Consumed Nostalgia

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Gary Cross is Distinguished Professor of Modern History at the Pennsylvania State University and author of a dozen or so books. Since dropping his dissertation book topic (immigrants in modern France) 32 years ago, he has published a series of wide-ranging books mostly based on American sources on time, consumption, technology, leisure, childhood, and maturation. Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire with Robert Proctor is his most recent title. He is old enough to be mostly nostalgic, but he is writing a book about growing up with cars and plans on a book about fast capitalism across the 20th century.

Can you briefly describe your book Consumed Nostalgia?

The uses and meanings of memory and nostalgia have changed for many Americans, since the 1970s especially. Up to then nostalgia was mostly about a longing for places of origin (homesickness), family or community ancestors, and vanished societies, cultures, and regimes. Without disappearing, these appeals gave way to nostalgia for consumer goods and media moments associated with early childhood (toys, dolls, theme parks, retro TV, and domestic period kitsch) and the transition to adulthood (cars and oldies music). Though rooted in the memories of the first generation who grew up with fast consumer culture (the generation after 1900), this type of nostalgia has accelerated since the maturation of Americans who were young during the full flowering of that culture in the 1950s (with TV, rock music, and the rapid change in car and novelty consumption). This new type of nostalgia, based on memories of fast-changing consumer culture, divides many Americans into narrow groups that can deprive them of deeper engagements with their pasts and other people, especially of later generations. This study highlights the central importance of fast capitalism and childhood in shaping modern experience, sensibility, and with all this, memory.

What initially drew you to your topic?

For many years, I’ve been interested in the changing meanings of consumer culture and childhood. The two were linked in my earlier work through the commercialization of toys and the ways that parents and children related to each other through consumer goods and commercial media. More recently, these interests led me to think about how modern memory is shaped by fast-changing childhood experiences with goods and media. This was a very different way to look at memory and its romantic stepchild, nostalgia. Most historians focus on nostalgia for lost places, eras, regimes, and even artistic forms. My approach let me look at nostalgia through the lens of modern consumption rather than politics, religion, or culture. This topic has also given me the opportunity to go beyond traditional documentary sources to explore the memories of enthusiasts at car and toy shows, pop culture museums, and much else. Like many documentary sources, these conversations often didn’t go to my topic, but revealed how memories are shaped by the things that these enthusiasts collect and the old music and TV that they experience.  Continue reading

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Teaching the Pulse Massacre

Julio Capó, Jr. is Assistant Professor in the History Department and Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he recently received the College Outstanding Teaching Award. His first book, Welcome to Fairyland, chronicles Miami’s transnational queer past from 1890 to 1940, and is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.

The tragic shooting at Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, requires that we look to our past for potential answers, lessons learned, and steps for how to best move forward. Despite what some commentators have said, this was unequivocally an attack on LGBT and queer communities; particularly those of color. This fact cannot be understood as a footnote to this disaster. It must be interpreted as indistinctly central to its formulation.

Many of our younger students, especially those who do not identify as queer or transgender, have come of age when a narrative of linear progress has shaped much of their understanding on the lives of LGBTQ folk. They may be familiar with highly publicized victories like the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the 1993 policy that prohibited lesbians, gays, and bisexuals from serving openly in the military forces. Even more so, the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that brought marriage equality to the whole nation has left some of them with the impression that, “It gets better”—a nod to a popular Internet campaign founded in 2010—if you just give it enough time.

This liberal progress narrative fails to capture how, as several have long noted and as Pulse makes clear, life does not always get better for many still left vulnerable to such violence and discrimination. Of course, decades of activism and advocacy have vastly improved the lives of many LGBTQ people, and these perspectives are critically important. We must, however, explain to our students how those histories—as well as the Pulse massacre—fit into a much more nuanced and checkered tradition of postwar liberalism. We are tasked with teaching the tragedy as a manifestation of continued contestation and as part of a longer history of violent state-building and colonial projects.

This liberal progress narrative fails to capture how…life does not always get better for many still left vulnerable to such violence and discrimination.

When we teach the modern U.S. history survey, a cursory mention of the 1969 Stonewall riot in New York City will not suffice. We must emphasize how attacks on gender and sexual difference have been at the core of much of the violence and discrimination in the United States’ history. For instance, in my classes’ lengthy discussions on the social and cultural politics of HIV/AIDS, many students are often surprised to learn how violence and discrimination against queer people greatly intensified in the face of the disease. Many also express both shock and anger upon learning how infection rates continue to disproportionately affect transgender and communities of color in the United States.

