Posted in 18th century America, military

The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

Bell, David Avrom. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007.

In The First Total War, David Bell, whose historical interest lies in the political culture of the Old Regime and the French Revolution, argues that modern militarism evolved during the vast number of worldwide conflicts that occurred during the Napoleonic era.  The book’s introduction suggests that Bell’s research is a response to the continual state of war American leaders have waged on the Middle East and beyond since the early nineties.  Although historians are not in agreement over the term “total war,” Bell argues that apocalyptic rhetoric and, with it, the “complete mobilization of a society’s resources to achieve the absolute destruction of the enemy” are key identifiers of total war, and Bell claims that absolute investment in total war becomes a redemptive experience (7). Yet, ironically, the intellectual roots of modern militarism can be found in the Enlightenment belief in the coming of perpetual peace (6, 73-74, 77-78), and Bell connects these themes to both World War I and the aftermath of 9/11 (314-315).

Most of Bell’s sources are published secondary resources, such as academic journal articles and books, with a few works with which the general public would be familiar, such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and popular magazines, such as The Wall Street Journal.  Bell saved the layman from having to wade through scores of footnotes by arranging them at the end of his book.

Bell missed a number of opportunities that would have helped readers better understand our current state of perpetual warfare.  Apocalyptic discourse tied to redemptive experience stems from Christian narratives, yet Bell failed to connect the influence the Church has on politics and language.  He also failed to connect the differentiation of the military from civilians to the abolition of the nobility and the clergy during the French Revolution.  Societies are ordered hierarchies, so leveling the importance of the nobility and the clergy in French society left a gaping wound that was quickly filled by this new prestigious military power.

Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, immigrants, marginalization, military, religion

Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831

Coller, Ian. Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

In Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, Ian Coller, whose historical research focuses on Europe and the Muslim world since the eighteenth century, offers a “historical triage” of European history with what he calls “an intentional act of seeing” (Coller 2). He does not focus on well-documented populations, such as Algerians and Moroccans; instead, Coller’s research concentrates on several hundred Arabs and their families who accompanied Napoleon’s soldiers to France in the early 1800s (Coller 42). By excavating neglected archives and reimagining a “lost” community through the “fragments, gaps, and silences” between historical documents, Coller unveils a community that was nearly erased from the historical record (Coller 5). Coller offers a new narrative of France that reveals how integral Arab France was to the birth of modern Europe.

Coller’s sources include secondary resources, such as books and journal articles, and a wealth of archival material that includes personal letters, petitions, poetry, and art. A number of engravings and prints are reproduced within the book, which he uses to support his assertions that Arab France was a common sight within France and that “cultural and racial conceptions of the Arab would be reconfigured, with disastrous consequences for Arab France” during the final years of the Restoration (Coller 163).

Coller’s project echoes Water Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where in Thesis VI, Benjamin writes, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Coller attempts to translate the untranslatable in order to bring meaning to overlooked and/or misunderstood customs and gestures (Coller 73). But his argument was weakened by presenting too much evidence. For example, in the chapter “Cosmopolitanism and Confusion,” Coller discloses the works of Arab intellectuals in Paris, which he describes as “numerous, varied, and rich–a whole series of published books and pamphlets, in addition to unpublished sources in Arabic and French” (Coller 159). However, this treasure trove of resources contradicts the lack of evidence for which he seems to be arguing.

Posted in 17th century America, 18th century America, 19th century America, assimilation, Christianity, class, gender studies, historiography, immigrants, labor, marginalization, material culture, migrants, religion, urban studies

Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

Brown, Kathleen M. Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009.

In Foul Bodies, Kathleen Brown uses social and cultural history methods to reimagine five hundred years of history as a history of civilizing the body. Challenging notions that “significant historical change takes place mainly in public areas,” Brown contends that “[d]omestic life—always in dynamic relationship with public culture—is also a site of cultural production that undergoes profound historical transformation.”[1] She examines “the relationship between household practices” of cleaning bodies and “public expectations for a civilized body,” through evolving views about cleanliness, privacy, and health.[2] Her work shows that “national standards of private cleanliness reveal much about its ideals of civilization, fears of disease, and expectations for public life.”[3] Brown’s research certainly was inspired by Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, which identified attitudes towards purity and pollution at the heart of every society. Whereas, Douglas’ work focused on ritual, religion, and lived experience, Brown asks important new questions related to pollution and the body, expanding the research into the realms of health, gender, class, and race relations.

