A Nation Without Borders

a-nation-without-bordersSteven Hahn (Ph.D. Yale) is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is an elected Fellow of the Society of American Historians, among many other distinctions. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Could you briefly describe A Nation without Borders? What’s new about your approach to the familiar story of the Civil War?

A Nation without Borders is a history of the United States roughly between 1830 and 1910. Thematically, it focuses on the relation between nation and empire in American development, and attempts both to cast this history in a broad international context (it begins and ends in Mexico) and to more fully integrate the history of the trans-Mississippi West and of Native populations there into the story. It argues that the United States began as a “union” and empire with a loose center and only became a “nation” as the federal government confronted an assortment of rebellions during the first half of the nineteenth century—of Native Americans, settler colonialists, filibusters, Mormons, and, most prominently, slaveholders—and defeated them. The War of the Rebellion was of course the largest of these but we may also think of “wars of the rebellions” during this period. A Nation without Borders sees what we call “Reconstruction” fundamentally as a state-building project (with important imperial features) linking the South, West, and Northeast and argues that capitalism did not gain a dominant foothold in the United States until the post-Civil War era, with special dynamism in the trans-Mississippi West and international initiatives that the war made possible. The book explores “alternative paths” fueled by anti-monopoly political traditions and the social democratic impulses that emerged out of them and that together helped create a major social crisis by the end of the nineteenth century. A Nation without Borders concludes with a lengthy treatment of several “reconstructions” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (which we have called progressivism) and with the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s.

One of the new aspects in my approach to the coming of the Civil War is a shift in our focus from sectionalism (North/South) as the main axis of political conflict to a struggle between the Northeast and the Mississippi Valley for continental (and possibly hemispheric) hegemony. I develop this argument by demonstrating that slavery was national, that sectionalism was a “political construct,” and that the alliance among Mississippi Valley Democrats imagined an agro-commercial empire extending into the Caribbean, Mexico, much of Latin America, and of course the trans-Mississippi regions of North America. The crumbling of this alliance paved the road to the slaveholders’ rebellion and the war, while the new Republican party began to craft a language and construct of “nation” and “nation-state” which the War of the Rebellion and Reconstruction brought into being. Continue reading


Teaching Ancient America


Matt Jennings is Associate Professor of History at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia, where he’s taught since 2007. His research interests include Native American history, the history of violence, and music. His first book, New Worlds of Violence, appeared in 2011, and he’s currently working on two manuscripts about Ocmulgee National Monument and one about Macon’s brewing industry.

Most survey-level American history classes cover one of two periods: the first concluding somewhere in the neighborhood of the Civil War or Reconstruction, and the second picking things up there. The simple fact, then, is that those of us wishing to treat ancient America (understood here as the period before the arrival of Europeans) as a crucial aspect of our survey teaching face some serious obstacles, one of which is the fact that one of the halves of the survey sequence is charged with covering more than 10,000 years while the other covers a scant century and a half. One might easily get the impression that American history, as traditionally periodized, downplays the role of indigenous people! To make matters worse, many textbooks treat all of American antiquity as a race to some more recent date: 1492 and 1607 are pretty popular choices. It’s as if ancient North America is useful only as a prelude to “discovery,” and its millions of inhabitants were milling about aimlessly, waiting for their history to begin in earnest. To be fair, some textbooks do mention ancient America, but these mentions are often of the “greatest hits” variety, with brief looks at Cahokia and Chaco Canyon.

Those of us who study ancient America will not succeed if our goal is to divide the surveys into two roughly equal periods of history (though it would be really fun to try). Nor are we likely to influence textbook publishers to recalibrate their entire approach to ancient America. We are not totally powerless, though. As we prepare for the parts of our classes dealing with ancient America, squeezed or truncated though they may be, there are some things that might help to inform our approach philosophically and some practical things we can do to get our students to think deeply about the deep past. Most students enter the American history survey course knowing next to nothing about North America’s deep history, though they might harbor stereotypes about the people who made this world. Both of these things have been true in my experience. But that dearth of background knowledge provides an opportunity to demolish those stereotypes, and to think seriously about some of the major issues in early American history, such as how to teach history with limited written sources and how to give a rich, long history its due in a course that by design privileges newcomers over natives.

Vine Deloria, Jr. once skewered feel-good, multicultural American history as an attempt to “lovingly plug a few feathers, woolly heads, and sombreros into the famous events of American history.”[2] Stories of the indigenous past have to have some effect on the narrative of early American history. A rich understanding of early North America carries within it the potential to destroy some of the most powerful myths in American history. Continue reading


The Making of a Presidential Soul


Patrick Lacroix is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Hampshire.