Contingent representing several Latin American countries, with float like giant shoe, annual Seattle LGBT Pride parade, Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington, 1995.

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Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

CR Tara 2

Chris Rasmussen graduated from Grinnell College and received his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. He is Associate Professor of History at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. His article “‘This thing has ceased to be a joke’: The Veterans of Future Wars and the Meanings of Political Satire in the 1930s” appears in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of American History.

Decades ago, when I was starting out as a historian and researching a dissertation on state and county fairs, I met Bob Odenkirk, who was starting out as a comedian—long before he became famous playing Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad. “Do you do comedy?” he asked me. “No, I do history. But I do funny history.” Historians have long understood that studying humor offers insight about the past—when we get the jokes told in other times and places we get something about their culture. The Veterans of Future Wars (VFW) began as a joke among a few Princeton students in 1936, and quickly became a nationwide sensation. Examining Americans’ varied responses to the VFW’s joke enabled me to enter into their debates over war, peace, politics, and satire in the 1930s.

Veterans of Future Wars. The name alone was funny, at least to those with a dark sense of humor. It dared to poke fun at the prospect of dead soldiers and grieving mothers, and delivered a scathing commentary on World War I, the veterans’ lobby, and militarism. As one magazine put it, the VFW was engaged in “nonsense with a deadly serious purpose,” and its joke touched a nerve. Many Americans found it hysterical, while others found it unfunny, even downright offensive. Veterans’ groups considered it an unpatriotic slander. Both the enthusiasm and antagonism provoked by the VFW help reveal Americans’ conflicting attitudes about war and veterans in the 1930s, when isolationism and antiwar sentiment ran high.

In the spring of 1936, Princeton senior Lewis Gorin, Jr. was irked by Congress’s recent vote to pay immediately a bonus that was due to World War I veterans, but slated to be paid in 1945. Gorin detested the opportunism and loudly proclaimed patriotism of the veterans’ lobby (the American Legion and the original VFW, the Veterans of Foreign Wars). He was also horrified by the carnage of World War I, the rise of Nazism, and the specter of another European war. Isolationism was potent in the mid-1930s, and many Americans regarded American entry into the Great War a disaster not to be repeated. So Gorin hatched the Veterans of Future Wars, a satirical organization that demanded that the U.S. government pay immediately a bonus to every young man of draft age, so they could enjoy their bonus while they were young—and alive.

Gorin’s satire went viral, as we would say today. Within weeks upwards of 60,000 college students enlisted in the VFW. College students were vitally concerned with issues of war and peace in the 1930s, even more than with the Great Depression. Most of the students who joined the VFW were excited by its potential as an antiwar movement, and found the organization’s humorous approach to activism far more appealing than the dreary meetings and internecine squabbles of conventional political organizations.

This article grew out of my interest in the 1930s, but was directly inspired by a two undergraduate lectures—Prof. Richard Challener’s and my own. In 1990, while I was a graduate student at Rutgers University, I worked at Princeton University as a preceptor (that’s Princeton-speak for “T.A.”) in Prof. Challener’s course on American diplomatic history. In his lecture on isolationism, Prof. Challener discussed the Veterans of Future Wars as expression of Americans’ determination never again to be drawn into a European conflict. I had never heard of the VFW, and it cracked me up and intrigued me. After class, I told Prof. Challener that the VFW would make for an interesting article about student activism in the 1930s.

Researching the VFW was just plain fun.

Years after I first heard about the VFW in Prof. Challener’s class, I found myself writing my own lecture on isolationism, and remembered the VFW. Because the VFW was a satirical organization of college students, I thought students would find it engaging, and incorporated it into my lecture. Afterward, I resolved to write an article about it. Conveniently, because I had landed a job at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, the VFW papers in the Seeley Mudd Library at Princeton were only a short drive from my home. I also found some great sources in the archive at Vassar College, home to the VFW’s women’s auxiliary, the Future Gold Star Mothers, an organization for young women doomed to lose sons in a future war. Lampooning maternal grief provoked a firestorm of criticism, and the organization soon changed its name to the Home Fires Division. Continue reading

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Sidney Mintz’s Long, Sweet Legacy

Merleaux_profileApril Merleaux is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Florida International University. She is the author of Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2015, winner of the Myrna Bernath book prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University in 2010, and holds an M.S. in Nutrition Science and Policy from Tufts University. Her current research explores the environmental aspects of the war on drugs in  twentieth-century United States and Latin America.

