I recently appeared on WIBC with Abdul-Hakim Shabazz to discuss a new book project, Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative. You can listen to the radio spot below.
I’ve penned a new review for H-Net of Brian Dirck’s Lincoln in Indiana. The review can be found here (with a PDF version here). Books about Abraham Lincoln began springing up immediately after his death and their proliferation seems to have continued unabated to this day. About sixteen thousand books cover Mr. Lincoln. Every aspect of his life and philosophy has been covered in depth at some point by some writer. Why, then, do we need another one? Despite the proliferation of Lincoln books, there remains a dearth of modern material about his youth in Indiana.
Because of its light treatment of certain topics, the book cannot serve as a definitive guide to Lincoln’s youth, but it nonetheless achieves its intended scope—a good, quick primer for those interested in the subject. Despite the tremendous amount of Lincoln material, Dirck identified a void in Lincoln material and offers a much-needed modern, concise history of Lincoln’s life in Indiana.
In A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History, historian Jay Sexton contends that our national narrative is not one of halting yet inevitable progress, but of repeated disruptions brought about by shifts in the international system. Sexton shows that the American Revolution was a consequence of the increasing integration of the British and American economies; that a necessary precondition for the Civil War was the absence, for the first time in decades, of foreign threats; and that we cannot understand the New Deal without examining the role of European immigrants and their offspring in transforming the Democratic Party.
In short, Sexton argues that we can only prepare for our unpredictable future by first acknowledging the contingencies of our collective past. An interesting tidbit in the book is that Sexton also argues the Civil War boosted Northern support for immigration:
Here we arrive at one of the least appreciated factors in the equation that led to the Union victory: the military service of immigrants. Foreign-born recruits provided the Union army with the advantage it needed over its Confederate rival. An estimated 25 percent of the soldiers in the Union army (some 543,000) and more than 40 percent of the seamen in the navy (84,000) were foreign-born. If one includes soldiers with at least one immigrant parent, the overall figure climbs to 43 percent of the Union army…
The demands of war meant that Union officials needed to appeal to immigrants. Military recruitment placards were printed in foreign languages; Union officials presented the war as part of a transnational struggle for republican government, thereby decoupling the idea of the nation from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism…
The military service of the foreign-born did more than enhance the Union’s advantage in the field. It also transformed the politics of nativism in the United States. From the nativism of the 1850s, exemplified by Know-Nothingism and bigoted anti-Catholicism, the Union now moved in the direction of welcoming — indeed, encouraging — foreign arrivals.
I have a new review published at Compulsive Reader of David Blight’s forthcoming Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Click here to read it. As I note, David Blight’s book delivers the new Frederick Douglass standard-bearer for years to come.
A bombshell New York Times op-ed by an anonymous author rightly suggests an urgent need to transcend increasing tribalism, which presents a troubling challenge to American civic life. Can we come together around a defining narrative, or make our multiple narratives cohere? Read more about my new book addressing this topic here at the University of Nebraska Press blog.
Historians and political scientists love to view history as cyclical, helping give rise to the old maxim that “history repeats itself.” But in 1989 Francis Fukuyama challenged that approach when he famously proclaimed that Western-style liberal democracy’s victory in the Cold War marked “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and “the end of history.”
In Fukuyama’s view, later elaborated in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press), World War II represented a massive struggle between three distinct ideologies: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism. The war destroyed fascism, and 50 years later, Soviet communism failed. For him and many political scientists, history was over. Liberal democracy won and was here to stay. Fukuyama admitted that democracy may suffer “temporary” setbacks but argued, in the long run, it would become more and more prevalent.
Fukuyama’s grand theory envisioned that liberal democracy’s permanence would also bring globalization and a strong middle class. Since democracies engage in less warfare, war itself would even disappear. The new utopia might be a bit boring, but that is a small price to pay for peace and prosperity.
Nearly three decades later, the bold prediction has not yet proven true. Autocratically governed countries continue their ascent, most notably China and Russia, but also scores of other states throughout the globe. The Arab Spring was a dismal failure and democratic countries like Turkey and Nicaragua lurch back toward the international and historic norm of autocracy. Even in the United States, the world’s flagship liberal democracy, elections increasingly involve narrow choices between candidates on the socialist left and the authoritarian, nationalistic right.
These developments suggest our ideology continues to evolve. Are we unsatisfied with liberal democracy? If so, what drives that dissatisfaction? Fukuyama addresses these questions in his new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). (more…)
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: (more…)
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.
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: Shaping the Future President. 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.
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.