That this is an unprecedented presidential election campaign is already a cliché. The country has never seen the likes of the two leading contenders—and in one case, anything quite like the candidate’s words and deeds. But most remarkable of all, considering the arc of American politics in the last four decades, is the limited attention either candidate has received from the perspective of his or her faith.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have apparently sought to relegate their religious identities to a personal sphere, inconsequential to their politics or to the voting public. Both have proven reluctant to speak on their faith, with small, tentative exceptions (see here and here, for instance).

This is an important departure from our recent past. We need only think of Richard Nixon who, in his political comeback, spoke the values of a “silent majority” and enjoyed the friendship of revivalist Billy Graham. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush recurrently identified as born-again evangelical Christians. John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and Barack Obama all directly answered media scrutiny of their relationships to their respective churches. Continue reading


Politicizing and Practicing Motherhood Why We Should Care What Phyllis Schlafly Served her Kids for Breakfast

Phyllis Schlafly

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Assistant Professor of History at The New School and the author Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015). She is a host of the history podcast Past Present and her writing has appeared in scholarly journals and popular venues such as The New York Times, Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education. She tweets @nataliapetrzela and her site is www.nataliapetrzela.com

“I’d like to burn you at the stake,” pioneering feminist Betty Friedan famously spat at conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly during a 1973 debate about the Equal Rights Amendment. Her loathing reflected the recognition of a formidable opponent. Though our largely liberal profession took several decades to recognize Schlafly’s power in shaping political culture, the flurry of insightful reflections from historians in the wake of her recent death affirms Schlafly’s rightful place in the historical record even as her anti-feminist and anti-gay politics position her on what many agree is the wrong side of history.

A hallmark of Schlafly’s public persona was portraying the world as a series of stark opposites. Her feminist straw woman was joyless man-hater; in 1977, she contrasted a conservative, “positive woman” with the “miserable” who embraced the new feminist honorific “Ms.”[1] But if we treat Schlafly exclusively as the conservative complement to this caricature, we miss important dimensions of her function in the history of feminism as more than a reactionary foil. An illuminating way to read Schlafly as a more complex figure is to look beyond her rich public life to explore how she perceived motherhood not just as a political symbol but also as a personal practice. Continue reading


From the Archives… Reconstruction at 150

From Wikimedia, New Orleans 1874, clash between the racially integrated police and the segregationist White League.

New Orleans 1874, clash between the racially integrated police and the segregationist White League. Photo credit: Wikimedia

The OAH’s ongoing commemoration project on the Civil War at 150 has now wrapped up. At the beginning of the long sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, it’s worth looking back at the ways that the Journal of American History and the Organization of American Historians have dealt with this complicated period. We have selected the following materials for your use as you think about ways to teach or commemorate the many sesquicentennial anniversaries of Reconstruction.

First, if you’re looking for a talented speaker on the topics of Reconstruction, the OAH Distinguished Lecturership program has some options. Also check out videos of lectures by Distinguished Lecturers such as David Blight on “The Civil War in American Memory,” David Goldfield on “How the Civil War Created a Nation,” and Steven Hahn on “Why the Civil War Mattered.” Continue reading


Why Students Don’t Know Anything about Reconstruction: Three Modern Myths

William D. Carrigan

William D. Carrigan is a professor of history and the chair of the history department at Rowan University where he has taught over one hundred courses and thousands of students on such topics as the Civil War and Reconstruction, the American West, and the history of New Jersey. His most recent book is Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848–1928 (2013), coauthored with Clive Webb. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Since the late 1990s, I have been teaching courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction. What I found in my first few years was that, to my chagrin, students were much more engaged and interested in the Civil War half of the course than in the Reconstruction portion. I found this frustrating because it seemed to me that the post-Appomattox years shaped the United States deeply. It was Reconstruction that gave meaning to the Civil War and provided answers to the critical questions of the era, such as what kind of Union had been preserved, what did it mean that slavery had been abolished, and what, in the final analysis, had 750,000 soldiers actually died for. But few students shared my passion.

As I began to think about why this was the case and what I could do about it, several things became clear. First, popular culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries emphasized the Civil War. On television, in the movies, and in literature, the four years of war dwarfed the dozen years following surrender at Appomattox. Students routinely arrived in my class having seen films like Glory and Gettysburg (and sometimes, more recently, Lincoln and Twelve Years a Slave) and the landmark documentary series by Ken Burns, The Civil War, all of which focused overwhelmingly on the war years.

Second, my students claimed to have learned very little about Reconstruction in their precollegiate schooling. This sadly squared with what the Los Angeles Times reported in 1990, namely that high school students knew less about Reconstruction than any other era in American history.

Third, despite this lack of knowledge, my students had very little interest in learning more about Reconstruction, believing the subject to be only slightly more engaging than tariff policy in the late-nineteenth century. My early evaluations routinely asked for more time on the Civil War and less on Reconstruction.
I knew that this had not always been the case. Indeed, for a century after the Civil War, Reconstruction was more engaging for popular audiences and the general public. After all, Reconstruction is at the heart of two of the most popular movies of all time, The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.