I was greatly saddened to hear of Sidney Mintz’s passing in December. By all accounts he was a generous mentor and friend, and he will be greatly missed. The author of dozens of works, Mintz has inspired a generation of scholars working on Caribbean society, plantation agriculture, food history, commodities, consumer culture, and capitalism. An anthropologist by training, he was a truly interdisciplinary thinker and writer and his influence is widely evident among historians. Those outside of Latin American and Caribbean history are most likely to know Mintz through his popular Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), which is an exemplar of interdisciplinary, transregional history and creative synthesis. For all its flaws, the work is still regularly taught in undergraduate and graduate courses, and it graces the shelves of academics and non-academics alike. Having myself just published a book on the politics of sugar production and consumption in the United States and its empire, I had long imagined that I would someday sit down and have a nice chat with him. I am sorry that I missed the chance.

Though I never met Mintz, his work has influenced me at nearly every stage of my career. I have read Sweetness and Power from cover to cover at least five times over the last twenty-two years, and each reading has repaid my effort. I owe him a tremendous intellectual debt, not just as a fellow historian of sugar, but also as someone who cares deeply about food and power.

I first read Sweetness and Power more than twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate in a course on the history of consumer culture in the United States. Not even a decade old at the time, the book had already made its mark, transforming the way people thought about the connections among slavery, industrialization, and food consumption. Mintz collapsed the physical and psychological distance between the working classes in English factories and enslaved Africans on Caribbean plantations. He showed that the experiences of each group were as tightly bound by the sinews of global capitalism as if they were laboring right next door to one another. In the same course I read for the first time Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, and, notably, Lizbeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal—scholars who, much like Mintz, complicated an older view of mass consumer culture as apolitical or reactionary. We began to understand in much clearer and more specific historical terms how consumer politics could enable potentially liberatory producer politics.

Book

The author’s copy of Sweetness and Power.

Sweetness and Power was utterly mind-blowing for me as a starry-eyed undergraduate. Mintz’s argument immediately struck me as a profoundly ethical one—people living and working at great distances nonetheless exist in close, almost alchemical relationship with one another. Captivating turns of phrase certainly helped: “Slave and proletarian together powered the imperial economic system that kept the one supplied with manacles and the other with sugar and rum.” If, as he argued, people invisible to each other nonetheless exist as part of the same system, we bear intrinsic responsibility for each other. This opened for me a radical way of imagining ethical consumption and dignified labor.

I graduated from college weary of too many hours alone in the library, and eager to get my hands dirty. I boxed up my dog-eared copy of Sweetness and Power, setting off in search of a more direct encounter with the politics of production and consumption. For nearly seven years I worked on food and farming justice issues, managing an organic farm, doing environmental education with children, and advocating for food policy reform. I don’t recall rereading Mintz in those years, but the book nonetheless moved with me from Oregon to California to New Hampshire to Massachusetts. This was a period in which the ethical consumption movement really came into its own—most obviously in the contentious public debate over the federal organic standards in 1997, culminating in the 2002 National Organic Program, but also in the Fair Trade movement. At the time, we believed these movements could reduce the distances between producer and consumer. In hindsight, the hope that we could buy our way out of an exploitative food system seems to me a logical, and somewhat naïve, result of my earlier reading of Mintz. Now organic food can seem like little more than window dressing for elite shoppers. Continue reading

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Changing the Discourse on Graduate History Education: Lessons from the Crossroads

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Jordan M. Reed is a PhD candidate at Drew University specializing in the authorship of American history textbooks. Leanne M. Horinko is PhD candidate at Drew University researching 1960’s counter-culture.

March 11 and 12, 2016 we hosted Crossroads, a conference on the future of graduate history education at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. In sum we welcomed 112 conference attendees including leading experts, faculty, and students from 50 different institutions. It is no secret that the traditional job prospects for history graduate students are in dire straits. Crossroads sought to add to the existing discourse on the current job climate and non-academic career initiatives. The final program consisted of sessions on the digital humanities, interdisciplinary trends, shifts in curriculum, terminal M.A. programs, public history, and issues of diversity. In the weeks following the conference we found ourselves coming back to a few key discussions.