Brown’s research in Foul Bodies has been cited in numerous recent works. Google Scholar identified over sixty publications. Some of the results were duplicates. Some were erroneous. Of the remaining fifty works, six are dissertations or theses, eighteen are journal articles, and the rest books. At least one book, Gretchen Long’s Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation, lists Foul Bodies in its bibliography, but does not directly cite any content. Notably, over half of the authors are women (or have names generally attributed to females). Several publications will be discussed in the upcoming paragraphs. A more complete list of works can be found in the bibliography.

Holly Dugan, in The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, referred to Brown’s “linen-centered” models of cleanliness to support her argument that body odors were a reflection of one’s social position.[4] Sophie White, in Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana, discussed archaeological finds of household goods from colonial sites in the Illinois Country. She explained that “households included embroidered linen napkins and tablecloths that either someone in the household or a paid village washerwoman would have maintained using skilled and labor-intensive European laundering and ironing techniques.”[5] The attached footnote refers readers to Brown’s concept of “body work” in Part III of Foul Bodies without further explanation.

In Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference, Jenny Shaw explores the construction of difference through the everyday life of colonial subjects in the second half of the seventeenth century. In Chapter 1, Shaw discussed English disapproval of Irish clothing choices, which were interpreted as the “Irish preference for comfort over prestige.” Her focus in this section of the book was on a piece of clothing called a mantle: “Perhaps the real English concern with the mantle was related to its ability to conceal the sexual misconduct of Irish women, thus enabling the garment to become an easily recognized symbol of the general degeneracy of the Irish population.”[6] Shaw cited Brown’s exploration of “the language of cleanliness with regard to Moryson’s assessment of Irish barbarism.”[7] In Chapter 6, Shaw returned to the same section of Brown’s work in order to offer further support for her examples of people using poor Irish women as servants in the Caribbean to in order to demonstrate a privileged position. Shaw referred readers to Foul Bodies to learn more about the kinds of labor involved in starching and washing.[8] As Brown notes, many social factors contributed to how these tasks and who performed them are understood. “The laundress’ ability to be a mobile, independent, wage earner tarnished her reputation for chastity. . . At the end of the sixteen century, laundress and nurse were terms rife with sexual innuendo, and connoted whore and bawd.”[9]

In Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia, Kathryn Meier explores how soldiers survived the conditions of war through forming universal self-care habits, including boiling water, eradicating insects, and supplementing their diets with fruits and vegetables. “In order to improve their health, soldiers periodically had to adjust their ideas of manliness, class values, and race to the circumstances at hand.”[10] Meier referenced Brown’s work along with research from environmental historians who have investigated nineteenth century bodies.

In Chapter 1, Meier covers the topic of American healthcare before 1862. She explains how wealthy Southerners would travel to cooler climates to recover from illness and cited Brown’s related discussion about families traveling with ill loved ones.[11] Later in the same chapter, Meier turns to more personal aspects of recovery. She revealed class differences in her discussion about Americans having little contact with doctors, with the exception of wealthy families, who could travel for medical advice. In addition, Meier mentioned that family members, most often mothers, sisters, and wives, provided care in the home, citing Brown’s research.[12]

Common people during this era were encouraged to participate in their own health care. Many households owned domestic medicine manuals. Meier cited Brown as when she wrote, “Women often proved the dispensers of such knowledge, sometimes authoring or compiling their own recipe books of remedies.”[13] Finally, in this chapter, Meier discussed the social reform movement that advocated the belief that “water, diet, and exercise could prevent and cure most sickness,” citing multiple passages from Foul Bodies.[14]

Although this essay has delved into only a few examples of current scholarly use of Brown’s work, we can see a broad spectrum of academic research incorporating Foul Bodies.  One was just a simple reference within a history of scents. Next we saw an attempt to reconstruct a model of colonial life through understanding what “labor-intensive European laundering and ironing techniques” entail. Shaw’s book focused more on the social and cultural aspects that Brown’s research on laundering revealed, helping readers understand how difference is constructed. And Meier, citing multiple aspects of Brown’s research on health, introduced readers to pre-Civil War attitudes and habits of medicine.

