Somehow Everyone Missed It

Here is a very odd-looking book from Yale University Press: Polygamy: An Early American History, by historian Sarah Pearsall (Cambridge). Based on the blurb and the reviews, the book argues that polygamy was much closer to the center of early American culture than we understand today–a “shocking” discovery, in the words of one of the reviewers. I haven’t read the book, but I have to say I’m skeptical, both because I’m skeptical generally when historians claim to have discovered a salient feature of the long-ago past that no one has noticed, and also because the thesis fits so well with the current policy goals of so many academics. Wouldn’t it be great to learn that our ancestors approved of polygamy all along, and thought of it as one marital option among many?

To learn that polygamy historically existed in America would not be “shocking.” It exists today. But, as today, it seems to have been very much a fringe phenomenon. There’s a reason polygamous groups, like 19th Century Mormons, had to move repeatedly and finally settle in the frontier. Americans at the time precisely did not see polygamy as one option among many. Anyhow, readers can judge for themselves. Here’s the description of the book from the Yale website:

A groundbreaking examination of polygamy showing that monogamy was not the only form marriage took in early America.

Today we tend to think of polygamy as an unnatural marital arrangement characteristic of fringe sects or uncivilized peoples. Historian Sarah Pearsall shows us that polygamy’s surprising history encompasses numerous colonies, indigenous communities, and segments of the American nation. Polygamy—as well as the fight against it—illuminates many touchstones of American history: the Pueblo Revolt and other uprisings against the Spanish; Catholic missions in New France; New England settlements and King Philip’s War; the entrenchment of African slavery in the Chesapeake; the Atlantic Enlightenment; the American Revolution; missions and settlement in the West; and the rise of Mormonism.
 
Pearsall expertly opens up broader questions about monogamy’s emergence as the only marital option, tracing the impact of colonial events on property, theology, feminism, imperialism, and the regulation of sexuality. She shows that heterosexual monogamy was never the only model of marriage in North America.

The City of Churches

“Brooklyn is peculiarly a city of churches, and what is better, they are generally well filled.” So proclaimed The Brooklyn Evening Star in 1841, and the nickname has stuck–even if, alas, the borough’s religiosity has fallen somewhat over time. Brooklynites historically thought of themselves as more pious and sober than their wild neighbors across the East River. Who’s to say? But the borough still hosts lovely, vibrant churches–and synagogues, mosques, and temples–in a way that belies easy assumptions about godless New York

Last week, Princeton University Press released a new history, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, by Cornell professor Thomas Campanella (Urban Studies and City Planning). Looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

America’s most storied urban underdog, Brooklyn has become an internationally recognized brand in recent decades—celebrated and scorned as one of the hippest destinations in the world. In Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, Thomas J. Campanella unearths long-lost threads of the urban past, telling the rich history of the rise, fall, and reinvention of one of the world’s most resurgent cities.

Spanning centuries and neighborhoods, Brooklyn-born Campanella recounts the creation of places familiar and long forgotten, both built and never realized, bringing to life the individuals whose dreams, visions, rackets, and schemes forged the city we know today. He takes us through Brooklyn’s history as homeland of the Leni Lenape and its transformation by Dutch colonists into a dense slaveholding region. We learn about English émigré Deborah Moody, whose town of Gravesend was the first founded by a woman in America. We see how wanderlusting Yale dropout Frederick Law Olmsted used Prospect Park to anchor an open space system that was to reach back to Manhattan. And we witness Brooklyn’s emergence as a playland of racetracks and amusement parks celebrated around the world.

Campanella also describes Brooklyn’s outsized failures, from Samuel Friede’s bid to erect the world’s tallest building to the long struggle to make Jamaica Bay the world’s largest deepwater seaport, and the star-crossed urban renewal, public housing, and highway projects that battered the borough in the postwar era. Campanella reveals how this immigrant Promised Land drew millions, fell victim to its own social anxieties, and yet proved resilient enough to reawaken as a multicultural powerhouse and global symbol of urban vitality.

