Jack Weatherford on Genghis Khan

Published on 13 August 2018 under Books

As part of my amazing Wesley Advocates study group, we’ve embarked on a study of Jack Weatherford’s 2017 book Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom. This follows our prior study of his best-selling 2005 book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

Weatherford artfully guides us through a period of history which is too often a blur to the unfamiliar Western reader. How important is Genghis Khan to our study of history? Here’s an idea:

In twenty-five years, the Mongol army subjugated more lands and people than the Romans had conquered in four hundred years. Genghis Khan, together with his sons and grandsons, conquered the most densely populated civilization of the thirteenth century. . . . Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history. . . . At its zenith, the empire covered between 11 and 12 million contiguous square miles, an area about the size of the African continent and considerably larger than North America. . . . The majority of people today live in countries conquered by the Mongols; on the modern map Genghis Khan’s conquests include thirty countries with well over 3 billion people.

The entire Mongol tribe was no more than one million people, with perhaps one hundred thousand warriors. But rather than just throw out a dry recitation of facts, Weatherford provides a gripping narrative and places it in broader human and sociological contexts.

My quibble in both books is that Weatherford may overstate his reading of Genghis Khan’s personality and character given relatively sparse and unreliable historical records on the subject. In particular, he relies heavily on a single source, The Secret History of the Mongols, a 13th-century biography of Genghis Khan. But by and large the works are thoroughly researched and well-documented.

In Genghis Khan and the Quest for God, Weatherford focuses on religion’s role in ruling the largest empire the world has ever known. Unlike nearly every conqueror who came before him, Genghis Khan gave his subjects freedom of religion. Perhaps most striking of all, Weatherford asserts that the Great Khan’s attitude toward religion in governing influenced the American separation of church and state. For this conclusion, Weatherford relies heavily on the fact that Genghizcan the Great by Pétis de la Croix was a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies and was read by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. This provides only a tenuous connection between Genghis Khan and the American First Amendment.

But even setting aside Weatherford’s over-reliance on certain sources, the book provides a wonderful account of the Khan’s religious freedom for his subjugated millions to “live together in a cohesive society under one government.” They had no walls and few religious tests so long as they swore fealty to Genghis as supreme ruler on Earth. If we believe Weatherford, many of the West’s achievements have significant origins in the East.

The Fall of Republics

Published on 9 August 2018 under Books

Since 2015, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has funded the Public Scholar Program, an annual series of grants designed to promote publication of scholarly nonfiction books for a general audience. This year’s roster of 22 grant winners announced Wednesday includes an award to Prof. Thomas F. Madden for research and writing leading to the publication of a book, tentatively titled The Fall of Republics: A History, examining the forces that have threatened history’s great republics from Sparta in ancient Greece to the United States during its foundation in the late eighteenth century.

Thomas Madden, a specialist on ancient and medieval history (especially the Crusades), has long been one of my favorite historians. Madden’s books provided an ideal gateway to the Crusades when I first began studying the topic nearly twenty years ago. His 1999 book, The New Concise History of the Crusades, offers a sweeping but concise account of the crusades that is ideal for anyone dipping their toes into the Crusade pool. Other Madden works, like The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, address related topics in even greater detail. Simply put, Madden is a marvelous teacher.

Madden deserves selection as an NEH Public Scholar and I’m happy to see him tackling such an ambitious and important topic. With his long view of history, and expertise in relevant fields, Madden is well-equipped to examine the forces that have threatened history’s great republics. Those with an interest in my forthcoming book, Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative, will find some important overlap in the two projects.

Abe’s Youth

Published on 27 November 2017 under Books
Abe’s Youth

I’m pleased to announce that William “Bill” Bartelt and I signed a contract with Indiana University Press to publish a new book tentatively titled Abe’s Youth: Collected Works from the Indiana Lincoln Inquiry. I’m especially excited to work with Bill, widely considered the world’s greatest living scholar on Lincoln’s youth in Indiana.

This new book unearths vital primary source material and culls together the Lincoln Inquiry’s most historically rigorous and significant contributions. In each of the pieces the editors provide illuminating and insightful annotations offering context for the Inquiry’s findings. Click here for more information.

Frontier Thesis

Published on 17 November 2017 under History

Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” which burst onto the scene with a famous essay in 1893 titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” continues to impact the American view of history in fundamental ways. In it Turner argues the frontier shaped American democracy, independence, ingenuity, and optimism. In the process, the frontier also shaped the American story and drove American history. Turner eventually landed a place on the staff at Harvard and shaped generations of historians and public intellectuals, spawning both devotees and critics.

New research from Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse explores the pervasive and persistent influence of the frontier on American life. Here’s the abstract on their new NBER working paper:

In a classic 1893 essay, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American frontier promoted individualism. We revisit the Frontier Thesis and examine its relevance at the subnational level. Using Census data and GIS techniques, we track the frontier throughout the 1790-1890 period and construct a novel, county-level measure of historical frontier experience. We document skewed sex ratios and other distinctive demographics of frontier locations, as well as their greater individualism (proxied by infrequent children names). Many decades after the closing of the frontier, counties with longer historical frontier experience exhibit more prevalent individualism and opposition to redistribution and regulation. We take several steps towards a causal interpretation, including an instrumental variables approach that exploits variation in the speed of westward expansion induced by national immigration inflows. Using linked historical Census data, we identify mechanisms giving rise to a persistent frontier culture. Selective migration contributed to greater individualism, and frontier conditions may have further shaped behavior and values. We provide evidence suggesting that rugged individualism may be rooted in its adaptive advantage on the frontier and the opportunities for upward mobility through effort.

In Defense of Hoosier Home Rule

Published on 8 May 2017 under Featured
In Defense of Hoosier Home Rule

The lead Sunday editorial in the Indianapolis Star (here) and a recent edition of Howey Politics Indiana (here) feature a piece of mine arguing for renewed emphasis on “home rule” by the Indiana state legislature. The idea, modeled off the national principle of federalism, gives more choice, options, flexibility, and freedom to local leaders. Now those ideals are under greater attack than at any time since Hoosier home rule began.

Look Back: First Quarter 2017

Published on 5 April 2017 under Featured
Look Back: First Quarter 2017

As we enter the second quarter of 2017, it seems worthwhile to summarize here some of my academic and popular press pursuits during the first quarter, some of which I have not yet highlighted here. In the month of February I published five popular press pieces:

In January I presented to the Southern Indiana Civil War Roundtable on the topic of “Little Egypt Goes to War,” the roots and beginnings of the 80th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Later in March I presented to the Indiana Political Science Association, first in a roundtable on the American Presidency and then with a paper titled “The Arc of Our New History.”

Southwestern Indiana Civil War Monuments

Published on 31 March 2017 under Civil War

I recently completed minor pages on the history of several Civil War monuments in Southwestern Indiana:

The Jasper monument is particularly interesting because it is one of the rare Union memorials erected in part by a veteran of the Confederate army. After serving for a period with the Confederate army, John Gramelspacher fled and would go on to serve in the Union army. He was even admitted as a member of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Also of note is the Gibson County Civil War Honor Roll Memorial. This was the first regimental monument erected in Indiana in memory of soldiers of the Civil War. Moreover, it claims to be the only monument in Indiana, or in the United States, that was erected and dedicated by any regiment in honor of its dead while that regiment was still in the service.