[1] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009), 4.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Publication’s promotional abstract.

[4] Brown, 41; Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (JHU Press, 2011), 107fn39.

[5] Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 45.

[6] Jenny Shaw, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference (University of Georgia Press, 2013), 27.

[7] Brown, 32; Shaw, 28.

[8] Brown, 31-32; Shaw, 167.

[9] Brown, 31.

[10] Kathryn Shively Meier, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (UNC Press Books, 2013). Book’s promotional abstract.

[11] Brown, 303; Meier, 18fn12.

[12] Brown, 303, 230–31; Meier, 22fn24.

[13] Brown, 213–14; Meier, 22fn29.

[14] Brown, 290–93, 308, 16; Meier, 31fn67.

Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, African Americans, assimilation, capitalism, gender studies, historiography, imperialism, marginalization, material culture, Native Americans, paternalism, racial cleansing, racism, resistance, slavery, violence

American Slavery, American Freedom

The ‘Origins Debate’; Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom; and Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage

Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 [1975].

(Cheating a little. This paper discussed two books, so I am posting the same paper under both titles.)

During the 1960s, distinguished scholars engaged in an “origins debate” that explored how and why a slave society in North America rose to such prominence. Initial questions had focused on when and why “Virginians first began enslaving blacks (and whether racism prompted or followed their decision).” [1] Eventually, historians expanded their research to encompass capitalist concerns, specifically questioning when and why plantation owners turned to slavery as the primary form of bound labor.  Later studies placed domestic slavery within a global context where it was foregrounded as the Civil War’s inevitable cause.[2] The “origins debate” was part of a longer conversation by scholars trying to make sense of the Civil War and developed alongside a larger debate over American exceptionalism in a war-torn world.[3]  This scholarship goes far beyond proving that slavery was the primary cause for secession. As Frank Towers points out, “Slavery now seems more integral to antebellum society, and secession looks more like other episodes in the creation of nineteenth-century nation-states.”[4] This paper examines the “origins debate,” Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) as the embodiment of this debate, and argues that Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage (2008) embodies a literature that now transcends the once pivotal “origins” question that runs through Morgan’s work.

Cathy Matson notes in her essay, “The Early Modern Chesapeake Redux–Again,” (2013) that scholars are indebted to a “long line of distinguished historians in the Chesapeake School” whose research provided the foundations for this field. Recent scholarship reveals the continued benefits of revisiting slave society localities from new vantage points with fresh sources.[5]  Matson revisited the long historiography in her 2013 essay, noting that some historians had subscribed to Winthrop Jordan’s “unthinking decision” thesis about the relationship between slavery and racism.  In his Bancroft Prize-winning book, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968), Jordan argued that English and Anglo-American perceptions about difference were used to justify race-based slavery, and liberty and justice for whites only. While other scholars “boldly reconceptualized” political and social history by integrating “religion, slavery, tobacco economies, and elite power.”[6]

In 2011, Frank Towers offered a historiographical review that outlined how historians attempted to make sense of the Civil War era. He noted that even as late as the 1970s, a grand narrative still told the story of America’s transition from “small-scale, agrarian communities with unfree labor to large-scale, industrial cities without it.”[7] Leading the way, Eugene Genovese had emphasized the role that Southern paternalism played. In this view, planters worked to maintain traditional order through master-slave relationships and proslavery Christianity.[8]

Also published in 2011 were two works by John C. Coombs: “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery” and Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, which he co-edited with Douglas Bradburn. In both works, Coombs reconsiders the “origins debate” and challenges conclusions asserted by several leading scholars, including Edmund Morgan.

