people” or “peoples”; over Virginia’s boundaries and jurisdiction within the union; and over the system of government in Virginia and for the states collectively. Each debate required a balanced consideration of corporate identity and collective interests, which inevitably raised broader questions about the character of the Articles of Confederation and the newly formed federal union. Onuf’s well-researched study reveals how this indeterminacy demanded definition and, likewise, how the need for definition prompted further controversy.
I don’t know too much about the life of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American citizen to be named a saint by the Catholic Church and the founder of the first free Catholic school in this country. I do know that the order of religious sisters she founded is linked to the Vincentian order that founded St. John’s. She seems to have been a spiritually formidable person. She would have to have been, to convert to Catholicism in a society as thoroughgoingly Protestant as early nineteenth-century America, in which conversion entailed a distinct loss of social status. A new biography from Cornell University Press, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint, by historian Catherine O’Donnell (Arizona State) tells her story. Here’s the description from the Cornell website:
In 1975, two centuries after her birth, Pope Paul VI canonized Elizabeth Ann Seton, making her the first saint to be a native-born citizen of the United States in the Roman Catholic Church. Seton came of age in Manhattan as the city and her family struggled to rebuild themselves after the Revolution, explored both contemporary philosophy and Christianity, converted to Catholicism from her native Episcopalian faith, and built the St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Hers was an exemplary early American life of struggle, ambition, questioning, and faith, and in this flowing biography, Catherine O’Donnell has given Seton her due.
O’Donnell places Seton squarely in the context of the dynamic and risky years of the American and French Revolutions and their aftermath. Just as Seton’s dramatic life was studded with hardship, achievement, and grief so were the social, economic, political, and religious scenes of the Early American Republic in which she lived. O’Donnell provides the reader with a strong sense of this remarkable woman’s intelligence and compassion as she withstood her husband’s financial failures and untimely death, undertook a slow conversion to Catholicism, and struggled to reconcile her single-minded faith with her respect for others’ different choices. The fruit of her labors were the creation of a spirituality that embraced human connections as well as divine love and the American Sisters of Charity, part of an enduring global community with a specific apostolate for teaching.
The trove of correspondence, journals, reflections, and community records that O’Donnell weaves together throughout Elizabeth Seton provides deep insight into her life and her world. Each source enriches our understanding of women’s friendships and choices, illuminates the relationships within the often-opaque world of early religious communities, and upends conventional wisdom about the ways Americans of different faiths competed and collaborated during the nation’s earliest years. Through her close and sympathetic reading of Seton’s letters and journals, O’Donnell reveals Seton the person and shows us how, with both pride and humility, she came to understand her own importance as Mother Seton in the years before her death in 1821.
Last week, Columbia Law professor Philip Hamburger presented his new book, Liberal Suppression, to the students in our law and religion colloquium. Philip argues, in that book and others, that much of 19th and 20th Century Progressivism was animated by an anti-Catholic ideology–or, more precisely, by an ideological reaction against traditional, authoritative communities, of which the Catholic Church was seen as a prime example. It’s a provocative argument nowadays, but it really shouldn’t be. The Progressives themselves would not have found it so. Of course Progressivism opposed tradition, especially tradition that seemed to stand in the way of science and human fulfillment–that is, to say, in the way of Progress. The name of the movement itself makes this clear.
A forthcoming book from Harvard, Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform, argues that the Progressive Movement had racist roots as well. Again, this is a provocative claim today–but it would not have been so to the Progressives themselves. Many of them, like Woodrow Wilson, were quite open about their racial attitudes. The author is historian Marilyn Lake (University of Melbourne). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
The paradox of progressivism continues to fascinate more than one hundred years on. Democratic but elitist, emancipatory but coercive, advanced and assimilationist, Progressivism was defined by its contradictions. In a bold new argument, Marilyn Lake points to the significance of turn-of-the-twentieth-century exchanges between American and Australasian reformers who shared racial sensibilities, along with a commitment to forging an ideal social order. Progressive New World demonstrates that race and reform were mutually supportive as Progressivism became the political logic of settler colonialism.
White settlers in the United States, who saw themselves as path-breakers and pioneers, were inspired by the state experiments of Australia and New Zealand that helped shape their commitment to an active state, women’s and workers’ rights, mothers’ pensions, and child welfare. Both settler societies defined themselves as New World, against Old World feudal and aristocratic societies and Indigenous peoples deemed backward and primitive.
In conversations, conferences, correspondence, and collaboration, transpacific networks were animated by a sense of racial kinship and investment in social justice. While “Asiatics” and “Blacks” would be excluded, segregated, or deported, Indians and Aborigines would be assimilated or absorbed. The political mobilizations of Indigenous progressives—in the Society of American Indians and the Australian Aborigines’ Progressive Association—testified to the power of Progressive thought but also to its repressive underpinnings. Burdened by the legacies of dispossession and displacement, Indigenous reformers sought recognition and redress in differently imagined new worlds and thus redefined the meaning of Progressivism itself.