The Minds and Hearts of the People

John Adams famously reflected, many years after the fact, that the American Revolution took place long before the war itself began. “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People,” he wrote, “a Change in their Religious Sentiments of their Duties and Obligations.” When enough Americans came to believe that the King and the Royal Family, for whom they had long been accustomed to pray, actually desired their harm, they began to pray instead “for the Continental Congress and all the thirteen State Congresses, &c.” To be sure, religion was not the only factor in the Revolution. Adams conceded that some people cared less about religion than habitual ties of interest in and affection for the Mother Country. But religion, he believed, had played an essential role.

A new book from Harvard University Press, The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America, discusses the indispensable contribution of ordinary citizens in making the American Revolution a success. No doubt the author, historian T.H. Breen (Library of Congress) addresses the religious commitments of those citizens. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

A prize-winning historian provides the missing piece in the story of America’s founding, introducing us to the ordinary men and women who turned a faltering rebellion against colonial rule into an unexpectedly potent and enduring revolution.

Over eight years of war, ordinary Americans accomplished something extraordinary. Far from the actions of the Continental Congress and the Continental Army, they took responsibility for the course of the revolution. They policed their neighbors, sent troops and weapons to distant strangers committed to the same cause, and identified friends and traitors. By taking up the reins of power but also setting its limits, they ensured America’s success. Without their participation there would have been no victory over Great Britain, no independence. The colonial rebellion would have ended like so many others—in failure.

The driving force behind the creation of a country based on the will of the people, T. H. Breen shows, was in fact the people itself. In villages, towns, and cities from Georgia to New Hampshire, Americans managed local affairs, negotiated shared sacrifice, and participated in a political system in which each believed they were as good as any other. Presenting hundreds of stories, Breen captures the powerful sense of equality and responsibility resulting from this process of self-determination.
With striking originality, Breen restores these missing Americans to our founding and shows why doing so is essential for understanding why our revolution ended differently from others that have shaped the modern world. In the midst of revolution’s anger, fear, and passion—the forgotten elements in any effective resistance—these Americans preserved a political culture based on the rule of law. In the experiences of these unsung revolutionaries can be seen the creation of America’s singular political identity.

Latest Volume of the Adams Family Correspondence

It’s tempting to think of our politics today as unexampled, for their bitter sordidness, in our entire history. Well, that may be the case. But the election of 1800, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, surely comes close. Next month, Harvard releases the latest volume of its Adams Family Correspondence series, which covers that tumultuous period in our nation’s life: Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 14, edited by Hobson Woodward (Massachusetts Historical Society). Looks great! Here’s the publisher’s description:

John and Abigail Adams’s reflections on an emerging nation as they move into the new President’s House in Washington, D.C., are a highlight of the nearly 280 letters written over seventeen months printed in volume 14 of Adams Family Correspondence. The volume opens with the Adamses’ public and private expressions on the death of George Washington and concludes with John’s defeat in the contentious presidential election of 1800. Electoral College maneuvering, charges of sedition, and state-by-state strategizing are debated by the Adamses and their correspondents as the election advances toward deadlock and finally victory for Thomas Jefferson in the House of Representatives.

John’s retirement from public life had some sweet mixed with the bitter. The U.S. mission to France resulted in the Convention of 1800 that ended the Quasi-War, and the so-called midnight appointments at the close of his presidency ushered in the transformative U.S. Supreme Court era of John Marshall—a coda anticipated in Abigail’s request to John in the final days of his administration: “I want to see the list of judges.”

The domestic life of the Adamses was equally dynamic. Abigail and John endured the crushing loss of their son Charles, whose struggle with alcohol ended in repudiation and death in New York. Son Thomas Boylston and daughter Nabby spent the period in relative stability, while John Quincy chronicled a tour of Silesia in letters home from Europe. At the volume’s close, the correspondence between John and Abigail comes to an end. As they retired to Quincy, their rich observations on the formation of the American republic would continue in letters to others if not to each other.

Tocqueville on Independence Day in Albany, 1831

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)

Bonds of Union

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.

The Family That Prays Together

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.

The City on a Hill

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.

A New History of the Japanese Internment Program

9780674986534-lgNext 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.

A New American History Text

Land-of-Hope_lowres-310x460I 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.

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