In 1975, Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia not only embodied this debate, it became the “most authoritative argument about the ‘paradox of slavery and freedom’ for the next thirty years.”[9] Morgan selected Virginia as the surest place to illustrate the “American paradox” of the “marriage of slavery and freedom.”[10] He shows that as the colony progressed, the elite landowners shifted their reliance on the labor of servants to slaves in order to demarcate and maintain their higher status and to increase production.[11] Converting enslavement into a permanent condition also helped to significantly reduce the growing number of impoverished freedmen in a society “where opportunities for advancement were limited.”[12]

Morgan asserts that white elites developed a racially-based slave system in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 as a way to control lower-class whites: “Resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class. For men bent on the maximum exploitation of labor the implication should have been clear.”[13] But Coombs challenges Morgan’s argument by insisting that African slavery already existed by the late seventeenth century, “These [elites] were not men on the verge of turning to slavery; they already had. And neither Bacon’s Rebellion nor the steep decline in the availability of white servants that occurred in the years after the revolt had anything to do with it.”[14]

Morgan presents a convincing argument that illuminates the progression from temporary servitude to lifetime slavery for nonwhites. He also offers strong evidence of white racism (upper and lower class) towards both Indians and Negroes. Some of the most revealing evidence of changing attitudes presented by Morgan involves the shift away from wanting to Christianize and civilize nonwhites because of a “lingering uneasiness about holding Christians in slavery.”[15]  As slavery became more profitable, laws were enacted to protect masters’ monetary investments by “building a wall between conversion and emancipation.”[16] Baptism no longer could be used to release Negroes or Indians from bondage.[17]

Morgan explains a similar “unthinking” transition from servant to slave labor as Winthrop Jordan argued in White over Black. For example, he writes, “The planters who bought slaves instead of servants did not do so with any apparent consciousness of the social stability to be gained thereby.”[18] However, Morgan concentrated extensive attention on Anglo-American/Native American race relations in the first half of the book in order to establish his argument. He conveyed these relationships as historically contingent processes rather than portraying them as inevitable nemeses.

Morgan concludes that elite white Virginians devised a system of slavery built on racism in order to focus lower-class white workers’ attentions on racial differences, away from the economic disparities between themselves and the elite. Yet, if Morgan’s assertion is correct, that elite white (male) planters further developed an already existing culture of racism in order to exert social control over poor white people, we need to carefully examine white women’s investment in racism and slavery. As noted historian Kathleen Brown points out in her review of American Slavery, American Freedom, “Only if white women actively promoted and reproduced the cultural values supporting slavery out of their own self-interest can we make sense of the deep and rapid proliferation of the racism.”[19] Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage (2008) makes great strides addressing this gap by revealing the power dynamics between black and white women in plantation households and uncovering the small acts of resistance that were central to enslaved women’s sense of self and dignity.

Glymph notes that many historians have questioned the power relations between slaves and slaveholders and between women and men; however, few historians have focused on the power relations solely between women. In Out of the House of Bondage, Glymph concentrates on the relationship dynamics between women of different races, rather than following in the footsteps of prior gendered discourse that examined men and women in opposition. Key to Glymph’s argument is her focus on “relations of power between women, and contests over that power.”[20] Although previous historians have recognized white slaveholding women’s privileges, they also treated these women as “suffering under the weight of the same patriarchal authority to which slaves were subjected.”[21] Glymph argues that presumptions about relationships between black and white women in these paternalistic households, “rest ultimately on uncritical acceptance of a huge assumption: that a gentle and noble white womanhood had once existed in fact, together with a cult of domesticity to which enslaved and free women mutually ascribed.”[22]

She reconstructs the daily practices of domination and defiance within the antebellum, wartime, and postbellum plantation households, while ceaselessly emphasizing that plantation mistresses were slaveholders who quite literally held the power over the life and death of enslaved people.[23] According to their diaries and letters, plantation mistresses considered themselves to be on a mission to civilize slave women. But, as Glymph reveals, enslaved women were notorious for not complying with their mistresses’ vision: “Slave women did not so much resist slavery as they resisted its supposed civilizing mission, no matter that slaveholders believed their status as slaves made them ineligible candidates for civilizing.”[24]

Parts of Glymph’s arguments are not new. Even Edmund Morgan described Virginians’ early attempts at civilizing Indians and Negroes. Glymph, however, refocuses attention within the “private” realm of the plantation household to expose its inherent violence and to demonstrate how myths of domesticity developed. She believes that when mistresses wrote about their attempts at civilizing their servants, they were actually trying to cover-up their own inadequacies and frustrations about slave resistance within the household.