The first was on the state of the history master’s degree. Current trends in graduate humanities are dominated by doctoral-level interests. During his keynote, Rob Townsend of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences presented a fresh set of data related to the identity of the history M.A. Townsend described history departments’ view of the degree as a the “swiss army knife” in a graduate program’s offerings. Seventy percent of department heads characterized it as a “general purpose” degree with many graduates finding success in pre-collegiate education and public history. While faculty and administrators struggle to identify the role of the M.A., master’s level students and terminal M.A. program alumni were outspoken about the importance of the degree.

Greta Bell from California State University-Fresno and Katrin Boniface from the University of California-Riverside provided a view of a purposeful future for the M.A. degree. Together, Bell and Boniface argued that a new master’s degree focused in professionalization can retrieve the M.A. from what a 2005 AHA report termed the “dustbin of history.” Programs can focus on skills needed in all careers outside academia. Skill specialization is essential to future marketability for M.A. graduates whether in the digital humanities, oral history, or teaching. Continue reading

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Archiving Ohio Valley Ethnohistory

Wayne

Wayne Huxhold, a MLS student at IU’s School of Information and Library Sciences, is the Library and Archive Coordinator at the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology at Indiana University. He earned a BA with highest distinctions in Anthropology from Indiana University in 2013. He intends to continue working for the repatriation of cultural resources to American Indian tribes.

Tell us about the collection, what is it comprised of?

The Great Lakes/Ohio Valley Ethnohistory Collection is an archival collection of primary and secondary resources documenting American Indian land use and occupancy in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley region from the point of European contact forward. This compilation of documents ranging from the year 1600 to 1950 focuses solely on the location of particular Indian groups at particular times. The collection is the evidence produced for and used by the United States Justice Department’s Indian Claims Commission (ICC) in defense against American Indian claims of treaty violations and land disputes that the ICC hoped to settle once and for all.  It also contains the transcribed reports of the proceedings, and the final facts and findings of the commission. The collection also includes an overall bibliography of the collection on note cards cataloging the materials assembled and used by the project team. Further, as they discovered specific instances of geographic or ethnographic interest, they jotted it down on notecards. In essence, not only does this in-depth collection have a bibliography, but a broad-spectrum functional index as well.

The collection is valuable for its original purpose of providing evidence for legal disputes of land and treaty violations. However, it is also an incredible resource for anyone researching American Indian or colonial history topics. Researchers might initially find these kinds of sources limited or difficult to work with. Their narrow focus on American Indian land use and occupancy may seem to be of limited value. Additionally, many documents are incomplete. For example, in the Tribal History Documents series one will find documents consisting of 3 pages of a 200-page book, or 1 page of a 5-page letter, which can be maddening when one looks for the next line on another page but the page is not there. Yet the way that the collection was originally assembled provides a roadmap for studying Native history. Partial documents each include a citation to its original source typed at the top of the page. The original project team arranged these documents by tribe and then by date. This means that the citations on a document in a folder representing a certain span of years for a particular tribe points a researcher to most, if not all of the original sources written about that tribe and geographic area at that time.

Imaginative digital strategies are allowing us to highlight the full value of the information contained in the complex relationships within the collection. We need to digitize the land use and occupancy focused materials in the Tribal History Documents Series in their partial form to maintain the integrity of the collection as an artifact. Yet at the same time, we hoped to connect that document to its original source, and also find a way to point the specific items in the indices to their source. After meeting with representatives from Indiana University’s digital libraries, we developed a solution using XML to write an electronic finding aid governed by EAD standards, and linked to a bibliography created in Zotero. Specifically, the finding aid describes each document in the Tribal History Documents Series with the full citation of its original source. A click on the citation reveals the digitized document. At the top of each folder is a link to an online Zotero bibliography created for that particular sub-series. Clicking on the citation within the bibliography takes you to a digitized version of the full source. In addition, on the Zotero bibliography page, tags representing the subjects in the Tribal Indices Series link to their original source. It is this level of broad coverage with specific detail-linking availability that offers an important tool for American Indian and colonial history researchers alike.