Continue reading


Remembering Reconstruction: The Memphis Massacre of 1866


Beverly Bond is an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis and the former director of the African and African American studies program there. Susan Eva O’Donovan is an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis and an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

We’re a nation that loves our centennials and sesquicentennials. We celebrate wars; we celebrate statehood; we celebrate the founding of our nation and the founding of our schools and universities. MIT recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of its move from one side of the Charles River to the other, and the National Park Service, which turned 100 years old on August 25, has been celebrating all year long. That we’re fascinated by centennials and an increasing number of sesquicentennials is only human. They help us mark time, measure progress, and understand who we are and what we’ve been and done in the past. Because much of our national identity is tied to how we view those pasts, commemorations are by definition deeply political processes. Since it isn’t practical, much less feasible, to celebrate everything, centennials force us to choose, to weigh options, and to come to a collective decision about what’s important and, inversely, what’s not.

For 150 years Reconstruction has failed to make that commemorative cut. As a people we did not believe those tumultuous years that unfolded in the wake of the Confederate surrender have been worth the effort of public recognition. Why this has been the case is a question tangled up in a long history of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow. Written off in the early twentieth century by William C. Dunning and his students as a tragic error and then increasingly sealed behind an impenetrable wall of silence, Reconstruction has been the nonhistory, the nonevent. Yet as historians and those who read historians’ books and articles know, Reconstruction was a remarkably transformative period. It is the period in which the United States experienced that “new birth of freedom.” It was an era in which three constitutional amendments were debated, drafted, and ratified in the space of five years. It was an era in which the political universe was repopulated and in which ideas about governance were completely overhauled, laying the legal, social, political, and productive ground for who we have become as a people and as a nation in the twenty-first century. Evicting Reconstruction from of our public discussions is akin to leaving out the American Revolution, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, or Kennedy’s assassination. To overlook or ignore Reconstruction, to shutter and silence its history leaves much of who we are and how we came to be un- or at least underexplained.

Public perception is starting to change. Over the past few years a new generation of historians, led by Gregory P. Downs of the University of California, Davis, and Kate Masur of Northwestern University, have been working in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS) to “push the era—in all its complexity—back onto the map of America’s collective memory.” As Greg and Kate explain in an essay that appeared in the April 29, 2015, issue of The Atlantic, the NPS is no stranger to dealing with the so-called hard histories—those that are easier to forget than to remember—and in early 2016 the agency released the first fruits of this effort, a slim anthology titled The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook. But telling hard histories requires more than one volume, no matter how brilliant and respected its contributors. It requires public action. So, as the handbook was going to press, the NPS also outlined a novel approach in their ongoing effort to break the silences that have long surrounded Reconstruction’s history. Strategically retreating from what have been chronically unsuccessful efforts to develop conventional interpretive sites—initiatives that require deep reserves of money and political will—the new plan is to mobilize communities to develop their own public programming, focused on specific episodes of large-scale race violence. This plan avoids the practical and ideological obstacles that have long stymied efforts to bring Reconstruction to the surface of our collective memory. Moreover, in opening investigations into the mob violence that repeatedly rocked the post–Civil War nation, the NPS’s new model invites a more thoroughgoing discussion about Reconstruction, its origins, its meanings, and its legacies.

As specialists of the nineteenth-century African American experience, we had been following these developments avidly, albeit from afar. We have long wanted to see Reconstruction take its place on our national historical landscape. In July 2015 our role as cheerful spectators ended abruptly when Greg contacted us through Facebook (where would we be without social media?!), asking if we would be interested in organizing a commemoration of what was among the first of those large-scale episodes of race violence: the three days of terror that swept Memphis, Tennessee, in May 1866. We couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. Profoundly disturbed by what had just unfolded in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, and committed to the newly organized Black Lives Matter movement, we knew that the time had come to leave the sanctity of our university classrooms and to do more to engage with a much larger audience. As we understood it then, and continue to understand it today, we have a moral, ethical, and intellectual obligation to counter—publicly, repeatedly, and insistently—what remains a deeply entrenched and pro-Confederate narrative of racism, hate, and bigotry. We knew we needed to expand our classroom exponentially. Greg’s invitation on behalf of the NPS gave us that chance. Continue reading


The Trouble in Nate Parker’s Southampton The Birth of a Nation, a review


By Vanessa Holden.