Household slaves were restricted to the plantation, and were therefore severely limited in their ability to partake in violent rebellion.[25] Instead, they opted for subtle types of resistance, such as feigned illness, or stealing food or clothing. Many historians, even those who concentrate on gender studies, have overlooked these small acts of rebelliousness and the inter-female dynamics within the plantation household. Glymph underscores the importance of slave women’s small, ongoing acts of insubordination: “Resistance of this sort did not break the back of slavery, but it made the job of maintaining slavery more difficult and was central to black women’s sense of self and dignity.”[26] The agency of black women is visible in their daily defiance of white women’s demands for obedience.

Out of the House of Bondage transcends the origins debate in part by offering readers a glimpse of the politics of memory and the experience of the once enslaved. Along with the voices of ex-slaves gathered through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives project, Glymph discloses the details of notes written by interviewers, which illuminate social undercurrents not otherwise seen. For the most part, local white women interviewed former slaves who brazenly exposed a “nongenteel white womanhood that was at odds with the Lost Cause propaganda” that permeated the North as well as the South.[27] These women actively challenged the symbolic and ideological apparatus of southern racism. Glymph asserts that by accusing former mistresses with “violent, unladylike conduct, with manufacturing dehumanizing spectacles for sadistic pleasure,” these former slaves intentionally violated the South’s racial creed. Making these accusations to other white women “added to the aggravation.”[28]

These personal notes shine a light on the enduring racism former slaves experienced long after the war, even within the realm of well-intentioned conversations. During one interview, George King recounted his memory of the “she-devil Mistress whipping his mammy.”[29] The interviewer seemed to be undisturbed by the nature of the punishment and simply concluded that the mistress “was a great believer in the power of punishment.”[30] Glymph notes that, for King, his mistress’ brutal actions and her ability to “walk away, laughing” prompted a different assessment of the event. “It fixed in his mind a portrait of southern white womanliness cropped of the metaphor of religiously sanctioned parental chastisement.”[31] These revelations also disclose the callous obliviousness of at least some of the WPA interviewers towards the former slaves they interviewed.

Like Steven Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet, Glymph recognizes the Civil War as an episode in a much longer battle for black freedom.[32] In this view, the origins of slavery are a mere footnote to an epochal history of slavery and freedom. Hahn’s argument stressed the “national protections for slavery and the ‘revolutionary’ effort required to end the institution.”[33] However, this “institution” did not end with emancipation or the Civil War. Quoting Harold D. Woodman, Glymph emphasizes that “slavery was ‘more than a legal relationship; it had social and psychological dimensions that did not disappear with the passage of a law or a constitutional amendment.’”[34] She shows throughout her book that “the victories black women won in the first years of freedom, however, were not to last. Poverty, landlessness, peonage, discrimination, and violence forced them back to the fields and white homes on a full-time basis.”[35]

Glymph has offered a unique contribution to historical studies on slavery and the Civil War by reinterpreting plantation life and its aftermath through the lens of black women’s labor relations in white people’s homes. She highlights African American women’s political consciousness and agency by focusing on the small acts of defiance in which female slaves, and later freed women, engaged.  She also demonstrates that “white women’s agency has been profoundly underestimated.”[36] Although historians have not been clear about the role mistresses played in the construction of the social values of the Old South and in disciplining slaves, Glymph has thoroughly addressed these issues and set the bar for future scholarship.

[1] John C. Coombs, “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery,” in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, 2011), 239.

[2] Frank Towers, “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 2 (2011): 245.

[3] Ibid., 238.

[4] Ibid., 256.

[5] Cathy D. Matson, “The Early Modern Chesapeake Redux–Again,” Reviews in American History 41, no. 2 (2013): 190.

[6] Ibid., 181.

[7] Towers,  247.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Matson,  181.

[10] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 [1975]), 6.

[11] Ibid., 307-09.

[12] Ibid., 308.

[13] Ibid., 269-70.

[14] Coombs,  in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, 249.

[15] Morgan, 332.

[16] Ibid., 331.

[17] Ibid., 332.

[18] Ibid., 308.