How did the collection come into existence and how did it end up at the Glenn A. Black Lab?

Dr. Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin from Indiana University’s Department of History began this project in 1953. Commissioned by the Indians Claims Section of the Land Division of the Department of Justice, the land use and occupancy project focused on documenting Indian tribal activities for particular regions. For the next thirteen years, Wheeler-Voegelin led a staff that included 2 full time administrative employees, 8 researchers, and a part-time cartographer.

Once documents were collected, to meet the requirements of the ICC, they were reproduced as 8.5 x 11 copies.  Many documents were copies out of books, but if the document was hand written it was transcribed. If it was originally written in a foreign language, it was translated. They then arranged the documents by tribe and by year. As dockets were scheduled, the ICC would request reports for the contested region along with supporting evidence. The team’s researchers produced these ethnohistorical reports by interpreting historical and ethnographic evidence. The project and this process continued until 1966 when all claims requiring evidence for the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions were settled.

Upon completion the collection was almost lost as no one at Indiana University wanted such a large collection. It was stored in a warehouse on the Indiana University campus until 1971 when Wheeler-Voegelin requested that Harold Kellar, director of the newly opened Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology (GBL), house them in the new facility. Continue reading

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What’s in the June issue of the Journal of American History?

june coverThe June issue of the Journal of American History is now online for subscribers.

Inside are articles by Patricia Bonomi, Jon Butler, Chris Rasmussen, H. Timothy Lovelace, Jr., and Nina Silber. Check out our podcast interview with Nina Silber about her article. We’ve included previews for the articles below the fold.

The exhibition reviews section includes reviews of the Daughters of the American Republic’s “Remembering the American Revolution, 1776–1890,” Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House, the Schomburg Center’s “Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson,” “Patient No More,” and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s “Nation to Nation: Treaties between the United States and American Indian Nations.”

Our book reviews section features 150 reviews of the recent works in American history. The March issue includes feature reviews of Martha Hodes’ Mourning Lincolnreviewed by Anne Sarah Rubin, Mary Louise Roberts’ What Soldiers Doreviewed by Aaron B. O’Connell, John H. M. Laslett’s Sunshine Was Never Enoughreviewed by Chris Rhomberg, and Kate Brown’s Dispatches from Dystopiareviewed by Jessica Sewell.

Movie reviews section features reviews of Rosenwald, SpotlightDrunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Trumbo, and The Seventies.

Finally, the March issue features digital history reviews of A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns, 1787–1825 reviewed by Joseph Adelman, Andrew J. Torget’s Texas Slavery Project reviewed by Walter L. Buenger, The Roosevelt Library and the National Archives’s Franklin reviewed by Barry Trachtenberg, and The Programming Historian reviewed by Lincoln Mullen.

Share your thoughts on the December issue in the comments section below, or by tweeting at us @JournAmHist.

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Obama in Hiroshima: A Mandate for Looking Back

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Susan Southard is the author of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War.

On Friday, May 27, 2016, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki since the end of the Pacific War in August 1945. After visiting the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum and laying a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Obama stood before a microphone, urging the world to remember the import and consequences of the first and only use of nuclear weapons in history.

Obama’s message is particularly relevant for Americans, who have not been adequately informed about—and who have mostly ignored and even denied—the suffering of the victims beneath the atomic clouds and in the seventy-one years since. The United States had used its newly developed nuclear weapons with little scientific understanding of their impact on the human body. Within weeks of the bombings, which had killed tens of thousands of civilians instantaneously, news reports in both Japan and the United States began to reveal the horrifying symptoms and deaths that were occurring throughout both cities due to whole-body, high-dose radiation exposure. By mid-September, however, General Douglas MacArthur, head of the U.S. post-war occupation of Japan, imposed a strict Japanese press code that effectively suspended reports of the human effects of the bomb in both Japan and the United States until 1949.

After articles and editorials by U.S. scientists, journalists, and religious leaders appeared in the U.S. media questioning the morality and military necessity of using the bombs, U.S. government and military leaders began a campaign to quell opposition to the bombs. Their efforts culminated in Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s 1947 article in the Atlantic Monthly in which Stimson justified the deployment of the bombs. By virtue of his authority and careful (though extremely selective) reasoning, Stimson created a singular atomic bomb narrative with such moral certitude that it superseded all others and became deeply ingrained as the truth in American perception and memory: The atomic bombings ended the war and saved a million American lives by preventing a land invasion of the Japanese home islands.