“N—s was too smart fo’ white folks to git ketched. White folks was sharp too, but not sharp enough to git by ole Nat. Nat? I don’t know who he was. Ole folks used to say it all de time. De meaning’ I git is dat de n—s could always out-smart de white folks. What you git fum it?” —Cornelia Carney, b. 1838[i]

When asked to recall her life as an enslaved woman in Williamsburg, Virginia, Cornelia Carney enthusiastically remembered her handsome father, the violence their owner visited upon him, and his ultimate life as an outlier: forever truant, just a step or two ahead of their abusive master. His wit and savvy she expressed in a common folk saying: white folks were “not sharp enough to get by ole Nat.” And though it was her father and his resistance to enslavement that she held most dear, this expression that “ole folks used to say” linked the resistance she witnessed and admired to America’s most famous slave rebellion, the Southampton Rebellion of 1831 or Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

Folk hero, rebellion leader, slayer of slave owners, Nat Turner remained in the mouths of Black Virginians for generations. Carney was born seven years after the rebellion took place. The “ole folks” who raised her would have lived through the terror of white hysteria after the dust settled in Southampton County and near sixty whites lay dead. The rebellion lasted less than 48 hours on August 22 and 23, 1831. Virginians, white and Black, would not soon forget how rebels traveled from farm to farm murdering every white man, woman, and child they encountered. Nat Turner’s name would have conjured memories of their owners’ violence and anxiety, as Nat Turner remained missing for months after Southampton’s militia prevailed and trials of accused rebels began. But when Carney gave her interview a century after those violent days, Black Virginians were still facing awful times. A reminder that survival, resistance, and perseverance were possible must not have escaped her. Her father’s survival and Nat Turner’s successful rebellion remained married through a folk expression that an interviewer from the government would put in a book somewhere. Nat Turner, it seems, was still truant and lying out in the minds of Black Virginians. Continue reading


OAH/JAAS Japan Residency Program

Madeline Y. Hsu is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her works include Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration Between the United States and South China, 1882–1943 (Stanford University Press, 2000) and The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2015).  Professor Hsu was a 2016 recipient of an OAH/JAAS Japan Residency.

Fifty years ago, in the heady 1960s, American studies scholars in Japan organized the Japan Association for American Studies (JAAS). Twenty years ago, a formal residency program for U.S. historians began. I arrived in Japan at the conjuncture of these two anniversaries. It was an illuminating experience that provided a revealing window into views of the United States from the western end of the Pacific..

As a Fellow of the OAH-Japan Residencies Program, I participated in JAAS’ annual conference along with American Studies researchers invited from South Korea, the United States, and Switzerland to reflect on the field, and plenary sessions featuring multiple generations of past and present leaders of the organization.

World War II and the U.S. occupation are foundational to the development of American Studies in Japan.  The most senior scholars described their earliest exposure to Americans and the United States as taking place when the dominance of U.S. power was at its most stark and decisive in framing the conditions of alliance and collaboration that prevail today.  These conditions shaped their early preoccupation with American culture and civilization, which many pursued by studying abroad in the United States.  Several generations of scholars have followed in their footsteps, with some pursuing interdisciplinary training but also in disciplines such as history, political science, literature, musicology, anthropology, and sociology.  Many still study in the United States, although the field is now sufficiently institutionalized so that Japanese scholars can study for MA and PhD degrees at several well-regarded institutions in Japan.  Overall, I found the Japanese community of American Studies scholars had much higher levels of English-language abilities than American counterparts in the languages of their respective area studies. Continue reading


New African American History Museum Carries on a Radical Museum Tradition


Andrea Burns is an associate professor of public history at Appalachian State University. Her book, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (2013) won the 2015 National Council on Public History Best Book Award.

On a recent fall day at the university where I teach, maintenance crews could be seen washing chalk markings off various campus sidewalks. The markings included anti–Black Lives Matter slogans and other epithets that students, faculty, and staff found deeply offensive. University administrators issued a strong response and condemnation of this hate speech and proposed measures to prevent this from happening again. The appearance of these markings coincides with the rise of on-campus student activism in the Black Lives Matter movement. With the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott on September 20, the list of cities beset by unrest extends to Charlotte, North Carolina, just two hours from our campus. It seems, then, that this is an ominous, deeply fraught moment for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to open its doors. Yet a glance at the violent headlines of recent months, or a glimpse of the chalk markings and the distraught reaction of students, tells us that the museum’s opening has never been more crucial.

The debut of the NMAAHC marks the culmination of a museum-building campaign that spanned more than a century, beginning with a group of African American Civil War veterans in the early 1900s that pushed for the authorization of a federally sponsored building that honored African American contributions to the United States. Although their crusade was unsuccessful, black activists and some white allies in the federal government and the museum field picked up the movement again during the 1960s and 1980s. The final authorization for the NMAAHC came in 2003 during the George W. Bush administration. The campaign to build a national museum has thus occupied a space in the dialogue and aspirations of African Americans for generations and has been deeply influenced by the growth and shifts of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, and now, the Black Lives Matter movement. Continue reading