[19] Kathleen Brown, “Review: American Slavery, American Freedom,” Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 1, 4 (July 2001), accessed December 8, 2016,

[20] Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 235.

[21] Ibid., 23.

[22] Ibid., 135.

[23] Ibid., 2, 227.

[24] Ibid., 66.

[25] Historian Stephanie Camp refers to this restricted and surveilled space as a “geography of containment” in her book Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004).

[26] Glymph, 72.

[27] Ibid., 12.

[28] Ibid., 14.

[29] Ibid., 39.

[30] Ibid., 40.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Towers,  255-56. This refers to Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2004).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Glymph, 136.

[35] Ibid., 11.

[36] Ibid., 31.

Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, borderlands, historiography, marginalization, material culture, myths, Native Americans, racial cleansing, racism, resistance

Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West

Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

(This is also a borderlands historiography.)

Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron do not share the same conception of a “borderland” as Ned Blackhawk precisely because Blackhawk gives voice to the pain and violence suffered by Native Americans in his story, while Adelman and Aron remain focused on boundaries of imperial conquest.

What is borderlands history? Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett argue in their essay “On Borderlands” that borderlands histories are not traditional frontier histories, “where empires and settler colonists prepare the stage for nations, national expansion, and a transcontinental future.” They explain,

If frontiers were the places where we once told our master American narratives, then borderlands are the places where those narratives come unraveled. They are ambiguous and often-unstable realms where boundaries are also crossroads, peripheries are also central places, homelands are also passing through places, and the end points of empire are also forks in the road. If frontiers are spaces of narrative closure, then borderlands are places where stories take unpredictable turns and rarely end as expected.[1]

After recapping several early milestones in borderlands history, Hämäläinen and Truett identify Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron’s “From Borderlands to Borders” as a “landmark essay on the state of the field.”[2] Hämäläinen and Truett assert, “With an eye to distinctions, definitions, and membership, Adelman and Aron proposed a new frontier-borderlands grammar to connect current work and give it a shared lineage.”[3]

Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis once again is brought into focus as Adelman and Aron attempt to differentiate the terminology of “frontier” from “borderlands.” They claim that recent historians have simply substituted one term for the other, when in fact, the terms should be used quite differently. Adelman and Aron define a frontier as “a meeting place of people in which geographic and cultural borders were not clearly defined” and borderlands as “the contested boundaries between colonial domains.”[4] They assert that these distinctions should allow historians to address the often overlooked “competitive nature of European imperialism and the ways in which these rivalries shaped transitions from colonies to nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”[5] However, by framing borderlands history around European imperialism, instead of Native American experience and agency, Adelman and Aron appear to have replicated the same “triumphalist and Anglocentric narrative of continental conquest” that Turner was guilty of.[6]

In a scathing critique of Adelman and Aron’s “new paradigm for understanding Indian and EuroAmerican relationships,” John R. Wunder and Pekka Hämäläinen accuse the authors of relegating Native Americans to the “historical scrap heap” just as Turner had.[7] “In many ways,” Wunder and Hämäläinen argue, “Adelman and Aron’s model marks a return to a Turnerian tradition in which native populations are objects rather than subjects, mere pawns in the great colonial board game.”[8] Their article, “Of Lethal Places and Lethal Essays,” identifies and challenges four major problems in “From Borderlands to Borders” that include factual errors as well as conceptual ones. The biggest complaint was that Adelman and Aron left out the very people whose homelands were invaded. Wunder and Hämäläinen assert that

[Adelman and Aron] evidently believe empires are European and lead to nation-states; empires are never indigenous, nor is there such an entity as an Indian nation. By definition, treaties are fictive or cynical tracts. Frontiers are ambiguous, borderless meeting places that involve cultural mixing. Borderlands are places of European imperial rivalry where Indians slyly seek micro-diplomatic openings. Once the rivalry is over, borderlands can become bordered land, where national borders are defined, and indigenous peoples are swallowed up by national cultures.[9]

Hämäläinen and Truett show in “On Borderlands” how new borderlands historians have begun to rewrite North American history “as a history of entanglements—of shifting accommodations—rather than one of expansion.”[10] Historians now recognize that Early America was more native than formerly assumed. Native Americans played a “decisive and frequently unexpected role in the movements of empires and the rise of modern nations.”[11] Ned Blackhawk’s Violence Over the Land fits into this new form of borderlands history.