This perception, and Americans’ memory of Japanese wartime brutality, still prevents many Americans from even acknowledging the survivors’ suffering as they navigated an uncertain future with punishing injuries, acute and late-onset radiation-related illnesses (including high rates of leukemia and other cancers), severe psychological suffering, and haunting fears that they would pass on genetic disorders to their children and grandchildren. Few Americans know about survivors’ efforts to fight employment and marriage discrimination, petition for health care support from their own government, or counter cultural norms to publicly tell their very personal stories in order to ensure that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the last atomic-bombed cities in history.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and President Barack Obama shaking hands at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima gives Americans permission to see the victims in ways we haven’t been able to before. As he held Japan accountable for its role in initiating the war, Obama also spoke to what Hiroshima and Nagasaki can tell us, if we listen. After his remarks, Obama embraced two of Hiroshima’s aging survivors. By doing so, he established at the highest rank in our nation the possibility for all of us to see beyond blame and dehumanization of the “other,” our former enemies, to understand the suffering—at our hands—of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who had no control over their country’s wartime choices. Continue reading

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Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton Is Not Throwing Away Its Second Shot

Andrew Schocket

Andrew M. Schocket is Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University. He is the author most recently of Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution.

As someone interested enough in American history to read this blog, if you haven’t recently encountered Alexander Hamilton—through his escape from possible relegation off the $10 bill or, more likely, the Broadway musical Hamilton with its exposure on late-night TV, presidential kudos, Grammy appearance, Billboard R&B best-selling cast album; or through your Hamilton­ lyric-quoting students or children—please look up. It’s time to emerge from your library or book-lined study to catch a whiff of 2016.

What’s especially noteworthy about Hamilton’s recent posthumous pop-culture stardom is that it was launched by a dozen-year-old biography that is once again on the best-seller lists: Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (2004), published at the bicentennial of the first Secretary of the Treasury’s fatal duel with sitting Vice President Aaron Burr. Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda read it on a vacation, made Hamilton’s life the subject of his eponymous Pulitzer-, George Washington-, and MacArthur Prize-inspiring musical, and the “ten-dollar founding father without a father,” as he’s introduced in the musical, has been on as big of a roll as can be expected for a dead great white man these days. How should we think about Chernow’s massive account—currently again one of the top-selling history books in the nation—not only as a biography and work of history, but also at the epicenter of this new Hamilton-mania?

First, on its own terms. Having penned well-received biographies of Gilded Age tycoons, Chernow aimed to produce a “large-scale, go-for-broke, authoritative text on Hamilton.”[1] Two out of three ain’t bad. Weighing in at 731 pages (exclusive of footnotes), Alexander Hamilton delivers a compelling sense of its subject as an ambitious, dashing, combative, brilliant, tireless striver, a man always on the make who appeared incapable of sustaining having made it. Chernow sifted through Hamilton’s prodigious output, and provides the fullest account of Hamilton we’ve seen, including the best illumination of his Caribbean early years, readable accounts of his various political maneuvers, and a sensitive consideration of his complex marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. It offers perhaps the most extended treatment of Hamilton’s personal relationships.

The Hamilton we desperately want is not the Hamilton the 2010s sorely deserve.

That said, Alexander Hamilton is far from definitive on the Federalist Papers’ most prolific contributor. Chernow deeply mined Hamilton’s writings, but barely scratched the surface of the prodigious scholarship on the founding era’s politics and culture, and it shows. The resulting close focus fails to give readers a sense of Hamilton’s broader meaning in his time and place. Worse, it enabled Chernow to indulge his own instinct to go to great lengths to elide or defend Hamilton’s mistakes, excesses, and questionable actions in ways that a broader knowledge of the period might have tempered, better serving readers and history. Chernow failed to report on Hamilton’s subtle encouragement of a military coup, seemed not to notice Hamilton’s extremely disdainful view of democracy, and vehemently denied, despite Hamilton’s own assertions, that Hamilton’s financial program was specifically geared toward the wealthy. Chernow also exaggerated Hamilton’s abolitionism, arguing with little basis that his “staunch abolitionism formed an integral part of [Hamilton’s] economic vision,” and greatly oversold Hamilton’s abolitionist activities, for example, strangely touting that in 1788, amid Hamilton’s whirlwind of activity, he “stepped up his involvement in the Manumission Society,” a commitment that even Chernow admitted consisted of attending a single meeting.[2] In sum, Chernow bestowed many strikingly crafted words on Hamilton, but not the last ones. Continue reading