In Violence Over the Land, Blackhawk emphasizes the pain and the violence endured by the Shoshone, Ute and Paiute peoples during and following European and American conquests of the Great Basin region. He argues that for Native Americans, violence “became a necessary form of social, economic, and political survival, a practice that beleaguered as much as benefited.”[12] He underscores the pain and terror that Native Americans endured under European and American powers, and how many of these Indians inflicted similar violence on other indigenous groups. Blackhawk notes that “violence weds the history of these Native groups to larger imperial histories.”[13] Yet, his story is not just about the subjugation of Native Americans. He shows how they influenced imperial nations as well as other Native Americans.

Horses, introduced through Spanish colonization, became a defining technology for the indigenous people in the Great Basin region.[14] By 1730, Comanches were entirely equestrian.[15] Blackhawk asserts that “the emerging imperial borderlands between New Spain and French Louisiana became the primary centers of the Comanche world, and their former Ute allies lost the influence they had once achieved with their Comanche kinsmen.”[16]  Horses remade Native economies and polities.

Blackhawk claims that even though historians, such as Turner, “declare the process of American expansion as the foundational experience of American history,” few historians acknowledge that the effects of American expansion on Indian peoples are representative of the American experience.[17]

The challenge with addressing borderlands, according to Hämäläinen and Truett, is to “find ways to reconcile old empire-centered and nation-centered narratives with indigenous and nonstate space and territoriality.”[18] I think that Blackhawk’s work has done an excellent job of reconciling the two.

[1] Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (2011): 338. Pekka Hämäläinen is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University. Samuel Truett is associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

[2] Ibid., 344.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in between in North American History,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (1999): 815-16.

[5] Ibid., 815.

[6] Ibid., 814.

[7] John R. Wunder and Pekka Hamalainen, “Of Lethal Places and Lethal Essays,” American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1230. Note that these criticisms were published concurrently with Adelman and Aron’s article. Hamalainen’s (and Truett’s) (re)assessment of “From Borderlands to Borders” as a “landmark essay” came twelve years later.

[8] Ibid., 1232.

[9] Ibid., 1229. Evan Haefeli also challenged aspects of Adelman and Aron’s essay. Adelman and Aron published a rebuttal to the three authors in the same issue of The American Historical Review. Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “Of Lively Exchanges and Larger Perspectives,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1235-39; Evan Haefeli, “A Note on the Use of North American Borderlands,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1222-25.

[10] Hämäläinen and Truett,  346-47.

[11] Ibid., 347.

[12] Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 265.

[13] Ibid., 8.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] Ibid., 61.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 9.

[18] Hämäläinen and Truett,  352.

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Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America

Brekus, Catherine A. Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

University of Minnesota religious historian Kirsten Fischer originally followed in the footsteps of other historians who had written about Elihu Palmer as the “most outspoken campaigner for deism in the new United States.”[1] Yet, she realized that some of Palmer’s writings failed to support the “deist notion of a transcendent Creator God.”[2] She went back to what Palmer had studied in order to trace his ideas to their sources and concluded that he was actually promoting a vitalist cosmology, which contributed to the “most radically iconoclastic and egalitarian ideas available in the new republic.”[3]  Her July 2016 article, “Vitalism in America: Elihu Palmer’s Radical Religion in the Early Republic,” reexamines Palmer’s writings in order to help elucidate the “full spectrum of ideas that shaped the debates over religion, democracy, and the direction the new nation [took].”[4] She asks, “why should we care now about Palmer’s vitalist proselytizing when it remained a minority view, failed to start a lasting movement in America, and has been largely overlooked ever since?”[5] What can a book that focuses on a such a narrow piece of religious history and that seems to have little relevance to the current state of the world offer us? Fischer’s inquiry can be extrapolated to not only ponder the current state of religious history in general, but this week’s primary reading in particular.

On one level, Catherine A. Brekus’ Sarah Osborn’s World is a biography of an obscure eighteenth-century Rhode Island schoolteacher who narrates her struggles and triumphs through personal writings. Brekus examined Sarah’s diaries and letters that were written between 1743 and her death in 1796 to uncover how she tried to make sense of her life. In these writings, Sarah reflected upon losing her only son at the age of 11, her ongoing poverty, and the role she played as an outspoken religious leader in her community at a time when women were not allowed to preach. Yet, Brekus goes far beyond Sarah’s struggles by connecting them to key developments in eighteenth century America, which both encompassed the nascent stages of evangelical Christianity and the tenets of modern society. She asserts that “it is clear that the movement [evangelicalism] emerged in response to momentous changes in politics, economics, intellectual life, science, and technology that laid the foundations for our modern world.”[6]

Brekus offers a complex analysis about the ways Sarah’s faith and lived religion helped her find and make meaning in her life. She presented Sarah’s insights concerning slavery and discussed some of the problems with her neighbors Sarah faced due to the large interracial and interdenominational meetings she held. But Sarah’s popularity continued to grow because people were drawn to her “because of her steadfast faith in the midst of suffering.”[7] Sarah’s spiritual convictions awarded her agency to affect her community and to be a part of a religious movement that continues to reverberate today.

This work challenges current scholarship that places evangelical Christianity at odds with Enlightenment thought. Brekus explains that neither evangelicalism nor the Enlightenment was a “single, coherent movement;” rather, they each interacted and developed in tandem as a response to momentous societal conditions and changes such as the rise of merchant capitalism, slavery, technological advances, the consumer revolution, the American Revolution, and expanding personal freedom.[8] She asserts that “evangelicalism was a heart-centered, experiential, individualistic, and evangelistic form of Protestantism that was intertwined with the rise of the modern world.”[9] But the question about the importance of religion to the study of early American history remains.

During a 2013 Juntocast (podcast), several academics, Kenneth Owen, Michael Hattem, and Roy Rogers, discussed different aspects of religion in early America, recent historiographical developments, and pedagogical practices.[10] They agreed that religion is central to all types of histories. Hattem suggested that people today fail to understand how important religion was to those living during the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, “not in a theological way, but in a cultural way.”[11] He mentioned that there is currently a turn away from the secular narrative towards the role of religion within Enlightenment thought. He added that the problem with much of the current history is that religion has been treated as an isolated topic, which is the opposite of how he thinks it should be approached.[12]

Rogers noted that three key changes can be seen in the historiography of early American history over the past twenty years, which can be attributed to the great strengthening of the history of evangelicalism: focus on what Rogers termed as the “democratization thesis,” lived religion, and race.[13] He claimed that recent history of evangelicalism has affected all history focused on this time period and has successfully united all three of these main topics. Of particular importance has been recent scholarship’s attentiveness to the transformative power of evangelical conversion.[14]

Based on the assessments of Juntocast’s academics and Kirsten Fischer’s example, Sarah Osborn’s World seems to model the best types of scholarship being done in early American history today.

[1] Kirsten Fischer, “On (Finally) Seeing What’s Right in Front of You When It’s Not What You Expected,” Uncommon Sense – The Blog, December 2, 2015, accessed October 14, 2016,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kirsten Fischer, “Vitalism in America: Elihu Palmer’s Radical Religion in the Early Republic,” William & Mary Quarterly 73, no. 3 (July 2016): 507.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 506.

[6] Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 7.

[7] Ibid., 254.

[8] Ibid., 7-8.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Kenneth Owens, Michael Hattern, and Roy Rogers, host, “A Podcast on Early American History : Ep. 4: Religion in Early America,” The JuntoCast, 2013, accessed October 14, 2016,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rogers explains that “the social control” thesis argues that the “always-rising middle-class used evangelicalism to solidify their social, economic, and political position through evangelicalism’s promotion of market-friendly values, thrift, delayed gratification, temperance, etc. This middle-class evangelical benevolent empire, over time, sought to impose its values upon the classes both above and below on the antebellum social ladder.” On the flipside, the “democratization thesis” reverses the logic of arguing, that “evangelicalization was a liberating process, not a reactionary one.” Roy Rogers, “After Democratization?,” The Junto, 2013, accessed October 16, 2016,

[14] Owens, Hattern, and Rogers,