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Finding Runaway Slaves: Freedom on the Move and the Databasing of Fugitive Slave Advertisements from North American Newspapers

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(Left to right) Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. Mary Niall Mitchell is Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies and Associate Professor of History at the University of New Orleans. Edward E. Baptist is Professor of History and Dean of Carl Becker House at Cornell University. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Most historians of chattel slavery looking for detailed information about individual enslaved people have turned to a familiar constellation of sources: nineteenth-century slave narratives, the Ex-Slave Narratives gathered in the 1930s and 1940s by the Works Progress Administration, plantation records, and legal documents. We hope that this is about to change, by bringing new and existing digital techniques to a type of narrative that ran daily on the pages of American newspapers from the eighteenth century until the Civil War: the fugitive slave advertisement.

From the earliest days of colonial slavery in North America until the final realization of Emancipation, enslaved people ran away in large numbers. They did so for many reasons: to reach free territory, to escape a violent owner, to return to family from whom they had been separated, or to gain some leverage in negotiation with an owner or overseer. Both owners looking for runaways and jailers who captured fugitives mid-flight printed information in local newspapers to assist in the recovery of escapees. With a few short lines each, they produced tiny, dense narratives that often included detailed physical descriptions of fugitives (such as height, build, appearance, clothing, any scars or identifying marks) as well as information regarding specific skills, literacy level, and linguistic abilities. At times they also included fugitives’ personal and family histories, when and where they had been bought or sold, and even speculation about where a fugitive might be headed and why. An owner in Hunstsville, Alabama, for instance, posted the following ad in 1830:

$10 REWARD

RANAWAY from the subscriber, on or about the 10th of August last, a negro man, named WILLIS, aged 21 or 22 years, about 5 feet 10 or 11 inches high—rather a bright complexion, stoutly made, when spoken to has a down look, tolerably thick lips, the thumb of the right hand has been cut off at the root of the [illegible]; he is left handed, and is a first rate brick-moulder. He was raised near Hillsborough, N.C. and was brought to this county about three years ago. It is probable that he may attempt to return to North Carolina again. The above reward will be given, if taken in this county, if out of the county, all reasonable expenses will be defrayed.

GEORGE STEELE

Huntsville, Sept. 10, 1830

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Ad that ran in North Carolina’s Federal Union newspaper on March 1, 1853. (click to expand)

While it is difficult to know the outcome of these escapes—some runaways succeeded, but many more were recaptured, as evidenced by the large number of jailer ads—we know who ran, and in many cases how often they did so.

Thousands of these enslaved individuals on the run inhabit the pages of historical newspapers in the United States. By 1865, we estimate more than 200,000 such notices appeared. These men, women, and children who risked their lives to flee from their enslavers could change how we think about enslavement in the United States by giving names and faces to the people who directly contested slavery. As historians Loren Schweinger and John Hope Franklin pointed out in 1999 (well before digital technology allowed us to create a comprehensive database) the stories contained in the ads demand that we de-center the dominant narrative of escape along the Underground Railroad. While the history of an underground antislavery network is a familiar one, the paths of most fugitives are not. An ad for Fanny, published in New Orleans in 1844, for instance, relayed that she was thirty years of age, spoke both English and French, was missing her front teeth and had “very dark skin.” But is also reveals that her flight depended upon family ties. She took one daughter, “a mulatto, aged about 7,” with her when she ran. But she had another daughter, on Girod Street, “and may go there at night.” The ad also reported that Fanny had been seen at St. Mary’s Market. Hence, Fanny’s goals were immediate, her flight shaped by circumstance: a young child in tow, another child living separately from her, and the necessity of buying or selling goods at market to sustain herself and her family. In fact, the majority of the individuals who appeared in fugitive slave advertisements had trajectories, like Fanny’s, that were calculated, unique, and accomplished without the aid of abolitionists.  Continue reading

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